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Pattern Interrupt: Redirect Your Thoughts In An Instant

A pattern interrupt involves breaking an individual’s habitual thought or behavioral pattern so as to shake it up.

Sometimes, an existing pattern of behavior will have a particularly “deep groove” and will be solidly conditioned in someone’s system. This can create surprising resistance and interference to the change process.

Instead of tackling this resistance head on, you can use a pattern interrupt to “swipe the legs” of the resistance.

Here’s a simple way to understand a pattern interrupt.

You’re driving to work in the morning. If you’re like me, you always take the same route from home to your office. We’re like monkeys: totally conditioned to repeat tasks in the same way, every time.

The cool thing about this is how economical it is. You don’t really have to think. You put yourself on auto-pilot, head off to Bermuda in your mind, and your unconscious mind takes care of everything for you.

And so you’re cruising along on the way, daydreaming of sun and waves, and snapping your fingers to call the waiter who instantly brings you a…


A fallen tree on the road is an example of a pattern interrupt.Right in front of you, a giant tree collapses onto the road, completely obstructing your path. You feel yourself slamming on the brakes and the car comes to a screeching halt as the tires try to grasp to the road.

And for a few minutes, you have absolutely no clue as to what happened or what you’re doing.

Now, your unconscious doesn’t know how to respond. It’s awaiting instructions either from your conscious mind or from someone who’s conscious.

A classic example of a pattern interrupt

Here’s a classic example of a pattern interrupt as described by Milton Erickson in his book Advanced Techniques on Hypnosis and Therapy (1967)

One of the physicians present (at a lecture on hypnosis) was most interested in learning hypnosis, listened attentively during the lecture, but in the social hour preceding the lecture, he had repeatedly manifested hostile aggressive behavior toward most of his colleagues. When introduced to the author, he shook hands with a bone-crushing grip, almost jerked the author off his balance (the man was at least 6 inches taller than the author and about 66 lbs heavier) and aggressively declared without any preamble that he would like to “see any damn fool try to hypnotize me.”


When volunteers for a demonstration were requested, he came striding up and in a booming voice announced “Well, I’m going to show everybody that you can’t hypnotize me.” As the man stepped up on the platform, the author slowly arose from his chair as if to greet him with a handshake. As the volunteer stretched forth his hand prepared to give the author another bone-crushing handshake, the author bent over and tied his own shoe strings slowly, elaborately and left the man standing helplessly with his arm outstretched. Bewildered, confused, completely taken aback at the author’s nonpertinent behavior, at a total loss for something to do, the man was completely vulnerable to the first comprehensible communication fitting to the situation that was offered him. As the second shoe string was being tied the author said “Just take a deep breath, sit down in that chair, close your eyes, and go deeply into a trance.” After a brief casual startled reaction, my subject said “Well I’ll be damned! But how? Now do it again so I can know how you are doing it.”

He was offered a choice of several traditional techniques. He chose the hand- levitation method as seeming the more interesting, and this technique was employed slowly, both for his benefit and that of the audience, with another somnambulistic trance resulting.

Pattern interrupts are really useful in that they shake up a person’s typical thoughts and actions and opens the possibility for something new to take place.

Doing this is an important part of the change process. Obviously, it’s much easier to influence and redirect an unstable pattern than a rigid one.

When a pattern is interrupted completely, the person is left without a next step in their thought process or behavior, and naturally opens up to whatever next step is offered to him or her by the situation.

In other words, the person whose pattern is interrupted becomes highly influenceable.

The power of the pattern interrupt

Our unconscious excels at running patterns or programs automatically. This frees our conscious resources to ponder other matters while we perform certain activities unconsciously.

This sometimes can present a problem when trying to change your own or someone else’s habitual patterns of thought, emotion or behavior. You want to change but your unconscious keeps doing the same thing over and over and over.

What the heck do you do?

Here’s the key principle that allows you to make changes in your behavior:

The unconscious mind isn’t effective at making decisions. That skill belongs to the conscious mind.

And herein lies the power of the pattern interrupt. And this is your opportunity to leverage the Pattern Interrupt NLP Technique.

To force the unconscious mind into “decision-awaiting mode,” you have to send it into a tailspin.

You have to break the habitual flow of how things happen, and force it to get into “what now?” mode.

It’s at the time of the pattern interrupt that you can insert changes into the unconscious’s programming.

When the unconscious is saying to you “OK, what do you want me to do now?

At that point, there’s space for you to insert new instructions.

Two drills for you to explore

Drill 1 – Interrupt your own pattern

  1. Choose a behavior you’d like to change that you normally perform automatically, without thinking.
  2. Observe how the pattern runs, what is its route.
  3. Create a pattern interrupt that has nothing to do with the behavior. If you bite your nails, the pattern interrupt might be to jump up and down, or rub your nose intensely. If you eat every time you watch TV, the pattern interrupt might be to think of cow poop every time you open the fridge. Come up with a pattern interrupt that will jolt you like a tree falling in front of your car.
  4. When you notice the pattern running, use your pattern interrupt repeatedly.
  5. Observe what happens to the pattern.

Drill 2 – Interrupt someone else’s pattern

  1. Observe someone who has a habitual pattern that you’d like to play with.
  2. Create a neat pattern interrupt. For instance, if your mother or wife eats butter every morning, without thinking about it, use blue food coloring to change the butter’s color. If your child has been curious about playing with electrical outlets, have some balloons ready at hand; pop them anytime (s)he approaches an outlet.
  3. Observe what happens to the pattern.
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Ean - April 24, 2013

Thanks! Great post and examples! Came to your site because I was looking for inspiration on how to do a pattern interrupt on myself. After listening to Personal Power from Tony Robbins.

Ken FitzGerald - July 29, 2013

Hi Martin,

My wife has this habit of frequently interrupting me when I’m speaking which has a negative impact on our marriage. I’ve aske her not to but she can’t seem to stop. Any suggesstions how I can use pattern interupt here ?


    Martin Messier - July 29, 2013

    Hi Ken,

    Good to hear from you.

    Before we go into P.I., let me ask you a simple question:

    Does she want to stop?
    Is she feeling pain when she interrupts you and associating pleasure to letting you finish?

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