Therapy is no doubt a helpful tool when you have problems to overcome, and one of the primary strategies therapists use to uncover and solve your issues involves identifying common behavioural patterns. But you don’t always need a therapist to recognise and correct an unhealthy pattern in your life. Here’s a primer for how you can solve the problems that don’t require professional help.Title photo remixed from an original by Shpilko Dimitriy (Shutterstock) and IZO (Shutterstock)
The world is good at creating patterns and we have an innate ability for picking them up. As we grow, our experience becomes a giant database of information and we make associations between similar events and occurrences as a way of understanding the world. While recognising these patterns can be an incredibly helpful tool for solving our own issues, we’re much better at recognising them in others than we are in ourselves. We also have a tendency to see patterns where we want to see them, even when they aren’t really there.
We enlist the help of therapists because they’re trained to connect the behavioural dots, but with a little work we can hone our pattern recognition skills and solve many of our own problems. In this post we’ll give you a basic introduction to how pattern recognition works, how you can use it to investigate your issues, and what you need to watch our for so you don’t identify any patterns incorrectly.
The Basics of Pattern Recognition
Although pattern recognition is something we inherently understand, the way it works is a little more complex. One of the earliest patterns we learn to see is the structure of language. You may have heard that we can read jumbled words just fine so long as the first and last letters are in their proper place. This is possible because we recognise a few patterns. First, we know what we’re used to seeing. If my name were typed “Aadm”, most of us would recognise that as “Adam” despite the misspelling. We do because there is no “Aadm” and our brain simply corrects the name to the spelling we’re accustomed to seeing. Additionally, the context of other words makes it possible to detect misplaced letters. For example, both “from” and “form” are words, but if I said “I just got back form the supermarket” you would likely know I meant “from” instead of “form”. Relationship and family therapist Roger S. Gil explains how this happens naturally as we learn to read:
When we learn to read, we are essentially learning to recognise patterns. At first, we look at the set of lines drawn on the paper and eventually build a template that says “that pattern of lines on the paper represents a character/letter”. Once we’ve scene that pattern (i.e. character/letter) enough times, we can begin to focus on using those templates to recognise a new type of pattern: words. When we first learn a word, we often try to read it phonetically by calling upon the existing pattern templates in our memory for the letters. If we are able to sound out the word, and if it represents a word we already have in our spoken vocabulary, then we have now built a template for letters arranged in that particular order. In time, we build up a database of thousands of templates/words that we can call upon whenever our eyes come across a word we’ve already seen, rather than trying to process the word as an unfamiliar grouping of letters every time it’s shown to us. This frees our brain up to do other things like processing the idea represented by the words on the page.
This same phenomenon works in virtually the same way with many other things, including the big and small events in our lives. We learn the meaning of a particular occurrence, then how context can adjust its meaning, and finally what a repeat of that occurrence dictates about the action we should take when it presents itself.
Find Your Patterns to Solve Your Problems
When you go to a therapist, they’re often on the lookout for patterns in your life that you’re not necessarily seeing. You might seek help to solve your anxiety issues, for example, but being anxious is just a symptom. While generic methods can be used to help, you need to actually get to the root of the problem to solve it. That’s where patterns can be of great assistance. I asked doctoral clinical psychology student Brian Newton how therapists generally solve the mystery of why a patient is having a particular issue. He suggested answering a few questions (and we’ll continue using anxiety as the example):
- What makes you feel anxious?
- Where do you feel anxious?
- When do you feel anxious?
- Who makes you feel anxious?
Answering these questions can help you reveal the pattern. Continuing with the example, if large groups make you anxious, parties make you feel uncomfortable, you feel awkward when you’re out to dinner with a large group, and loud personalities make you feel especially uncomfortable, you have an obvious pattern of having anxiety around outgoing people.
This is a straightforward issue, but the same questions work well with something lacking clarity. Let’s say that your specific problem is that you can’t stop biting your nails. You don’t like biting your nails, but you feel compelled to do it. Here’s how answering these questions can point to a pattern:
- What makes you feel like biting your nails? When I’m bored, hungry, or feel like they’re uneven and I want to even them out.
- Where do you feel like biting your nails? Anywhere. The location doesn’t matter. I’d prefer to do it where no one can see, but I’ll still do it in front of people.
- When do you feel like biting your nails? Early in the morning and towards/during the evening.
- Who makes you feel like biting your nails? Nobody.
When your situations are more specific, you often have to ask why in relation to your answers. You also have to look for correlations between things that don’t seem a like. In the answer to the first question, the subject is biting his or her nails for three distinct reasons. When things don’t seem similar, you want to figure out why they are. Here, you could ask yourself if hunger is ever paired with the other two circumstances, or if boredom tends to bring on other obsessive-compulsive behaviour. In this case, we know the nail-biting problem isn’t anxiety-related and no other person is causing it. That’s not a pattern. What may be, however, is the timing. This person bites his or her nails more in the morning and the evening, which are generally the times of day when we’re the hungriest. This suggests a path to explore. Is this person’s diet creating unwanted behaviour and bad habits? We don’t know for certain, but answering those questions provides us with a starting point and an actual solution to try: substitute nail biting with food or chewing gum to see if it provides the same effect.
These are just a couple of examples of how finding patterns can help point to ways you can solve your problems, but essentially the process can be distilled down to the following steps:
- Interrogate yourself like you’re a journalist. Ask the who, what, where, when and why questions about your problem.
- Cross-reference your answer to each question to look for similarities. If you’re having trouble seeing them, start comparing the seemingly different answers and ask yourself how they might relate to each other.
- When you find relationships and patterns in your answers, consider ways to replace your unwanted behaviour with a better one or work your way up to becoming more content with the things that make you uncomfortable.
- Be patient. Figuring out the problem is a lot easier than implementing a solution. Changing behaviour takes time and perseverance. Figuring out the problem and deciding to fix it are both important steps, but they’re only useful if you put them to good use.
You should also recognise that you’re going to be less-inclined to point out an issue when that issue is you. We don’t love being wrong or making poor choices, but we all do it from time to time (if not often). If you can’t find a pattern in your behaviour, sometimes it can help to show it to a friend who can look at the situation without your own, personal bias. If you have more severe issues, however, you’ll want to see a professional for help. While it’s often good to solve problems on your own, there’s nothing wrong with getting help when you need it.
Ignore Vague Patterns to Avoid Unwanted Problems
The primary downside to our pattern recognition abilities is that we can often see patterns where none really exist at all. This is often the root of unwarranted phobias, conspiracy theories, undeserved blame and plenty of other awful issues. Because are brains are so adept at pointing out similarities, and it’s exciting to feel like we’ve suddenly solved a puzzle, we often deceive ourselves into believing a pattern exists. Furthermore, we tend to prescribe meaning to these patterns just as if it were as clear as the common patterns in language. We often see these patterns as some sort of divine intervention, but they’re not. They’re either random or they’re perfectly logical. You’re leading yourself towards a problem when you believe otherwise.
For example, when I meet another person named Adam they usually think it’s neat that we have the same name. If we’re the same age, it’s no longer just neat but some kind of amazing coincidence. If we have an interest in common, the forces of nature intended us to meet. Clearly this was destiny. Except that between 1983 and 1984, there was no other time in recorded US history when Adam was a more popular name. Basically, if you’re 27 years old at the time of this writing and your name is Adam, you’re not that unique. The problem is, once we start to see a few patterns we like to believe something incredible is happening. It’s not, and this is the sort of mistake that leads to bad decisions and ignore the many more differences that likely exist.
Just like there is no magic to the false patterns we pull out of everyday life, there’s no simple solution to preventing our brains from causing this problem. We’ll always want to see the little miracles of life, even if they aren’t there. In the moment, doing so makes us happy. In the long run, however, it can cause problems so it is important to keep a critical eye when the elation of common circumstance overcomes you. All you need to do is a little research on your circumstances to figure out if you’re ignoring difference or if you’ve started to detect a real pattern. Sometimes exciting patterns do exist, but if you keep recognising them incorrectly you might grow too cynical and miss a real one when it comes along. For these reasons, it’s important to recognise patterns accurately and use them to help you, rather than cling to them during the times when they point out primarily what you want to see.