Changing Destructive Patterns Working Through the Stubbornness of Habits
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By: Troy Murphy | July 2017
We do the same darn things over and over, hoping for a change and angered at the continuous interference of outside forces. We just have terrible luck, we muse. Insanity, right? We behave within the confining boundaries of engrained patterns—internal and external. Outside relationships and learning wedge into our lives and seemingly take control; we live on auto pilot. Are we condemned to live in disappointing desperation or can we break free? While breaking down the components of motivation, mulling through the debris to find where choice begins and where unchangeable futures end, stimulates curiosity, such searches fail to serve our futures. We have cognitive powers. We can feed them with inputs, change environments, and create different endings. But changing patterns is the heroic effort of the blessed. Patterns of behaviors are complex. The building blocks behind motivation often are obscure. The behavior, the first salient portion of the chain events, becomes the focus of our attention. Yet the actual behavior is not the beginning nor the end; the behavior is an expression stemming from a chain of internal and external events. Changing destructive trajectories demands mindful intervention of a cycle that is naturally set to repeat.
We march through experiences, soaking up information through our multiple senses. We order the abundance of information into graspable definitions. In the chaos of experience, the mind draws from memories to sort the present into recognizable chunks to assist with mounting an appropriate and effective response; the brain is a fine-tuned machine. Sometimes! Our biological system responds to triggers, exciting emotions that motivate action. An experience isn’t an isolated event. The neuron communication during the event creates and strengthens connections, igniting the firing of the involved neurons. The new connections from neurons firing together prepare the brain for smoother interaction with the world. We see, we feel, and we react. The experience is the beginnings of a pattern.
Bringing the flow of experience into awareness is a step. The disruptive pattern doesn’t dissipate just because we want it to. There are physical structures established and reactive to experience. But with awareness we recognize their existence, recognizing the habitual impulses, the strong emotions, and the outside triggers that set the cycle in motion. Although we brought the process to the light of awareness, the same destructive emotions continue to be excited by the same triggering events. We now can begin the difficult task of intervention. We can catch the chain of reactions early in the process before emotions gain steam, leading us down the same dreary dead-end street.
States of mind are automatic reactions to associated triggers—that angry stimulates the firing of neurons, inciting protective behaviors that destroy intimacy. But, fortunately, brain networks aren’t permanent. Neuronal connections are biological—a function of learning. Our brains have plasticity, new connections can be forged, and old connections frayed. With proper attention, hard wired systems change. Most changes are slow, frustrating our impatient demands. A few concerted efforts don’t magically rewire established networks. The human brain needs some consistency of function. Basking in the self-confidence of a few successfully navigated mind fields, we may abandon purposeful effort, believing we achieved the goal and are healed. This isn’t so. Habits have yet to form. Before the habit forms, behaviors must be focused and forced many times; only with patience does desired change occur. The drunk too quickly returns to the bar, believing he conquered his demons, only to find himself intoxicated, discouraged, and helpless.
We can change. We can create a life we desire.
"Before the habit forms, behaviors must be focused and forced many times; only with patience does desired change occur."
The journey is slow, requiring patience, self-discipline and skill. Many find the new change painful, a discomforting adventure demanding constant effort, a vast distance from the ease of their earlier habitual reactions. Soon they tire, and instead of persisting through the sluggish new beginnings, the weary revert to the past welcoming the sorely missed destructive behaviors. But the return isn’t always as gratifying. Once enlightened, the past is never the same. Awareness creates conflicts, dulling the painful dissonance demands stronger personal deceptions. We want to stay relevant, in control, but we notably failed at our resolve. To return we must now justify the failure. Defense mechanism charge to the rescue, dodging responsibility and further straining mental systems, depleting energy that could be directed to the tasks of living.
Sometimes when well-meaning attempts fail, the failure creates greater vulnerability. The foundering attempt to eat more vegetables may initiate a binge, scarfing down a donut and chugging coffee. The temporary improvement, once failed, invites “the what the hell” response. But even momentary improvements can benefit our lives, even if we fail to achieve the original goal. Instead of back sliding into “what the hell,” we can congratulate the level we achieved—even if only temporarily—and then make new plans, considering the obstacles that interfered with completion during the last botched attempt. But really, was it botched if it led to a new improved approach?
We must face the deficits in self-discipline. Any weaknesses in strength will be shamelessly exposed. We have limited strength. We can’t achieve everything we want head-on with will power alone. We often need improved strategy and assistance from others.
Courage to change isn’t fearlessness but moving forward in spite of fear. Security, then, isn’t found within the boundaries of predictableness but through self-confidence to manage unpredictableness. True security emerges when we trust we can transcend failure.
The neuronal firing pattern doesn’t disappear with momentary motivations. If we have habitually blamed and skirted responsibility, we will continue to blame and deny; if we habitually begin and quit, these patterns will continue to haunt. We must approach change from a different angle.
Although we have done the same darn things over and over, we can change. But most likely not by following the same methods employed to change in the past. Through familiarity of your emotional patterns and unhealthy past choices, you can expose our deceptions, scrap past responses and explore new creative responses to intervene. Eventually, over time, we establish new habits, build new muscles and gain greater wisdom; new neuronal connections replace the disheartening connections of the past. We then become who we desire to become—with a whole new set of problems to overcome.