Becoming free of old response patterns

Sometimes it’s nice to be free of old, delusional response patterns.  Photo by Sergei Gavrilov on Unsplash

No one can stop you travelling back in time.  Your mind is built for it.  If a present situation reminds you of a past one, then your mind has a well-developed ability to re-enter the old circumstance, and respond accordingly.

Even when a new situation is quite different, it is the reminding that counts.  If it reminds you, then you may find yourself responding in old, and sometime negative, ways, to an event that doesn’t need that reaction.


Significant change events are particularly prone to this.  If you find yourself moving house in the present, and your past memories of moving house are not pleasant, then you may be stuck with a somewhat phobic reaction.  If the move you are recalling was forced upon you, then, even if the present move has more voluntary aspects, you may leap back into the feeling of loss of control.


In the same way, if you find yourself negotiating intimacy in present relationships, and your past memories of intimacy are not pleasant, then, again, you may have a strangely phobic response.  Others may be a bit confused by your response.  But it is not really them you are responding to: it is the echo of the past in the present situation.


Why don’t our brains treat every single situation as brand new?

One reason is that it would use up too much of our computing power to recalculate all the parameters every time something new happens.  Therefore, to save thinking capacity, we fall back on old, fairly instinctive patterns of response which are not well thought through, but have some reliability.

We become a bit like the voter who says ‘I’ve always voted this way,’ and thinks no further.  Or like the animal that has only a small repertoire of built-in responses.

The principle is often called ‘cognitive economy’.


The problem with old response patterns, is that, if we overuse them, we fail to develop our skills in any new ways.

Two fairly standard, old, repeated response patterns are:

  • The controller: someone who has found life untrustworthy in the past, and thus finds it hard to trust others in the present.  The response to a crisis may be to pull all control back to themselves, becoming angry if anyone intervenes.
  • The collapser: someone who has found life overwhelming in the past, and thus has less trust in their ability to cope in the present.  The response to a crisis may be a huge temptation to collapse suddenly, throwing themselves at others’ mercy.
These two patterns, although polar opposites, can develop as terrible twins in the same person.


Control and collapse can closely follow one another in sequence.  Maybe you have a friend who does this, or you notice this in yourself.  When a difficulty is experienced, first perhaps they grab the reins, take control, and start barking orders.  If the response from the outside world is not to their liking, then they may quickly flip into collapse mode, falling back and becoming incapacitated.

This control-collapse sequence has a good deal of cognitive economy to it.  It is very similar to a fight-then-flight response programmed into some animals.

But in current human society, it may not serve the individual very well, especially when overused.  The control phase isolates the individual, making others run away and not want to cooperate.  And then the collapse phase puts further pressure on others, who experience the same person who shouted at them yesterday, now approaching them for comfort.  Other people want to say ‘Do you remember how bossy you were before?  And now you want comfort?’


One significant use of meditation, is to try to train the mind to be less a victim of these standardised, somewhat delusional responses.  We are trying to calm our mind, and let it understand clearly that the world is neither to be overcontrolled, nor overly feared.

Meditation trains the mind at peace, so that when difficulties come, it is better prepared.


Maybe spend a little time watching yourself and your standard responses to difficult situations.  Are there any responses which you suspect don’t work for you?

Are you a controller, a collapser, or both?  Do you go round and round these two response patterns in a cycle?

Training the mind can take years, but a good start is to catch yourself becoming impatient, observe your typical response, and relax it a bit.  If you find yourself leaping in to control a situation, relax a bit.  If you find yourself about to collapse in a situation, relax a bit.  You are not aiming to transform overnight.  The urges will still be there.  But, little by little, you are gaining a bit of self-mastery, and consequently some peace.



Our minds are built to develop standardised reponses, based on our memories of the past.

Sometimes they are not very appropriate, but at least they are easy, and avoid us having to recompute our responses every time.

Two typical ‘old’ response patterns are control and collapse.  Control involves leaping in to a situation in a bossy way, for fear of loss of control.  Collapse involves sudden disintegration and withdrawal.  Many people are subject to a control-collapse cycle, where they flip unpredictably between the temptation to over-control situations, and the temptation towards overwhelmed withdrawal.

You can’t change this overnight.  But, using meditation and reflection, you can moderate your response a little each time, until you can relax your controlling side, and your collapsing side, at will, defusing the tensions.

I’m not saying it’s easy.  But, if you can learn it, it can certainly make life easier, for you and others.