Have you ever driven to work without remembering a bit of the drive?
I know I sometimes go through the motions automatically: back the car out, shut the garage door, drive, use turn signals, stop at stop signs, and arrive at my office. The drive is so routine to me it’s in my muscle memory.
We all have patterns, both in our physical and emotional lives, which have turned into muscle memory. Routines or patterns that have become so ingrained in us that they function automatically. We may not even realize we are doing them.
It’s like a rut on a dirt road in the country. After years of cars and trucks driving along there becomes a deep groove in the dirt. To jump out of the rut is difficult and takes extra effort.
It may be easy to see the physical patterns or routines you are in daily: driving the same route to and from work or school without attention, looking in the fridge for something to snack on even if you aren’t hungry, turning on the TV automatically when you get home after work.
Emotional patterns develop based on how our emotional needs have been met throughout our life; needs such as safety, trust, love, and control. If our needs have been met consistently and we feel secure, we form healthy and adaptive patterns. What this might look like is if your parents created financial safety and security during your childhood, when you experience a financial crisis as an adult you know how to manage your money and deal with anxiety around finances.
Sometimes, when our needs aren’t met, we develop unhealthy patterns. For example, if you’ve had experiences where you felt neglected or abandoned by those you’ve loved, you could cling to or require constant reassurance from your mate. If you have been around people that took away your sense of control and you felt unsafe, you may act bossy or demanding with others, or believe that you have to take charge, as a way to create control for yourself.
Sometimes we learn unhealthy patterns for how to handle our own internal emotions. Maybe you rage when you feel attacked or mistreated. Or withdrawal and isolate when you’re feeling depressed or excluded.
The patterns we develop in our lives are learned.
I’m sure you’ve heard the old saying “Practice Makes Perfect.” This is true for all things in our lives. If we practice and strengthen unhealthy patterns, they become stronger and more routine. The longer you rehearse them the more difficult they are to change. Rehearsing healthy emotional alternatives will start to create a new “rut,” one that you won’t mind keeping around.
What you practice becomes stronger.
So how do you start to change a routine that is so ingrained it has become muscle memory?
The first step to changing a pattern is recognizing and becoming aware of it. Getting into the moment, A.K.A. mindfulness, is a great way to start to recognize your patterns.
Mindfulness is being aware and in tuned with the present moment (not thinking about the past or future). It’s observing what is happening around you and inside of you without judgment.
When we are in tuned with the present moment we are aware and alert and we can take in the sensory information around us and inside of us. The information and clarity you get from focusing on just this moment will help you make the best decision possible, including creating change.
There is a limit to how much information our brains can assimilate and take in. When we are in a state of hectic, rushed, and distracted living, our brain is sometimes unable to absorb and recall important information. This lifestyle contributes to our difficulty with not recognizing patterns and running on auto-pilot. Breaking out of this “rut” takes some extra effort but is well worth it.
If you’re interested in starting to recognize the patterns that are occurring in your life try these tips:
Pause and take a deep breath. Oxygen is vital to our brain and making clear decisions. Generally our body does well at breathing automatically, heck it’s designed to run that on its own. However, sometimes you may find that you’re breathing shallow and not getting full “belly breaths” of oxygen into your body. Try a few deep cleansing breaths.
Verbally describe your surroundings. This forces your brain to stop thinking about XYZ and attune to the present moment. You can’t simultaneously be describing your surroundings and thinking of what tasks you need to do later that day. Try stopping everything and spending 30 seconds focusing only on describing your surroundings; this will help your brain reset to the present moment.
Acknowledge your feelings and thoughts as they arise. Once you’ve checked in with your external surroundings, start to pay attention to your internal experiences. Check in and describe your thoughts and emotions that you’re experiencing. Check in and describe the physical sensations throughout your body (stiffness, discomfort, pain). Acknowledge your internal experiences while also being non-judgmental toward yourself around your thoughts; try to avoid any self-criticisms.
Jot down the patterns you are recognizing. Start writing down the patterns you observe, both physical and emotional. Note what comes up for you. Are you starting to see trends in how you manage your feelings or interactions? Are there certain situations that trigger feelings or sensations for you? Are you reacting in the same way to a certain person?
This whole process can be done in about 5 minutes.
Try checking in with yourself throughout the day at different times, particularly when you are experiencing tension, discomfort, or conflict. Becoming mindful around uncomfortable feelings and experiences will help you spotlight patterns you might want to change.
For this week try focusing on recognizing patterns in your life. Really explore what patterns occur in your life on auto-pilot. Become mindful about your life, your experiences, your feelings, your relationships, your goals.
If there is an area you feel blocked in your life, focus on that this week. For example, if you want to grow in your career, focus on your workplace interactions for any patterns that may be creating barriers and blocks from your personal growth.
Next week we will be building on your newfound awareness of the patterns in your life and start to create change. We will look at how your patterns are impacting your choices, how to start identifying your goals for change, and how you can start implementing change in these patterns.
I would love to hear about your change journey! Let me know what is working or what isn’t for you. If you would like to work with me to dig in deeper to bring about change in your life please email me at email@example.com or call 916-547-3997. I’m here to help!
Adriana Joyner, LMFT is a Sacramento Area therapist who specializes in providing counseling to people healing from trauma and abuse, and those within the LGBTQIA community. Her office is located in Gold River, CA located off Highway 50 at Sunrise Blvd. For more information or to schedule a consultation, please call (916) 547-3997 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.