Browsing the archives for the schema therapy tag.
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The Little Lying Creep That Lives in My Head

States of mind

I used to have excuses: I wasn’t as clear on what would make me happy, on the difference between happiness and pleasure, or even on whether or not happiness was what was really important. Even when I understood what the best things were to do, in the past I often couldn’t figure out how to care and act on that.

Past excuses
These days I don’t have those excuses. I understand how central happiness is and how it’s different than pleasure. From researching and writing about habits over the past years, I have so many available ways to get and stay on track, it’s not so much a bag of tricks as a chase van full of them. I have a clear sense of how to be a deeply fulfilled, effective, and compassionate person.

So why aren’t I doing a better job? Sure, I’m doing pretty well, but why aren’t I closer to, you know, perfect?

It’s true that knowing isn’t enough, but if we understand the process of bridging the gap between knowing and doing (see the link for details), that’s not much of an excuse. No, I think what gets in my way those times that I could do the better thing and end up doing the worse thing, is the little lying creep that lives in my head.

I’ll call him “the Creep” for short.

Meet the Creep
Let’s say I come across a plate of doughnuts. I might say to myself,  “Yeah, those doughnuts look good, but you know what would make me feel better and happier? A round of push-ups.”

The Creep will respond “You know what would actually make you feel better? A freakin’ doughnut, that’s what. Push-ups don’t make you happier than doughnuts do. Push-ups just make you a joyless, self-righteous exercise junky. Doughnuts make you somebody who’s eating a delicious doughnut.”

Or I’ll have an hour or two available and think, “Why don’t I spend this time going over my task list and reorganizing items into updated categories so that I have a better handle on what I need to get done over the next couple of days?”

The Creep will respond “Or you could not do something stupid and boring and instead install World of Warcraft. Then you could spend the next six months playing that. Come on, it would be fun!”

I am pleased to say that these days, the Creep usually loses. I’ve been waging a long and exhausting battle against him over the course of years, learning to be more reliable, more productive, more self-aware, kinder, and a lot else.

Yet he’s still a major daily obstacle. I know he’s a big fat liar, but he’s so convincing. He emerged when I was very young, and I’m used to following his instructions.

Sometimes he’s even partly right. “Wow, this doughnut is good,” I might say, and he’ll say “I know, right? Now let’s get you some kind of candy to go with that.”

Later I’ll point out how the Creep’s advice has created problems or squandered opportunities, but he’ll be unavailable for comment.

Keep on Creepin’ on
These days, I try not to fall into the trap of fighting the creep. You can’t win an argument with him: he keeps coming up with more “common wisdom,” more “obvious truths,” and more justifications. “But you’re tired,” he’ll insist. “And you had that thing with the water spraying all over you, which wasn’t fair and was annoying, and anyway who are you trying to impress?”

Even if we get past all that, he doesn’t stop. “Yuh huh,” he’ll say. “Nuh uh,” I’ll point out. “Yuh huh,” he’ll rebut. He can go on like that all day … and sometimes has.

Still rummaging through the toolbox
So what’s the cure for the common Creep? I don’t have a single, easy answer: now that I’ve identified him, I have to see what mental tools I can use to get him to settle down. I take heart that I’ve been making headway, that he’s become a weaker and weaker influence over time.

I’m also interested in this idea of the Creep as a character or a mode in my head. This connects well with the schema therapy concept of modes, nine different roles that people take on mentally, for example the Healthy Adult and the Impulsive/Undisciplined Child.

Seeing the Creep as a mode or role, as soon as I identify him as being the one behind an idea in my head, my perspective shifts. I can say to myself “Well of course the Creep wants to do that. But what does the part of myself who actually has a clue think?”

Actually, I didn’t even realize that the Creep was a mode until I started writing about him here, and with that realization I suddenly have access to the Schema Therapy tools that apply to modes–dialog between modes, for instance, where the healthy part of me asks the Creep what’s going on.

Creeps wanted
What about you? Do your worst impulses have a personality? What tricks does that character have up its sleeve? Got a name for it? I’d be interested to hear your stories.

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How Do You Research Characters and Settings So That They Feel Real?

Writing

Old Vermont barns like this one were part of my experience I wanted to use in the setting for my novel of curse-keeping in rural Vermont, Family Skulls (see left sidebar)

I try to limit the number of posts I make on the craft of fiction writing, because while I’ve been seeing some great success in my writing, it’s not as though I’ve written the Great American Novel and hit the bestseller lists, so advice on how to write a story seems like something I should be careful not to give out too much of. However, a reader recently wrote to me saying she was concerned that she might not be able to learn enough about her characters and settings to write a novel that feels real, and asking what kind of research I do when writing fiction to make sure that these elements work. Feeling that I had some useful information on the subject, I replied. Here’s what I wrote:

Based on my own experience and on many discussions with other writers, there seem to be a lot of different approaches to researching character and setting. Some of us just dive right in and either stop to do research as necessary or make notes about what we need to research and just keep writing around the blanks. Personally I’m not a fan of putting in a blank and expecting to fill in with research later, because I think good research can weave itself deeply into the story, but I can’t deny that it works for some good writers.

Using research to make a story work well and feel real isn’t especially difficult, but it does take time and effort.

Approaches for characters
I’d suggest taking different approaches for characters and setting. For characters, unless you’re the kind of person who (like me) likes to try to draw characters out while writing the story, I’d suggest putting down some key information about each major character first. Basic life facts and physical information are important, of course–What are their hair colors? How strong or weak, heavy or light are they? What kinds of medical problems have they had to go through? How tall or short are they? What were their families like as children, and who was in those families? What are their family or living situations like now? How do they get along with family members in the present? How far have they gotten in school? How did they do? What job, if any, do they have?

Even more importantly, though, you can delve into what drives them. I don’t think it’s necessarily important to know what a character’s favorite color is or what that character ate for breakfast unless that’s very meaningful to who they are or to the story–though some writers disagree and feel that this kind of extreme detail is worth gathering. For my money, though, what’s important is what the character desires, what they’re afraid of, what their doubts are, what kinds of situations get under their skin, and that kind of thing.

Strengths and schemas
I often use strengths and schemas, at least informally, to flesh out characters. The 36 strengths outlined by Marcus Buckingham, et al. (see http://www.strengthstest.com/theme_summary.php ) are one good way to find out what characters are good at. The 18 early maladaptive schemas from schema therapy (see http://www.lucreid.com/?page_id=1292 ) can be used to find at least one major personality flaw for each character. Real people have multiple strengths and usually multiple schemas, though some may be milder than others. Characters don’t necessarily have to be fleshed out with a cocktail of five strengths and three schemas, for instance, unless it’s really necessary to get that deep to figure out what they’ll do.

Have reasons for your choices
One piece of this process that seems essential to me (and that I forgot to mention to my correspondent on the first pass) is that I don’t see any point in coming up with arbitrary choices. I’d advise choosing character details because they grab you, because they make the character more interesting and complex, because they’ll drive the story, or because they make an interesting cocktail with other characteristics. If your character creation process contains steps like “I guess she’ll have been brought up by a single mom, because I know there are a lot of single moms,” then I suspect you won’t get much juice out of that fact of her upbringing. If you say, though, “I guess she’ll have been brought up by a single mom, and the mom was an alcoholic, so my character had to be the parent to her own mom as she was growing up,” or “I guess she’ll have been brought up by a single mom, being told her father was dead, and then in the story her father will show up at some crucial point when she can’t afford to spare any attention to connect with him.” … well, then maybe you’ve got something.

Personally, I tend to try to let characters emerge organically as I write them, and only stop and question myself about them when they’re not already coming alive. However, this approach takes some practice to work well, doesn’t suit everyone, and may not be ideal anyway. My suggestion in regard to how to come up with characters, as with everything else, is to try everything … then spend a few years getting better at the techniques you decided to use and try everything again. Write, grow, repeat.

Approaches for settings
For settings, I’d suggest starting with a place you have easy access to if possible and paying close attention to the sights, sounds, smells, and physical experience of being in that place. If that’s not practical, it’s worth digging up photos, videos, articles, or other materials that give you a lot of physical specifics. Writing comes alive when it’s full of fresh, unusual, accurate sensory details–and ideally not just sight and sound, but all the senses. If you go too far with this, it begins to get overwhelming, but one or two good sensory impressions per page really pack a punch.

The facts about a location are easier: you can use Google Maps or Google Earth to find out how things are laid out, look up construction of houses or how an office is furnished, etc. I tend to do a lot of research looking for images and videos, because they give me much more of a feeling of being in a place than a simple description.

A couple of writing books you might really like, in case you haven’t already read them, are Orson Scott Card’s Characters and Viewpoint and Stephen King’s On Writing. Between the two of them, they can give you a lot of tools, explanations, and confidence.

Photo by Beth M527

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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 #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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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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Mental Schemas #15: Emotional Inhibition

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.

A person with an Emotional Inhibition schema holds back emotions in situations where it would be healthier to express them–feelings like anger, joy, affection, and vulnerability get stifled. This schema is based on trying to act rationally and impersonally at all times, regardless of what’s going on inside. Someone with this schema may feel embarrassed or ashamed to feel or express certain emotions or may fear disapproval or losing control. If you find it difficult to tell people how you feel or see yourself coming across as wooden, you may find learning about this schema useful.

Where emotional inhibition comes from
People with Emotional Inhibition schemas often grow up in families where expressing emotions is frowned upon, mocked, or punished. Often the whole family–sometimes supported by the culture the family comes from–adopts a similar pattern of keeping emotions hidden at all times. In this kind of environment, hiding emotions becomes an act of self-protection. As the child grows, the habit can be very hard to break, so that someone raised this way can grow up continuing to be unable to express emotion even in situations where it’s perfectly safe and entirely constructive to do so.

Overcoming an Emotional Inhibition schema
As with any schema or personal limitation, the first step is to be able to see the problem as a problem. A person who is used to holding back emotions may not appreciate on a gut level the value of expressing them appropriately. It can help to think through the consequences of this kind of expression. For example, what is likely to happen if you tell a friend that you’re angry that they didn’t show up to an event you’d agreed to go to together–will the friend stop associating with you, or will careful expression of these feelings help clear the air? What are the consequences of telling a family member “I love you”? Is it likely to cause trouble if you laugh out loud in a busy restaurant?

In at least one way, overcoming an Emotional Inhibition schema is more difficult than overcoming other schemas: because Emotional Inhibition encourages handling everything rationally, trying to rationally assess one’s own thoughts about feeling inhibited can drag a person deeper into the Emotional Inhibition mindset rather than showing the way out. A person who falls into this snare can benefit from emotional experiences.

Using experiences to overcome emotional inhibition
Any experience that gives a person practice in constructively expressing emotions can help break down a habit of emotional inhibition. By definition these experiences tend to be uncomfortable–after all, people who do this are pushing back against deeply ingrained habits–but realizing this in advance and recognizing the discomfort as a sign of doing the right thing can be helpful.

Some examples of experiences that help with expressing emotions include group therapy, where a highly supportive environment can make it easier and more comfortable to talk about feelings; role-playing; confrontational sports like wrestling and martial arts (Olympic-style Taekwondo has a great sparring component); and dancing or dance lessons.

Spending more time with people who are comfortable expressing their emotions and using them as role models and guides can also make a positive difference.

As with any personal concern, if a schema or other personal issues feel too large or unyielding to handle alone, working with a qualified cognitive therapist can be a way to break through. You might be interested in finding a therapist qualified to work in schema therapy or some other kind of cognitive therapist.

Photo by Mags_cat

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