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Mental Schemas #1: Abandonment

States of mind

This is the first in a series of articles that draw on the field of schema therapy, a fairly new approach to addressing patterns of negative thinking that was devised by Dr. Jeffrey Young. There’s more information about schemas and schema therapy on a new page on The Willpower Engine here.

The Abandonment Schema
A person with the Abandonment Schema feels that people can’t be relied on to be around when you need them or to help. Such a person may feel on a gut level that important people in their lives, like significant others, are going to leave, drop them for someone better, or die, or that others in their lives aren’t dependable and won’t be there when they’re needed the most.

While this is not always the case, often an abandonment schema starts in childhood, when an important figure in a child’s life–usually a parent–leaves, whether literally or figuratively. For example, a parent might have run off, gotten divorced and moved away, left the child or child(ren) with a relative, sent the child(ren) away at a young age, or be physically present but undependable or unavailable, as with an alcoholic, workaholic, or exceptionally unemotional or uncommunicative parent.

A person with an abandonment schema might react by avoiding close relationships, being clingy, or repeatedly accusing people close to them of being–or even just intending to be–unavailable, unreliable, or unwilling to help. Other people with this schema may find ways to drive normally reliable people off, thereby forcing them to fulfill the schema’s predictions.

Overcoming an abandonment schema
Tackling an abandonment schema means coming to terms with two conflicting facts: that unless a person’s behavior encourages it, loved ones don’t generally abandon people who are important to them; and that despite this fact, sometimes people will not be there when we want or need them, but that this is not necessarily the end of the world. This addresses the two basic broken ideas about the abandonment schema: that important people will leave (fortune telling) and that when that happens, it will be awful (magnification, specifically the type called “catastrophizing”).

Greater awareness of our own thoughts (mindfulness or metacognition) tends to create opportunities to challenge the kinds of negative thinking that schemas inspire. Challenging those negative thoughts removes barriers to motivation and supports greater serenity and drive.

Photo by Skylinephoto


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