By Max Lloyd
Have you ever wondered why changing some aspect of your behaviour can be so hard to accomplish? Or watched a friend or family member continue in a pattern that you and they knew was destructive, yet seemed impervious to change? You would think that with the amount of popular psychology, self-help books, life coaches and improvement seminars like the Forum available, personal change would be a doddle. And yet it isn't.
For a good part of the 20th century the technology of personal change has utilized approaches derived from the behavioural sciences and cognitive psychology. In many instances these approaches (like the self-help methods mentioned above) have been very useful. Yet they assume that all that is needed is an understanding of what it is that needs to change and a breakdown of that change into small, accomplishable steps. In many cases the targeted behaviour diminishes for a while, then re-emerges later, typically as a response to stress.
At the same time, other counselling approaches have stressed the value of empathy, insight and experiential methods. While these too have been of value, they have lacked the structure and the research basis of cognitive/behavioural approaches. And some were just overly complex or plain stupid. Does anyone remember, let alone use, primal scream therapy these days? And what about NLP (Neuro linguistic programming to the uninitiated or those with short memories) and its ability to manipulate transactions such as car or house sales?
Over the last 10 years or so, another approach has been developed by Dr Jeffrey Young and his colleagues in New York. In essence, Young suggests that we all develop patterns of responding to life's situations during our childhood and that these patterns retain a high degree of potency when it comes to influencing our behaviours as adults. While we may deal with issues in a cognitive sense, unless the pattern is understood, recognised and broken then we will revert to it, especially during times of stress.
Nothing earth-shatteringly new in this, I hear you say. The same idea has been a stock-in-trade notion of the behavioural sciences since the time of Freud. And that is certainly true. However, what is different about Young's formulation of this idea is that he has quantified through research a series of "life traps" or Schemas through which people typically relate to their experience of life. As well, he and his co-workers have arranged a marriage of cognitive, experiential, relational and behavioural approaches to assist individuals to change the invasive patterns that at times seem to run our lives.
Young describes a life trap (or Schema) as a lifelong pattern or theme that is self-destructive and seems to almost have a life of its own in that it will struggle for survival despite efforts by the individual to change. He identifies six broad categories (basic safety, connection to others, autonomy, self esteem, self expression and realistic limits) within which specific lifetraps may develop.
As an example, consider the Abandonment lifetrap: this is a pervasive feeling that the people you love and care about will in someway leave you and you will be emotionally isolated forever. This may be through death, moving away or leaving a relationship. The point is that whatever the circumstances you somehow feel that you will be left alone. Furthermore, the pervasive nature and "survival instinct" of the lifetrap will result in you making choices or behaving in such a way that exactly that does happen. Perhaps you cling too closely because of the fear of abandonment and ironically smother people into leaving you.
A common example is that of a person who has a childhood abandonment issue, and as a result forms adult relationships with partners who are not available to them. Forming a relationship with someone already in a relationship they are not willing to leave, or forming a relationship with someone who works very long hours and is not emotionally expressive, are two examples.
Subjugation is another common lifetrap. Here you tend to put your own needs and desires last in order to please others or meet their needs. You effectively allow others to control you, either out of guilt or fear. You may end up feeling genuinely resentful that there is no time or energy for you and blame this on others.
The fascinating thing about Young's lifetrap or schema theory is his way of accounting for differences in manifestation of the lifetrap. Several children grow up in a family environment where physical abuse is present. According to the lifetrap idea, they should all develop the same patterns of behaviour as adults. We know this does not happen. There are two reasons for this. One clearly is that we differ in terms of temperament, which is thought to contain major aspects of heredity. As a result, we also react to the childhood situations that cause lifetrap patterns to develop in different ways: we either surrender to the situation, try to escape or counterattack.
The nature of our response makes a great difference to the outcome. Consider three individuals who all have a Defectiveness lifetrap: they each grew up with the sense that they were somehow flawed. Perhaps they were constantly criticised, unable to do anything right or meet the unrelenting standards of their parents, or maybe they experienced childhood abuse. As a result of temperament, one person surrenders to the defectiveness lifetrap and becomes "defective". He does not make eye contact when you meet him, has difficulty expressing opinions, thinks of himself as being "one down" in relation to others and has extreme difficulty mixing socially.
The next of the trio seeks to escape the defectiveness lifetrap by settling for superficial relationships. He has never been close to anybody special and spends most of his time with mates in the pub or out fishing. He is married but there is no real intimacy - he chose a woman who is out of touch with her feelings. Thus he is not exposed to criticism or is able to shrug it off in a superficial way. At age 40 he is now a dependent drinker, which again reduces his ability to hear or respond to criticism.
Our third candidate, a woman, counterattacks to deal with her feelings of defectiveness. She appears self-confident and assertive, holds down a good job with high responsibility. In fact, she is a snob and looks down on others. She has very strong views about most things and does not hesitate to let you know what they are and how she is right. She is married to a man who is quiet and sacrificing and she chooses friends who tend to reinforce her position. From an external position, you would think there was little in common with these three people, yet they are all manifesting a version of the Defectiveness lifetrap.
Jeffrey Young's approach to personal change is an integrative one, utilizing some of the best in technique and approach from a variety of psychological theories, yet retaining a practical, problem solving approach. It is currently used by a small number of practitioners within New Zealand and has a growing body of support worldwide.
It is accessible through a number of publications, notably Schema Therapy: A Practitioner's Guide and a self help guide, Reinventing Your Life. This latter title makes Young et al's thinking about lifetraps, which are referred to as maladaptive schemas, simple and understandable. Both are available on Amazon.com
Max Lloyd has a counselling practice in Ponsonby, Auckland. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at Health@11, ph.09 360 6026.