Breaking Free From Our Unhealthy Patterns
Our memories of past experiences form patterns of expectation that can help or hurt our ability to deal with change.
One of the most significant changes in my life was the death of my father when I was 11 years old. It was devastating. The saving grace during this loss was my mother helping me grieve and navigate through all my thoughts and feelings. She did it so well that I ended up spending the first part of my career as a chaplain and care pastor, helping other people go through loss and change in their lives. What I learned from my own experience helped me develop patterns for navigating future losses in life.
Think about a significant memory from your own past. Here are some examples: being punished by your parents, graduating from school, a relationship break-up, loss of a loved one, a profound spiritual experience.
Now ask yourself: “What did I learn from this?”
Maybe what you learned was good:
“Hard work pays off.”
“I can get through these kinds of things.”
“People are there when you need them.”
“God really cares about me.”
But maybe you walked away with unhealthy messages in your head:
“I did what everyone expected me to do and I’m still unhappy.”
“People will hurt you if you let them get close.”
“Life hurts bad.”
“Other people are so much closer to God than me.”
Our memories of past experiences powerfully shape our expectations about the future. In their book The Change Cycle, Ann Salerno and Lillie Brock help people navigate and thrive through organizational change. Our church staff is reading this book and talking about its six stages of change. It’s not written from a Christian or spiritual perspective, but as I read the introduction, I found a significant connection to the New Testament about the topic of change.
It’s this little Greek word: schema.
Schema means “pattern.”
Salerno and Brock state that one of the biggest barriers to change in our places of employment is the pattern of thinking we’ve formed based on previous experience. They write: “unresolved thoughts and feelings about ‘how some things were handled’ in previous company changes are a significant reason employees can have a hard time believing or trusting their employer when new change is introduced” (p.10).
This is because our memories are strong. Our brains are these amazing machines working to make sense of the world to prepare us for what’s ahead. The authors go on to say: “Studies show that when we find out something novel is on the way – a new boss, an altered industry requirement, a changed product line, a reorganization – the brain begins searching its memory banks for clues about what might be forthcoming” (p.11). We say to ourselves:
“This is going to be good” or “this is going to be bad.”
“This will be easy” or “this will be hard.”
“I can trust” or “I can’t trust.”
And this is where that word “schema” comes into play. Cognitive psychologists refer to “schema” as the brain’s way of looking for “patterns” so we can find and act on similarities. Sometimes these patterns help us navigate and deal with change, other times they hurt us and make us less productive.
How does this relate to the New Testament? Paul, one of the great spiritual leaders of the first century, wrote to a group of Christians who were dealing with all kinds of conflicts with each other. He penned these words:
Anyone you forgive, I also forgive. And what I have forgiven—if there was anything to forgive—I have forgiven in the sight of Christ for your sake, in order that Satan might not outwit us. For we are not unaware of his schemes. 2 Corinthians 2:10–11
We all have schema: patterns of thinking, feeling, and acting… and so does our spiritual enemy. Unforgiveness, grudges, unresolved anger, fear, assumptions and lies are plots and patterns from our spiritual enemy that can easily keep us in unhealthy patterns of thinking, feeling, and acting.
One of the best ways to learn to navigate change is to be aware of our “patterns” of thinking, feeling, and acting. Then we can start reshaping our “schema” to be more aligned with God’s plans for our life.
Here’s some steps to help in breaking free from unhealthy patterns:
1. Acknowledge and call out your own unhealthy patterns of thinking, feeling, and acting. For example, maybe you have “black & white thinking” (you say always, never, and think in all or nothing categories). Catch yourself and say: “I said always but I know it’s not always. I’m reacting because I’m frustrated.” Or maybe you speak negatively to yourself. Instead of saying, “I’m so stupid,” say “Oops, I made a mistake.” Take some time and think about your personality, patterns, and growth areas.
2. Ask for help from trusted friends. Inviting others to help us change our patterns is important. This can also include mentoring and Christian counseling. I recently shared with a friend about a personal struggle I was having. I asked him, “Could you ask me about this on a regular basis? I want to change this in my life, but I need help.”
3. Work to resolve relationship conflicts. The Bible says, “Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone” (Rom. 12:18). Relationship conflicts usually grow through avoidance and third-party gossip. Having simple, face to face conversations with people can be just what is needed to create new patterns. Listening to understand, asking questions, getting more information, and seeing things from different perspectives are important keys to breaking patterns and moving through change.
4. Ask Jesus to break any “spiritual strongholds.” Sometimes there are big (and gnarly) patterns in our thinking, feeling, and acting that resemble stone walls of a castle. We need supernatural power to break them down. Abuse, addiction, trauma, and major losses in life can sometimes be followed by strong patterns of self-harm, bitterness, crippling anxiety, or other barriers to spiritual wellness. Jesus reminds us that we are loved no matter what we are going through and He is there to spiritually empower us and comfort us when we are feeling attacked. Pray for Jesus’ presence and power in your life.
A wise, older man of faith once said to me: “Change is the only constant in life. You can either be a student of change or a victim of change. Be a student.”
Jesus, I know I have patterns of thinking, feeling, and acting that keep me from living the full life you offer me. Thank you for loving me just as I am and with all my imperfections. Give me more insight into who you are and who you are making me to be. Help me to courageously invite others into my growth areas. Give me patience and love in my challenging, unresolved relationships. I surrender and will keep surrendering to you those unhealthy patterns in my life. Thank you for making me new every day. May I live in the fullness or your love and in obedience to you today. In Jesus’ name, Amen.