So...you did it again. You made that same freakin mistake that you promised yourself you wouldn’t do again. And not only did you do it again but this time you really effed up.
You go over and over in your mind how this could’ve happened by retracing all of your steps. You try to figure out what the single moment or decision was that led you right back down into that booby trap.
What’s worse is that the booby trap was bordered off with orange cones and flashing lights and you STILL managed to fall into it.
So here you are beating yourself up yet again and feeling defeated.
When will I ever learn?
What is it going to take for me to learn my lesson?
Do I need a freakin lobotomy? What gives?
The truth is that many of the elements that led to you repeating this mistake were largely out of your consciousness.
This is how it works: when you were young everything was new and therefore everything was a learning experience.
Experiences with your parents shaped how you attach in your romantic relationships.
Experiences with friendships shaped how you connect with others and informs your hobbies and interests.
Experiences with teachers, mentors, and coaches shaped your motivation and inspiration to do bigger things.
Repetition of similar experiences over time developed what’s known a neural network - a cluster of neurons in your brain that provide a template for how to think, feel, and act in future similar situations. It’s like a guidebook on what to do when you encounter a new experience.
When you’re younger, it takes longer for these neural networks to form and you’re more likely to try out several different solutions until you find one that works best (this helps to explain why the awkwardness of adolescence is so brutal).
You also have to be more conscious of these thought processes until they become second nature. When it becomes second nature, the brain knows to put this skill set on autopilot, also known as a pattern, so that you can do certain tasks with little thought and so that your brain can focus on other new experiences.
The brain could care less if this pattern is helpful or unhelpful. All it cares about is organizing the information to provide a response that fits with your current experience.
Given enough time, also known as aging, the brain has developed many different neural networks which means that your response to everyday experiences is largely being dictated outside of your awareness.
So what this means is that when you made that mistake, there were several different elements of it that were out of your awareness. Even if you were trying to be more mindful and purposeful with trying to do things differently this time, you’re still running up against a machine that already had template for how it was “supposed to go.”
When we’re able to understand this, we can begin to remove some of the self-blame by accepting that there are some processes at work that we have no control over and therefore can very difficult to change.
So this begs the question - what CAN we do to break unhelpful patterns.
Well, the answer is simple but it certainly isn’t easy.
First, you want to start with identifying a recent example of an unhelpful pattern that played out recently.
Then, you will write a paragraph including thoughts, feeling, and actions that occurred during the incident.
Next, you will rewrite the paragraph using the opposite thoughts, feelings, and actions of you had initially written.
For example, the first paragraph might read “When my partner and I had an argument, I was so angry [feeling] that I wanted to leave the house [action]. I’m getting so tired of fighting that maybe this relationship is never going to work [thought].”
Replacement paragraph: “When my partner and I had an argument, I was so calm [feeling] that I was able to stick around even though it was hard [action]. I’m feeling so much more hopeful when we problem-solve like this that it makes me feel assured that we’re both in it for the long haul. [thought]”
What this helps you to do is see how your thoughts, feelings, and actions are connected to one another and how they are playing out in concert with one another while experiencing your unhelpful pattern.
Even though the replacement paragraph isn’t true yet, you now have created a guidebook on what needs to happen to break the pattern and you can begin practicing these items.
Repeat the new pattern enough times and you will create a new neural network. Be warned - this takes a tremendous amount of time and effort and things will not change overnight. You must be committed and plan for setbacks as those original neural networks are very powerful and will want to reappear several times while you are creating a new neural network.
I encourage you to work with a therapist to help you troubleshoot and strategize what works best for you.
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Blue Sage Counseling and Wellness, and the information provided by Ashley Francis, is solely intended for informational and entertainment purposes and is not a substitute for advice, diagnosis, or treatment regarding medical or mental health conditions. Although Ashley Francis is a licensed marriage and family therapist, the views expressed on this site or any related content should not be taken for medical or psychiatric advice. Always consult your physician before making any decisions related to your physical or mental health.