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Interrupting the Cycle: Breaking Out of Our Patterns and Into the Leader We Want to Be


  • It’s not unusual for situations to arise at work that push our buttons and put us on the defense. Often, these scenarios can cause us to act in a way we later regret.

  • Automatic thought and behavior patterns can be the source of getting stuck in defensive responses.

  • We can break the automatic thought and behavior cycle through 4 steps: 1. Noticing physical sensations that serve as precursors to actions, 2. Non-judgmentally noting our feelings and the themes that bring them out, 3. Grounding to the present moment, and 4. Choosing values-aligned alternatives.

  • Over time, this practice can help us move out of our automatic self-preservation processes and into the leader we aspire to be.

We’ve all had situations come up at work that push our buttons and cause us to react in a way we later regret (or resent). But have you thought about what themes bring these responses out in you? Are you able to see it coming on? Can you interrupt it and choose a more mindful approach that aligns with how you’d like to show up as a leader?

If you’re unsatisfied with patterns of interactions—even if the other party is being unreasonable—what can you do to sustainably shift your responses (and potentially the dynamic between you)?

Automatic thought patterns are a common reason we get stuck in a particular way of viewing challenging situations at work. By understanding them and learning to take new action that interrupts the automatic response cycle, we can develop greater resilience and act in accordance with our values as a leader and human.

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What Are Automatic Thought Patterns?

Automatic thoughts are learned, nonconscious, instantaneous interpretations of a situation that immediately affect our processing of the situation and in turn, our associated mood and reactions. They are developed out of a pattern of perceiving certain themes as threats to our physical health and safety. These perceived conditions activate our “fight-or-flight” response.

A Harvard University Stress & Development Lab article notes that “[s]ometimes we may get stuck interpreting negative or distressing situations in a similar way without examining the evidence for that interpretation,” and notes several negative thinking traps.

How can you notice these thoughts and reactions, given their instantaneous nature? Have you ever noticed what themes bring them up in you? Have you thought about alternative ways you wished you had responded?

The following is a 4-step guide for noticing your thoughts and breaking the automatic cycle.

How to Break the Cycle and Choose Valued Alternatives

Step 1: Noticing the Body’s Warning Signs

One of the problems with automatic thoughts is that we often can’t think our way into awareness of them, or out of having them.

But we do have another indicator we can rely on: our body’s physical sensations.

When our “fight-or-flight” response is activated, so is a cascade of hormonal and physiological responses, causing an increase in heart rate, breathing, and senses that promote alertness. Noticing these physical cues can help create a biological awareness trigger to help us break the automatic cycle and challenge our thoughts and assumptions.

Step 2: Noting Your Feelings Without Judgment or Attempts to Resolve Them

After noticing our physical sensations, notice how you’re feeling emotionally. Ask yourself, “what message am I telling myself right now?”

This could reveal negative thought patterns that have created cognitive distortions of the situation.

See if you can name thematic patterns. For example, “every time I feel ________, my heart rate goes up and I get angry and defensive.” Common themes might include, “disrespected, discredited, written off, a sense of injustice,” etc.

When noticing emotional themes that trigger automatic thoughts, see if you can simply notice them without judging or resolving them. Putting ourselves down through judgment only reinforces the vicious cycle. If telling yourself “that’s ridiculous” or “stop feeling that way—it’s not valid” worked, we would have found relief long ago.

Noticing our feelings invites us into increased awareness, without setting off another cascading “fight-or-flight” response.

Step 3: Interrupting Automatic Behavioral Responses Through Present Moment Awareness

Once we’ve gained awareness of our triggers and automatic response patterns, we can interrupt our body’s “fight-or-flight” response by creating the opposite condition: grounding ourselves to the present moment, rather than the moment we perceive in our automatic thinking.

One way to become present is to anchor ourselves not to our mind, but to our breath. Our breath is always with us, and noticing it as well as slowing it down through taking deep, long inhalations and exhalations can help our body come back to the present moment, which in turn will lead our mind back to present as well.

Step 4: Choosing Values-Aligned Alternatives

Rather than trying to change or “fix” our thoughts, after slowing our bodies and thoughts down and returning to the present moment, we can consider what really matters to us.

What do you want for yourself—not in terms of what you think you “should” want, or what you perceive the world wanting for you, but what do you deeply value? Who is the person you want to be in this moment?

If you’ve never considered your values or values-based decision-making, there are many resources available online to help you evaluate what matters most to you and which of those values you wish to honor in your decision-making about the stressful issue.

The key is to ask yourself what you want for yourself, and to know that whatever decision you make in accordance with this (or not) is under your control. By bringing the element of choice into it, we’re continuing to interrupt the automatic cycle.

Paradoxically, Gaining Control is About Letting Go

We all want to have control in unpleasant situations. It’s a part of our survival instinct that’s been activated by our “fight-or-flight” response.

Paradoxically, the pathway to regulating our automatic responses is not through trying to control them to change, but rather through letting go of our need to fix the threatening situation in the moment.

By noticing our physical sensations in a heightened state of threat, noting the thematic patterns that bring out defensive feelings, grounding to the present moment, and choosing to embody the person we aspire to be, we can work to reprogram our automatic responses, and live in accordance with what we truly want for ourselves—beyond self-preservation and in alignment with our values.

How does this resonate for you? Feel free to post thoughts in the comments or on social media.

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