If you fight for your limitations, you get to keep them
How true is this simple statement by Jim Kwick, "If you fight for your limitations, you get to keep them."
We probably all know that we like to stay within our comfort zones whenever possible. However, we do more than that; we fight, sometimes to the death, to stay there. “No one is going to pull me from this blanket I've been hiding under,” so things stay the same. Safe, familiar, unchallenged and unchanged.
The power of the human mind to hang on to negative thought patterns and to keep us from risking anything is sobering. Being aware of this is the first step to breaking those patterns, but what keeps us under the blanket in the first place?
The human brain is wired for patterns and it enjoys finding them because understanding patterns make things easy, faster and safer. Think of it as driving down a familiar road. You can do it without having to think much about it because it’s a road well travelled. The brain has ‘roads’ too. For example, pathways are forged in the brain by repeating tasks. This ensures that we don’t waste precious time having to relearn something over and over again. The more we do something - the more we use that pathway the faster and better we get at that task.
Being fixated on patterns has another important purpose; 'difference' stands out. If the brain knows what to expect, it will notice the change, or danger, more easily. From a survival standpoint, it is important to be able to differentiate the trees in the jungle from the tiger hiding in the foliage. It is also vital that we notice the child suddenly walking out onto that familiar road that we're driving down. A brain wired to notice difference allows us to recognise where things don't fit and react accordingly. It is this ability to react that I want to talk more about.
At some point in your life, you may have felt threatened. School bullies, angry parents or a single traumatic event like a car accident. When these things happened, or just after, your brain reacted in order to keep you safe; hide from the bullies. Do whatever you need to do to keep the parents happy. Don’t get in a car again. These are not incorrect responses. We know this because you’re still here. Whatever you did to survive those things was absolutely the right thing to do at that time.
The trouble is, the brain isn’t familiar with the concept of time which means we can get stuck using the same responses (or defences) today as we did 20, 30 or 40 years ago - even if the situations are not the same. Over time, some of these responses start to form patterns of behaviour which can get in the way of our everyday living and relationships.
Holding on to unhealthy patterns in our relationships with people, food, alcohol, work etc. seems preferable in the short term because they're familiar, and they've worked in the past. The brain is making use of a well-travelled highway to give you the fastest, most efficient and proven response to a given situation.
At the moment of threat, your brain is not concerned with the negative long-term effects of keeping you indoors and away from people who may bully you. Its job is not to consider how it might be better in a few years time if you stand up to your parents now, and it will not engage logic or reason if it truly fears getting into a car.
So, all hope is lost? No, not at all. We all have the capacity to challenge those responses so that we can begin to thrive; to teach our brain that the patterns it is holding onto in order to protect us are no longer necessary for the situation we now find ourselves in. You’ve probably heard of the saying “Use it or lose it”. This is true of the brain. The saying is usually used in the context of encouraging people to continue to develop and stimulate their brains into old age so that those cognitive pathways are not lost. The same principle can also be used in reverse to purposefully lose pathways that we no longer need.
With the guidance and support of a counsellor, you can learn to come down from high alert in situations that don’t require old responses or defences to be deployed. New responses, appropriate to your current situation, will create new pathways and the old ones will fall away.
Wholehearted living is being able to acknowledge your past and embrace the promise of your future while still fully experiencing your present. This is no easy task because stepping off the old highway and creating a new one is daunting. That’s why we get so easily caught up in fighting for our comfort zones however much they may limit us.
If you're tired of old patterns getting in the way of fully experiencing life then I would encourage you to start to become aware of your patterns of behaviour. What are they? When do you notice them coming out? Are they appropriate to the situation or are they based mostly on past experiences?
If you have trouble identifying these things or you want to explore them in more depth then a counsellor can certainly support and guide you. It is a journey well worth taking.