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Mental Schemas #18: Punitiveness

Handling negative emotions

This is the 18th of 18 mental schema posts from my series on 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 have often been severe in the course of my life towards others. That is just. I have done well. Now, if I were not severe towards myself, all the justice that I have done would become injustice. Ought I to spare myself more than others? No! What! I should be good for nothing but to chastise others, and not myself! Why, I should be a blackguard!

— Inspector Javert in Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables

The Punitiveness schema is a lifelong conviction that people should suffer if they don’t follow the rules. People with this schema feel the responsibility to be angry and to ensure punishment is given out, whether to family members, employees, acquaintances, strangers, or themselves. They tend to feel they have a strong moral sense and that their insistence on punishment is about justice and fairness, and they have a hard time forgiving other people or forgiving themselves. They don’t generally consider reasonable circumstances that could explain what they see as bad behavior, and the idea that people are imperfect and just make mistakes sometimes doesn’t usually enter into their thinking. The standards applied in a Punitiveness schema are usually pretty high, too. Wiggle room is a foreign concept.

It’s sometimes hard for people with Punitiveness schemas to get close to others because of a tendency to get angry easily and to react harshly to errors of any size.

A harsh, critical tone or moral inflexibility can indicate that a person may be saddled with a Punitiveness schema.

Schemas that can go along with Punitiveness
People with this schema in many cases have been treated very badly in childhood, and such people often have an added schema called Mistrust/Abuse, which leads them to assume that people will usually act badly and take advantage when given the chance.

Another schema that can commonly occur along with Punitiveness is Unrelenting Standards, which is a habit of having such difficult requirements for good conduct that they’re virtually impossible to meet.

The Defectiveness schema, too, fits well with Punitiveness. People with Defectiveness schemas have a deep-down conviction that they’re not good enough, that they’re fundamentally flawed, contemptible, and not worthy of love. A sense of Defectiveness can drive people to want to punish themselves, and punishment can reinforce people’s feelings that they are defective.

Where Punitiveness schemas come from
People with Punitiveness schemas often grew up in families where parents were harsh or even abusive when a child made a mistake. Parents or other major figures during a person’s childhood may have been critical and perfectionistic. Children in such families may grow up with a sense of harsh punishment as normal, just the way things are; they can feel that when someone makes a mistake and isn’t punished, it’s a miscarriage of justice and a serious problem. As we grow up, we tend to internalize some of the things our parents say or do to us, and people with this schema learn to have a voice inside them that demands everyone do things the right way or they’ll be sorry.

Overcoming a Punitiveness schema

The Queen turned crimson with fury, and, after glaring at her for a moment like a wild beast, screamed ‘Off with her head! Off—’

‘Nonsense!’ said Alice, very loudly and decidedly, and the Queen was silent.

— from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

It’s hard to change from thinking that people who do things wrong should be punished to the idea that they should be forgiven or ignored much of the time, but this is exactly what needs to happen to transform a Punitiveness schema. Even more than with most other schemas, it can be very valuable for people with a Punitiveness schema to weigh the pros and cons of their schema-driven actions. In addition to the obvious problems with this schema, like feeling bad a lot of the time and others not wanting a person with this schema around, it’s also the case that punishment is a pretty lousy way to change behavior most of the time, if you’re willing to believe the research.  Punishment tends not to make people reconsider the actions they were punished for as much as it encourages them to find ways to avoid punishment in future, or just generates anger and resentment. Even people who are responsive to punishment are often just acting out their own schemas. For instance, people with a Defectiveness schema won’t usually take punishment as encouragement to become a better person, but instead will take it as proof that they’re horrible and deserve to be punished.

Forgiveness and discussion instead of punishment are especially important in parenting, where excessive punishment tends to create the same schemas in children that we’ve talked about above: Punitiveness, Mistrust/Abuse, Defectiveness, and Unrelenting Standards. Parents may consider it their duty to get angry at their children and punish them, but a little of this goes a long way–sometimes far too long–and much more effective parenting strategies are easy to find in a library or local parents’ group.

People working to shake off a Punitiveness schema can benefit from reflecting on circumstances that contribute to behavior they think is bad, from considering people’s intentions in addition to their actions, and in general by building the ability to empathize and forgive. Punishment isn’t necessarily ruled out, but the idea is to restrict it to, at most, people who have bad intentions as well as bad actions, or people who are severely negligent, whether or not those people should be punished becomes a broader ethical question.

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Finding Peace in Crazy-Making Situations

Self-motivation examples

I recently moved out of a house I was renting and am currently wrangling with my former landlord over getting my security deposit back. I’m certainly tempted to denounce him here, to list what I see as his misconduct and wrongdoings in an attempt to show you what a terrible person he is and how justified I am in being upset at him for causing me trouble over this issue. This way, however, lies madness (or at the least, unproductive angryness).

All the ingredients for crazy-making
Honestly, the issue of getting back the money I gave him in good faith is the kind of thing that can easily drive me nuts. It’s a combination of money matters plus uncertainty plus a feeling of being wronged, each of which has its own specialized cohort of broken ideas, things like “I need that money” and “He should stop trying to steal from me!” and “What if I can’t get him to play fair? Will we have to go to court? How long will that take? What kind of evidence will I have to prepare? Will the judge see it in the same light I do, or will I get screwed?” And on and on: fortune-telling, mind reading, “should” statements, magnification, and more broken ideas (see “All About Broken Ideas and Idea Repair“). It’s an ideal formula for driving me up the wall, in recent history running a close second to similar problems with the same landlord while we were still living in the house he owned. (It’s bad enough having someone you feel is untrustworthy is holding onto your money; it’s that much worse to have such a person holding onto your money and in charge of the building in which you and your family live.)

However, this issue is not driving me crazy. While I certainly haven’t quashed every last bit of anxiety about it, it isn’t keeping me awake at night and preventing me from focusing during the day or making me unhappy–nor should it bother me, except to the extent that I may need that to do the things I need to do with the situation. What tactics have I learned that are helping keep me sane?

1. Dig out the broken ideas, and keeping digging
Broken ideas are thoughts that force us deeper and deeper into negative emotions.  To clear my mind, I have to witness what I’m thinking, catch the problem thoughts in the act, and then replace them with more useful thoughts.

For instance,

“He’s going to steal my money!”

turns into

“He may or may not take money that I don’t think he should have.” (That’s a twofer: not trying to predict the future and not labeling the situation in a way that makes it sound as bad as possible.)

For me, that rephrasing gives an immediate–though partial–relief. The problem then is that the broken ideas keep cropping up and continue to need to be repaired. The good news is that the more I do this, the sparser and sparser those thoughts become.

2. Stop making my happiness conditional on outside situations
I don’t know if there’s anyone in the world who always gets everything they want, but somehow I suspect even a person like that wouldn’t always be happy. Since sometimes things are going to go my way and sometimes they aren’t, and since making my happiness dependent on something that might or might not happen in the future postpones that happiness indefinitely, it would be smart for me to be happy with whatever I have at the moment–even if discomfort, deprivation, or injustice are involved. It worked for me last night at Taekwondo practice when I was holding a stance and beginning to ache and feel tired from it; it also worked for me this morning when I reminded myself that my happiness doesn’t need to be a hostage to whether or not I get my full security deposit back.

3. Relax, stretch, meditate, move, breathe
Anxiety and stress can accumulate physically in the form of tense muscles, aches, cramped posture, and the like. When I remember to let go physically and mentally, take short walks (see “The Benefits of Quick, Easy, Pleasant Exercise“), breathe deeply, meditate (see “Strengthen Willpower Through Meditation“), and consciously relax my muscles, I begin to feel better both physically and emotionally.

Photo by notsogoodphotography

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Anger: Keeping Your Cool with Preparation and Self-Awareness

Handling negative emotions

This is the second article in a series on anger. The first article was Monday’s “Anger: Does Venting Help or Just Make It Worse?

One of the tricky things about dealing with anger is that our immediate mental response system for dealing with threats–run by a primitive part of the brain called the amygdala–doesn’t wait for us to understand what’s going on. This is pretty reasonable: if you’re a primitive human being and you’re being attacked by a Smilodon, you don’t want to be thinking about whether to react or not: you want to be immediately jabbing with your spear or running away (fight or flight). This is why people can be startled even by things that they know intellectually aren’t dangerous, like a loud noise in a carnival haunted house.

But Smilodons are extinct these days, and while the fast-track fight or flight response is still useful sometimes, as when we jump out of the way of a falling object, at other times anger and fear responses are very bad news. For instance, if someone is scared or upset and says something ill-considered to us, we may have a hard time not immediately responding in kind and turning a offhand comment into an argument.

Yet we do have the power to override our amygdala-driven gut reactions, and two of our best weapons in this fight are preparation and self-awareness.

Preparation in this case means putting ourselves in a mood to defuse instead of magnify negative feelings. One of the best ways to do this, notes Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence, is to look at people toward whom you may be feeling angry “with a more charitable line of thought,” which “tempers anger with mercy, or at least an open mind, short-circuiting the buildup of rage.” In other words, thinking about what circumstances may be driving people to do things we don’t like rather than focusing on our mental condemnation of those people for doing those things creates an opportunity for compassion and keeping our cool.

As for self-awareness, this is an approach I’ve praised in other articles, such as “Mindfulness and Deer Flies.” Being aware of our own emotions gives us the opportunity to do something about a situation using our thoughts, for instance by noticing and repairing broken ideas. Lack of self-awareness–that is, acting without considering why we’re acting or what we’re feeling–closes off that option to us completely. When we’re not aware of our own emotions, we are mostly slaves to our own emotional habits.

This series will continue in the next week or two with more information about and strategies for dealing with anger.

Photo by euthman

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Anger: Does Venting Help or Just Make It Worse?

Handling negative emotions

“Let it out,” goes the common wisdom. “If you don’t vent your anger, it will just keep bothering you.” This kind of advice dates at least back to Freud, who believed that negative emotions build up like water behind a dam and must be released if a person wants to get relief. But psychological research in more than a century since Freud’s time has not supported this idea: instead of letting go of anger, venting may really be a way to hang onto it.

The problem with theory that venting anger helps stems from the idea that emotions build up and are retained in some kind of raw state. But emotions consist of a variety of kinds of activity throughout the brain and the rest of the body (see “How emotions work“), especially in the specific thoughts we are thinking (like “People like that shouldn’t be allowed to drive!” or “I look like an idiot in this shirt”) and in various chemicals released in our bodies, like testosterone, which tends to increase aggressive and arousal; adrenaline, which kicks off our fight-or-flight response; and seratonin, which helps regulate mood–to name just a few. Realizing that emotion is largely made up of fleeting thoughts and temporary chemical states, it begins to be clear that we can’t really “store” emotions in the same way that our bodies store nutrients or even in the same way we store memories. It is possible to keep anger (and other kinds of damaging emotions) going over a long time through self-talk, but this is just another form of “rumination,” the same kind of thing we’re doing when we vent anger.

Rumination, what we’re doing both when we vent anger and when we keep reminding ourselves of it, means “chewing over” an emotional experience we’ve had–re-experiencing it. Acting angry to vent an emotion is therefore a way of dwelling and obsessing on the emotion that we’re trying to get rid of. Even doing nothing is, it turns out, a more effective way to deal with anger than venting.

There’s a good body of psychological research to support this idea, much of which tries to find the benefit of venting anger and finds no evidence of it. If you’re interested in reading more on the subject, for instance, you might want to the Dr. Brad J. Bushman’s paper “Does Venting Anger Feed or Extinguish the Flame? Catharsis, Rumination, Distraction, Anger, and Aggressive Responding.”

So if venting doesn’t help to fix anger, what does? Focusing on someone or something you love is one approach: see “Antidotes to bad moods and negative emotions.” Another is to become aware of your self-talk and to repair broken ideas: see “All About Broken Ideas and Idea Repair.”

Look for more articles on the topic of anger over coming weeks. I’ve dug up a variety of information on the subject that I hope you’ll find as interesting as I find it.

Photo by amanky

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Examples of How Not to Get Into an Argument

Self-motivation examples

In a recent article, I talked about how not to get into an argument. This article picks up on that topic with examples of arguments being headed off by use of non-violent communication.

THEM: Why do you always try to run everything? [This sounds like anger or irritation, and we might guess that the person needs to feel a greater sense of control, or else some recognition.]
YOU: Are you angry because you don’t feel you’re getting a say in what we do tonight?
THEM: Of course I’m angry–duh! I just don’t want to go to that same stupid restaurant. It’s so loud there, I can never hear anything you guys are saying. [Success! This could have turned into an argument about whether or not you do or should always try to run everything; instead it’s turned into a discussion of the relative merits and problems of different restaurants.]

THEM: I can’t believe you made me another stupid sweater!
YOU: You sound angry that I made you a sweater.
THEM: I’m not angry: I’m embarrassed! [Good try with the “angry” thing: even though it was a wrong guess, you now have the information you need.]
YOU: So you don’t feel comfortable wearing the sweaters I make you out.
THEM: I’m sorry, but they’re just not my style. They make me look like an eight-year-old.
YOU: I can understand why you don’t want to look like an eight-year-old.
[At this point, since you have feelings too, and since the other person’s needs have been addressed at least a little, you might be successful in getting the other person to understand how you feel by telling them exactly what your emotions are and what you need–and being careful not to disguise accusations as emotions or demands as needs.]
YOU: I feel really sad now. I put a lot of work into that sweater. I wanted you to know how much you were on my mind.
THEM: Well, crap, I’m sorry. But I really don’t want to look stupid! [Here the other person is showing a little bit of worry that you might not have heard after all. You can reassure the other person that you have.]
YOU: I would have chosen another pattern if I had known then what I know now.
THEM: It’s really sweet of you to put all that time into it, though. [Feeling comfortable that you’ve heard and understood and accept what has been said, the other person now has an easier time looking out for your needs.] If you still want to make me one next year, maybe we could just talk about the style first.

Obviously there’s a lot more that could happen in either of those examples, but I hope they serve to illustrate how these things can work. I must say that I’ve been using this approach for more than a decade now, and I feel it is one of the absolute most useful things I have ever learned in my life. I have used it to work out child custody arrangements, to get back on track with coworkers who are freaking out, to help my son feel understood and supported, to get better service and a bit of real human interaction in stores and restaurants, and in any number of other situations. Here’s hoping that sharing these ideas with you, or at least pointing you to Dr. Rosenberg’s much more thorough treatment of the subject, will offer you some of the advantages I’ve reaped from it myself.

Photo by Search Engine People Blog

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How to Become More Focused and Enthusiastic, Part III: Willingness

Strategies and goals

The first article in this series talks about the difference between distraction and lack of focus or enthusiasm as well as the problem of not believing your goal can be achieved. The second article touches on how much the goal matters and whether or not it’s possible to track progress. This article will tackle another essential of being committed to a goal: willingness.

The question of willingness came up as a side note in my article the other day about whether our willpower gets used up on a daily basis. The idea was that people seem to usually be less willing to keep doing things that require self-control the more of them they’re asked to do. Repeated demands are one reason a person might find she or he isn’t willing to exercise willpower. Others include

  • Feeling anger or resentment about having to do the thing in the first place, or being unhappy about some expected result–for instance if a person avoided cleaning an area up because they didn’t make the mess (even if they knew the mess-maker wasn’t going to clean it up), or if they were to hold off on doing certain work because they strongly suspected someone else would be getting the credit.
  • Being uncomfortable with success, for instance when a person is scared of the life changes a new job would cause.
  • Having a broken idea that someone else should be doing whatever it is, that whatever it is shouldn’t be necessary, etc.
  • Focusing on short-term discomfort or interruption of pleasure, like not wanting to pull a splinter out due to anticipating that being painful.
  • Feeling as though you don’t deserve to achieve your goal, for instance because of impostor syndrome.

Those are a few samples. The key point is that even when we have a desire to do something and recognize that it would be a good thing to do, we often still have conflicting feelings about moving ahead. To say that we simply want something or don’t want it is to imagine our minds being much simpler than they are. For instance, a person might desperately want to lose weight for reasons of both health and appearance, but also might want to feel free to indulge in eating as they like, might be worried about the discomfort of regular exercise, might feel protected in some ways by being overweight, etc.

Feeling conflicted is a natural result of being a complex human being, but when these kinds of conflicts prevent us from committing whole-heartedly to our goals, it’s time to address them and move past them. Broken ideas (including ideas about what should happen or what a person deserves) can be repaired, conflicting needs can be compared so that the highest-priority need can take precedence, discomfort can be faced in light of the greater happiness it will lead to, and so on. In the end, most barriers to willingness can be sorted out–and starting that process only takes asking ourselves this question:

“Am I really willing to succeed?”

Photo by Gavatron

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The 5 Stages of Grief for a Parent

Guest posts

Today’s guest post is from Kari Wolfe, whose blog Imperfect Clarity passes on everything she’s learning as she works toward building a writing career, interviews fascinating people, parents her daughter in ways she never expected, and forges her own habits of success.


When you’re pregnant (or your significant other is), you spend a lot of your time thinking about the baby. You think about what he/she is going to look like. Will he/she look more like her father or her mother?

You think about what he/she will be like as a baby, how you will treat him/her. Are you going to co-sleep or have a bassinet and/or a crib? Are you going to nurse or use formula? What kind of diapers are you going to use?

I dreamt of giving my baby the type of education I wished I had. The best day cares, the best schools, the best teachers. The best programs. I wanted to give my daughter every opportunity in the world.

When you’re a mother, you can’t help but have these dreams and aspirations for your child. It’s part of your nature.

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When Natasha was 18 months old, her father, Tom, and I started to worry. She hadn’t said her first word. When she played, she played in “her own little world,” paying no attention to the kids or adults around her. She batted and flapped her hands at toys she liked. She didn’t pay any attention to us–we could call her name, but she wouldn’t usually react.

Her doctor said for us to sit back, not to worry–this could be just a normal delay in her development. Not a big deal at this age.

He had her tested for autism at 2. We patiently waited a year, going to every therapy we could think of, hoping and praying maybe she was simply developmentally delayed.

She was diagnosed as having autism at 3.

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In Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief, the original first stage is denial. In the expanded stages, the first effect is shock.

In my case, my husband and I suspected there was something different about Natasha. We had seen it when we went to the playground or visited neighbors–there was a difference in the children.

I was at Starbucks, having a cup of coffee with a behavioral therapist, when she told me that Natasha might be autistic. Here was someone else, outside of the family, who noticed something wasn’t quite right. She didn’t have the education to diagnose; what we wanted was an educated opinion.

I was calm; after all, I knew what she was going to say. Mentally, I had prepared myself; however, my heart broke into pieces.

Watching as she went over the therapies Natasha should receive to help her with her social and communication skills, I froze, a black pit in my stomach growing with every thought and every dollar amount she mentioned.

I saw my dreams for my daughter, my hopes and wishes and desires, vanish into thin air.

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When Natasha was evaluated at two-years old, the behavioral pediatrician spoke candidly about the likelihood of Natasha being autistic and the possibility of her symptoms being only a developmental delay. She gave us the option to have Natasha diagnosed as having a global developmental delay rather than autism then having her evaluated again in a year, and we took it.

I made appointments for Natasha’s occupational therapy and arranged evaluations for her to be seen by the early intervention people to be evaluated for state and federal programs for developmentally delayed and autistic children from birth to three-years of age.

She stopped going to day care because I realized the teacher-student ratio may have been great for typically developing children, but Natasha needed someone to guide her activities rather than to let her wander for herself. Not long afterward, I left school so I could focus on her.

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The second stage of Dr. Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief is anger.

It’s not fair. Why did this happen to us? Why did God allow this to happen?

I was angry at life. When I was alone, I screamed my anger out in the car with extremely loud guitars and a fast beat coming out of the speakers.  Sometimes I would rant and rave in the shower.

I was angry at myself because it was always possible that I could have done something wrong. Babies don’t come with instruction manuals–what if this was all my fault for not doing something I should have done? What if I didn’t spend enough time with her?

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Bargaining is the third stage.

While Dr. Kubler-Ross lists anger and bargaining (“I’ll do anything if ___ wasn’t so.”) as different sections, it’s very difficult in my mind to separate the two. Mentally, I bargained with everyone. I would have made a deal with the devil, had I thought it might have worked.

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The fourth stage is depression.

After I gave birth to Natasha, I suffered from post-partum depression. My OB/GYN prescribed an anti-depressant and told me to consult with my family doctor.

Due to Natasha’s developmental delay and subsequent diagnosis, my family doctor would increase that dosage twice in three years.

For me, this was a much-needed part of the solution.

Throughout my entire life, I have had problems with depression. The anti-depressant helped me have the willpower to overcome the despair and the apathy I felt when in a stage of deep depression. Six months ago, my doctor lowered the dose after I felt that I didn’t need quite as much anymore.

Of the stages of grief, I believe this is the one that can be the most harmful. You can stagnate. Depression can lead to inaction–in my case, that was the last thing I could do.

** NOTE: Please don’t think I’m advocating a particular method of dealing with or working through depression. This is what worked for me. The best way to determine what is right for you is to discuss your options with a therapist or your doctor.

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The first year of Natasha’s occupational therapy was my redemption.

Weekly, Natasha and I would go to the clinic where our therapist, L., would take us to the sensory gym. She would show Natasha how to take her shoes and socks off and we would go play on the trampoline, in the ball pit, or on the swings.

My mother tells me that teachers would talk to her during parent-teacher meetings and tell her she needed to get me to play. I didn’t play–from the time I could read, I’ve had my nose in a book.

L. taught me to play while teaching me how to help Natasha get the sensory information she craves. Not only was L. Natasha’s therapist, but she counseled me when I came to the appointments heart-broken and lost.

During this time, we saw all sorts of kids, some with autism, some with other problems, of varying ages and abilities. I watched the kids as they played and the therapists as they interacted with the kids and the other therapists. Some of the kids had problems that seemed to me much worse than Natasha’s–kids with feeding issues, sensory avoidance, physical disabilities. Watching them gave me hope.

Sometimes I talked with the parents of these kids. We would share stories and progress reports. It was nice to know I wasn’t alone.

Through this year, we played games, bounced on the trampoline, jumped or swung into the foam pit, and surfed in the ball pit.  Slowly but surely, Natasha began to progress.  She started to sign “more,” “open” and “all done.” After a year of what felt like no progress whatsoever, she started to communicate with us.

My heart began to mend.

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The final stage of grief is acceptance.

It’s been a very long, rough road, but I’m mostly there. Sure, I have my moments of sadness that Natasha is autistic–but I’m realizing more and more that being autistic isn’t the end of the world.  It felt like it in the beginning but, through listening to Natasha’s therapists and seeing Natasha making progress in things Tom and I questioned whether she would ever do, I’m learning that it’s not.

It’s still hard.  I still have problems when I talk to mothers of children who are around the same age and they tell me their child never stops talking.  They inevitably always ask if Natasha does the same thing. Part of me knows it’s just making conversation, small talk–but it doesn’t stop a little pain going through my heart.

Natasha is in hippotherapy (therapy performed while on horseback) for occupational therapy, soon to be for speech therapy, and the stimulation she receives from riding a horse has been extremely beneficial to her. In the past few months, we have seen her go from not really wanting to pay attention to saying her alphabet and drawing smiley faces to actually beginning to mimic the words her father and I are saying. She’s beginning to understand we want to communicate with her and she’s beginning to want to communicate with us as well.

And acceptance seems a perfectly natural thing after all. This is who Natasha is and neither her father nor I want her to change into something she’s not.

Kari Wolfe is a stay-at-home mother of a very curious three-year-old daughter who happens to be autistic. She is a writer and maintains her own blog, Imperfect Clarity where her focus is becoming the best writer (and person) she can be by living her life to the fullest 🙂

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Why Lousy Is a Great Place to Start

Handling negative emotions

I’m reading a book called Start Where You Are by Pema Chödrön, an American Buddhist nun, about meditation, coming to terms with suffering (our own and others’), and connecting to the world in a compassionate way. Much of the book is about meditative and partly spiritual practices that I won’t go into here, but there’s one particular section where she says something very striking that applies equally well to any process of self-improvement:

Start where you are. This is very important. [Meditation practice] is not about later, when you get it all together and you’re this person you really respect. You may be the most violent person in the world–that’s a fine place to start. That’s a very rich place to start–juicy, smelly. You might be the most depressed person in the world, the most addicted person in the world, the most jealous person in the world. You might think that there are no others on the planet who hate themselves as much as you do. All of that is a good place to start. Just where you are—that’s the place to start.

And later, she continues:

Suppose you are involved in a horrific relationship: every time you think of a particular person you get furious. That is very useful for tonglen [the practice the book describes]! Or perhaps you feel depressed. It was all you could do to get out of bed today. You’re so depressed that you want to stay in bed for the rest of your life; you have considered hiding under your bed. That is very useful for tonglen practice. The specific fixation should be real, just like that.

She goes on to describe how to harness these emotions in meditation, but the point I’d like to make is that they’re essential to any process of improving your life through changing the way you think. There are a few reasons for this. First, feelings like this that go unacknowledged tend to continue to torment us, because if we don’t take them in and really pay attention to how we’re experiencing them, we only have our habitual ways of responding to them, which won’t change anything (by definition, because habits are what we automatically do already). Second, if I’m going to improve my life, why should I wait for a time when I feel better? If I’m feeling bad now, then now is when improvement would be the most welcome, and there’s nothing preventing me from improving more when I feel better some other time too. And third, as Chödrön points out, strong negative emotions have a lot of juice. Someone who doesn’t feel excited (in a good or a bad way) about anything much at the moment doesn’t have a strong emotional incentive to change their lives. Someone who’s feeling something strong, whether it’s delight or love or anger or despair, has an immediate emotional reason to change things for the better.

Chödrön has specific recommendations for using negative emotions in meditation practice, and for anyone interested in Buddhist meditation, I strongly suggest the book for that purpose. For our intentions here, though, there are also specific ways we can harness negative emotions. In tomorrow’s post, I’ll talk about how to use pain and trouble to repair broken ideas.

Photo by Pensiero

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Self-Control: So Simple, a Five-Year-Old Can Learn It

Handling negative emotions

A few weeks ago, I made lentil stew. My lentils were in a bag on a top shelf, so I reached up and tugged the bag out toward me–not realizing that the twist tie had come undone. Lentils showered down on my kitchen. You’ll be happy to hear that I responded to the situation with a cheerful and accepting attitude.

No, that’s a lie. I cursed a blue streak and got really upset for about 30 seconds before recognizing that for the love of Pete, it was just some lentils and no reason to lose my cool. A little self-monitoring and self-talk brought me back in line, and the whole situation inspired me to try to catch unhelpful reactions earlier in the game.

In this department, a group of kindergartners through third graders who took part in a study called the Rochester Resilience Project may have the jump on me. These were kids who showed early signs of behavior problems in school, and they were given 25-minute lessons once a week for 14 weeks to help them become more aware of their own feelings (mindfulness) and to use thoughts to improve their moods when something went wrong (idea repair).

The results were impressive. Compared to the control group, in which kids didn’t get the training, trained kids had just over half as many discipline problems over the course of the study.

In other words, techniques like being aware of our own emotions and talking ourselves down from negative emotional extremes can be made so easy, a five-year-old can learn and apply them–and do so well enough to make a big difference in school life. If that’s the case, how much more easily are we adults likely to be able to learn and use these things if we’re willing to give them real and focused attention?

The study was documented in the article Reducing Classroom Problems By Teaching Kids Self-Control on the PsychCentral.com Web site.

Photo by Scott Vanderchijs

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The Benefits of Feeling Bad

Handling negative emotions

The most anxious time of my life to date was soon after separating from my son’s mom. The marriage had turned out to be very much a mismatch, so I wasn’t unhappy that it was ending–but I was worried about my relationship with my then-2-year-old son. If I wasn’t able to work something out about custody arrangements with his mother or through a court, I might be relegated to the every-other-weekend schedule of parenting, and while that might be a good arrangement for many dads, I emphatically wanted to be more involved.

It all came out well in the end: after a lot of work and discussion, we settled on a workable arrangement for custody, and I never did get bumped to “every other weekend” status. So all that anxiety and unhappiness while the situation was up in the air: what was the use of it? To put it another way, do negative emotions have any value, or are they always trouble?

My friend Oz Drummond pointed me to a recent New York Times Magazine article called “Depression’s Upside“, which examines some of the potentially positive effects of some kinds of depression. The particular advantage the article describes is a neurological process in which a painful event (like a divorce or death of a friend) causes the left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC) to create intense mental focus on a problem, offering an unusually powerful ability to examine and possibly learn from it. This doesn’t necessarily seem to be the case with all depression, and even when it is the case, the person isn’t necessarily better off going through the depression than not. But we can pull a useful lesson out of this research, which is that negative emotions can be extremely useful in focusing attention. Some examples:

Anger: Focuses attention on a potential threat so that we can act against it if we need to.
Fear: Keeps attention on a dangerous situation so that we won’t drop our guard.
Guilt and shame: Brings our attention to actions we regret, with the possible result that we will avoid those actions in future.

… and so on.

In other words, many negative emotions have the specific purpose of making us mindful of something. There are two useful things that come out of this realization: first, when a negative emotion occurs, there may be a lot to gain out of figuring out what it’s trying to tell us. Second, negative emotions can often be addressed simply by paying proper attention to what they’re trying to tell us.

In the Times Magazine article, University of Virginia psychiatrist Andy Thomson talks about this process:

“What you’re trying to do is speed along the rumination process,” Thomson says. “Once you show people the dilemma they need to solve, they almost always start feeling better.” He cites as evidence a recent study that found “expressive writing” — asking depressed subjects to write essays about their feelings–led to significantly shorter depressive episodes. The reason, Thomson suggests is that writing is a form of thinking, which enhances our natural problem-solving abilities.

Image by MissCartier

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