When you have negative thoughts and emotions floating around in your head more often than not, the choices you make going forward in life are going to be influenced.
After all, whatever is swimming around in your head at the time of a decision is what typically affects that decision. If you are carrying around old baggage, it’s time to drop those emotional bags off so that you can create a future without fears or worry.
Open Loops Keep You Guessing
In this article we’re going to discuss resolutions. But not the kind you might be thinking of. I want to talk about resolutions to close the past, not open the future. For example, when you create a New Year’s resolution, you are making a commitment to yourself to accomplish something – some sort of goal or task. But for this article, I want to talk about committing to resolving the past in what I call “closing the loop”.
A loop, in the way I am going to talk about it today, is anything that is on your mind that isn’t resolved. Whether that’s the anger you have toward a coworker, the loss you feel when someone dies or leaves you, the feeling of anticipation while you wait for the conclusion of your favorite movie, or even wondering what someone is going to do or say to you next time you see them.
These are all open loops of some sort. Unfinished business, like the cliffhanger at the end of a movie where the last scene ends, and you’re left there wondering what happened next.
Quite simply, whenever you have a thought that needs closure, you are in an open loop. I use the word, “loop” because a loop comes full circle and is a closed system of some sort.
For example, imagine you were on a roller coaster that stopped at the highest point, upside down, and you were stuck there waiting for maintenance to fix it. You’d probably get a little nervous, or feel anticipation wondering when it was going to start moving again.
And eventually, when it finally started again, the ride would come full circle, and you’d end up right where you started. The ride is a metaphor for any thought process that hasn’t come full circle so that you can find closure.
A real-world example of an open loop in my life is when I worked as a subcontractor on a computer project at a hospital. I spent over a year there installing and repairing computers, but not as a full-time employee. I was told several times that they wanted to hire me full-time but was never brought into an office and given the official word that I’d be hired.
Month after month went by, and there I was hanging upside down at the highest point of the roller coaster, just waiting for the word that they’d hire me on as a full-time employee. Being a contractor, I had no benefits and knew the job could end at any time so I had this open loop!
I thought, “Are they going to hire me? When will it be? Do they like my work? Wouldn’t they have hired me already if they liked my work?”
All these unanswered questions. Like the cliffhanger at the end of a movie, I was left wondering what’s going to happen next. I finally decided to close the loop and resolve this once and for all.
I called a high-level manager and asked him point blank: Will you be hiring me when my contract is up? His answer was, “Well, I don’t know. You’ll just want to keep an eye on the job boards. Be sure to jump on any new opportunities you see.”
I was shocked and suddenly felt dejected and defeated. All these months of anticipation and excitement about becoming a full-time employee shot down. I suppose being excited about possibly getting hired on full-time wasn’t what bothered me, it was the not-knowing part. I was never really sure if they were going to hire me or not so I always felt kind of stuck. I was in limbo waiting for that final piece of data that would close the loop.
The final piece of data was knowing that I was not guaranteed a job. My open loop was me constantly wondering if they were going to hire me. I closed the loop by learning that they weren’t.
Closing the loop frees your mind to move on to other things. Finding out the answer, even if you don’t want to hear it, closes the loop and lets you move on in life.
By the time you’re done reading this article, you’ll learn why it’s so important to close as many loops in your life as possible. If you don’t like the term “close the loop”, then just replace it with “Resolving unfinished business” or “getting closure” – anything that helps you remember that when you have something that’s on your mind, and you can’t seem to progress in life because of it, you might want to close that chapter of your life.
If you’re still a little confused, don’t worry, I’ll make sense of it soon enough. But just know that this article will help you get unstuck if you feel like you’re just not getting anywhere. Whether in your relationships, career, or anywhere in your life.
Learning to close the loops will clear the path so that you find a resolution and start creating the life you want instead of being held back by your own thought processes.
How to Stay Unhappy
What are the open loops in your life? What thoughts do you have that are prevalent and present seemingly all the time? Do you have any worries or concerns about how something will turn out? Do you wish you knew the answer to something so you could just move on in life?
These are questions that I ask myself quite a bit. Every once and a while, I’ll stop what I’m doing and ask myself what’s on my mind. I’ll explore any lingering emotions or thoughts that come up just to make sure I’m addressing any issues I need to deal with.
Back in 2008 I was completely broke. My concerns before 2008 were about how I was going to get more money. Then when I went broke, my concern about how I was going to eat became more prevalent. Then when I found a soup kitchen, my concern about where I was going to live became the most primary thought.
Each one of these concerns was what I considered an open loop because I didn’t have the answer. It was on my mind until the loop was closed with an answer. The answer to being poor was going broke. At least it was for me back then.
The answer to being hungry was finding a soup kitchen. And the answer to my homelessness was family. I was extremely fortunate to have the resources I needed even though the direction I was taking, moving towards poverty, was the opposite direction I wanted to go in my life.
But it was a closure of some sort. Going broke was closure. I no longer had to worry about money because I didn’t have any. I didn’t have any bills and I didn’t have any money. It was both liberating and limiting at the same time. But it was still closure.
I had been worried for a couple months about paying rent, but when we lost the condo I didn’t have to worry about that anymore. The closure came and I suddenly felt better. I did lots of worrying up to that point, but it was closure nonetheless. It doesn’t have to be this way for closure all the time (I could have made lots of money back then if I wanted to), but it just turned out that way for that time of my life.
It was unwanted and unwelcome, but it was still closing a chapter in my life, making the bad feelings I had up to that point go away. Now I had new bad feelings, that’s true, but I was able to experience the powerful impact of closing the open loops in my life.
What is open in your life that needs closure? Open issues cause anxiety and / or panic, stress, worry, fear, and a whole lot of other unpleasant feelings. Do you need to say something to someone but haven’t done so out of fear of their response?
Do you want to find something out but are worried about the results?
What is open that needs closed? Some people consistently worry and fret about issues that are never resolved. The issues are always on their mind, yet they would rather live with those unresolved issues instead of getting closure, usually because the fear of how it will close is greater than worrying about it. And that leads to our first point today:
Fear of closure keeps you unhappy.
I remember the breakup of my first major relationship. One night, she told me she was no longer in love with me. The next day, she moved out and it was over. In a period of 12 hours, my entire life changed. What I had known to be status quo for 13 years became a train wreck.
For her, she was happy. She had let me go long before the relationship ended, so leaving was a relief for her. But I wasn’t expecting it at all. I can look back and see all the warning signs now, but back then I was clueless. When she left, I felt lost and fell into a depression. I was pretty bad off.
She still had her stuff in the condo we were living in, so she had to return one day to get it. We coordinated the best time for her to do that. All the while, my only goal was getting her back into my life.
Our conversations were extremely hard. She was moving on – she gained closure. But I was stuck. I wanted her back because I believed that having her in my life was what created my happiness and fulfillment. The only thing that was on my mind was what I needed to do to get her back.
A week, a month, even several months later, I would try different things to earn her heart again. I was in agony, not only because of the breakup, but because of the hope I held onto that she would return, and I would be happy again.
What I failed to realize however was that the real issue that was causing me to be unhappy was not letting her go. Even though there was no sign that she ever wanted to return, I didn’t let go. All my energy went into holding on to the dream that she would come back and all would be well again.
This is because I did not want to face the awful truth that she would likely never return to me again. Ever. By continuing to hope for what seemed an impossibility, I became more and more depressed. I got numb and felt like I was in a void.
This got worse over the months, and soon life was simply pointless. I didn’t feel joy, but I also didn’t feel sadness. I just felt nothing.
And later, when I was finally ready to date again, I brought this person I became into my next relationship. I was a downer, and felt very little of anything, yet I believed that by bringing someone new into the picture, I would start to feel good again. But I was wrong.
I just brought her down too.
It took about a year and half more to finally recover from my depression because I started doing one thing: Closing my past. I was closing the loops that were open that were plaguing my mind. I had thoughts that simply wouldn’t go away. I was sad that my girlfriend never returned, but one of the main reasons it saddened me was because I never let her go.
I held onto the idea that she would return instead of facing my worst fear: That she didn’t want to, and never would.
I refused to accept that it was over, so I prolonged my own suffering eventually leading to my depression. This nearly crippled me because I didn’t want to do anything with my life.
I’m not here to talk about depression today, but it’s important to know that keeping issues like this open in your life can be dangerous. When your joy and happiness is still tied up in someone that is no longer in your life, you risk becoming miserable.
What I failed to do was grieve, as if she were dead and there would never be a chance that she would return. I failed to let her go, closing my past so that I could move on. I held onto her, hoping she would return so I could be happy again.
“Hoping”. That’s a word I almost eliminated from my vocabulary until I found good uses for it, but it can be the very thing that holds us back sometimes. Hoping can delay goodness from coming into your life. Hoping can also be motivating and inspirational, so that you do move forward with things. It all depends on how you use it.
For me, “hoping” my girlfriend would return was keeping me down. Hoping she would walk in and say, “I’m so sorry, I should never have left” was something that might have lasted years had I really stuck to my guns.
Imagine that, you hope for years on something you know deep down will never happen. I know some of you might have that kind of hope, and if it inspires and motivates you to move forward and find some fulfillment, or meaning, then let it continue to benefit you. As long as you are moving forward.
But if you’re hoping for things to change that will likely never change, and by staying in this “hoping” state, you are always unhappy, then seek closure of some sort.
For me, I finally accepted that she would never return. This acceptance was one of the hardest steps to take, because that meant I had to believe it was true. And, if that was true, I might never be happy again. It would create a huge hole in my heart, and I would feel unloved and unwanted.
There were a lot of realizations that took place when I accepted that reality. I feared closing off this chapter of my life, and it got me depressed. But what I didn’t expect is what happened about 9 years later, when I had to go through the same thing all over again.
Lingering Emotions Don’t Go Away On Their Own
My next point has to do with another breakup I went through, and that was when my wife of 4 and a half years wanted to get out of the relationship. This was another shock I was unprepared for because I truly believed that marriage was forever, and that you work through all the problems together, if possible.
In her case, that was not possible, so she left. And there I was, confused and heartbroken once again. But something was different this time. I remember what I learned about closure and knew that I absolutely did not want to become depressed again. Of course, I was a different person by this time, I had learned so much about myself and had gone through a lot of personal growth by that point.
But it’s still hard to prepare for what comes at you in life. When she made the decision to leave, I took a few days to grieve and reflect on what happened. Then within the week, even though I was still grieving, I made the decision to go down to the courthouse to find out what it would take to get a divorce. I filled everything out and sent her the paperwork.
She was surprised I moved so quickly to get the divorce, but I knew that if I didn’t accept what was happening, I would not be able to get over this, just like in my last relationship, which leads me to my next point:
Closure can be painful, but lingering negative emotions are worse.
This realization came pretty quickly after she left me. Within a month, I had packed up my truck, moved out of the condo, and drove 3100 miles to live on the east coast. After she told me she was absolutely sure of her decision to leave, I created the closure as soon as possible.
Within a month and a half the divorce was final, and I was living in an entirely different time zone. Some friends and family wondered why and how the divorce happened so quickly – after all, these things usually stretch for months or years! I told them, she was sure, so I wanted to get on with my life and did what I had to do to start anew.
Of course, it was painful. Of course, I pleaded with her to stay and work things out, letting her know I’d do what it took to work on my issues. But her mind was made up, and I chose to accept that the worst-case scenario just happened, and there was nothing more I could do.
This acceptance allowed me to take action. It was still painful because I didn’t want it to end, but I knew that I had to get this process moving to avoid prolonging the way I felt being tied to someone who didn’t want to be married to me.
By the time I reached New Hampshire, she had reached out a few times and wanted to be friends. This was too hard for me, and every time we communicated, I kept feeling sad and really just either wanted to be married again, or not communicate at all.
I finally wrote her an email, letting her know I was letting her go. This was hard to write, and I ended up rewriting it twice, but it was liberating. This was my closure. I was sad and hurt up to that point, but almost immediately after coming to terms with the reality that she didn’t want to come back and that I would have to let her go, I was able to find closure.
One of the most important lessons from my last relationship was the breakup. Learning to come to terms and accept the hard truth that the person I loved didn’t want me anymore, I was free. Free to feel anything I wanted, free to do anything I wanted, and especially free to move on with my life. The thing is, I was also free while in the relationship, but just in a different way.
I just mean I was free because I had let her go. I was free to make important decisions about how I wanted to feel from that point on. Did I want to hang on to something that would never pan out? Or, did I want to move forward with my life even though it was painful to go through. I could stay hopeful, or I could move on and just deal with things as they came.
Hoping for something you know will never happen is an exercise in futility and will keep you in a rut.
That’s the hardest part for people is accepting that closure because it might mean giving up hope of what could be. But sometimes hope holds you back from being happy. And that’s an important distinction of when hope is helpful or not. When you’re in a situation that feels hopeless, yet you keep hoping and holding on to things that just aren’t working out for you, you create an unhappy, unhealthy you.
Yes, closure can be painful, but negative lingering emotions are worse. They wear you down, consistently causing you to be unhappy, and are always there the next day. If you have something in your life that is still open, some open loop that causes you worry or fear of some sort, find a way to close it or accept it so that you can move on.
I realize there are some issues that sometimes you don’t know how to come to closure with. Things happen that linger in your mind, and you just can’t seem to move on, because you simply don’t know how to get past the reality of the situation.
Sometimes you don’t even know what the reality is. Some things are a mystery and no one knows what’s going to happen. This is truly when worry and anxiety can step in and take over.
I don’t know if there’s a good answer to something like this, because everyone has different ways of coping and dealing with the hard stuff. Resolve is not so easy to come by and closure seems impossible.
Let’s finish off this section with some comments on the really hardcore issues that seem like there’ll never be closure on. Maybe you can at least come to some sort of middle ground when you’re in a place like this.
What if what you have floating around in your head can’t be closed? What if something happened in your past, even recently, that you just can’t seem to get out of your head?
Well, I’ll tell you a few of the things that I do to process and release lingering thoughts and emotions. The first thing that I do is ask myself, “What’s wrong?”
By doing this, I have something to work with. If my answer is an emotion, I then ask, “What’s making me feel that way?” If it’s not an emotion, I bring it back to what emotion I am feeling.
Instead of listing the steps, let me give you an example. A few weeks ago, I was driving home and I felt this sadness come over me. Here’s the internal dialogue I had:
“I don’t know.”
“Well, how do you feel?”
“I feel sad”
“Why do you feel sad?”
“I don’t know. I can’t think of anything.”
“Alright, aside from this sadness you feel, do you feel anything else?”
“Hmm, no. I’m just sad.”
“Okay, then if you had the time, energy, power and all the resources you needed to do something about it right now, what would you do?”
“I would go to sleep right now. I’m just so tired.”
That’s when the light bulb came on. I was sad because I was tired. It may seem silly, but it turned out that was the precise reason, because as soon as I thought about what I could do to change how I felt, going to sleep, I suddenly felt better. I “tried it on” so to speak. I tried out the experience of going to sleep in my mind, then felt better.
I felt better, but I also realized I still needed sleep so when I got home, that’s what I did: I went to sleep. Then I did feel better.
I’ll outline the steps I went through in a moment, but let me give you another example first, as all situations will certainly be different, and may involve changing or adding questions. Here’s the next one:
“Why do you feel sad?”
“Because I have so much to do and not enough time to do it.”
“What about that makes you feel sad?”
“I don’t have enough time to get things done. It’s frustrating and no one understands.”
“If you had the time, energy, power and the all the resources you needed to do something about it right now, what would you do?”
“I would get more time… no wait, not more time. I think what I’d do is take a much needed break. I like what I do, I just don’t have enough time to do it. I think I just want a break so that I can come back refreshed.”
I’m really simplifying things here, but I wanted to convey that what you think is the problem isn’t always the problem. In the second example, I thought I just needed more time to get things done. I focused all my energy on not having enough time. After some simple questions, it turned out that it wasn’t more time I needed, it was a break.
‘Not having enough time to get things done’ wasn’t the issue, it was the lack of balance between work and rest. Again, these are just two scenarios and each one will certainly be different. However, the starting point helps you drill down to the root of the issue. I’ll talk about the drill down method in a second, but first let me give you the questions to ask yourself the next time you’re feeling any negative emotion:
- “What’s wrong?” Ask as if you were sitting across from yourself like your own therapist. Try to get to an emotion. If you don’t get an emotion as a response, then ask: How do you feel about that?
- When you get an emotion, ask: “Why do you feel that way?”
If you feel angry, you can ask: “Why do I feel angry?”
This will give you all the reasons, and maybe some excuses for the cause of your anger. But we break it down a little in the next question, which is…
- “What about that makes you feel that way?”
Now you’re asking yourself to be more specific. You’re looking for what you believe to be the specific cause of your negative emotion.
Remember to think about it from your own perspective and how it personally affects you. Don’t come up with answers like, “Well, anyone would feel that way in this situation” or “Of course you’d feel that way, no one would like that.”
These statements are not from your own personal experience, they are broad generalizations. Be specific like: “When Sam threw away my letter, I felt like he ripped out my heart!”
- Here’s the golden question. Even if you skip the first three, make sure you ask this one specifically in this way, “If you had the time, energy, power and the all the resources you needed to do something about it right now, what would you do?”
When you word it to yourself this way, or in a way that empowers you, try it on. In other words, imagine what it would be like if you actually had all the time, energy, power and resources you needed to do something about it, what would you do? And especially, how would that make you feel?
By “trying it on” as I like to call it, you are putting yourself in a resourceful state. In other words, instead of being down or upset where it’s a challenge to find a solution, you are up and mindful of what you can accomplish. In this resourceful state, you bring new ideas to the table.
You open your mind to possibility instead of keeping it closed in negativity.
Try this questioning on yourself, maybe you’ll uncover something at the root of your challenges that will help you think in a new direction. In fact, try to come up with answers that you haven’t come up with before. When I thought I was sad for a different reason, it turned out that all I needed was sleep.
Of course, it won’t always be that easy, but it’s the first step in closing the past, whatever that past is. We’re talking about closing loops today, and they won’t always be easy to close. But the first step is better than no step.
Speaking of steps, let’s talk about drilling down to the worst-case scenario. It’s very close to what we already discussed, but it gets very specific and brings out the worst possible scenario step by step. This one really grabs at the roots and is designed to help you process how bad it can get.
Why would you want to do that? Because knowing how bad it can get actually minimizes all the bad stuff before it. If it can get worse, then maybe you are not so bad off as you think. If you take it to the extreme, then everything before the extreme isn’t as bad as it can get!
If this is confusing, let’s go through the example to give you an idea of what I mean:
Start by asking yourself, “What’s wrong?” (Recognize this first step?)
“I don’t know. I’m kind of sad.”
“What’s causing your sadness?”
“I’m not sure. I just feel sad. Maybe because I’m worried about losing my job.”
“How does losing your job make you feel sad?”
“What do you mean? No one wants to lose their job.” (does this sound like I’m talking about my own experience? Notice I’m not using an “I” statement to reflect how I feel).
“Yeah, but how does you losing your job make you feel sad?”
“If I lose my job, I’ll have no money! I need to pay rent and buy food and take care of my family.”
“Okay, let’s pick the most important item in that list. What’s more important, having no money, paying rent, buying food, or taking care of your family?”
“Well, I need to eat, but I also need to pay rent. But, when it comes down to it, taking care of my family is number one above everything. If I’m taking care of my family, then that means I am providing food and shelter for them too.”
“Okay, good. So how is it a problem if you can’t take care of your family?”
“What? Why would you ask that? That’s a stupid question!” (I realize I’m talking to myself in this example, but there’s a reason you want to know how something is a problem, even if it’s obvious that you know what you should do in a certain situation. Let’s continue.)
“If you couldn’t take care of your family, how is that bad?”
“It’s bad because it means my family could suffer! I don’t want them to suffer.”
(Now here’s where it may seem harsh, but there’s a reason we’re going in this direction. Bear with me…)
“How is it bad that they suffer? How is that a problem?”
(At this point, you might be thinking these are terrible questions. But they are designed to help you think about how bad it can get. We’re almost done).
“It’s bad because I love them and don’t want them to suffer. And if they suffer, I have failed as a parent and husband. I am a loser.”
Now I’ll stop there because what is happening is that we have drilled down to a worst-case scenario. It could get worse, but you can tell where I’m going with this. But why would I ask such obvious questions? I mean, everyone knows that they have to take care of their family, right?
What I’m doing is helping myself, or whomever I’m asking these questions to, so that I can understand why exactly I feel the way I do. My first answer had to do with losing my job and not being able to support my family. But my thought process never considered why or how that was a problem.
It seems obvious why it’s a problem at first, but my mind never went the extra step to consider what is bad about that situation. I just created a label of “This is bad” around losing my job and never drilled down to the exact causes of why it’s bad.
When you do this, when you drill down into the causes or reasons that you are upset in any way, you breakdown the flow of your thought process.
Have you ever seen a flowchart? It starts with a circle or a square, then has a line that goes to the next square, then a line that goes to the next one? It’s a simple process that flows in either one direction or another at every step. Like, the first square could represent when you wake up for the day, “Wake Up”. The line then goes to two more squares. One says, “Go back to sleep” and the other one says, “Get out of bed.”
You follow a path of choices throughout the day that lead to how you think and behave, and where you live, and where you work, and how you feel. But many of us don’t stop and think that our negative emotions actually have a flowchart like this too.
When we feel bad, it is simply because we are already at the final destination of that flowchart which leads us to that bad feeling. That very last process block that says: It’s time to feel bad.
But we can work backwards through the flow of decisions and events that lead us to the beginning, or the root cause.
We tend to skip the entire process though and just assume that the root cause is one thing when it’s really another.
Alright, before I confuse you, let me just give you the drill down questions so you can try it on your own issues. Here they are:
- “What’s wrong?” This is always a great first question. It’s direct. Even if you know what’s wrong, ask anyways. Remember, you’re looking for an emotion.
- “What’s causing this feeling?”
- “How does that make you feel bad?” Or, “How does that make you feel upset?” Or whatever the emotion is. Even if the answer is obvious, pretend you really don’t know the answer, like a child would ask an adult. For example, “How does losing your job make you feel sad?” At this point, you may come up with several answers.
- If you come up with several answers, ask, “What’s the most important item on that list?”
- Now ask about that most important thing, “How is not having that a problem? If you can’t do that, how is that bad?” In the example I used earlier, it turned out that taking care of my family was most important so I asked, “How is not being able to take care of your family a problem?”
You may get some resistance from yourself here. Like, “What do you mean? What a stupid question! Of course it’s a problem.” But just pretend you are a child asking these questions. You really wouldn’t know the answers if you were a child so answer like you were talking to another version of yourself that’s a child.
- Ask again, “How is that bad?” or “How is that a problem?” This is something you can ask yourself over and over again as you drill down. You may know the answers right away, but keep asking until the answers get harder and harder. When you do this, you will usually uncover some hidden thoughts and emotions, usually fears of some sort, that were unavailable to you before.
For example, “How is not having money bad?”
“Well, if I don’t have money, I can’t pay my rent!”
“How is not paying your rent bad?”
“Well if I can’t pay my rent, I won’t have any shelter!”
“How is not having shelter bad?”
“If I don’t have shelter, I would be cold and live in the street.”
“How is living in the street bad?”
And on and on. Again, these may seem like ridiculous questions, but I’m willing to bet you don’t explore the problems in your life like this. But when you do it this way, you’ll find some deep-rooted stuff that will help you heal and grow a lot faster.
By drilling down to the worst-case scenario, you make everything up to that point not so bad after all. If it’s bad to have no money, but worse to not feed your family, then having no money doesn’t seem so bad anymore, even though they are related in some way, sometimes.
Does that make sense? How bad it can get makes how bad it’s been not so bad. It’s still no fun, I’m sure, but being in a place that’s not as bad as it could be helps you open your mind to new ideas and new ways to get beyond old thought processes. The answers may not come right away, but the clarity you develop by going through these exercises helps you become more resourceful and productive.
Believe me, I spent many years being unproductive because I just wallowed in how bad I felt. I just didn’t know about this process back then. Once I understood it however, I was able to discover things about myself that changed my perspective and my approach.
Does it work on everything? No. But it’s a start, and it may just give you a new direction for yourself.
Now, I promised you a few processes to help release negative thoughts and emotions, so I want to “close” this section with a final process called a “pattern interrupt”.
Getting Out of the Rut of Repetition
The brain loves patterns. As we learn new things, we figure out a pattern so we can repeat those things. Once you learn how to ride a bike, the body and brain remember what to do next time. A pattern is formed so you don’t have to relearn most things from scratch.
Imagine if you had to relearn how to balance on a bike every time you got on one? You’d never progress and always feel like a beginner. This is why our brain is so amazing, because it remembers. Our body memory works this way too. It’s like our body knows what to do before we even think about doing it.
If you play a musical instrument, you know this is true, or even if you type. Your hands know where to go on the keyboard before you think about it.
Well, negative thoughts and emotions tend to work that way too. Remember I mentioned the flowchart, and how one choice or behavior leads to the next one and the next? It’s this pattern that leads us to the same feelings over and over again. It’s that well-traveled road. Our brain knows the road so well, it doesn’t stop to ask for directions.
Open loops are like that, they can replay over and over again, never ending, always taking us to that bad thought or feeling inside.
Well, there’s a way to interrupt the flowchart and detour the thought processes into a new direction, and that’s called a pattern interrupt.
A pattern interrupt is when the brain and body’s pattern is disrupted, causing you to have to regain your ground and learn a new way to get back on track. For example, if you disarm your car with a remote every day, but one day you press the button and it opens your trunk and makes the headlights blink, you would go into a state of confusion.
The pattern you were used to was interrupted and replaced with something new, something unexpected. This is a pattern interruption – when what you are used to changes unexpectedly.
The good thing about this is that any pattern can be interrupted, even the ones that make you feel bad.
Pattern interrupts work well with depression and anxiety, and other feelings and emotions that are not so pleasant. For example, if you feel anxious about getting on an elevator, then do something you’ve never done before just as you are getting on one. Do something you might be a tad unfamiliar or uncomfortable with, like taking your shoes off or calling someone you haven’t talked to in years to catch up as you’re getting on the elevator.
You can even use a yo-yo or purposefully go only one floor up, then take the stairs to the next floor, then use the elevator again. There are all kinds of things you can do to interrupt the moment you’re fearful or anxious. It’s actually more helpful for someone else to interrupt your pattern so that you don’t know what’s coming. But most of the time, we are facing our inner fears alone, so it’s handy to have this tool in your tool belt.
For depression, I recommend doing things that you simply wouldn’t do in order to surprise the mind. This is what it’s all about, surprising the mind, or what I call, “Shocking the system”. When you shock your nervous system, you interrupt the patterns it’s used to.
For example, what I like to do to shock my system whenever I’m feeling upset is to think about the last thing I want to do and do it. Not all the time, but I’ll go through my mind and think about what I don’t want to do at this moment, and I’ll go ahead and do it.
When we’re in upset, we usually want to keep and own that upset. We want to wallow in it or feel like we’re right so we stay upset. But if a fire alarm goes off, that can interrupt our pattern and suddenly we feel differently.
This is what we can recreate in our own lives. I don’t recommend setting off a fire alarm, but even yesterday it was about 20 degrees out and I decided to talk a walk just to interrupt my pattern. Now, I wasn’t particularly upset, but I was tired. And I knew that I would get more tired if I just sat around, so I took a walk. That shocked my system.
Do you think a cold shower would shake you from upset? How about that ice challenge everyone is doing? What about looking at those exotic spiders at the pet store?
There are plenty of pattern interrupts in the world, and you’ll want to find one that works for you.
Like that first box in the flowchart analogy I used, imagine that’s the first step to a pattern. Let’s say your pattern is that you get scared every time you’re about to step on an elevator.
This is your opportunity to interrupt the pattern before you get on the elevator. Or, even when you’re already on it. If you interrupt your pattern several times over several days, the pattern changes and eventually, you won’t have to worry about it being a problem anymore.
This is a real phenomenon. If you alter a pattern enough times, it’s like creating a new groove in a record, and the needle has to follow it.
I like what Charlie Hoehn said in my episode about anxiety. He said he plays when he feels anxious. He said he got over his anxiety by throwing a ball or a Frisbee whenever he felt anxious. He became active and engaged his body to do other things while he was anxious, and soon he no longer had to deal with the panic attacks.
Charlie found his pattern interrupt – movement. By moving his body and keeping his mind engaged in other activities while he was anxious, it curbed his anxiety and eventually got rid of it. He interrupted the pattern of anxiety over and over again until it didn’t know how to return.
The flow of thought processes that led to the outcome of anxiety got scrambled, and anxiety didn’t know how to come back the way it always did.
What are some pattern interrupts that you can do in your life to surprise your mind or shock your system? Tony Robbins tells the story of spraying water at a woman who got upset every time she talked about a particular subject.
As she would tell her story to him, he’d spray water on her. She would stop, and he would apologize then laugh, then told her to continue. She would start her story again, then as she got upset, he sprayed her again. She again stopped, and the cycle would continue – he would keep spraying her with water every time she started to get upset. What happened though is that soon she was unable to get upset anymore.
When she would tell her story, she’d start to laugh. Her pattern was interrupted. Her flow was scrambled. She was so used to telling that story the same way with the same emotions every time that when that pattern got confused, she forgot how to feel bad about it.
That’s fascinating to me. These unconscious behaviors are simply patterns that lead to feeling good or feeling bad. When you find what interrupts those patterns, you lose connection to the emotions. For bad emotions, that’s a great thing! But it works for good emotions too so you have to be careful.
For example, if you love to come home to a clean house every day and it makes you feel good to see everything in its place, your pattern is set that when you come home, you feel good. If however, you started coming home and the house was messy every time, you might start to be upset. Soon the pattern would be every time you come home, you’d feel bad – even when there was no mess!
This happens in relationships and all kinds of situations too. Whenever a pattern is interrupted, the end resultant emotions change or disconnect.
What pattern interrupts can you think of?
- Changing scenery?
- Working from a different office?
- Carrying around a rubber band to snap your wrist?
How about helping others interrupt their patterns? If someone comes home grumpy, maybe you can change their day by running a bath or making dinner.
When it comes to closing the past to open the future, everything we talked about today is a step in that direction. I want you to close out those old negative lingering thoughts and emotions so that you can create a new future for yourself. Remember, open loops feel like unfinished business. When you have these cliffhangers inside of you, they keep rearing their ugly heads wanting to be resolved.
When you close the loops on all your unresolved negative emotions, you clear the path to new territory. You open yourself up to new ideas and take actions you haven’t taken before. Like I talk about in my book, you actually do clear the path to happiness because all the obstacles that prevented you from becoming happy are removed.
Open loops are those obstacles. Unfinished business needs to be finished or resolved. If you have to talk to someone to finish something, get it over with. If you need to take action but are procrastinating, just do it now. Everything you delay, delays your success, fulfillment and happiness.
Isn’t it time to close the past to move into tomorrow with a new perspective? You can do this, I know you can.
Closing the Loop Reveals a New Path
Even though I never got hired on full time at the hospital, I was so grateful to close the loop. I was so happy and relieved to have the information I needed to move forward. I didn’t like the truth that they weren’t looking to hire me on, but I really appreciated knowing the truth.
Just knowing something sets you free, even if it’s painful to hear. You are free to move on in any way that works for you. Having that missing piece of information brings closure. Knowing the hospital wasn’t going to hire me gave me the incentive to go off in a completely different direction in my life.
The months of not knowing if I’d get hired or not delayed my plans for what I am doing now. I could have started my podcast months before I did, but because I never took the bold step to just find out if they were going to hire me or not, I stayed in limbo.
Sure, I was still working and still got paid for what I was doing, but thinking about how I could have started all of this much sooner would have been a smarter decision, and would have helped me learn faster about whether I was going to be hired on or not.
Keeping that loop open delayed me from moving forward with what I really wanted to do, even though at the time I didn’t realize I wanted to do anything else. But once I knew I’d no longer be there, the fuse was lit and I was ready to take off like a rocket.
Funny how resolving something lets you move forward no matter what. Do you think that if you listed everything that is an open loop in your life, everything that you feel bad about when it comes to mind, and then took steps to resolve or close those issues that your life would improve?
I can almost guarantee there is no question of that at all.
“Close the loop” is really just a funny way to say “Resolve your past.” Resolutions come to people every new year, but resolving your past should be practiced all the time. Things sneak up on you, I realize. But what is one thing you can resolve that would make your life a little easier right now?
I really like Dave Ramsey, the financial guy on the radio who talks about his “Debt Snowball” process. It’s where you pay off your lowest debt first, then the money you save after you pay off that debt goes into the next higher debt. And before you know it, the snowball is huge and rolling down the hill gaining speed and soon you’re out of debt.
Negative emotions can work that way too. Sometimes we have a small thing that bothers us that we are afraid to do, but once we do it, it opens the door for us to do the next big thing, then the next. It’s stepping out of our comfort zone in baby steps but it works.
Of course bold steps in a different direction work too but I guess it all depends on how fast you want to change your life. I’m not saying which one you should do but either way there is a way, so you win no matter what.