Every one of us engages in automatic behaviors we are not aware of. From facial expressions, to verbal responses in certain situations, to choices we make, to relationships we develop – we have patterns of behavior that are learned, repeated, and sometimes unhelpful.
Often, our behaviors are intended to protect us from an unwanted consequence. We may apologize frequently for things that are not our fault but feel that in doing so we avoid blame from others. Perhaps we repeatedly choose the familiar, even if painful or limiting, because we don’t trust ourselves to successfully manage through something different. Or, we might even find that we develop unhealthy relationships – again and again – because a healthy one might test something about ourselves that we are afraid to test, like whether we are worthy, or capable of success, or valued enough to not be abandoned.
These behaviors become behavior patterns that we may not recognize or acknowledge – they are just how we act. We might even be convinced that behaving differently would confirm our worst fears: blame and rejection, failure, weakness, abandonment.
The problem with behavior patterns that protect us from unwanted consequences is that we are living as if those consequences are already happening. For example, we apologize for everything because we already believe we are to blame, or that others think we are. We choose safety and guardedness over the deep connection that comes of being vulnerable, and thereby experience loneliness. And, we establish relationships that may not be satisfying, may even be hurtful, but at least do not push us into the frightening place where we might have to question just how worthy we are; it’s easier to accept that we are not.
It is not natural or easy to examine our behavior patterns. However, if we find that we are repeatedly disappointed, dissatisfied, even angry or bitter, taking a look at how we respond to life’s moments – the big ones and the little ones – is an exercise that can make all the difference in how we experience life. Yes, it may be frightening and daunting to consider how we unthinkingly behave, but therein lies our power to choose how we respond to what life throws our way. Whether we are aware of it or not, we always choose, and that power can neither be given nor taken away, but it must be claimed. This implies that we are responsible for our behaviors and for many consequences of our behavior patterns. Sometimes, this involves making difficult choices. However, the alternative is to be victims of circumstance, and powerlessness is never a good feeling.
The trick to becoming aware of our behavior patterns is to PAUSE. To take a step back before responding. To observe how we typically react. And then to proceed from a place that is intuitive, aligned with our values, and that will lead to effective outcomes. Effective does not mean right or wrong, good or bad, easy or hard. Effective means in line with what is most helpful to all involved. It is responding in a way that balances what we want, maintains our relationship with the other, and maintains our self-respect. The weight of each of these will vary based on the situation, of course, but before responding automatically in a way that we think protects us from a negative outcome, we need to pause. We need to notice that we have a choice in that moment, and might consider a response that may be frightening, yes, but also allow us to experience something different, even better.
Once we pause and notice our behavior patterns, we may recognize the need to make some adjustments, and this is never easy. Not apologizing for something this time, or choosing to be vulnerable with someone, or allowing a different relationship to develop based on trust or support is likely to feel uncomfortable if it’s not our automatic go-to response; it’s like writing with your non-dominant hand. Yet, it might also open up a whole new possibility to experience life from a place of empowerment, rather than fear. This is something we can never know unless we are willing to pause, take a look at what we’d rather not think about, and then choose – and practice – a more effective behavior that can become a new and more satisfying behavior pattern.
In the words of Viktor Frankl, psychiatrist, philosopher, and author of Man’s Search for Meaning: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”