Pattern Trap

Breaking Free From the Pattern Trap

Image Courtesy of Vogue

Jill Gets Ambushed, Again

The knot condensed like a heavy weight in Jill’s stomach. Suddenly gasping for air, she recognized she had been here before. Yet again, just when she thought she had finally put it all together, something had sabotaged the fulfilling life that she dreamed about. “Not again,” she announced silently as she looked forlornly at her scales, “I can’t believe I’ve gained the weight back.” Jill could feel the power to change her life slipping through her fingers – it had not been the first time.

Taking responsibility for her life and changing it for the better was something Jill took seriously. She tried hard. She practiced positive thinking, the law of attraction, visualization, goal setting, yoga – and she prayed and meditated regularly for abundance. Yet after enthusiastic initial successes, something unseen seemed to pull her back into her “de-ja-vu all over again”.

“It’s not that I have a bad life”, Jill reminded herself, “It’s just that I know there is more. And it’s right outside of my grasp. What am I missing? Why do I keep repeating the same thing over and over again? How do I really claim my potential?”

These four questions were about to change Jill’s life.
1. What Am I Missing?
2. Why Do I Keep Repeating the Same Things Over and Over Again?
3. How Do I Train the Brain to Disrupt Old Limiting Patterns and Create New Empowering Ones?
4. How Do I Open the Door to Claiming My Potential?

Let’s examine the first three of these questions. Why not all four? Because until you skillfully address the first three questions, fulfilling your potential will remain an elusive dream. The first three questions deal with the influence your biology has over who you believe yourself to be. The answer to the last question becomes apparent when you learn how to better manage your body and mind.

What Am I Missing?
Your Biology and Brain Have Far More Influence Over the Course of Your Life Than You Imagine.

You may have been sleeping during high school or college biology – particularly neuro-biology. And not understanding what you missed will blind you to why you keep repeating the same mistakes over and over again.

What Jill did not understand is the power of her biology and brain to create and maintain patterns. Without learning how to work with your biology, these patterns will overwhelm even your best intentions to change. As an example, think about Jill’s dieting. It is common for people to get highly motivated to lose weight. They set goals, visualize success, use positive self talk, affirm themselves, spend a lot of money, and reward themselves for weight loss. And they lose weight – initially. A piece of cake, right?

Yet, 95{54c12dad2cc2b53ae830e39915b1a3e70288dbcbbeb8bbf8395437c5dc3c512c} of people regain the weight they lost. And seriously declared New Year’s Resolutions routinely are broken within 3 weeks. Why, you ask? This is that pesky neuro-biological pattern in action. Your brain and mind cannot be neatly separated. Without learning to manage your biology’s influence over your mind, your neuro-biology will pull you back into its historical hardwired pattern. Your mind emerges from your brain (biology) and the brain is interested in building perceptual maps that are organized around emotions and patterns.

It’s not that we are only our biology. However, once the brain builds successful short term patterns, they lock in and start replicating what we see as possible in our lives. And that causes us to be blind to any possibility outside of the familiar pattern in which the brain organized us.

In real life what does this look like? Let’s go back to Jill. Jill has struggled with her weight for a number of years. Every time she would finally get it back under control and was able to look into her mirror and see the “true” Jill emerging, she would sabotage her efforts. During these times of sabotage, she went on “auto-pilot” and did not “see” herself losing her discipline – and eating too much. Then she would wake up a couple of months later only to discover the weight had snuck back on her. What happened?

Why Do I Keep Repeating the Same Things Over and Over Again?
Getting Stuck in the Box of Your Comfort Zone

Jill just encountered the pattern-making machinery of her brain – which, by the way, no one had ever told her about. Until this time, she thought that losing weight was about discipline, exercise, and envisioning a healthier self. (No one had told her biology and her brain about her plan!) Evidence did not match experience though. No matter how advanced her “head game” became, somehow the weight was able to sneak back on her body.

The brain creates patterns to adapt us to successfully survive in whatever environment to which we are born. Once established though, these patterns go on automatic and become highly resistant to change – as Jill experienced as “de-ja-vu all over again”. And once established, you do not have a pattern. Rather, the pattern has you. And until you wake up to its power, the pattern creates your experiences in life. This is why you keep doing the same things over and over again. And this is why Jill kept losing and gaining her weight back.

In Jill’s case, she had learned to use food to “comfort” herself during adolescence. Like many teenagers she experienced periods of feeling isolated (which produces a sense of discomfort for the brain). The way she found to calm this discomfort was by eating, which produced a sense of comfort for her. The brain seized on this successful solution to the discomfort of feeling isolated and created a hardwired neruo-pathway of eating behavior to solve a primitive survival problem. Jill got stuck with the brain’s pattern of eating to comfort her feeling of discomfort. And the battle of weight began. The brain’s short term solution produced temporary comfort in exchange for a long term problem of weight gain. But the brain only cares to produce short term problem solutions and, if successful, these will become locked in as familiar pattern.

Your Brain, Mind, and Comfort Zone
Create the Prison of Your Donut.

This is what I call being stuck in the box (prison) of your comfort zone. The brain has created a comfort zone for a survivable life – not a life in which you thrive. And the box of your comfort zone is highly resistant to change. As an example, think of a huge donut, and you are in the hole of that donut.

The donut surrounds you. And you are stuck in the donut hole. It’s safe, familiar, and pretty sweet in that donut hole – even if it does close down the possibility of exploring the adventure you would like to take. You have a desire to leave the prison that the donut hole has become, but every time you climb out of the familiarity of the donut hole something begins pulling you back. As you approach the edges of your self knowledge (that’s the edges of the donut), you begin to experience the uncertainty of the unknown. You simply do not know what exists outside the cocoon of your donut.

Your brain is wired to keep you in familiar pattern – that’s the donut and donut hole. That is how your brain (with its bias for survival) has adapted you. There is an adventurer living within you that wants to expand beyond the self imposed comfort zone, but the brain’s survival motivation wants you back in the box of your comfort zone (that is the donut hole). Suddenly thinking, possessed by the force of the comfort zone, creates a story in your mind about how sweet the donut hole really is. And it may not be what you want for growth, but it is safe. A lot safer than the uncertainty that lies beyond the comfort zone called your donut.

This is exactly what is happening to our friend Jill. She is not aware of the influence of the patterns created by her brain, but that does not stop their influence. And until she wakes up to its influence, she will continue to be swept away by the unseen forces that seem to be shaping her fate. Waking up to the power of her biology to create a self fulfilling pattern changes everything. More about that later.

By the time your psychology shows up (that’s the mind), you experience this uncertainty and shrinking of the self as fear or self doubt. Why should your biology be subjected to uncertainty? (That is exactly what it is mandated to avoid.) So you stay stuck in a particular way of being in the world called your life. This scenario is played out countless times over a lifetime. And it will stay in place until you learn how to observe, disrupt, and create new pattern as a designer of your life.

How Do I Train the Brain to Disrupt Old Limiting Patterns and Create New Empowering Ones?

This is where Jill began to wake up to the influence her biology had exerted over her mind and her ability to maintain a healthy weight. First and foremost, she had to come to a new understanding of her biology. Body, mind, and our spiritual nature cannot be separated. Central to that new understanding is the assertion that neuro-biology has given us – that mind emerges from brain.

Second, she had to learn the skills of diaphragmatic breathing as part of mindfulness training. Fear, as an emotional state, cannot be maintained as a driver of thought while breathing diaphragmatically. Herbert Benson, MD proved that our emotional state was linked to the way we breathe. Fear requires a shallow breathing style (or holding of breath) to maintain itself or to accelerate its intensity. And fear determines our state of mind (the way we think). What Dr. Benson was able to demonstrate was that fear states could be disrupted by managing breathing style and by relaxing tension in the body. He coined the term “Relaxation Response” to describe this important skill.

Jill learned how to breathe her way through “bouts” of emotional and psychological discomfort. She realized that, when she felt isolation, she stopped breathing and held her breath. By consciously breathing deeply, she was able to learn how to override the build up of anxiety that triggered her comfort eating.

SafePlace Generation:
Distinguishing Biological Fear and Psychological Discomfort

But Jill did not stop with developing the skill of breathing as a tool to manage her inherent anxiety that lead to comfort eating.

Once you grasp that your biology is organized around fear as an evolutionary force, you can appreciate how important this breathing skill is to develop. The body, your biology, cannot tell the difference between biological fear (threat to life) and psychological discomfort (something you deal with and grow from). By learning to breathe diaphragmatically, you can disrupt the power of fear to compel you to avoid conflict. This calms the body.

But that’s never enough. Fear has to be distinguished between a real biological threat and psychological discomfort. Once biological fear is separated from psychological discomfort, you will need to learn how to take fear off-line – or calm the mind. This entails creating a sense of safety for the mind to focus on. In the Ignite Your Spark work that I teach, this is called SafePlace generation. Fundamentally it is creating a highly enriched soothing memory that can be called up in your mind. The trick is in training yourself so this state of mind will trigger simultaneously as fears and self doubt emerge in the mind.

This training requires that the body and mind calm down so that conflict can be observed from a calm state of mind rather than an agitated (whether by fear or anger) state of mind. Here, conflict shifts from an object of fear to be avoided to an object beyond the comfort zone. And a natural state of calm curiosity opens to explore possibility. Conflict is no longer interpreted as a threat; rather it can now be viewed as an opportunity of growth.

This is where Jill began to flourish. Taking the discomfort off line allowed her to stop avoiding the sense of isolation that lay at the root of her brain’s organization about isolation. She could approach the internal conflict within her in a state of calm, rather than in a state of anxiousness. This made all the difference in the world. Conflict was not the problem, she discovered, it was her approach to her internal struggle that had blocked her from a more fulfilling life.

Without conflict there is no growth. And conflict is inescapable. What matters is not the avoidance of conflict, but, rather, how we approach conflict. Think about it this way. Would you rather solve a problem in a fearful state of mind, or from a calm state of mind? That’s a no-brainer.

Very different worlds open up to us depending on our emotional states. As we become more competent in managing our emotional states of mind, the greater our capacity becomes to move beyond the box of our comfort zone. It is by managing the uncertainty (fear) that keeps us a prisoner in our comfort zone that we expand the possibility of who we can be.

How Do I Open the Door to Claiming My Potential?

As you can tell from the way Jill changed the way she worked with her discomfort, transformation begins by disrupting the brain’s familiar patterns by learning how to manage the biology of our mind. She learned how to self sooth rather than reach for comfort food. But there is more possible.

Like Jill had to learn in the example at the start of this article, the first step is to learn how to manage emotional states by skillful breathing. The next essential step for creating positive change is to calm the mind through self soothing, such as SafePlace generation. That calms the body and slows down the stream of thoughts going on in your mind. Then something powerful happens. You discover that there is an internal dialogue going on in your mind to which you can become an observer.

And that internal dialogue, masquerading as thoughts in your mind, is the key to understanding self and to personal transformation. By tuning into your internal dialogue, you will discover that there is a lot going on underneath the hood of your mind. Behind your thoughts are powerful forces. It is these internal conversations within the self that determine what you see as possible in your life and what you act on.

These conversations of the internal dialogue will be explored in the future. At this moment what I hope you have learned is the importance of breathing to calm the body and generating safety as a way of taking fear off-line. It is at this moment that an entirely new way of understanding the unseen forces that create our lives becomes possible.

It is not enough to manage the body and mind. Once these skills are developed, possibility for a much more fulfilling life opens. Now Jill is ready to open the door to deeper transformation. She has learned to face her fears and push through them. Now her job is to challenge the very assumptions that have locked her into a world that has constricted the possibility of who she can be.

How about you? What happens when you are able to move beyond the box of your comfort zone and explore your deeper potential? It’s an exciting journey. My hope is that you are now motivated to learn how to manage your body and mind so that you can move beyond the limitations that your brain (and its organization of the emerging mind) has placed upon you. It is a courageous voyage of discovery.

Rande Howell is a guest blogger for PickTheBrain. He writes about Igniting the Spark of Your Potential and Creating a Lasting Transformation at

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Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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