Friday 2 December 2016

Wellbeing: Repeat after me

We have to break patterns to make progress

Published 13/10/2015 | 02:30

Spiritual teacher Iyanla Vanzant, right, consoles Shirley Scale, a resident at the Canfield Apartments, at the shrine to Michael Brown
Spiritual teacher Iyanla Vanzant, right, consoles Shirley Scale, a resident at the Canfield Apartments, at the shrine to Michael Brown

When the eye is focussed on a series of repeating shapes, it begins to discern the depth and texture of the design. Put simply: patterns become more pronounced when we notice them.

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It's the same figuratively as it is literally. When we finally notice the unconscious patterns that control our behaviour, the complexity of our inner world suddenly becomes clearer. So clear, in fact, that we wonder how we failed to notice the blindingly obvious for so long...

No doubt you've had one of these eureka moments. Maybe it was the striking realisation that you're only attracted to unavailable men. Maybe it was the sudden awareness that you self-sabotage your career. Maybe you at last traced your behaviour back to a deep-rooted fear of abandonment...

I have a friend who has a pattern of controlling women entering her life - best friends, teachers, bosses. She puts it down to her arduous relationship with her mother.

Another friend continually moves country to get on the straight and narrow. Yet without fail he is soon tempted by the very lifestyle that he just left behind - even in the world's most windswept and secluded locales.

Scientists tell us that human beings are the best pattern recognition machines, but most of us are oblivious to the paradigms we have created in our own lives.

Granted, we are self-aware enough to recognise the negative patterns we tend to follow in romantic relationships. However, we are less inclined to look for the negative patterns we are following elsewhere.

Author Chuck Palahniuk put it well: "There are only patterns, patterns on top of patterns, patterns that affect other patterns. Patterns hidden by patterns. Patterns within patterns," he wrote. "If you watch close, history does nothing but repeat itself. What we call chaos is just patterns we haven't recognised".

It is only when we recognise our pattern-forming nature that we begin to observe the situations and scenarios that we encounter over and over again.

Generally these patterns begin in childhood and, while they are complex and highly personalised, there are some common themes that many of us can identify with.

The relationship we have with our parents, for instance. By and large this dictates the relationships we have with romantic partners.

Those with a controlling parent tend to go for a controlling partner; those with an emotionally unavailable parent tend to pair off with an emotionally unavailable partner.

These patterns are often deeply entrenched. As the late writer Anaïs Nin wrote: "I stopped loving my father a long time ago. What remained was the slavery to a pattern".

Sometimes patterns are generational. High achievement and philanthropy are familial patterns... as are alcoholism and philandering.

Spiritual author Iyanla Vanzant, who is best known for her work with Oprah Winfrey, reminds us that our ancestry is in itself a pattern:

"Every family has patterns and pathologies of thought, belief and behaviour that are passed on from one generation to another in the same way that a physical characteristic is passed on", she explains.

Patterns aren't restricted to our closest relationships. We can establish work life and social life patterns too. A new job won't necessarily spell the end of workaholism, just as a new social circle doesn't always do away with the tendency to make toxic friends. Patterns put us in the same scenarios, only with different settings.

"Our character is basically a composite of our habits," wrote the late Stephen Covey in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. "Because they are consistent, often unconscious patterns, they constantly, daily, express our character".

The good news is that these patterns are soft-wired, and therefore adaptable. We can move beyond these "life traps" as they are known in some schools of psychotherapy.

The first step is acknowledgement - becoming aware of your proclivity towards such patterns. The next step is accountability - which means accepting that patterns aren't coincidental or karmic. They are choices, albeit unconscious ones.

We co-create these patterns with others so first we have to ask why it is that we are the lock to their key.

To do this we must first examine each of the incidents that make up the pattern and determine what aspect of our behaviour has been the common thread. Remember that this is not about appointing blame but taking responsibility.

Ask yourself how you could have behaved differently in each instance. Did you show everyone concerned - including yourself - enough compassion and respect? Could you have been more sensible, reasonable, logical, amiable... ?

Crucially, what have you changed since the last time this occurred to prevent it from happening again? (Unfortunately the answer here tends to be 'nothing'.)

Recognising our patterns is always disconcerting - even more so when we continue to do the same thing after the realisation. However, we can change them for the better. We just have to be willing to put in the work and learn the lesson.

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