Browsing the archives for the mental schemas tag.
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Still Not Getting to That Goal? Four Essential Factors

Habits

obstacle

I started this blog about four and a half years ago and started doing energetic research into willpower and habit change two years before that. My belief when I started was that it would be possible to learn how to change nearly any habit, to summon far greater willpower, because it was clear that around the world, there are people who make these changes every day. So, is it true? Does learning about habits and willpower give you willpower and mastery of your habits? The answer is no … and yes.

The further I got into this subject, the more I kept wondering when I would break through. I lost weight, got much more fit, earned a black belt, finished writing books, eliminated some bad habits, improved my relationships, and otherwise made a lot of improvements in my life … but I would still sometimes waste time I needed for more important things, show up late now and then, make bad decisions, or otherwise demonstrate to myself that whatever willpower was, I hadn’t mastered it.

So I sat down the other day and pondered everything I’ve learned since 2007 or so. If learning all about habits and willpower doesn’t give you mastery over them, what does? As near as I can figure it, it comes down to four things that stand between us and change. I think when I describe them, you’ll see why learning alone doesn’t cover it (other than the facts that habit change takes time and that just knowing about something won’t automatically change our behavior).

1. Tools and Knowledge
Here’s an area where what I’ve learned and written about here has been powerful. Mental and emotional tools can cut through a lot of habit difficulties and get us on the right path. For example, we can learn to generate confidence and enthusiasm in place of depression and hopelessness with idea repair; we can clear our minds and let go of things that bother us through meditation; and understanding mental schemas can let us get to some of the root causes of our worst behaviors.

2. Thinking
How we think, what we tell ourselves, and where we put our focus make a huge difference in how we feel and what our lives are like. We can often change our thinking using tools like the ones I mentioned, but whether it occurs naturally or has help through mental tools, our thinking itself is crucial in determining our actions and decisions.

3. Lifestyle
Nutrition, sleep, exercise, friends, social contacts, activity, surroundings, physical tools, responsibilities, family, and many more external factors can influence our internal state. Here too, I’ve learned about many useful improvements through researching and writing about the psychology of habits on this blog, whether it’s a quiet walk in green space, having just the right tool, or keeping company with people who help us become better.

4. Commitment
Here’s the tough one: we have to care. Knowing how to do something or having a theoretical goal generally doesn’t carry us very far unless we’re strongly and consistently motivated by our own emotions.

I’m not just using “commitment” as a substitute for “willpower” here, creating a circular argument. What I’m talking about isn’t making the right decisions or doing the right things, but rather consistently caring about our decisions and what the right ones are.

Commitment can come from many different places, so fortunately we can influence it. It can come from our own emotional difficulties: for instance, a person who craves attention might use that to drive excellence in music, or a person who hates conflict may learn how to be a consummate peacemaker. It can come from thinking and understanding, when we get to know ourselves better and make important connections. (It’s one thing for me to know that doughnuts aren’t good for me, but it helps me more to realize how foods like that contribute to atherosclerosis, drain my energy, and give me a headache). It can be inspired by a role model or a clear picture of the future, be shocked into us through a tragedy, be nurtured by helpful surroundings, or rest on support from friends and family. Commitment is an emotional state in which we yearn toward a goal or state of being. Without it, it doesn’t matter how we can act, because commitment directs how we do act.

Which matters … why?
The point of bringing up these four aspects of willpower or habit change is to create a simple way to look at our goals and see what’s missing.

For example, why did I lose 60 pounds or so and then stop about 15 pounds heavier than my ideal weight? After all, I have the mental tools to lose weight and know how to direct my thinking, and my lifestyle is compatible with fitness and weight loss. What happened, I believe, is that my commitment dried up. Having reached this point, I’m fairly happy (though not ecstatic) with how fit I am, and my health is very good. Losing more weight would make me look better, which would be a fine thing both in terms of my self-image and my romantic relationship, but there’s nothing about it that would affect my life expectancy or my ability to be in my relationship in the first place, whereas my old weight years ago really could affect those kinds of things. To lose more weight, I’d have to find reasons to really, really care. This might involve hanging around with extremely fit people, finding more reasons to lose the extra pounds, or working on increasing my enjoyment of fitness.

In the same way, any of the four things above can be missing in a person’s quest to change. For example, a person might passionately want to quit smoking, might live in an environment that discourages smoking, and might be beautifully focused on the problem, but if that person doesn’t have a good working approach–that is, doesn’t have the right tools–then quitting may fail time and time again.

So I invite you to do in your life what I’m doing in mine these days: if you have an important goal that you’re having trouble reaching, look at it in terms of these four factors. Do you have all the tools and knowledge you need to succeed? Are you thinking thoughts that move you toward your goal? Is your environment helping or hurting you (or both)? Are you deeply and emotionally commited, and does that commitment stay strong even when trouble comes?

So, will I ever master willpower and habits? Somehow I suspect not, but it continues to be worth trying, and I continue to push hard. Maybe in another six and a half years. Who knows? It could happen. Check back with me then.

Photo by foxypar4

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Better Writing Through Writing About Writing

Writing

The original version of this article first appeared in my column “Brain Hacks for Writers” over at the online publication Futurismic. I’m editing and republishing each of my BHfW columns here over time.

My life is fairly crammed, and writing time is hard to come by. Today I got one of those precious blocks of time in which I could write for several hours almost without interruption, yet as I fired up the computer, I felt not excited about the prospect, but worried and on edge.  I also felt a little unsure: I had several projects I could be working on and was waffling on which one to choose.

Looking before leaping
I could have just plunged in and begun working on whatever seemed easiest, most obvious, or most attractive, and if I got deeply enough into the writing that I achieved flow, that might have gone well. On the other hand, I might have made a bad choice out of inattention, and it’s possible that even if I’d made a good random choice, my concern that I might be working on the wrong thing or my general unexplored discomfort might have seriously interfered with my ability to focus. Under those conditions, I might be especially unlikely to enjoy the work, which is a problem, because while common sense suggests that it doesn’t matter to productivity whether you enjoy the writing or not as you do it, in truth not enjoying what we’re doing tends to make us quit sooner, latch onto distractions more easily, feel less positive about what we’re achieving, and avoid coming back to do more. Liking the process of writing is a good way to write more and to be more invested in our work.

Schema journaling
So instead of starting by writing, I started by writing down my thoughts about writing. One of my current projects is a layperson’s book on mental schemas. Mental schemas (the habitual patterns called “early maladaptive schemas,” if we want to be more technical) are persistent ways of thinking that tend to interfere with living a happy and productive life, explored in detail in a branch of psychology called Schema Therapy. To provide a framework for making use of these ideas in my book, I’ve been experimenting with something I call a Schema Journal, where daily entries are an opportunity to find focus, work through confusing situations, reflect on progress and obstacles, and find answers to difficult questions. This same approach can be used without keeping a journal to sort out any situation that seems to be interfering with writing, whether it’s intellectual (like choosing which of two projects to pursue), emotional (like feeling worried that a project isn’t going well), or organizational (like having trouble finding time to write).

Schema journaling tools
Just writing freely about problems is a good approach, but it can be especially effective to write to a specific purpose. Here are some of the available tools or purposes writing about writing can have:

  • Feedback loop: Reflection on how behaviors and choices are affecting a situation so far, identifying improvements, and coming up with specific plans to use those improvements at the next opportunity.
  • Exploration: Thinking in detail about an opportunity or problem to come up with more specific questions or goals.
  • Decision: Making a choice. This is the kind of entry I used today, starting with the question “Which of my writing projects should I work on at the moment?” This came after realizing that what was holding me back from feeling enthusiastic about writing was that I was conflicted about which project to work on. If I hadn’t been sure what the problem was, an “Exploration” entry would have been the thing to do first. That would have led me to the question I could use for my Decision entry.
  • Assignment: Choosing a task that is usually avoided and setting a specific time frame for getting it done. This shouldn’t be a big project, but rather a specific thing you can accomplish, preferably in one attempt. Ideally this is something you can repeat, for instance “Choose a short story that needs a small amount of editing, edit it, and send it out.” The writing to do about the task is whatever is needed to create enthusiasm and get focused.
  • Envision: Visualize a future situation that helps motivate you. The situation should be plausible, but doesn’t have to be something that’s immediately realistic. Getting used to the idea that things could go well and allowing ourselves to feel some of the emotions we experience when things do go well can help create a more positive and focused mood for writing.

There are additional kinds of entries in an actual Schema Journal that are more involved and have longer-term intentions, but the five specific tools above offer ways to get past the emotions, complications, and mental obstacles that prevent writing from getting done, or sometimes that simply get in the way of enjoying the process.

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Always Giving to Others? That’s Fine, If You Want to End Up a Stump

States of mind

I’ve long had a problem with the acclaimed Shel Silverstein picture book The Giving Tree. It’s the story of a “friendship” between a tree and a boy in which the tree progressively gives everything it has–starting with the reasonable gifts of shade and fruit and a place to climb, but pushing on to the point where it urges the boy to cut it down–in order to make the boy happy.

Don’t get me wrong: giving is wonderful. What’s not wonderful is giving everything you have and are away. Self-sacrifice is one of the 18 problem mental schemas covered by the school of psychology known as schema therapy (see “Mental Schemas #13: Self-Sacrifice“).

Women seem to be disproportionately the victims of self-sacrifice. While many of us grow up with the message that it’s better to give than to receive, it seems that girls more often than boys are told that it’s always right to do things for others and never right to do things for ourselves.

Healthy relationships require balance. Everyone involved in the relationship is important, and when the needs of one person completely trump the needs of the other, both suffer. The giving side of this is called self-sacrifice; the taking side is another mental schema, Entitlement, and it’s not particularly fun to be afflicted with either.

What makes the boy in the story so comfortable hurting the tree to benefit himself? Why, when the tree is demonstrating such extraordinary consideration for him, does he feel so little concern for her?

Some people interpret the story as a straightforward parable of parents and children, and I suspect it was intended this way. The problem is that as much as a parent-child relationship for a long time is a lopsided arrangement, children are not so important that adults should ignore their own needs entirely in order to satisfy the child’s every whim. If this sounds insufficiently nurturing, consider this: one of the most important jobs parents have is modeling strong, healthy relationships. A child who gets everything while the parents give everything either follows the parent’s model and becomes a tool for the takers of the world, or (more likely) grows up with a sense of being the center of the universe, not subject to the same rules as everyone else, entitled to do anything that seems necessary to get a desired outcome–in other words, a taker him- or herself.

Another thing to consider about self-sacrifice is that sacrificing so much that one’s needs aren’t getting met usually results in emotional trouble. We all need a certain amount of love, consideration, and support. When we tell everyone else that they should take everything they want from us and never need to give anything back, we don’t get those things, and as a result we become stunted and often bitter. By giving everything, we end up having less available to give, just as the tree could have continued giving shade, apples, oxygen, and a place to play for generations if it hadn’t tried to give up its entire being just so the boy could make a boat.

To really be able to give the most to others, we have to be willing to receive some things ourselves.

Photo by karenhdy

Added afterward: In the same vein, Alison Cherry has an eye-opening version of the story on her site at http://alisoncherrybooks.com/blog/2011/12/8/why-i-hate-the-giving-tree.html .

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So This Sucks. What’s That Shiny Thing? On Schema Avoidance

Habits

I’m big on using writing as a tool for mindfulness and self-understanding: I do a lot of sitting down to write out what my thoughts and experiences have been on certain problem topics (whatever I’m working on in my life at that point in time) and using tools I’ve acquired, like idea repair and identifying mental schemas to figure out what’s going right, what’s going wrong, and what I can do to improve things. Yesterday, in the middle of this process, I suddenly became distracted.

And now for something completely different …
I was writing about a situation that had been frustrating me and had gotten to the point of saying “OK, I don’t know what’s going on there, but it sure is frustrating.” Sometimes I stop at that point if I don’t have any further insights. In this case, I hadn’t really thought the thing through very well, so I didn’t know whether or not I had further insights. Before I could figure that out, I found myself thinking about some entertaining distractions on the Internet, a new little project I could start, and wanting to check my e-mail. Since I was fortunately already trying to pay attention to my thoughts, I pulled myself up short. What was going on with me? I was doing meaningful self-examination, and then suddenly I want to go see what’s on YouTube? Was I trying to distract myself from something?

Having that thought, I was immediately inclined to drop the subject. It was as though I had walked up to a door and found a sign on it saying “Go away! We don’t want any!” Since this was happening (metaphorically) in my own brain, that seemed like a red flag to me–and also, I just like being contrary. So I opened the door and looked around. When I did, I came face to face with the overcommitment problem I’d been mulling over recently and one of the hidden ways it has been affecting me.

Schema avoidance
So what had happened was that the thinking I was doing led me to make a connection between some of my behaviors and overcommitment, but as soon as I got close to that connection, I automatically started distracting myself. There’s a name for this phenomenon. In schema therapy, it’s a “schema coping style” called “schema avoidance.”

Avoidance takes any number of forms: it can be television, surfing the Web, extreme sports, reading, going out with friends, eating, drug abuse, drinking, or anything else that can keep a person’s attention well enough to block some other thought or feeling. It can even be something constructive, like doing the dishes or working out.

Unfortunately, coping styles (like avoidance) don’t tell us much about what the underlying problem is. The fact that I was avoiding something only told me that there was something wrong, not what kind of thing it was.

It’s worth thinking how much this has to do with procrastination. In our culture, we tend to think of work as being something we would naturally want to avoid, but there’s nothing inherently painful about work, and often other problems–like fear of failure, perfectionism, or negativity–cause us to want to distract ourselves from working.

Opening the door marked “do not enter”
So learning about ourselves when we notice we’re being avoidant means facing the avoidance and consciously choosing to stay on task, to keep thinking or talking or feeling or investigating whatever it was that set us off. If I go to open my mail and suddenly have the idea that it would be fun to go out ice skating or that it’s time to watch a new DVD, then there’s a good chance that there’s something about the mail that triggers one of my mental schemas. If at that point I want to grow as a person and get past my current life obstacles, then the thing for me to do is to go to the mail, open it, and be observant of and gentle with myself as I face whatever it is I don’t want to face.

Being observant is necessary if I’m going to understand myself better in order to change things. Being gentle is necessary because we’ve developed these schemas and coping styles for a reason: somewhere earlier in life, something along these lines was painful enough to force a schema to develop around it. If we want to unravel mental schemas that keep us from living a good life, we need to care for whatever part of us the schema is there to protect.

Got courage?
I understand this talk of being gentle with ourselves may be offputting to some readers, so I’d like to characterize it in another way: facing those things that disturb us even though doing so makes us uncomfortable and vulnerable requires focus, self-knowledge, and above all, courage. So if the thought of facing everything that makes you feel uncomfortable or bad in the world gives you a sudden urge to see what’s on TV, I don’t blame you–but I also wish you good luck pushing the avoidance aside and courageously moving forward.

Photo by rishibando

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How Do You Fix Greed? Part I: The Roots of Greed

Society and culture

How do you fix greed? It’s a question that’s plagues our country and much of the world right now, although I’m going to talk about America specifically–because let’s face it, where greed is concerned, we Americans are at the top of the charts. In some other countries, corruption and greed in the government is an especially nasty problem, but here in America greed is more or less a core value, something that’s encouraged for every citizen. As a result, we’re the wealthiest large nation in the world and consume a percentage of the world’s resources that’s far out of proportion to our population.

What specifically is so bad about greed? Isn’t it natural, anyway? Even if it isn’t, what can you do if greed is just something bad people embrace?

What’s wrong with greed?
The problem with greed is that it leads to people and corporations trying to amass resources they don’t need and can’t use well, often straining the capacity of the rest of society and the natural environment in the process. It’s not just the multi-millionaire tossing back caviar while homeless families try to survive on canned soup: it’s kids amassing electronic devices instead of going outside and playing with friends, adults trapping themselves in jobs that make them miserable in order to get the larger houses and better cars they think they “should” be able to have, and people whose lives are dominated by abject envy of everyone wealthier or more famous than they are. Greed is bad investments, celebrity idolization, consumerism grown out of proportion, lousy jobs, waste, inequity, and disconnection of us all from one another.

Isn’t greed natural?
We’ve grown to think it’s natural and normal for people to want as much money as they can get, but we don’t really want money at all: what we want is what money gets us, and by this I don’t mean the products and services, but rather things like a sense of safety, power, indulgence, or validation. When we talk of caring about something, we’re saying we have an emotional stake in it. Our emotional stake in money doesn’t have anything to do directly with having the assets: it’s first about answering physical needs—the minimum of food, shelter, health care, safety, clothing, transportation, and education that is the baseline for our society–and second about gratifying unmet emotional needs.

The emotional roots of greed: some examples
Let’s say Ed grows up in a house where his parents only pay attention to him when he accomplishes something–gets good grades or wins a trophy in a track meet, for example. Ed may very well internalize the idea that the only way people will care about him–in fact, the only way he’s actually worth anything–is if he has something to show for it that everyone can appreciate. He may therefore go into a high-income career and spend his money on trophies: trophy house, trophy clothes, trophy vacations, trophy foods … all so that he can impress people into caring about him and so that he can feel worthwhile. This may sound a little pathetic, but consider how many people buy things–cars, houses in the right neighborhood, even certain foods–in order to act out the life they want to be seen leading.

Actual human connection could make all of this trophy-getting unnecessary. If Ed acquires a set of friends who appreciate his sense of humor and determination and don’t care about his money, Ed may come to stop caring about money so much too, which could lead to enormous changes in making his life happier–like living where he really wants to live, doing what he really wants to do, and prioritizing experiences with friends and family or meaningful accomplishments in the world over acquiring things.

Ed’s situation isn’t the only way we get emotionally involved with money. Imagine Deborah, whose childhood was one disaster after another resulting in moves, loss of friends and homes, and other kinds of upsets. Once Deborah gets out into the world on her own, she may prioritize security over all else, meaning that she has to pile up a lot of things and a lot of money so that she will feel safe against things like the layoffs her father went through or the loss of her home to a flood because her parents couldn’t afford flood insurance.

Or imagine Nick, who was awkward and shy as a kid and ended up being the butt of everyone else’s jokes. They won’t be laughing at him when he pulls up to the high school reunion in a Ferrari while wearing a twenty-six hundred dollar suit, now will they?

Or Andrea, whose parents gave her all the physical things she wanted but left her actual care to a string of nannies and boarding schools. As an adult, Andrea buys anything she wants, whether she can afford it or not, because she “deserves” it–constantly trying to fill an emotional void with things, and probably failing just as badly as her parents did no matter how delightful that first, brief glow of pleasure may be.

That’s not nearly the whole list, but I hope my point is clear: the roots of greed are emotional ones. People want to feel safe, loved, valued, validated, and respected. In different ways, money promises all of those things, even though it often doesn’t deliver.

Are greedy people bad people?
It’s tempting to write off anyone who acts greedy as simply a bad person, yet there’s a more exact and constructive way to look at the problem. First, problem behaviors like greed usually come from people trying to meet their emotional needs, which is a pretty understandable thing to try to do, even if somebody hasn’t chosen a very successful method.

Almost all people who act greedy also do things that we would admire in their lives–they might parent their children well, give to charities, have a strong work ethic, work for causes, help friends and neighbors, have a lot of integrity, or otherwise show their true value.

Writing these people off also means writing off whatever part of ourselves might agree with them, the part that may covet clothes or free time, travel, cars, expensive foods, luxury, or even having a lot of money to help other people with.

Writing off anyone who acts greedy is wasteful, too, because if people can learn not to be greedy, as surely seems to be the case even without the fictional or legendary examples of Siddhartha and Ebeneezer Scrooge, then there’s a powerful reason to try to find ways to fix greed: if a greedy person becomes a non-greedy person, we’ve gained an ally–sometimes a powerful one.

In the next part of this series, I’ll take a look at how greed is entrenched in American culture and what would be necessary to root it out.

Photo by subsetsum

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How Can Bad Relationships Feel So Right?

The human mind

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately on schema therapy and mental schemas, a subject I’ve written about here a number of times: see links on my Mental Schemas and Schema Therapy page. One of the most intriguing insights that’s come up in that reading is “schema chemistry.” What’s schema chemistry? The short version is this: sometimes the people we are most strongly attracted to are the ones who are the most likely to make us crazy.

I don’t want to overstate this: I don’t imagine for a minute that all love, romance, chemistry, and attraction are based on people fitting their mental baggage together–but it’s pretty fascinating that some of it seems to be, for some people.

The apparent reason schema chemistry happens is that the kinds of troubles we’re used to are comfortable and normal-feeling to us, so a person who causes the same problems we’re used to will feel more familiar and closer. If Mary grew up in a house where her parents always left her alone, she might very well feel more “at home”–not happier, but in more familiar and “right-feeling” territory–if she dates someone who always leaves her home alone, too. If Jack’s mom was always telling him he was a hopeless screw-up, he might have more respect for and feel more familiar with a girlfriend who always tells him the same thing.

According to some accounts in Schema Therapy: A Practitioner’s Guide by Drs. Jeffrey Young and Janet Klosko, it appears this isn’t always a mild effect, either: sometimes it really makes the sparks fly.

As you might expect, this can be bad news. Two people might fall madly in love, have a breathtaking romance, and then settle down into a pattern of gradually making each other miserable. Apart from breaking up, the best hope for a couple like this is often to get couples therapy–I’d be inclined to suggest couples schema therapy specifically–and to learn there not only how to handle their own emotional baggage better, but also how not to push the other person’s destructive buttons.

Here are a few more examples of schema chemistry:

  • A person who feels defective (the Defectiveness schema) gets together with a person who feels like people should be punished for even small mistakes (the Punitiveness schema)
  • A person with a sense of being better and more deserving than other people (the Entitlement schema) gets involved with someone who is constantly taking care of other people at the expense of their own needs (the Self-Sacrifice schema)
  • Someone who grew up feeling lonely and neglected in a house where there was very little nurturing or expression of love (the Emotional Deprivation schema) dates someone to whom expressing emotions seems unnecessary and disturbing (the Emotional Inhibition schema).

There are any number of combinations, given that there are 18 different schemas and a variety of ways to express each one. Fortunately, there are many other factors to bringing two people together than schema chemistry. Here’s hoping it’s not at work in your relationship! If it is, just becoming aware of how the two schemas interact may start to help. I’m working on a short, informal book on mental schemas that I hope will make it easier for people to gain insights on their own and others’ schemas; it should be out in November or December. For information on that, stay tuned.

Photo by jb_brooke

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Mental Schemas #17: Unrelenting Standards

Handling negative emotions

This post is part of a 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.

How good is “good enough”? For a person with an Unrelenting Standards Schema (also called “Hypercriticalness”), only perfection is acceptable: anything less is a disaster.

Unrelenting standards can be expressed in a variety of ways, but the three most common are

  1. Time and efficiency. Some people with this schema feel that it’s always necessary to do things efficiently, to use all time productively, to never waste time or do things for purposes that aren’t primarily practical.
  2. Perfectionism. A person who expresses the Unrelenting Standards Schema through perfectionism is always anxious that everything go exactly the way it’s supposed to, that there never be any flaws or mistakes.
  3. Rigidity. A third group of people with the Unrelenting Standards Schema have an unyielding set of rules, which might be philosophical, moral, religious, practical, etc. When such people see someone not adhering to these rules, they often get involved whether that makes things worse or not. They also tend to be very hard on themselves in the same way, feeling like they’ve absolutely failed whenever they don’t follow meet their own dictates to the letter.

How Unrelenting Standards come out in daily life
To someone who has this schema, their own rules may not seem extreme at all–they may feel like a normal standard. It’s only when such a person’s expectations are compared to other people’s that the differences begin to show themselves.

A lot of people try to do things really well. What’s the difference between that and having an Unrelenting Standards Schema? One of the key signs is that an Unrelenting Standards schema causes harm in a person’s life. For instance, a normal event like a picnic or a presentation becomes a terrible ordeal because it would feel like a catastrophe if any little thing went wrong. People with this schema may have a hard time enjoying successes. After all, if perfection is the normal way things are meant to be, how is it in any way impressive or special when something is done really well?

Unrelenting Standards often come out in as all-or-nothing propositions. To a person with this schema, a partial success is a failure, and “pretty good” is bad.

People with Unrelenting Standards schemas may find themselves hit hard when they fail to live up to their own impossible requirements. The flip side of perfectionism is avoiding responsibilities altogether and procrastinating, because it’s so difficult to face past and possible future mistakes. When such a person finally jars loose from their procrastination, their schema may affect them far more than usual as their excruciating awareness of how badly they’ve recently been failing to meet their own expectations makes them lash themselves into expecting even more from themselves.

Overcoming an Unrelenting Standards schema
Changing an Unrelenting Standards schema isn’t easy, because it means changing ideas that may have been deeply held for a long, long time. Also, a person with this schema will often have a habit of expecting too much of their own efforts, so that a long, effortful struggle against a habit is hard to tolerate. Fortunately, there are strategies such a person can use to transform standards, expectations, and responses to success and failure.

  • Make risks feel less scary. The risks of failure are often mild compared to our fears of them. Using idea repair to bring things back into proportion and to become OK with making mistakes sometimes takes a lot of the anxiety and discomfort out of trying to get something done.
  • Get a hobby. This may sound like trivial advice, but for people who can’t let go of the feeling that every second has to be productive and efficient or something terrible will happen, getting used to spending time in a non-productive way can be powerful and freeing. My favorite account of this kind of benefit so far is from this blogger, for whom taking up knitting helped drive a sea change in her happiness and self-acceptance.
  • Make friends with imperfection. Another approach a person with this schema can take is to consciously choose to sometimes do things imperfectly (something the blogger I just mentioned did with her knitting). Being able to do something less than perfectly but still experience the benefits it brings helps put expectations in perspective. For example, it would be terrific if the U.S. Congress could get together on legislation that made the absolute biggest possible impact on the economy, job creation, and deficit reduction, but most of us voters would be pretty thrilled if they would just make some kinds of modest gains in each area, even if it wasn’t done in the ideal way.
  • Do a cost-benefit analysis. This very pragmatic approach tends to expose an unintuitive truth: perfection is inefficient. For instance, consider a situation in which you could get 90% of the juice out of an orange in 2 minutes or 100% of the juice in 5 minutes. A single orange yields about 2 ounces of juice, so that last 10% would be 3 minutes of effort for .2 ounces of juice. If you get paid twenty-five dollars per hour at your job, one eight-ounce glass of perfection juice would cost you $50 in labor under these circumstances. Is the last 10% of the juice worth fifty bucks? Probably not.This same kind of analysis holds true in many situations, personal and professional. When we analyze what perfection costs us compared to pretty good performance, often “pretty good” wins hands down.

    That’s not to say there’s no place in the world for perfection. Sometimes it’s worth spending 4 years painting a ceiling. It’s just that usually it really isn’t.

Are you a perfectionist, a recovering Time Nazi, or is someone in your life driven to never accept anything that is flawed in any way? Talk about it in comments!

Image by fisserman

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Mental Schemas #16: Negativity

Handling negative emotions

This post is part of a 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.

The negativity schema is an ongoing, oppressive feeling that everything sucks, or that life is very likely to suck soon, or that life has always sucked and is not likely to change. To put it another way, a person with this schema tends to exaggerate or dwell on negatives and minimize or ignore positives, leading to a feeling that everything is in a pattern of going badly.  Not surprisingly, such a person tends to spend a lot of time worrying, complaining, not knowing what to do, or guarding against impending disaster.

In terms of broken ideas (see “All About Broken Ideas and Idea Repair,”) negativity can shows up as disqualifying the positive (“he just said he liked it because he didn’t want to get into an argument”), mental filter (“nobody ever helps when my workload gets out of hand!”), magnification/minimization (“that spilled cup of coffee has ruined my day”), or other kinds of destructive thinking.

People with this schema may try to avoid feelings and experiences, for instance by hiding away at home alone and watching TV for hours every night; or they may surrender to the schema, constantly complaining and expecting the worst; or they might try to overcompensate, for instance by trying to control everyone around them to prevent bad things from happening or by pretending nothing bad ever happens and that everything’s always fine–or the schema might come out in a combination of these ways.

Where negativity schemas come from
How does a person get saddled with the idea that life is terrible, or that terrible things are always just around the corner? Often this attitude is passed on by a parent who has the same problems, one who worried constantly or made a point of always highlighting the darkest and worst aspects of life. Alternatively, people with this schema may have had a childhood in which they were always discouraged and their accomplishments or good fortune were never recognized or considered important. Or a person may have experienced much more than normal tragedy and sadness while growing up such that it began to feel like pain and suffering are the main patterns of existence.

Overcoming a negativity schema
Getting past a negativity schema isn’t easy: after all, there will always be new tragedies and bad outcomes to point to. Coming to a different point of view requires effort over time to recognize negative thinking patterns and change them. One important change that nurtures a more positive outlook is putting time and attention into recognizing and feeling gratitude for good things that happen, large and small. Another is catching ourselves in the act of amplifying negative feelings and experiences when we use self-talk like “I know this is going to go badly” or “This is awful! What a disaster!” and stating things more rationally.

Of course some things will go wrong: part of undoing a negativity schema is being OK with this, understanding that tragedy is a part of life and that it never means that everything good in life is gone.

In terms of action, a person can fight a negativity schema by spending time with people who have a more positive outlook (and letting them bring the mood up rather than bringing their mood down!), holding back from complaints and dire predictions, and participating in activities in which it’s easy to see the good, like volunteering or playing with children without trying to direct the way play goes.

In some cases we can make great strides against negativity on our own, but when any mental pattern feels too big to handle alone, a good cognitive therapist can be enormously helpful.

Photo by Christopher JL

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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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What Are Your Mental Schemas? A Quiz, Part 2

Handling negative emotions

Here’s part 2 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.

When you were young, did your family seem not to fit in with the other families? At school, did you feel as though you weren’t part of what was going on?
In social circumstances, do you feel as though you have little to do with the other people around you?
At times when you’re unhappy, do loneliness and a feeling of separation have a major role?
If so, it can be worth reading about the Alienation Schema.

Do you often feel like you’re not good enough for the situations or roles you want in life?
Are you acutely aware of making major mistakes on a regular basis?
If someone tells you that you suck, do you tend to believe them, at least a little?
These feelings can be indications of an Incompetence Schema.

Do you regularly find yourself worrying about terrible things happening to you, or to your friends or family?
If something goes mildly wrong, do you begin to imagine how that might be the start of a disaster?
Do you have trouble putting aside worries over situations you can’t change?
A Vulnerability Schema can cause these kinds of issues.

If you were going to consider a major life change, is there someone else whose opinion on the matter would feel more important than your own?
Apart from your children, if any, is there a relationship in your life without which you feel like one or both of you couldn’t survive?
Do you ever feel smothered in one or more of your relationships?
If these questions hit home, you might well want to learn about Enmeshment Schemas.

When you were young, were you often told that you were doing everything wrong?
Do you regularly feel that no matter how hard you try, you have no chance of being a great success at anything?
Think about something you’ve done well in the past. Do you tend to regard that success as a fluke rather than as evidence of your abilities?
If you answered yes to some or all of this set of questions, you may be facing a Failure Schema.

The quiz continues next time with the final fifteen or so questions.

Photo by kk+.

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