Do you know why you keep repeating unuseful patterns?
What I mean by patterns, can be either your thoughts or your behaviours. I’m talking about those things you keep doing even though you know they’re not good for you. Whether it’s continuing to eat those unhealthy foods despite trying to be on a diet. Or continuing to procrastinate despite knowing it really doesn’t make your life easy.
I’m also talking about our thoughts patterns. If you’ve already done some work around CBT, you may be aware that your thoughts are responsible for your emotions, and as a result for your behaviours and actions. You may already have become more conscious of the stories you tell yourself and how most of the time they’re made up of assumptions rather than facts.
But despite knowing all this, do you find yourself dragged into those familiar patterns over and over again?
We all do. That’s how our brain works. And that’s why change requires awareness and practice first and foremost.
But why does our brain work this way? Why isn’t awareness sufficient?
I believe there are a couple of reasons that contribute to those stubborn familiar patterns. The first one is because of neuro-plasticity. Neuro-plasticity describes how our brain is malleable and consistently learn based on how we use it. In English, it means that the more you engage in a certain train of thoughts, the more your brain will “know” how to do this particular thinking. It will then become easier and faster for your mind to then engage in this thought pattern. So for example, if you are used to think that when people behave angrily with you, you tell yourself it’s because it’s your fault, every time someone responds in a crossed way to you, your mind will be drawn to that thinking. It will choose that explanation over any other possible reason why they behave this way – because it’s what it is used to do.
On another hand, if one day you decided to stop that thought pattern consistently, your brain would lose the habit of repeating it and it would become less and less familiar – therefore you would notice yourself engaging less in this train of thoughts. In the example above, if you trained yourself to consistently choose to think instead that it’s because they’re having a bad day, rather than because you did something wrong, soon enough you would be less likely to jump to that conclusion.
The same principle applies for emotions and behaviours. After all, we are creatures of habits.
The second reason I believe contributes to our repetitive unhealthy patterns is more philosophical and biological. Our brain is wired to look for answers as we are, us human beings, very uncomfortable with uncertainty. So whenever we face a new situation, or we don’t have certainty about something, a part of our brain kicks in and fills the gap. By making assumptions as to why things are this way – thus giving us more certainty ; or by generalising this experience by drawing parallels with similar events so it can draw conclusions. Once more to avoid not knowing.
So how do we change?
Well, in theory it seems pretty simple: we need to become aware of our thought patterns and interrupt them. Easy peasy. But in practice, it’s much more difficult. It’s like playing chess with your mind. You may make a move to stop it from engaging in its old patterns but it will reiterate by taking a detour to go back to what it finds familiar and easy.
I like CBT for that. It presents a serie of thinking distortions that we tend to engage in and that are not useful for us. Such as catastrophising – which is what we do when we imagine the worst case scenario. Or mind-reading, when we assume we know what someone else is thinking. So by exploring those inaccurate thinking patterns and becoming aware of them we can start changing them, and reconnect with what might actually be true.
I was reading recently a book by a French psychiatrist, Christophe André, and in my opinion he summed up brilliantly how our mind engages in those patterns. He explains that we either ruminate – when we dwell over situations in our mind, creating scenario and inner dialogues that never took place ; or we overthink and analyse everything, like a windmill ; or we placate our certitudes over a situation, thinking we know for sure what’s going on ; or finally, we anticipate what might happen in the future.
I love this description as I feel it encompasses in a nutshell the biggest strand of thought patterns that create our stories. And I was thinking particularly about the anticipating pattern. When we anticipate what is going to happen in a certain situation, our mind actually unconsciously reviews the data from similar situations in our past, then draws conclusions on what will happen based on this past experience.
But by doing so, we automatically eliminate the possibility of something different happening. It might be about the situation – so for example, you have a meeting with your boss. In the past, those meetings were tense and conflictual. So naturally, you are going to predict that the same will happen. You will run a story in your head as to what the meeting will be like, you’ll maybe even anticipate the dialogue and the negative outcome. Once again, our brain does all this by itself, it’s how it’s wired.
But the problem is, if you go to that meeting having already prepared for that outcome, I wonder how you will behave? You’ll probably be defensive or resigned before anything happens. And how might your boss respond to this? That’s how we create self-fulfilling prophecy. There’s nothing mystical about that, simply the fact we engage in familiar dynamics that are very likely to lead to the same old result.
But we also do that about our own reactions. We go into that meeting using the same thought patterns (predicting the worst outcome, getting defensive) that we’ve done before. Our brain once more does its “What’s the standard way to respond in that situation” and like an autopilot, you’ll find yourself thinking in the same way as you always have, and as a result feeling and reacting in the same way as you always have.
And here is the window of opportunity for change. It’s the moment you notice the old ways of thinking and reacting that you need to pause. And make a choice. Either give in to the need of certainty that your brain harass you with in that moment – OR keep your mind open for a change. Choose to approach that situation as if you had never faced it in your life. As if you didn’t know what might happen, with a total open mind. With curiosity. And see what happens…
Of course, it doesn’t guarantee every time that you’ll get the outcome you want. But if you practice that new approach regularly, learning to be comfortable with uncertainty and allowing curiosity to replace fear, you will start the change at the neurological level. Remember neuro-plasticity? If you keep practising curiosity instead of looking for certainty, you are training your brain to change its old patterns. You’re weakening the old neuro pathways that you used to engage into, and instead you create new ones. Every time you surprise your brain by doing something different, you learn something new. And with time, it will become more and more familiar, until it replaces the old ways. Checkmate.
This is also how we change our beliefs. Beliefs are created based on our experience and reinforced with evidence. By allowing the possibility of new outcomes, you open the door to having a new experience and therefore to create new evidence for a more empowering belief.
I invite yourself to try it on this week. Pick a situation that causes you anxiety and practice being open to a new outcome. Practice curiosity instead of anticipation. And see what happens…