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Mental Schemas #3: Emotional Deprivation (with help from Holden Caulfield)

Handling negative emotions

The Emotional Deprivation Schema
A few quotes from J.D. Salinger’s character Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye can help explain what this schema is about.

“Sometimes I act a lot older than I am–I really do– but people never notice it. People never notice anything.”

“She bought me the wrong kind of skates–I wanted racing skates and she bought hockey–but it made me sad anyway. Almost every time somebody gives me a present, it ends up making me sad.”

Occasionally feeling like other people don’t understand, don’t care, and/or couldn’t do anything about it even if they did seems to be a normal part of the human experience. Feeling like this every day and all, though, can be emotionally debilitating as hell.

I’m not suggesting that everything that goes on with Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye is part of an emotional deprivation schema. As real human beings, our motivations are too complex to be meaningfully explained by any one concept, and to Salinger’s credit, Holden feels like a real human being to many readers. But Holden does us a favor in helping to show the emotional deprivation schema and some of its effects.

A person with an emotional deprivation schema might choose relationships with people who aren’t very capable of giving care, understanding, or support, and might act in ways that make it harder for even people who are capable to give these things. Such a person might provoke others or try to keep people at a distance (on the assumption that they wouldn’t really be able to get close anyway).

Overcoming an Emotional Deprivation Schema
Making progress with this schema first requires understanding how it’s working in one’s life: taking note of behaviors and choices that come from these beliefs and that can affect relationships. Techniques like journaling, talk therapy, and mindfulness practices can help bring these ideas out.

One way to tackle an emotional deprivation schema–or any schema–is to identify broken ideas and then repair them. Schemas express themselves as broken ideas, and repairing these ideas helps make progress in taking down the schema.

Since an emotional deprivation schema is a lack of faith in receiving attention, care, and understanding from other people, any experience that demonstrates people actually providing these things is worth paying attention to and building on. Even small gestures, when recognized as real caring or support, show the inherent flaw in the line of thinking that this schema promotes, and focusing on these gestures widens the cracks in this kind of mistaken belief in a way that can eventually break it apart.

Holden himself seems to have come up with a way to feel better about other people caring about him, which is to care about other people:

“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around — nobody big, I mean — except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff — I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.”

Unfortunately, this particular way of demonstrating that people can care for each other is a little impractical. Yet right at the end of the book, Holden finds a simpler, more practical way, which is just watching his little sister on a merry-go-round.

“I felt so damn happy all of a sudden, the way old Phoebe kept going around and around. I was damn near bawling, I felt so damn happy, if you want to know the truth. I don’t know why. It was just that she looked so damn nice, the way she kept going around and around, in her blue coat and all. God, I wish you could’ve been there.”

Photo by Fozzman



  1. Jennifer  •  Aug 9, 2014 @10:28 pm

    Holden Caufield’s reactions to the world worry me, because I understood them so well when I read the book in my early 20’s. And I don’t see his coping mechanisms as healthy- I see them as a way of trying to protect people from life. This is a big theme in J.D. Salinger novels- the loss of innocence and how it can’t be found again once it is gone, making the world empty. But really, dealing with the darker parts of the world makes living a richer experience once you come out on the other side. Holden wants to keep everyone childlike and protected- which seems very codependent to me, and doesn’t really work at all- how exhausting to protect every child he sees from going over the cliff! And going around a merry go round your entire life would get BORING.

  2. Anon  •  Nov 6, 2014 @9:06 am

    I agree with Jennifer. What Holden is showing is the self sacrifice schema, which is a common companion to the emotional deprivation schema. He can’t get his own needs met, but he wants to dedicate his life to meeting the needs of others. I often did this because I wanted to prove to myself that some people do care – i.e. me. I care. And therefore I was living proof that caring people existed. I also felt that other people were my responsibility, which came from me feeling like I was responsible for my mother’s feelings when I was a teenager.

    But of course, I didn’t receive any care in return and it was all very one-sided. Even as much as me making an effort to see friends’ performances but them ignoring everything I was doing and never turning up to any of my gigs. I didn’t even bother to invite them after they didn’t come to the first few – it seemed pointless, as they obviously didn’t care and had no interest in my life. I also worried that inviting them would be guilt tripping them.

    To be honest, I think they probably just didn’t realise I felt that way and recently – after years – a friend came to one of my performances. Not because I told them to but because I mentioned it and they said they would come. I think it was just after I’d been to another one of her performances and she was thanking me, so she probably realised there was an expectation of some kind of two-way support.

    Sometimes I invite friends to things I’d like to do for fun and they do not reply. When I mention it later they say ‘I don’t know why you sent me that. What made you think I would be interested?’ as if they are angry to be invited at all. Which reinforces the idea that if I invite them to things I am essentially guilt-tripping them into thinking they have to come. But that’s their prerogative. They can’t blame me for inviting them, they should just say it isn’t really their thing instead of ignoring me or getting annoyed at me about it.

    Anyway, I rant. If anyone has found a way to beat this schema, I’d like to hear about it. I’m in the avoidant category most of the time. I don’t seek social contact – or I have to force myself to do it – because I assume I will find everyone disappointing. When I meet people I continue to find them disappointing or just ‘not like me, though’ in some way so that I can’t connect. I don’t know if that’s my thoughts doing that, or if I really am very different from everyone else. I also can’t be bothered to look for a boyfriend because I think they’ll all disappoint me by being boring/not good looking enough/not good in bed/emotionally unstable etc. I can see intellectually that I am being irrational, because that can’t be true. If I exist, other people like me must exist. But I FEEL very strongly that it is true. This majorly fucks me up when I accidentally stumble across people who prove me wrong (who are gorgeous and fun and who I have loads in common with – currently my rate on this is once every 8 years, I guess because I don’t look) because I automatically assume they must be incredibly rare and therefore VERY IMPORTANT. I then get extremely anxious that anything might go wrong and I might lose them, because I believe it will not happen again (once every 8 years, after all). So of course I do lose them because if you believe those things you will be frantic with anxiety. On the ‘once every 8 years’ note, though…obviously I haven’t really lost many people this way (2). The vast majority of my relationships are incredibly cold and distant. I don’t ask for anything, I don’t receive anything, and I can’t be bothered to leave because there’s no point anyway, and besides, it’s my duty to look after them even though I don’t want to and wish someone else would look after them instead.

  3. Delinquent Angel  •  Jan 21, 2015 @12:27 pm

    1976 Reservoir High School in a northern suburb of Melbourne Australia. I am 15 years old and we have an exchange teacher, Ms Diane Vickrey, from HIghland High School in Denver Colorado to teach English. Quite the oxymoron: an American teaching English to Australians who speak Strine (a patois of rhyming slang).

    Ms Vickrey was impossibly blonde, from Scandinavian ancestry and going on to college (university) was not on our radar at all. The boys were heading into apprenticeships to be grease monkeys, (mechanics) chippies (carpenters) and sparkies (electricians). The girls to be shorthand typists or wives and mothers.

    Ms Vickrey introduced us to iconic American literature: Salinger, Twain, Steinbeck, e.e. cummings, The Great Gatsby and several others I do not recall now.

    As a 15 year old, I approached Holden Caulfield from my reality as a daughter with a mother diagnosed with manic depressive psychosis who was in-and-out of the major asylums situated less than a mile from my high school.

    Holden didn’t impress me much at all. Probably a bit too close to home. In general, the Aussie psyche has a strong dash of British stoicness and we didn’t get what Holden was ‘crapping on about’. Needless to say, Ms Vickrey returned Stateside possessed of a colourful vocabulary and ways of expressing emotion than she had upon arrival on our colonial ratbag shores.

    It is sweet medicine to come across your blog and read how you have teased out the narrative of this schema from a novel that continues to companion me. I didn’t know much in 1976 but I reckon I had a teacher who brought some Rocky Mountain magic with her to a land far far away. I think I have made my peace with Holden Caulfield, the Catcher in the Rye. I get it now.

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