This is the fifth in a series of articles that draw on the field of schema therapy, an approach to addressing negative thinking patterns that was devised by Dr. Jeffrey Young. You can find an introduction to schemas and schema therapy, a list of schemas, and links to other schema articles on The Willpower Engine here.
I went to a dance club late last year, not because I’m a good dancer or used to going to clubs, but because it seemed like it would be fun. I paid the ridiculous fee (I don’t remember the exact amount, but I think it was more than the total value of everything I was wearing) and walked into the big, trendy, excitingly-architected room to discover that I had come on … Lebanese Night. Lots of Lebanese guys in nice shirts were standing around with drinks, looking cool not dancing while small knots of Lebanese women danced on the floor, probably talking about how men are always too chicken to dance.
Not being Lebanese, a good dancer, or even a resident of the city I was in, I felt more than a little out of place.
Usually I find a way to connect in any group I’m in, but this was a clear exception. I was apart: they were them and I was me, and I didn’t see any way to change that. People with the “social isolation” or “alienation” schema feel this way all the time.
Social isolation isn’t entirely a bad thing. From outside the group, it’s sometimes possible to get a novel perspective, for instance. A lot of very good science fiction has been written from the point of view of someone who’s used to being completely different.
But alienation can also be lonely, painful, and obstructive. Sometimes you need to connect with a group to be able to accomplish something, to feel safe, or just to feel fully human. A child who feels very different from everyone else or who comes from a family that feels very different from other families, can grow up with a sense that no community will welcome them, that they’re not a part of anything.
A person with an alienation schema might join a group but not really get involved, or act out in a group in a way that will tend to encourage rejection, or avoid groups entirely.
Getting past an alienation schema–or any schema–takes time and effort, and it’s accomplished by paying attention to problem thoughts and attitudes, then deliberately coming up with more constructive ones. For instance, a person with this schema might arrive at a party and think “I didn’t dress up enough. Everyone here must think I’m a slob.” This kind of broken idea is known as “mind reading”–presuming to know other people’s thoughts and then acting as though those thoughts were an established fact. Repairing broken ideas that lead to feelings of alienation usually means understanding that it is possible to to genuinely be accepted into a group, and at the same time being OK with that fact that not every group accepts every person–that rejection from one group isn’t the same as proof that the rejected person doesn’t belong anywhere.
Whether or not this thinking would do me any good on Lebanese night when I don’t even know the difference between mawared and mazaher … well, that may be another thing entirely.
Photo by Steve White