We humans are particularly adept pattern makers — it’s one of our most effective survival methods — except when it’s not.
Long ago I was an Anthropology major, and one of the things we learned about ‘us‘ is that we are pattern makers. We tie things together in patterns or ‘baskets’ in our brains so we can lump similar things together. It’s pretty effective in lots of ways. It helps us focus on the task at hand and ignore other things that might distract us. It can serve to keep us safe too.
There are places where this type of learning gets a bit quirky, and others where it can be dangerous. I’ll go quirky first — you kinda knew I would, right?
For many years I sat on a ball chair, you know, sort of like the inflatable Swiss ball things at the gym. I like them, they are more comfortable to me, especially when sitting for a long time. It’s something about always adjusting a wee bit to keep your balance and minimize stiffness. However, this is not actually a plug for the ball chair. It’s an intriguing look inside my brain, oh and my cat’s brain, too.
For years I had been using a little technique to get my own attention. If there was something important for me to do the next day, or after lunch, or even after I went to the Ladies, I would place the piece of paper about that on my chair. That way I would see it or at least notice it when I sat on it! Great plan. I had it as a pattern in my brain. This worked really well until I got the ball chair. It was pretty funny how long it took me to figure out that paper was going to slide off the ball. Hmm… ball was something I sat on so it went into the ‘chair’ pattern place in my head, however: ball is round, chair is flat… You can see the problem.
Apparently primates aren’t the only pattern makers. At that time, Agate — the kitty — was used to jumping up on my desk via the chair. It only took one time for her to learn that balls, even ones I sat on, are round, unlike chairs. Neither of us were pleased about this learning experience. She lost some dignity — which if you have a cat, you know “simply isn’t amusing!” — and I had to replace the ball because her claws let out the air.
For both of us the learning was something like, just because different things have some elements in common, they do not always create the same results.
Now for the dangerous part: where we lump together things about people and experiences but using the faulty logic created by our intrinsic pattern making. Here is an example of that. I was dating a guy named Gary in high school, who was a Taurus. My parents had a friend named Alan who was also a Taurus. Additionally Alan also smoked weed. My mother wanted me to stop seeing Gary because obviously Gary would smoke weed because he, like Alan, was a Taurus. (Kinda not — Gary really was a mid-western “rule follower”… no weed.)
Now I grant you this association was wacky reasoning, and yet we tend to do it all over the place, don’t we? It’s the fundamental problem with many conclusions we come to especially around relationships, both personal and professional. For another example let’s look at Jeff. Jeff was a young, studly programmer I worked with in a start up. He had just broken up with his girl friend and was getting some counseling. We talked about it over lunch and I asked him what conclusions he had come to? He said that he’d decided to no longer date blonds. Really? Can you see how the pattern making part of his brain was narrowing on something that probably wasn’t really the issue?
So think about where in your life you might be applying this useful — but imperfect — pattern making logic. Can you find of any of your own associations that might not really be logical? Most of us can find at least one time when we applied a pattern thought extension to the wrong thing.
I’m not suggesting that you just forge ahead and ignore the signal of familiarity with a pattern. Instead I’m asking you to dig a bit deeper, and see which patterns to apply where. And there is a really simple solution for how to check out where you are applying old patterns that don’t fit, or are not applicable. See how it’s different this time. Spend a bit of time considering what fits the pattern and what doesn’t. Notice when you are avoiding a new possibility by being overly cautious. Also, notice if the hair on the back of your neck stands up and tells you to avoid the situation altogether. It’s all good information. Basically, check to make sure that there isn’t a baby in the bathwater you are throwing out!
Shell Tain, The Untangler
If you’d like to chat more about your own pattern making, just give me a call at 503-258-1630 or check out my website at www.sensiblecoaching.com.
Great article – I’m going to pay more attention to my patterns. As you said, it may have worked “then” but how is it different this time? There is always more to learn, yes?