Your palms are sweaty. Your cheeks sting. There’s a ringing in your ears, and you might cry. Out of anger. Out of fear. Out of vexation. It doesn’t matter which because you’re not going to. You’re going to hold it together. You can do stoic when your back is up against the wall. When the boss gives you a dressing down in front of the whole committee. Or when your co-worker takes the credit for your idea the third time this month. You may even paste a smile on your face, as horrible as that’ll feel!
But that’s not how it has to be when you are confronted by a sticky situation at work. Or with your spouse, or that black-clad teenager in front of the fridge, drinking milk straight from the carton. There is help! A simple visualization that will effectively neutralize the threat. Because that’s what sends sweat to your palms, sets you heart beating and raises a blush on your face. To protect you, your inner threat department kicks into high gear when things go south.
Yet none of it is necessary. You’re simply in the grip of a distress pattern. Something your body’s sympathetic nervous system and your mind—specifically, your ego—have cooked up to help you cope. Someone else may react completely differently than you. They may act cool and collected and plot a nasty revenge. Or they may grow apathetic, or quit. But not you. Not with this tool in your back pocket. All you need to control the situation is this one mental exercise.
Here is what you do: Pick the day of the week, the time of day when you’re most able to relax (if need be, sit in your car). Sit and breathe quietly for a few moments. Then begin to visualize a fight scene that you’re observing from a ways off. Is it two knights galloping at each other, lances raised? A fist fight? Neighbors arguing over a fence? Whatever you come up with will work as long as it’s a fight. You don’t need to make up words but let it get a little heated to give it juice. Some shouting, raised fists, crossed arms, some dirt being kicked up in some eyes. This sets the scene for developing a script, so to speak, a conjuring that, when called up, will change how you feel and, therefore, how you react in a given situation. The purpose of the fight scene is to get you in touch with the particulars of how how you feel threatened, nervous or uncomfortable and what thoughts and feelings that, if you had them, would make the difference and let you stay grounded.
Now, that you have the scene to work off and are imagine watching it from a distance, imagine drawing nearer until you start to feel a uncomfortable. You be the judge of how uncomfortable. Ah. Very good. Just as you notice this discomfort, ask yourself, "What would make me feel safe?" and make that part of your script. Would you rather watch from the height of a tower, imagine a tower you beam up to? From behind a wall? Visualize a wall that does your bidding. From beneath an invisibility cloak? Let your imagination lead you. Let your innate desire inform you of what is right for you because what will make you feel comfortable will depend on your personality and life experience. Keep shifting where you are relative to the fight until you feel safe and in control. Whatever this place is, make it vivid. Then make a mental note because this is the first part of your script, what I call the Override Pattern because it overrides the behavioral pattern that you already have (shutting down, getting angry, apologetic, etc.).
If you think that’s a little weird, think about the scripts you already have. Don’t you imagine what you’ll say, what they’ll say? Don’t you have pretty predictable responses to certain situations. I, for example, tend to feel crushed when I’m criticized. Not very useful when it comes to using feedback to make my classes and services ever more effective. We all have our patterns or scripts. But those patterns are more like intrusive thoughts induced by stress. What I am suggesting is that you create an Override Pattern with intentionality. That you deploy it intentionally. But only after you’ve gotten it down cold!
And—this is important—you need a nice safe spot to develop your new Pattern because how you feel at the time you make it up will become a part of it. This is the case because your brain encodes memories of everything—words, visuals, actions, physical sensations, but especially emotional states; they are what gives your memories their juice. So it is essential that you are feeling good as you weave your story. This good feeling will become as important a part of it as the action that takes place which we'll talk about in a moment. Once you have the override, when your better half acts like a lesser half, or the customer service representative stonewalls, you'll no longer go into overdrive and yank up that blood pressure. Instead, you retain agency over your own experience. You could say, you cause your own experience by using your Pattern Override.
But it has to be solid, so practice visualizing it many times before you let it see action.
Now that you've created a safe space you need one more thing—something to neutralize the threat. I call it the antidote. For example, in my override pattern, I send down from my tower a dense cloud that envelopes the fighters. Neither can see the other so none of their punches land. And if that isn’t enough, I send roses down and make them circle around their heads, emitting such intoxicating fragrance that the fighting parties stumble about, stupefied. And if I still feel reactive, I envision heavy drops of rain falling on them, making them soggy so they fold down to the ground like paper dolls. Really, I hardly ever need to go there. This vision suits my character. I have an aggressive streak by nature but I believe in peace with all my heart so it wouldn’t do to imagine missiles or exploding heads. But that’s just me.
Once you start developing your pattern in your head, it will come to you what will suit. Don’t censor yourself, otherwise the imagery won’t be potent. And potency is an essential feature of this spell. It has to have depth and be true to you to elicit the empowering feelings that crowd out the ones you usually have. It’s a little like the idea of imagining everyone naked. Only much better because it is tailor-made to specifically help you handle conflict.
The last thing you need to know is that it will take about twenty-one days to solidify this spell (I prefer the term over the word “weapon”). That’s how human brains are built. It takes roughly that long to establish a neural network, which is what this is. The more vividly you imagine the scene: where you are that has you feeling safe, and the antidote you deploy, the more seamlessly it will replace the behavioral pattern—and its attendant feelings—that usually comes into play when you are confronted with conflict or other scary or uncomfortable situations.
Twenty-one days is quite the commitment. But it’s a twenty-one-day investment in yourself that will serve you a lifetime. Will you freak out, go numb, sputter, fall silent, be untrue to yourself, or say something you’ll regret, or worse, not say something and regret that? Or will you use your Pattern Overrider and remain calm, cool and collected. With just a hint of a smile playing on your lips that the other person isn’t sure they imagined or not. But this you can be sure of: they won’t imagine that they got the better of you, because they won’t. You’re now that powerful.
A word to those who don't visualize easily. You can create this as a spoken script. Write it all down. Read it back to yourself once a day for two weeks. Then summarize it in two or three sentences and memorize those sentences for a week. Instead of an Override Pattern, you'll have an Override Mantra.
Henry leads trainings and works with individuals, using various modalities to help them create the amazing lives that are truly possible for everyone. The Pattern Overrider and Pattern Mantra are tools from Wise Peer, Peer-Counseling, a 12-week trauma healing and peer-counseling training.