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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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Recovering After a Failure of Willpower

States of mind

We’re well into a season in which, for Americans at least, restraint isn’t very popular. We start out with a holiday that celebrates eating as much as possible, work up to a holiday that celebrates spending as much as possible, and cap it off with a holiday that celebrates staying up late and drinking.

All right, I admit that this isn’t the kindest or even most accurate depiction I could give of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s, but the point is that whether or not you happen to celebrate any of these holidays, it’s likely you run into times when you don’t exercise the amount of willpower and restraint you would like to. Practically everyone does sometimes. Over time we can get better at exercising restraint even when we’re receiving messages to do otherwise, but what do we do to get back on track after losing our willpower for a while? Here are some specific things that can help:

  1. Don’t beat yourself up. Feelings of guilt, shame, frustration, disappointment, and depression are common after a failure of willpower. These are traps: avoid them. If you get caught up in destructive emotions, it will be hard to learn well and regain your focus. Identify broken ideas that aren’t doing you any good, then repair them: see “All About Broken Ideas and Idea Repair.”
  2. Get smarter. After a failure of willpower, you have an ideal opportunity to learn from your mistakes. Start a feedback loop to figure out how to change your behavior next time, and keep using it to see how well your new approaches work. Your feedback loop (which could be journaling, talking with a friend, talking to yourself, etc.) will include a description of exactly what you don’t like that you did, what you were thinking when you did it, and some ideas for changing what you do in the future. It will also include acknowledgments of any good decisions you made.
  3. Look ahead. One of the best ways to do well with willpower is to prepare solutions in advance. For instance, if you ate much more than you wanted to at your last family gathering, you might want to plan what you’re going to eat before you go to the next one. See “How Preparation Enables Stronger Willpower.”

You might also be interested in reading “How to Recover When You’ve Completely Blown It,” which talks more about failure in general and its role in successfully pursuing a goal.

Photo by kharied

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What Are Your Mental Schemas? A Quiz, Part 3

Handling negative emotions

Here’s part 3 of the quiz on mental schemas. See Part 1 for more information about what this quiz might be able to tell you and why mental schemas are worth understanding, along with the first set of questions. You’ll find the second set of question in Part 2.

Do you feel as though you are set apart from the rest of the world in the sense of being superior?
Do you often feel as though you should be able to have certain things despite those things being impractical, harmful, or unavailable?
Does it sometimes seem to you that the rules that should apply to other people shouldn’t apply to you?

If you answered yes to any of those questions, you may be struggling with an Entitlement Schema.

Do you often find yourself making impulsive decisions you later regret?
Do you notice yourself making choices that you know at the time are bad ones?
Do you have trouble suffering through boredom or frustration, even for a worthy end?

These kinds of experiences may point to a Lack of Self-Control Schema.

Do you find you prefer to be told what to do rather than having to decide yourself?
Would you have trouble feeling loved and valuable if important people in your life did not approve of your actions, even though you felt your actions were right?
Do you often feel controlled or rebellious?

Feelings like these may suggest a Subjugation Schema is at work.

Do you tend to feel that meeting your own needs is less important than meeting the needs of others who are close to you?
Do you feel guilty when you spend time, effort, or resources taking care of your own needs?
Do you find it very hard to ask for or receive help?

If so, you may want to read about the Self-Sacrifice Schema.

Do you find you aren’t happy unless other people are happy with you?
Are you constantly working to win other people’s love?
Do you find rejection extremely painful?

These kinds of attitudes are common in people who have the Need for Approval Schema.

That completes the quiz. Did you find one or more schemas that you felt were descriptive of you? Seeing these schemas clearly can be the first step in overcoming them once and for all.

Photo by meddygarnet

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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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Does Guilt Help or Hurt Self-Motivation?

Handling negative emotions

A warning light

Let’s say Derek is a student, and on his mid-term exam he did badly because he blew off studying. Let’s further say that Derek feels pretty crummy about this. Is feeling crummy going to help him or hurt him? Will it make him more or less likely to study next time? Will it improve him in other ways, or hurt him in other ways, or both? Does he have some kind of moral obligation to feel guilt?

Guilt is useful … sometimes. If I feel guilty, it means that I’ve looked back on something I did and compared it to how I’d like to act. This is a very smart thing to do, because if I’m not aware of whether or not I’m following my own best instincts, then I have no idea what I might want to improve or how I would need to improve it. Guilt is a red flag, a warning indicator on the dashboard saying that something has gone wrong. And guilt can persist for quite a while if the problem doesn’t get fixed.

That warning job, as far as I can tell from research, coaching, and personal experience, is the only useful thing there is about guilt. Once you get that message and commit to doing something about it, the guilt is no longer useful, providing you won’t forget about your commitment the minute the guilt is gone–so it makes sense to get rid of it. How? By detecting and repairing the broken ideas that are keeping the guilt going. (I won’t go into more detail about that for here, but just follow the links for more detailed information.)

In addition to that helpful warning role, guilt plays a harmful role in other ways. It can make it painful to think about certain obligations–for instance, if Derek feels guilty about not studying for his mid-term, he may avoid thinking about studying for his finals because he doesn’t want to revisit the unpleasant subject of him failing to study. Guilt sucks up attention and causes negative emotions like sadness and anxiety, which can make it harder to be motivated even in unrelated areas.

So the best possible use of guilt is to experience it, pay attention to it, figure out what needs to be done, and then get rid of it.

A study by Michael J.A. Wohl, Timothy A. Pychyla, and Shannon H. Bennetta (“I forgive myself, now I can study: How self-forgiveness for procrastinating can reduce future procrastination“), published this past February, supports this view of guilt as damaging in the long term. It surveyed students who felt guilty about past studying habits, whether they forgave themselves, and how that forgiveness (or lack of it) related to their studying afterward. Wohl and colleagues concluded that students who forgave themselves (a kind of organic idea repair–though that’s a subject for a future post) tended to do better studying afterward than students who kept beating themselves up. In other words, letting go of the guilt helped them act better so that they wouldn’t need to feel guilty in future.

Thanks to Jeremy Dean of Psyblog for the mention of the article.

Photo by akeg

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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.

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Mental Schemas #4: Defectiveness

Handling negative emotions

This is the fourth 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. There’s more information about schemas and schema therapy on a new page on The Willpower Engine here.

I don’t know about people in other part of the world, but we in America have a weird relationship with criticism. Some parents criticize their children constantly, while others are afraid to criticize them at all. While I think it goes a little too far to be supportive when a kid is merrily scribbling away on the brand new coffee table with permanent marker, the parents who are worried about criticism are worried for good reason: criticize a kid too much, and they may deal with it by developing a defectiveness schema. If you already know you’re defective, maybe it doesn’t hurt as much when people keep telling you that.

The defectiveness schema
Of course, feelings of defectiveness and inadequacy don’t translate very easily to a healthy life. Someone with a defectiveness schema might be overly defensive and never willing to hear themselves criticized–or they might go to the other extreme and always assume everything’s their own fault. Either way, there’s a basic broken idea here, namely “I’m inferior and defective.” This kind of broken idea is called “labeling” (is it weird that there’s a label for it?).

Another problem with the defectiveness schema is that people in its grip may feel that they are in danger of being “found out”–that people who get too close to them will discover that they are fundamentally flawed and leave, and that therefore no one must ever be allowed to get close.  (You might notice a trend of the schemas I’ve covered so far being ones where people are scared to let others get or stay close; that’s because we’re beginning with the set of schemas that deal with disconnection and rejection.)

Overcoming a defectiveness schema
As with any mental schema, the key to overcoming it is overturning, time and time again, the broken ideas it encourages. This means consciously replacing the thought “I don’t deserve this” with “I’m not perfect, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t have this thing that I want” or the thought “If I get close to this person, they’ll find out about all of my shortcomings and leave me” with “I can’t know for sure how someone will act in different situations; this person may or may not end up liking ‘the real me.'”

Repairing broken ideas often takes the form of acceptance, especially acceptance of the possibility of either good or bad things happening. People with defectiveness schemas will benefit from learning to accept even those things they dislike about themselves, and also from accepting that bad things may happen–or that good things can happen too, if those good things are given enough of a chance.

Photo by McBeth

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Sustain Your Motivation By Tracking Your Progress Daily

Strategies and goals

writing_coordinates

In this article, I talk about Decision Logging, a practice of writing down each decision, action, condition, or major thought about a goal that’s important to you as it happens to become much more aware of your mental process. Elsewhere, I describe the importance of feedback loops in self-motivation. Following up on Wednesday’s article on how tracking behavior helps weight loss, it’s worth our time to look at a more intense feedback strategy that keeps our goals front and center in our minds, but doesn’t require the high amount of time and attention that decision logging takes: tracking progress daily.

How to Track Behavior for Feedback
For weight loss, daily tracking comes in a particular form: writing down information throughout the day like foods eaten with their nutritional stats, exercise done, and weight. For other kinds of goals, often reviewing once a day in the evening, or twice a day in the morning and evening, provides a similar benefit. Tracking isn’t the same thing as feedback, but it is a key component. Without reliable, consistent information about our behavior–whether that comes from jotting down notes in the moment, reflecting back over the past week, or from some other process–there’s no opportunity for feedback. Once we have that information, we can proceed to the next step in our feedback loop, which is making judgements about our behavior: what worked well, and what didn’t? From there, we can make plans for the future: more of this, less of that, try this new thing, and watch out for this other pitfall. We start with raw information and work our way through to an action plan tailored exactly to our current circumstances and progress.

The once-a-day approach only needs to take a few minutes. With it, you answer a few questions:

  • What did I do today that moved me toward or away from my goal?
  • What do I think about those choices?
  • What would I like to do the same or differently tomorrow?
  • What am I learning from this?

The twice-a-day approach is similar, but with it the morning session has more to do with planning for the current day, and the evening session has more to do with reflecting on the day that has passed.

Tracking and reflecting on progress each day doesn’t need to take more than five minutes, and it’s very effective in keeping a goal alive and moving forward. It’s also instrumental in forming a habit of reflecting on progress, and getting to that level of awareness creates an enormous advantage in pursuing goals in the future.

The Top Obstacle to Tracking
One of the biggest dangers in tracking progress is not tracking whenever there’s something bad to write down. If I’m trying to teach myself French and don’t study at all during the day, I might be tempted not to track on a day when all I can say is “Didn’t do any studying today. Could have studied during lunch and/or instead of watching reruns of House.” When we think about it, though, it’s not really all that traumatic to write down the equivalent of “I didn’t do as well as I hoped today, but I’ll try to do better tomorrow.” If I don’t write that kind of thing down, I’m likely to forget how I got off track, which makes me pretty vulnerable to that problem in future. And tracking the lack of progress keeps up my habit of tracking, which makes it more likely I’ll both think about and possibly even do some French studying the next day. Finally, tracking is a victory in itself: even if I haven’t learned any French, I’ve done my tracking, which means I did put at least a little effort into my goal. This can be a badly-needed morale boost when the more workaday steps toward a goal aren’t going so well.

Not all goals lend themselves easily to being tracked in writing, but with a little creativity, it’s possible to find something meaningful to write down daily about almost any goal. Doing this accomplishes one of the most important steps in self-motivation, which is keeping the goal in mind every day, and it goes a long way toward helping us understand our own behavior better–and therefore understanding better how to change it.

Photo by Bruno Gola

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