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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!

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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.

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11 Things Schema Therapy Tells Us About Living a Happy Life

States of mind

While I was compiling the schema therapy self-quiz that has run here at The Willpower Engine over the past week (to take it, start here with part 1), I began to realize that the principles behind the schemas amounted to some advice about how we can live happily and fulfillingly. This shouldn’t be surprising to me: after all, the whole point of learning about and working on mental schemas is to live a happier and more fulfilling life, so the fact that the schemas offer recommendations on how to do that shouldn’t be too shocking.

But I sometimes think about psychology the way I think many of us may think about it, as a non-judgmental, unopinionated body of knowledge. This, it seems, is wrong, and it makes sense that it’s wrong. After all, when we look to an area of knowledge to help better our lives, that area had better contain a sense of what “better” means.

Here are some of the ideas I found embedded in descriptions of some of the schemas. These conclusions are mine alone, though, and don’t necessarily reflect the opinions of Dr. Young (who originated schema therapy) or any psychologist whatsoever.

  1. Good relationships require trust, even when there’s some chance that trust will be betrayed.
  2. Being happy and doing well in the world begins with assuming we each have value. There does not have to be a reason we are valuable, although admittedly having solid reasons can be comforting.
  3. We can screw up any number of times and still have value as human beings.
  4. Somethings things go badly, and this is normal and in an important sense OK. It helps to be prepared for particularly bad situations if they’re likely, but it generally doesn’t help to preoccupy ourselves a lot with bad things that might happen.
  5. There is a place for each of us in human society, and it is useful and right and good for us each to seek out some support and some ways we can support others.
  6. When other people tell us things about ourselves, they are often wrong, no matter how certain they sound. (However, sometimes others can provide us with useful and accurate insights.)
  7. Valuing another person’s needs above or below our own often seems to lead to trouble.
  8. We all screw up sometimes, and we all do well at things sometimes.
  9. We aren’t entitled to anything at all: we start with nothing and do our best to get our needs met.
  10. It generally helps to give other people the same consideration we would want ourselves, even if it feels like we’re in a special situation that doesn’t apply to others.
  11. Being approved of is not a useful measure of how valuable a person is.

Photo by Adam Foster | Codefor

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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.

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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.

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Mental Schemas #14: Need for Approval

Handling negative emotions

This post is the fourteenth in a series that draw on the field of schema therapy, an approach to addressing negative thinking patterns that was devised by Dr. Jeffrey Young. You can find an introduction to schemas and schema therapy, a list of schemas, and links to other schema articles on The Willpower Engine here.

The Need for Approval schema is all about appearances and other people’s opinions. This might make it easy to think of it as just being shallow, but a person with a Need for Approval schema has gotten deeply involved with and affected by the idea that love needs to be won from other people, that it is not something that they deserve or are entitled to automatically, and that they can’t fill that void themselves.

Need for Approval schemas often arise in childhood, when children feel that a parents or other important figures in their lives only show love or affection when the child is behaving a certain way.

The schematherapy.com site elaborates on some of the ways a Need for Approval schema gets expressed: “Sometimes includes an overemphasis on status, appearance, social acceptance, money, or achievement —  as means of gaining approval, admiration, or attention  (not primarily for power or control). Frequently results in major life decisions that are inauthentic or unsatisfying;  or in hypersensitivity to rejection.”

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with wanting others to think well of us as a rule. Approval-seeking only becomes a problem when it gets in the way of something more important. Dr. Young and colleagues describe people with this schema seeking approval “at the expense of fulfilling their core emotional needs and expressing their natural inclinations,” though I wonder if the same thing sometimes happens where the damage is to someone else, as with bullies or people who perpetrate hate crimes. My sense is that a bully might feel such a desperate need for approval from peers that they might victimize someone else to get it, or that someone with a phobia about gay men might hurt a gay man just to get validation from similarly homophobic friends or acquaintances. But this is just my own speculation.

Overcoming a Need for Approval Schema
The key problem in a Need for Approval schema is an inability to feel emotionally self-sufficient, to be happy with who we are. My understanding is that when we learn this skill as children, we gain a sense that we are worthwhile and good from parental love. If a child is powerfully convinced of the importance of their parents (as most children seem to be), then the parents’ attitudes toward us would seem to be the most important clue we can take as to our own self worth.

But if this ability isn’t developed as a child, we can still develop it as adults. As is the case with many kinds of personal change, often a good cognitive therapist can be a big help, and while self-worth isn’t something we can prove inarguably, it is something we can demonstrate to ourselves. When we focus on the things we’ve accomplished that we’re proud of, or the things in our lives that we’re happy to have, we’re more likely to feel good about who we are than if we spend a lot of time reviewing what we see as mistakes, shortcomings, and flaws.

That’s not to say we should ignore any negative thoughts we may have about ourselves, but it certainly is a caution that letting negative thoughts about ourselves become broken ideas is especially harmful to our ability to be emotionally self-sufficient. It’s one thing to say “I forgot to do that errand I promised to do, and that’s a problem.” and another to say “I forgot to do that errand I promised to do: what a loser I am” (labeling) or “I never do what I say I’m going to do.” (overgeneralization) or “I forgot to do that errand: now everyone thinks I’m an idiot.” (mind reading).

Thus this process of building a sense of self has two parts: consciously reflecting on good things about ourselves and our lives, and being aware of our thinking processes to be able to stop broken ideas from forming regularly. Over time this gets easier, and our sense of ourselves changes.

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Mental Schemas #12: Subjugation

Handling negative emotions

This is the twelfth in a series of articles that draw on the field of schema therapy, an approach to addressing negative thinking patterns that was devised by Dr. Jeffrey Young. You can find an introduction to schemas and schema therapy, a list of schemas, and links to other schema articles on The Willpower Engine here.

A person with a subjugation schema feels an overpowering obligation to submit to another person’s will, to be told what to do and be judged by someone else. Often such a person will believe in their heart that they need to do what another person says in order to be loved, valuable, etc., and/or will be afraid that they will be judged harshly or punished if they don’t fall in line.

Or a person may have the schema and act out because of it, accusing others of trying to be controlling when this isn’t the intention, or rebelling against other’s wishes regardless of the individual’s own feelings.

As a result, having the subjugation schema means burying or ignoring one’s own needs, desires, inclinations, judgments, and beliefs–whether this is happening due to giving in to others or to being preoccupied with rebelling against others, as in both cases the person with the subjugation schema is reacting to others’ needs, desires, and actions instead of their own.

A person with this schema may also assume other people are trying to take control or may tend to put them in positions of control even if they don’t want to be. Another common pattern with this schema is first complying with what someone else wants, then resenting “having to” do that thing. A person with this schema may have an overwhelming feeling of being trapped.

A typical way for a subjugation schema is to develop is through an overly controlling parent.

Overcoming a subjugation schema
As with other schemas, idea repair can be a key tool in overcoming a subjugation schema. Statements like “I have to do ____” or “I should do ___” are usually variations of “should statements,” which make it seem like something is necessary when it’s really only one of the available options. Thoughts about what will happen if a person doesn’t comply with what another wants are often fraught with magnification and fortune telling instead of being a true assessment of the likely results. Other kinds of broken ideas can also apply to this schema.

Communication is another a key skill for dealing with these issues. If a person wants to become more assertive without being destructive, it’s important to understand how to express one’s own thoughts and emotions without running over those of others. Two excellent books for learning how to resolve conflicts through communication are Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High and Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life.

Mindfulness is an important and powerful tool in overcoming subjugation schemas. In order to act on one’s own thoughts and emotions, it’s important to be in touch with those thoughts and emotions. This is also something that’s needed as a basis for idea repair.

Over time, the goal in overcoming a subjugation schema is to learn to recognize, value, and respond to one’s own thoughts, emotions, and needs, so any progress is becoming more aware of one’s own feelings, getting perspective, being constructive assertive, or communicating better will help.

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Good Resources on Mental Schemas

Resources

Mental schemas are an approach to understanding the kinds of issues that come up in our lives over and over, usually problems that we didn’t get a chance to work out when we were young that are still sticking with us today, like feeling abandoned or alienated, having trouble with trust or self-control, and so on. A brief introduction to mental schemas and a list of all of the schemas can be found on my mental schemas page, where you’ll also find links to the individual articles on each of the schemas that I’ve been adding to the site over time.

If you’re interested in learning more about mental schemas, here are some useful resources.

Dr. Tara Bennett-Goleman’s book Emotional Alchemy: How the Mind Can Heal the Heart delves into using mindfulness to make use of the insights of schema therapy. The link between mindfulness and schemas is an important one, because unless we learn to be aware (that is, mindful) of our schemas and notice when they’re kicking in, we have little hope of making progress in overcoming them.

Schema Therapy: A Practitioner’s Guide is a substantial, informative, readable book by the man who developed schema therapy, Dr. Jeffrey Young, with Janet Klosko and Marjorie Weishaar. It’s available in book form as well as for the Amazon Kindle, and most of it can be found online through Google Books.

Finally, a 13-page PDF called A Client’s Guide to Schema Therapy, by Dr. David Bricker with, again, Dr. Young, is available online for free. This gives a variety of helpful examples in the course of providing an introduction to the subject.

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