Recognizing Patterns – And How to Change Them in Recovery


Think about what comes to mind when you think of patterns. Likely it means doing something repetitive, over and over again, often without much thought given to the action. It’s more or less an automatic behavior, something that you’ve done so many times before and feel comfortable doing that you don’t see any harm to it – or, you don’t want to change the behavior because of some reward you associate with it.

But when you’re in recovery, you know that patterns have gotten you into trouble in the past. You learned during rehab that you needed to understand and be able to recognize the old patterns of behavior from your addictive past so that you can make important changes in your new life in sobriety.

There’s only one problem with this: we’re still reluctant to change. It isn’t that we don’t want to, necessarily. It may be more that we’re afraid of change, unwilling or unable to get past our fears of the unknown so that we can start off doing something new. The fact that others tell us that change is beneficial and proactive and the best thing we can do for our recovery does little to mitigate such fear. Overcoming the fear is a purely unique and personal process that we have to go through on our own.

This does not mean, however, that we cannot rely on the advice and encouragement of others. Indeed, it is only with the recommendations and after listening to what worked effectively for others that we may be motivated to embark upon some fairly important changes in our own life.

So, recognizing patterns is first and foremost the initial step that people in recovery need to take – before they can do anything about them. Once you are able to recognize patterns, old ones and current ones, you will be better able to make informed decisions about what to do in the future.

What Constitutes a Pattern?

How do you know when something you’re doing is part of an overall pattern of behavior? It’s not as easy as you think, since it involves being able to detach yourself from current action, to be able to step back a bit and see what you’re doing from the eyes of others. There’s also the kind of detachment that you get from a distance, as in time. When you’re long past doing something, because it’s been months or years since you did it, it’s easier to see where and how you engaged in certain behaviors that fell into a pattern.

Since it’s really difficult to exercise detachment, let’s talk about easier ways to be able to differentiate patterns.

Is it a habit or a pattern? This is another good question, but a few examples may be helpful. If you do something every day, automatically, it’s probably a habit. This can include having a cup of hot coffee as soon as you wake up, or going for a latte on your lunch or afternoon break.

Of course, past habits are things you’re very well aware of, as in your drug and alcohol habit that crossed over into substance abuse and possibly addiction. It wasn’t a once in a while action. It was all the time. That habit took over your life. You found that you couldn’t exist – or didn’t want to exist – without it.

But there are also patterns of behavior that emanate from habits. Take the coffee example. If you find that you literally feel compelled to drink cup after cup of coffee during the day, even when you feel full or don’t necessarily enjoy the taste, that’s a pattern of behavior. It is also a practice that can be detrimental to your health and your overall well-being.

Looking back to the past, when you were coming off your high from alcohol or drugs, your habit of using required a certain pattern of behavior when you needed to search for your drug of choice so that you could use again. After a while, the pattern became engrained. You did it because you had to, because there was no other way to satisfy your incessant need and desire to use.

Bottom line, then, a pattern is behavior that we return to time after time, that we do without necessarily thinking about. When it comes to recognizing patterns, what should be important is figuring out how to eliminate those that result in negative consequences and adopt those that prove beneficial to our recovery.

Good News, Bad News

It may come as a shock to realize that something you thought was good for you is actually just the opposite. There’s good news and bad news in this recognition. On the one hand, you know what you thought was good was possibly something that you conned yourself into believing. Maybe you thought it would be good for you because it was good for someone else, and you adopted the behavior in the hope that you’d have the same sort of success.

But blind adherence to any idea is never wise. It takes careful thought beforehand and rigorous analysis afterward to be able to determine if a pattern of behavior is right for you and your recovery.

Suffice to say that there is no single right way to go about recovery. There is no value judgment at work here. There is only what is right for you, and this is something that you will figure out through trial and error.

That is another example of the bad news, good news. Sooner or later you will arrive at the logical and reasonable choices for you, the ones that work best for you and your recovery. It may take some time and there may be considerable disappointment along the way, but if you are committed to doing all you can for your new life in sobriety, you’ll be able to weather any difficulties and challenges you encounter.

Where to Begin

Sitting around discussing patterns of behavior sounds pretty dull, right? It can be, although that may very well depend upon who you discuss it with. If the person you’re talking with is someone you trust and admire, perhaps your 12-step sponsor, then the discussion can be an ongoing and constructive one, not just an exercise for the sake of doing so.

In any event, what you should consider doing is making a list of behaviors that you’ve been doing that you believe constitute a pattern. This is the only way that you’ll have any real idea of what you’ve been doing in your life. As in anything else you work on in recovery, it helps to take notes that you can refer back to.

If you like, make two separate sheets, one for good behavior patterns and one for bad patterns of behavior. Or, simply list the behaviors and then see if they fall into patterns. After that, you can weigh and balance how you feel about them and assign them either a positive or negative value.

What this value means is not whether or not you like the behavior. You liked getting high, correct? That didn’t mean it was a positive behavior pattern. No, here the positive or negative value refers to whether it enhances or detracts from your recovery efforts.

Let’s take a couple of examples to see how this works.

Suppose that you have recently begun to put off going to meetings. This has been going on for several weeks, with the result that you manage to attend only one meeting or so that you can remember. There’ve been all sorts of reasons that you’ve told yourself as to why you didn’t attend: you had to work late, you were sick, you had a family emergency, there was a business commitment, you had to study, or you were too tired, and so on.

Instinctively, you know that what you’ve been doing hasn’t been good for your recovery. That’s why you’ve engaged in telling yourself these little white lies. You’ve probably also told them to your spouse and/or family members, and to your sponsor when he or she asks you about your non-attendance at meetings.

This should cry out as a pattern of behavior that needs to change. It could be just the wake-up call you need or it could be a sign that you’ve got something else going on. You may be on the verge of rationalizing a return to your previous addictive patterns of behavior. You may be allowing too much to get in the way of your recovery work and, feeling guilty about that, you blow off meeting participation.

Another example of a pattern of behavior that you might recognize is taking on too much at work. Maybe you feel like you’ve got a lot of time to make up for, time that you feel you lost due to your addiction. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with wanting to resume your job and get back to being able to take care of your family and your responsibilities and obligations, when you find yourself constantly taking on new assignments, asking for more responsibility at work and neglecting other aspects of your life, this is a red flag that should signal trouble ahead.

Maybe you weren’t a workaholic before, but this pattern of behavior is getting right down in the trenches with characteristics of a workaholic. When your time is all taken up with work and work-related tasks, you have little time left for anything else – not your family, your personal care, your spiritual needs or your recovery. As a result, your levels of stress build up, tension increases and you start feeling less and less productive. The harder and longer you work, the less satisfying it all becomes. Where you should feel a sense of accomplishment, you only feel like you’re being buried and suffocating.

Who to Turn to

Once you have your list of patterns, especially the ones you want to change, what should you do with it? Who is the best person to turn to for help sorting it all out?

There are several suggestions, any one or all of which may be appropriate for your situation.

  • Your sponsor – The logical first person you’d turn to for help is your 12-step sponsor. This is what your sponsor is there for, to be your guide through the early phase of recovery and working the Twelve Steps. Some of what you’ll be going through in early recovery is taking an inventory of your life – like recognizing patterns of behavior that you want to change and then working on ways to change them.
  • Your spouse or loved ones – In line with your most erstwhile supporters and another logical first choice to turn to for assistance in making important changes in your patterns of behavior is your spouse and/or loved ones and family members. These are the people who know and care about you the most. They should be the most supportive of your recovery efforts and may be intimately involved in some of the behavior patterns you’ve decide you want to change.
  • Your therapist – If you still have therapy or counseling as part of your continuing care or aftercare following rehab, definitely take advantage of the opportunity to discuss the kinds of behavior that you want to change with the therapist. This is an absolutely win-win situation. Your therapist is objective, so there’s no worry that he or she will be too emotionally invested in whatever you discuss. Being objective, your therapist is better able to point out observations about particular behaviors that you may not have thought of or to draw parallels to other behaviors you may have previously discussed. It’s also confidential, so nothing you say will ever go outside the counseling session.
  • Your boss – In some instances, changing patterns of behavior will require that you have certain discussions with your boss or supervisor at work. Obviously, you’ll want to think very carefully about how you approach this individual, including what and when and where you schedule such a discussion. Keep in mind that your employer wants you to be as productive as you can, since this is a business and business demands productivity to be successful. Couch your discussion along the lines of how you can both meet your needs – and what you can do to help. Never use your recovery as an excuse. Instead, reassure your boss, if necessary, of your commitment to recovery and to being the best employee you can.

Running into Resistance

What if you try really hard and you can’t make any headway because you run into resistance? Some of the patterns of behavior you want to change may not be able to be addressed overnight. Simply recognizing something you want to change is a far cry from actually doing the work to ensure the change.

You need to be patient, to be willing to do the work and not get disappointed and frustrated when things don’t immediately resolve themselves. Life isn’t always cozy and neatly contained. It can get messy and complicated and tough to figure out. That’s another benefit of your strong support network, of having people you can turn to when you run into difficulties.

It’s also important to understand your own internal reluctance to change. Sure, you may have given lip-service to the idea of change, but when push comes to shove and you actually have to dig in and make some painful choices, you may feel tempted to back off. Do it some other time. Do it after you do something else. Wait for the right time.

Consider this: the right time is now. There’s never going to be a better time to take proactive charge of your life. If you want to make changes, you have to do the work. No one else can do it for you. If they did, it would be their changes they’re making, not yours. They would reap the benefit, not you.

Celebrate Success

Just as you spent some time learning how to recognize patterns of behavior and mapping out ways to change them in recovery, it is also incredibly valuable to celebrate the successes you enjoy after you’ve made those important changes.

Not every change will be earth-shattering. It doesn’t need to be in order to qualify as a success. If it’s important to you, it’s important to your recovery. After all, that’s what you’ve been working on and, of course, you want to accomplish with your efforts.

Acknowledge your achievements. Give yourself a little credit for what you’ve done. But don’t just sit on your laurels. Look at what else is on your list to change and get right back to work. Success builds upon success. When you’ve got momentum, it’s easier to keep on moving forward.

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