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The Patterns of Life and the Challenges of Change

Written by Lane Gormley, EdS, LPC, BCC, DCC


It is often said that change is the most difficult thing that we do. A reason for this could be our uncertainty about what is new – our fear that the new job or person or habit is not going to be as satisfying or as fulfilling as the old. Or perhaps we doubt our ability to adapt to something as yet unknown, even if it promises to be better than what preceded it. Whatever it is that makes us avoid change, some of us would rather be miserable in the old, accustomed way than to move forward resolutely toward a new joy. When I am having trouble with a change, it helps me to think in terms of patterns.

A pattern is a regular, observable, defined, and sometimes prescribed activity or artifact. Here are some examples of patterns: a way that a seamstress makes a dress, a method of weaving a Scottish tartan (like the Stewart plaids above), a person’s morning routine, traditional holiday activities with family members, coming home from work each afternoon, a meditation practice, 10:00 AM Ballet Class, and a Saturday grocery shopping expedition. A pattern can also be a predictable way of behaving on the part of an individual or a group. People interested in marketing, statistics, economics, the stock market, and psychology (among other subjects) often study patterns in order to understand people.

Some patterns are joyous. Others are not. Sad patterns often affect the lives of my Clients. Here are some examples:

A Marital Pattern
A husband and his wife do not get along. There are many reasons for their discord, including one that is sexual and difficult to discuss without sarcasm and blame. When tension is high and tempers flare, both parties displace their focus onto their 16-year-old son who is something of a rebel. This is their pattern. It permits them to avoid the real issue and to express negative energy while protecting a marriage that has become fragile. It allows them to blow off steam. It is easier and less dangerous than an outright confrontation with one another – which might endanger their relationship. They have not yet considered the effect of their pattern on their son. And, of course, he is not going to live in their home forever.

Drinking Patterns
Tim grew up in a family where every minor event and great occasion was accompanied by alcohol. His family drank at weddings and baptisms. They drank after funerals. They drank after a hard day’s work, and they drank during lazy summer weekends and vacations. They drank while cooking dinner and while watching TV. Sometimes they even drank to recover from drinking. Tim’s father has been sober for 3 years. His mother is still affected by alcohol. Tim would like to quit drinking, but alcohol is so much a part of his life’s patterns. This type of patterning is typical of an addiction in which a substance is woven into the very fiber of one’s life. It is less difficult to heal from the physical addiction than it is to change the alcohol-related patterns of a lifetime.

Patterned Thinking
Depression is the result of highly patterned, negative thinking. It can start in early childhood when a very young person “inherits” a way of thinking from parents who are sad, anxious, confused, or angry. It can also happen when an adult suffers a string of losses or setbacks and adapts his thinking to conform to these randomly sad experiences. Over time, the negative thinking sets in. “It’s comfortable… It’s what I know”, someone told me this morning.

One of my Clients at a large university hospital helped me to see how very difficult it is to change “addictive” thinking patterns. We had worked and worked on thought substitution, the substitution of a happy thought for a sad one; but still the insidious memories of childhood deprivation and a daughter’s suicide persisted. “Lane, she said to me one afternoon, “Depression is harder to give up than smoking.”

Breaking Free of Patterns
Patterns can be broken. In order to do this, it is necessary to understand the pattern, to foresee the discomfort that a break in the pattern will cause, and to plan the change accordingly. Let’s face it – removing tobacco or alcohol from one’s daily life is going to leave some pretty big gaps. If we do not plan in advance how to fill those gaps, the stress caused by the change could prove too much.

Whether you want to stop a drinking pattern, a smoking pattern, or eliminate sugar or junk food from your diet, here are some questions that could help you troubleshoot potential difficulties that occur early in a change process:

What is the behavior that you want to eliminate? [alcohol, cigarettes, junk food…]
What would be the benefits of eliminating it? [health, peace, sanity…]
What would be the drawbacks to eliminating it? [anxiety, discomfort, other feelings]
When and where does the patterned behavior take place? [cocktail hour, morning coffee, after a frustrating day…]
How long does the behavior last? [minutes, hours…]
Could you arrange to go somewhere else and/or do something else at that time? [change regular activities, exercise during the cocktail hour or immediately after morning coffee, take up a new interest to divert yourself]
Are other people involved? [true friends, drinking buddies, people who share your life, people who only share your addiction]
Could you see them at another time – at least for a while? [lunchtime instead of the cocktail hour, an afternoon walk together]
Do you have spiritual resources that could support and sustain you as you move toward freedom? [a 12-step program, a church, a sponsor or close friend, a therapist]

And maybe other questions that I haven’t thought of.

A New Pattern, A New Vision
New patterns – either to replace the old or simply to create something that might improve your life – can be extremely helpful. They require motivation and planning. At each moment when you are tempted to give up on your goals, have a mental and even physical picture of what you will see, feel, and celebrate when success has been reached. Have you read Rhonda Byrnes’s The Secret? She will suggest that you have a ‘Vision Board’ of what success will look like. Be involved with your vision. See it. Feel it. Want it. It can carry you through.

Time Heals All Wounds
Above all, know this: as uncomfortable as the early stages of change are, they do not last very long if you have prepared yourself and if you can keep your focus on what you want and on what you will gain from your patience. Don’t think in terms of what you don’t want: I don’t want to die of cirrhosis or lung cancer. Think in terms of what you do want: I want to be happy, healthy, and free. It does not take years to appreciate the simple facts of feeling well, having energy, doing things better, being happy with progress made, and simply knowing that we have done what is right for ourselves and those who love us.

If you are having trouble with old patterns or thinking of starting new ones, come and see us. We will help you look at patterns in your life that may need to be changed.

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