Browsing the archives for the should tag.
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Mental Schemas #13: Self-Sacrifice

Handling negative emotions

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

The mantra that goes with the Self-Sacrifice schema is “I should take care of other people; they shouldn’t take care of me.” A person with this schema will tend to ignore their own needs, wants, and worries but pay plenty of attention to other people’s problems.

When a person with a Self-Sacrifice schema starts paying attention to their own needs, they generally feel guilty. Their mental commentary is often full of “should statements” like “I shouldn’t need help with this” or “I shouldn’t be spending time on myself when someone else needs something.”

Self-Sacrifice schemas often arise in childhood when a parent is needy or unable to handle basic responsibilities. The child gets used to taking care of another person while suppressing their own needs and desires, and then has a lot of trouble getting out of the habit as they grow older. This often includes being in the habit of keeping emotions close, not sharing them so as to avoid anyone else being affected by those emotions.

As a result, says schema therapy originator Dr. Jeffrey Young, “almost all patients with Self-Sacrifice schemas have linked Emotional Deprivation schemas.”

On the bright side, a person with a Self-Sacrifice schema can do a lot of good in the world and experience increased self-esteem from their efforts. Yet the schema reflects a serious problem, an imbalance between taking care of themselves and taking care of others.

Dealing with a Self-Sacrifice Schema
Tackling a Self-Sacrifice schema, as is true with most problem habits, is first a matter of being aware when the problem is occurring, preferably in the moment (though it’s certainly better than nothing to at least reflect and recognize these situations afterward). When a person with a Self-Sacrifice schema notices that the schema is taking over–for instance, when they’ve been asked to volunteer for something and know it will cost them more sleep than they can afford to lose–the specific problem thoughts, usually close to invisible, can be brought out, examined, and reframed.

So in the example given, the person could realize the sleep problem but feel guilty about saying no. Examining her thoughts, she might realize that she is telling herself “I should do this even if I do lose sleep” and ask herself further “Should I do everything that other people ask me to do, no matter how hurtful or unhealthy it is to me?” Reviewing, reframing, and debating our own mental commentary helps us identify habits that make us behave in ways we wouldn’t choose to behave if we thought things through carefully.

Ultimately a person trying to give up a Self-Sacrifice schema will need to try risking embarrassment or guilt, whether that comes from refusing to do something for someone else, asserting their own needs, or receiving someone else’s help. If this is done with people who genuinely care, the results can help break down the idea that help isn’t deserved and doesn’t feel good, and over time this kind of cooperation and willingness to be helped can begin to feel as natural and good as helping others.

Photo of Rodin’s Les Bourgeois de Calais by Accidental Hedonist

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All About Broken Ideas and Idea Repair

Resources

Idea repair, called “cognitive restructuring” in the psychological literature, is a powerful tool for feeling better and for making it much easier to make good choices. We may hardly notice it, but it’s human habit to constantly comment about what’s going on around us with thoughts that help us make judgments and put things into a framework we can understand. But some of these comments are harmful to us because they’re misleading or even false. They encourage us to make bad choices, keep negative emotions going, and generally get in the way: these are broken ideas (or “cognitive distortions”). Here are some of the key articles on this site that for understanding broken ideas and learning idea repair.

Broken ideas and idea repair” explains what broken ideas and idea repair are, why they’re valuable, and the basics of how to use idea repair.

How to Detect Broken Ideas” demonstrates how to notice when broken ideas are causing trouble and how to find out what kind of broken idea you’re dealing with. 

Examples of Broken Ideas (Cognitive Distortions)” shows the categories of broken ideas and some typical broken ideas for each category.

How to Repair a Broken Idea, Step by Step” provides a guide to repairing broken ideas.

To get some perspective on broken ideas, you might be interested in reading “What Really Messed-Up Thinking Looks Like.”

For a better understanding of “should statements,” see ‘Good “should” and bad “should”.’

Broken ideas that we latch onto a lot early in life can become ingrained as mental schemas. To learn about these, see the resource page on mental schemas.

Idea repair is useful in a lot of different situations, and it comes up in quite a number of articles on this site. Here’s a link to all Willpower Engine articles on broken ideas.

Photo by Quod

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Mental Schemas #10: Entitlement

Handling negative emotions

This is the tenth 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.

While the articles in this series so far have been about schemas that I’ve seen mainly in other people’s lives, I’m all too familiar with the subject of today’s post, entitlement. This schema is sometimes referred to as “grandiosity” or “superiority,” but the version that I have experience with fits the term “entitlement” best: it’s the sense that you’re naturally owed something. People with the entitlement schema may feel as though there are things they should be getting regardless of how practical, reasonable, possible, or equitable that is. Entitlement is the sense that somehow, the world owes you a living. For some people, this goes with a sense of being superior to most other people, or of having a special status or destiny that means that the rules that apply to other people don’t apply to you.

Entitled to act like an idiot
An example: when I was young, money was very tight around our house. Being a Vermonter, I was very familiar with maple syrup, but since it was fairly expensive, we didn’t get much of it. My entitlement schema told me that this was unfair and inappropriate, and that I especially, considering my excellent qualities, deserved to have maple syrup pretty much whenever I liked. One morning I was up earlier than anyone in the house and was getting milk from the refrigerator for my morning cereal when I spied the syrup can. Instead of having the cereal, I took out a small glass and filled it–with maple syrup. Then I drank it. Finally! The maple syrup I deserved!

A lot of things didn’t seem to matter to me as I drank my glass of maple syrup. It didn’t occur to me that if this syrup were replaced, it would increase the family grocery bill in an uncomfortable way. It didn’t occur to me that the syrup would not be available to my siblings, who after all liked maple syrup just as much as I did (except for my older sister, who bizarrely and inexplicably preferred fake syrup). It did not seem to give me pause that after the first mouthful, the huge amount of sweetness began to be a bit sickening. And at that time I didn’t know, and by all the evidence wouldn’t have cared, that the jolt of simple sugars in my body would give me a dizzying sugar high followed by a crashing sugar low, probably with a headache in the bargain. No sir, I was entitled to that syrup, gosh darn it, and I was going to drink my syrup and like it.

I drank my syrup, but I definitely did not like it. I apparently could ignore the sickening effects as I downed the glass, but I couldn’t ignore the much-too-powerful taste afterward or the awful way it made me feel. After that incident, I couldn’t stand to eat anything maple for months.

Broken ideas for the entitled
Entitlement schemas are often traced to two kinds of childhoods. One version is the truly entitled child, who is constantly indulged and/or assured of having a special status above normal people. The other is of feeling deprived (regardless of whether or not the child can really be said to be deprived), in reaction to which the child develops a belief that something is owed them–often, again, with a sense of having a special status.

People with the entitlement schema get fixated on the idea that they should be able to have or do something, or should be treated a particular way–even if the thing they think they’re entitled to does them or others harm, isn’t available to others, isn’t practical, takes more resources than they can afford, etc. This amounts to a huge use of the broken idea called a “should statement”–that is, “I should be able to have this!” Entitlement can also come out as “emotional reasoning”: “I feel as though I have a right to this, so I do have a right to it.” These attitudes only reinforce feelings of deprivation and lead to disappointment, selfish behavior, and ignoring consequences.

Breaking out of an entitlement schema
I’m glad to say that while my entitlement schema still pesters me every once in a while, over time it’s been whittled down to almost nothing as I gradually was forced to face the results of actions that, over and over again, proved that feeling entitled wasn’t going to get me anywhere. Every time I stayed up well into the night on the idea that I was owed some time and then felt exhausted the next day, every time I ate food my body didn’t need and then didn’t feel healthy and energetic, and every time I was late because I thought I was entitled to do a few more things before I went out the door, I ran smack into the reality that the idea of “deserving” things is not only untrue and useless, but dangerous and painful. Our feelings about how appropriate we think it is to have something, regardless of where they come from, do not generally have any effect on how practical, fair, kind, appropriate, or beneficial having that thing will be.

So every time an entitled person’s schema claims “You should be able to have/do this!” in a situation where “this” is something that would be best to avoid, the response that will diminish the schema and help shape a healthier vision of reality is to redo that thought, to repair the broken idea. The repaired version will often be something like “I can see that I want that thing, but that doesn’t mean I have to get it, especially since it _____” (and here you list the things that matter to you that would be harmed by following through on the desire). In the case of my glass of maple syrup, that blank might have been filled with something like “will make me sick and I’ll regret it for months” or “will take scarce resources from my family.”

Like any schema, entitlement schemas supply plenty of opportunities to act embarrassingly or in ways that hurt ourselves or other people. What’s truly joyful is being able to break out of a schema by paying attention to our thoughts and shaping a future that will actually create happiness and fulfillment rather than being dragged down by the bad ideas we may have adopted long ago.

Photo by Sighthound

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