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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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What Are Your Mental Schemas? A Quiz, Part 1

Handling negative emotions

Learning about mental schemas can be powerfully useful in that they seem to be very common, so knowing schemas can help us see ourselves and others more clearly and in more useful ways. I’d stop short of assuming that absolutely everyone has at least one mental schema to deal with, but if that turned out to be true, I wouldn’t be surprised. Throughout childhood, and as we grow and refine our attitudes and ways of being, there are so many things we would need for everything to go perfectly that it’s no surprise human beings tend to come through the process with some quirks or hang-ups.

Schemas in action are patterns of thinking that hurt us rather than help us–that is, patterns of “broken ideas.” For instance, a person with an Abandonment Schema might regularly have the thought “This person isn’t going to stick with me” and make decisions based on that idea even when there’s no real reason to believe that the other person will be leaving. Or a person with an Entitlement Schema might think “I should be able to have that!” even if “that” is something that will ultimately be harmful.

A person might have one schema or several, related or not, suffering severely or mildly from or having overcome any given schema. The following questions are an informal attempt to describe what each schema is like so that you can investigate schemas that seem to strike a chord. This isn’t an official approach to determining schemas, just a way to try some ideas on for size.

I’ll do this quiz in three parts. Here’s part one:

Do you feel that people are basically unreliable?
When you’re in a relationship, do you feel like it’s only a matter of time before the other person leaves?
Do you find it very difficult to trust that people will provide what you need?
If yes, you may want to take a look at the Abandonment Schema.

Do you find that you’re often doubtful about other people’s good intentions?
Do you tend to suspect that people will do you harm if you don’t protect yourself?
Do you feel safer keeping people at a distance?
These kinds of feelings may point to a Mistrust Schema.

Do you tend to feel that other people don’t understand you, and that they don’t want to understand you?
Do you find the way other people see you discouraging?
Do you feel as though you never get enough emotional support, or that people don’t really see you?
If so, you may want to read about the Emotional Deprivation Schema.

Are you highly sensitive to criticism compared to other people you know?
(Did you feel a strong twinge of defensiveness at reading that question?)
Do you often have the feeling, deep down, that you’re broken or unworthy?
These can be signs of a Defectiveness Schema.

More questions follow when the quiz continues with my next post.

Photo by LollyKnit

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Mental Schemas #2: Mistrust

Handling negative emotions

This is the second 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.

The Mistrust Schema
People with the Mistrust Schema expect bad treatment from others. They tend to think or say that they always get the worst of things, that other people want to do them harm, or that it’s not safe to trust others. Having a Mistrust Schema means feeling deep down, on a gut level, regardless of logic, that other people cannot be trusted, that the only safety is in keeping others at a distance.

Mistrust Schemas can be complicated or maintained in part by a person who avoids close connections with others out of fear of being hurt. This kind of avoidance encourages others to shun or disregard the person with the Mistrust Schema and makes it especially difficult to have any relationship that could prove the mistrust unfounded.

A person with a Mistrust Schema may also tend to jump to conclusions about others’ intentions and motivations, leading to unfounded accusations or preemptive counter-strikes–both of which, needless to say, tend to make others less well-disposed toward the person struggling with mistrust.

The Mistrust Schema generally is built early in life in response to abuse, whether emotional, physical, or sexual, by a person in authority or by anyone who is deeply trusted. A child who is mistreated will often naturally adopt a strategy of assuming the worst of other people in order not to be put in a vulnerable position again if it can be helped. While this behavior may help with the original untrustworthy person, it gets carried over to everyone else as life goes on, creating an emotional barrier that encourages isolation and fear.

Overcoming a Mistrust Schema
Relieving and eventually overcoming a Mistrust Schema requires an act of faith: consciously deciding to trust a person from time to time. A Mistrust Schema expresses itself in part as the broken idea known as fortune telling, in which a person makes assumptions about how the future will be (in this case, assuming that others will treat them badly), or in the related broken idea called mind reading, in which a person assumes things about how someone else is thinking (in this case, assuming that they are planning something unkind). For a person to come to grips with this schema means first noticing how it is affecting their life, behavior, and especially thinking: perceiving that this basic assumption that others will be hurtful is causing thoughts to run a certain way, then consciously rerouting those thoughts.

For example, a person with a mistrust schema may see a family member’s number coming up on caller ID before answering the phone and assume that the family member is calling to say unkind things. If the phone is answered with a hostile tone and the person with the mistrust schema is unkind or suspicious in the conversation, this encourages exactly the kind of behavior the person is predicting.

To cause the phone call to go another way, it’s necessary to stop and change the thought “That’s my sister. She’s calling to harangue me again.” to something like “That’s my sister. She may be calling to say something unkind, something nice, or just to pass on news. If I act kindly toward her over the phone, though, she may possibly talk kindly back.”

Small instances in which a person can demonstrate that mistrust is ill-founded can add up to greater confidence over time that can be used in situations that require more trust.

I’ll also mention that a good cognitive therapist can often be very helpful when a person is facing a major or ongoing problem like an especially bad mistrust schema. Even without the help of a therapist, though, it’s possible to take a stronger role in shaping our own mental landscapes when we’re aware of and deal directly with our own broken thoughts.

Photo by  j / f / photos

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