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Mental Schemas #13: Self-Sacrifice

Handling negative emotions

This is the thirteenth in a series of fourteen 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.

The mantra that goes with the Self-Sacrifice schema is “I should take care of other people; they shouldn’t take care of me.” A person with this schema will tend to ignore their own needs, wants, and worries but pay plenty of attention to other people’s problems.

When a person with a Self-Sacrifice schema starts paying attention to their own needs, they generally feel guilty. Their mental commentary is often full of “should statements” like “I shouldn’t need help with this” or “I shouldn’t be spending time on myself when someone else needs something.”

Self-Sacrifice schemas often arise in childhood when a parent is needy or unable to handle basic responsibilities. The child gets used to taking care of another person while suppressing their own needs and desires, and then has a lot of trouble getting out of the habit as they grow older. This often includes being in the habit of keeping emotions close, not sharing them so as to avoid anyone else being affected by those emotions.

As a result, says schema therapy originator Dr. Jeffrey Young, “almost all patients with Self-Sacrifice schemas have linked Emotional Deprivation schemas.”

On the bright side, a person with a Self-Sacrifice schema can do a lot of good in the world and experience increased self-esteem from their efforts. Yet the schema reflects a serious problem, an imbalance between taking care of themselves and taking care of others.

Dealing with a Self-Sacrifice Schema
Tackling a Self-Sacrifice schema, as is true with most problem habits, is first a matter of being aware when the problem is occurring, preferably in the moment (though it’s certainly better than nothing to at least reflect and recognize these situations afterward). When a person with a Self-Sacrifice schema notices that the schema is taking over–for instance, when they’ve been asked to volunteer for something and know it will cost them more sleep than they can afford to lose–the specific problem thoughts, usually close to invisible, can be brought out, examined, and reframed.

So in the example given, the person could realize the sleep problem but feel guilty about saying no. Examining her thoughts, she might realize that she is telling herself “I should do this even if I do lose sleep” and ask herself further “Should I do everything that other people ask me to do, no matter how hurtful or unhealthy it is to me?” Reviewing, reframing, and debating our own mental commentary helps us identify habits that make us behave in ways we wouldn’t choose to behave if we thought things through carefully.

Ultimately a person trying to give up a Self-Sacrifice schema will need to try risking embarrassment or guilt, whether that comes from refusing to do something for someone else, asserting their own needs, or receiving someone else’s help. If this is done with people who genuinely care, the results can help break down the idea that help isn’t deserved and doesn’t feel good, and over time this kind of cooperation and willingness to be helped can begin to feel as natural and good as helping others.

Photo of Rodin’s Les Bourgeois de Calais by Accidental Hedonist

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Mental Schemas #8: Enmeshment and Undeveloped Self

Handling negative emotions

This is the eighth 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.


Where do you end and I begin?
A person with the enmeshment schema is completely wrapped up in someone else’s life. It’s often a parent, but it can be anyone with a strong personality: a husband, a wife, a boss, a brother or sister … even a best friend. Enmeshed people ignore their own preferences and ideas and order everything in their lives according to the needs of the parent or other person they’re enmeshed with.

Some common feelings enmeshed people have are:

  • They/I/we couldn’t survive without this bond
  • I feel guilty if I keep anything separate
  • I feel completely smothered

Enmeshed people almost always have an “undeveloped self”: they don’t know what they want or need, what they prefer, where they’re going in life, or what would make them happy. It’s possible also to have the undeveloped self problem without the enmeshment problem, to feel empty and directionless and uncertain of wants and needs without necessarily being wrapped up in another person.

There’s a related schema called “subjugation,” where a person feels like they must act according to other people’s wishes, but instead of feeling closeness, subjugated people usually feel resentment, anger, and despair. An enmeshed person feels smothered; a subjugated person feels crushed. I’ll talk about subjugation in a separate post in future.

Enmeshed people and other people with undeveloped selves usually end up that way because of parents or other figures in their lives who are overprotective, abusive, or controlling.

Disentangling
In order to make progress in their own lives, enmeshed people first have to come to feel it’s OK to separate from the other, to be their own person. If they’re able to get to that point, they can begin to reflect on what they themselves really like, want, need, aspire to, and believe. Really knowing who we are and what’s important to us personally in life is what allows us to develop.

There are some dangers for an enmeshed person trying to get out of enmeshment. For instance, sometimes it can happen that an enmeshed person separates from the other by deciding that they hate everything that person loves, and vice-versa. Unfortunately, this still isn’t finding an individual self, because just doing the opposite of someone else still means that one’s decisions are based on another person.

Another danger is of getting out of an enmeshed situation is falling right into another–for instance, leaving a too-close relationship with a parent by getting into a romantic relationship with someone who has a very strong personality and becoming enmeshed with that person instead, or working through enmeshment in therapy and separating from the other person only to become enmeshed with the therapist. (Good therapists take pains to prevent this from getting very far!)

So the other goal, in addition to finding one’s own preferences and identity, is to learn how to have healthy relationships with other people, relationships that are connected but not enmeshed. The best tool I know of for this is mindfulness, being aware of our own thoughts, feelings, and preferences from moment to moment in our lives. It’s only when we lose track of our own thinking that we can get overwhelmed with someone else’s.

Ending enmeshment and developing the self take a lot of hard work and understanding, and can often be especially well helped by a good cognitive therapist.

Photo by Djuliet

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