Do you want to reinvent your life?
In my top 20 psychology books countdown that I did last year, I put the book Reinventing your Life: The Breakthrough Program to End Negative Behavior and Feel Great Again by Jeffrey Young and Janet Klosko (1994) at #10 on my countdown.
It is a self-help version of Schema Therapy, which was also developed by Jeffrey Young. The best part of Schema Therapy is the in-depth questionnaires that they have which help people to identify and overcome their common life-traps, both in therapy and outside of it. Life-traps are self-defeating ways of perceiving, feeling about and interacting with oneself, others and the world.
If you are wanting to get a sense of what your life-traps may be, Reinventing your life is a good place to start, as it goes into 11 different ones. If you are wanting a more in-depth analysis however, then do go and see a Psychologist who specialises in Schema Therapy. They will have much more thorough and scientific questionnaires that can give you results on 18 schemas or life-traps. You might be able to access some of these questionnaires online, but only psychologists have the scoring and interpretation skills required to give you both the answers and direction that you need going forward.
I have taken the Young Schema Questionnaire (YSQ-L3) twice now. The first time was at the beginning of 2014 when I was stuck in the middle of a very difficult relationship whilst also trying to complete the last part of my Doctoral thesis and play basketball at a semi-professional level. The second time was in April 2017, where I am now in a Clinical Psychology job that I love and a warm and supportive relationship. I have also stopped playing basketball at such a serious level, and now just play with some friends (and without a coach) twice a week, which is way more fun. I’d like to share these results with you to show you that:
- context influences personality and how people view themselves, the world and others, and
- personality and ways of perceiving yourself, relationships and the world can change.
When looking at the results, a 100% score would mean that I have answered every item for that life-trap a 6, which means that they describe me perfectly. The higher the % score, the more likely it is that I will frequently fall into this life-trap.
|2014 Results||2017 Results|
|Schemas or life-trap||Schema or life-traps|
|1. Subjugation – 75%||1. Self-sacrifice – 60.78%|
|2. Dependence – 64.44%||2. Punitiveness (self) – 57.14%|
|3. Self-sacrifice – 61.76%||3. Emotional Deprivation – 51.85%|
|4. Approval seeking – 54.76%||4. Unrelenting Standards – 48.96%|
|5. Punitiveness (self) – 51.19%||5. Approval Seeking – 48.81%|
|6. Unrelenting standards – 48.96%||6. Subjugation – 48.33%|
|7. Insufficient self-control – 46.67%||7. Negativity – 43.94%|
|8. Emotional inhibition – 46.30%||8. Mistrust – 41.18%|
|9. Emotional deprivation – 42.59%||9. Dependence – 41.11%|
|10. Abandonment – 41.18%||10. Emotional Inhibition – 40.74%|
Overall, I am less likely to fall into any life-trap in 2017 than I was in 2014. The average of my top ten in 2014 was 53.29%, whereas in 2017 it was 48.28%.
I also rated 21 items a 6 (= describes me perfectly) in 2014, but only five in 2017, which means I am much less enmeshed with these unhelpful ways of looking at myself, others and the world than what I used to be. I still:
- ‘have a lot of trouble demanding that my rights be respected and that my feelings be taken into account,’
- ‘feel guilty when I let other people down or disappoint them,’
- ‘find it very difficult to ask others to take care of my needs,’
- ‘try hard to fit in,’ and
- think ‘If I don’t do the job, I should suffer the consequences,’
but in general I tend to think more constructively regardless of the situation that I am in.
At the schema or life-trap level, the areas where I have improved are in green in the table above. Here is Young’s description of these schemas:
SUBJUGATION: Excessive surrendering of control to others because one feels coerced – usually to avoid anger, retaliation, or abandonment. The two major forms of subjugation are:
1. Subjugation of Needs: Suppression of one’s preferences, decisions, and desires.
2. Subjugation of Emotions: Suppression of emotional expression, especially anger.
Subjugation usually involves the perception that one’s own desires, opinions, and feelings are not valid or important to others. Frequently presents as excessive compliance, combined with hypersensitivity to feeling trapped. Generally leads to a build up of anger, manifested in maladaptive symptoms (e.g., passive-aggressive behavior, uncontrolled outbursts of temper, psychosomatic symptoms, withdrawal of affection, “acting out”, substance abuse).
DEPENDENCE / INCOMPETENCE: Belief that one is unable to handle one’s everyday responsibilities in a competent manner, without considerable help from others (e.g., take care of oneself, solve daily problems, exercise good judgment, tackle new tasks, make good decisions). Often presents as helplessness.
INSUFFICIENT SELF-CONTROL / SELF-DISCIPLINE: Pervasive difficulty or refusal to exercise sufficient self-control and frustration tolerance to achieve one’s personal goals, or to restrain the excessive expression of one’s emotions and impulses. In its milder form, patient presents with an exaggerated emphasis on discomfort-avoidance: avoiding pain, conflict, confrontation, responsibility, or overexertion—at the expense of personal fulfillment, commitment, or integrity.
ABANDONMENT / INSTABILITY: The perceived instability or unreliability of those available for support and connection. Involves the sense that significant others will not be able to continue providing emotional support, connection, strength, or practical protection because they are emotionally unstable and unpredictable (e.g., angry outbursts), unreliable, or erratically present; because they will die imminently; or because they will abandon the patient in favor of someone better.
APPROVAL-SEEKING / RECOGNITION-SEEKING: Excessive emphasis on gaining approval, recognition, or attention from other people, or fitting in, at the expense of developing a secure and true sense of self. One’s sense of esteem is dependent primarily on the reactions of others rather than on one’s own natural inclinations. 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.
EMOTIONAL INHIBITION: The excessive inhibition of spontaneous action, feeling, or communication — usually to avoid disapproval by others, feelings of shame, or losing control of one’s impulses. The most common areas of inhibition involve: (a) inhibition of anger & aggression; (b) inhibition of positive impulses (e.g., joy, affection, sexual excitement, play); (c) difficulty expressing vulnerability or communicating freely about one’s feelings, needs, etc.; or (d) excessive emphasis on rationality while disregarding emotions.
SELF-SACRIFICE: Excessive focus on voluntarily meeting the needs of others in daily situations, at the expense of one’s own gratification. The most common reasons are: to prevent causing pain to others; to avoid guilt from feeling selfish; or to maintain the connection with others perceived as needy . Often results from an acute sensitivity to the pain of others. Sometimes leads to a sense that one’s own needs are not being adequately met and to resentment of those who are taken care of. (Overlaps with concept of codependency.)
I improved the most in terms of subjugation and dependence/incompetence, which were my top 2 ranked life-traps in 2014. This means that I am now much less likely to put my emotions and needs completely aside for others. I am also much less likely to feel overwhelmed by everyday life, which means that I am now less dependent on others for practical advice or support with handling everyday responsibilities.
I also improved in terms of my self-control, my fears of abandonment, my need for approval from others, my desire to inhibit what I am feeling emotionally and (to a lesser degree) my inclination to self-sacrifice and put others first.
What’s Gotten Worse?
The life-traps that have worsened for me from 2014 to 2017 are in red in the table above. Here is Young’s description of these schemas:
PUNITIVENESS: The belief that people should be harshly punished for making mistakes. Involves the tendency to be angry, intolerant, punitive, and impatient with those people (including oneself) who do not meet one’s expectations or standards. Usually includes difficulty forgiving mistakes in oneself or others, because of a reluctance to consider extenuating circumstances, allow for human imperfection, or empathize with feelings.
EMOTIONAL DEPRIVATION: Expectation that one’s desire for a normal degree of emotional support will not be adequately met by others. The three major forms of deprivation are:
- Deprivation of Nurturance: Absence of attention, affection, warmth, or companionship.
- Deprivation of Empathy: Absence of understanding, listening, self-disclosure, or mutual sharing of feelings from others.
- Deprivation of Protection: Absence of strength, direction, or guidance from others.
MISTRUST / ABUSE: The expectation that others will hurt, abuse, humiliate, cheat, lie, manipulate, or take advantage. Usually involves the perception that the harm is intentional or the result of unjustified and extreme negligence. May include the sense that one always ends up being cheated relative to others or “getting the short end of the stick.”
NEGATIVITY / PESSIMISM: A pervasive, lifelong focus on the negative aspects of life (pain, death, loss, disappointment, conflict, guilt, resentment, unsolved problems, potential mistakes, betrayal, things that could go wrong, etc.) while minimizing or neglecting the positive or optimistic aspects. Usually includes an exaggerated expectation– in a wide range of work, financial, or interpersonal situations — that things will eventually go seriously wrong, or that aspects of one’s life that seem to be going well will ultimately fall apart. Usually involves an inordinate fear of making mistakes that might lead to: financial collapse, loss, humiliation, or being trapped in a bad situation. Because potential negative outcomes are exaggerated, these patients are frequently characterized by chronic worry, vigilance, complaining, or indecision.
Looking at these areas that have worsened, I realise that the difficult relationship that I mentioned earlier in article has had a bigger impact on me than I would like to admit, even two years after it has finished. The punitiveness that was directed at me has become internalised to a degree and directed at myself, and part of me also criticises myself for not seeing the warning signs or getting out of it earlier.
When I was younger I always trusted others and never trusted myself. I now realise that I am not as bad or incapable as I once thought, and that there are some pretty mean people out there who are willing to take whatever they can from others without feeling bad for the pain that it causes. There were a lot of negative effects of this relationship, but it has also helped me to learn and grow, as evidenced by all of the positive changes that I have experienced too.
What Hasn’t Changed?
The one life-trap that remained exactly where it was in 2014 was unrelenting standards / hypercriticalness. Young defined this schema as:
UNRELENTING STANDARDS / HYPERCRITICALNESS: The underlying belief that one must strive to meet very high internalized standards of behavior and performance, usually to avoid criticism. Typically results in feelings of pressure or difficulty slowing down; and in hypercriticalness toward oneself and others. Must involve significant impairment in: pleasure, relaxation, health, self-esteem, sense of accomplishment, or satisfying relationships. Unrelenting standards typically present as:
- perfectionism, inordinate attention to detail, or an underestimate of how good one’s own performance is relative to the norm;
- rigid rules and “shoulds” in many areas of life, including unrealistically high moral, ethical, cultural, or religious precepts; or
- preoccupation with time and efficiency, so that more can be accomplished.
Because my scores in general have decreased, unrelenting standards has jumped from my 6th highest life trap in 2014 to my 4th in 2017. This means I am still too critical of myself and often force myself to be productive and effective even when I am tired and don’t feel like doing much.
How Can Life-traps Be Overcome?
The first step to changing anything is awareness. If you are not aware that you are falling into any traps, it means that you either don’t have any, or you are so enmeshed in your experience that you cannot see them.
Once you have an awareness of your traps, the next step is to try to understand them and why they occur for you. Most life-traps originate in childhood typically, which is why most psychologists and psychiatrists will ask about your upbringing and your relationship with your parents in particular.
Life-traps are actually considered to be adaptive ways of coping with a maladaptive environment. What this means is that they were probably quite useful in the particular family dynamic that you had, or you wouldn’t have developed them in the first place. For example, my family often called me a martyr when I was younger, because I said that it didn’t matter what I wanted. In reality it was just much easier to let everyone else decide and take charge.
Once you move out of the family home however, these ways of coping are generally not as effective, and tend to become maladaptive ways of interacting with yourself, others or the world. The three ways that we can keep life-traps going is by surrendering and acting as if they were true, trying to escape from them by staying away from all situations that could test whether they are true or not, and counterattacking, or going to the other extreme.
An awareness of these life-traps, when they are being triggered, and how you respond to them can therefore help you to determine a more adaptive way to respond in these situations so that your emotional needs can be met in a healthy way.
If you have been trying with therapy for a long time but don’t think that you are getting anywhere, please do seek out a Psychologist with experience in Schema Therapy. It has taught me much more about my own personal traps than anything else that I have done before, and really does give me a sense of what my biggest challenges are going forward. I’ve made a lot of progress so far, but there is still a long way to go, and that is okay. With acceptance, self-compassion, patience, reflection and perseverance I know that I will continue to improve, and I am certain that you can too!
Dr Damon Ashworth
Please note: There are another 6 schemas or life-traps that I haven’t given you Young’s definitions for. This is because they weren’t in either of my 2014 and 2017 top 10 and were scored at under 30% each time. If you think you might have any of the following life-traps do contact me and I’ll be happy to share their definitions with you:
- Defectiveness / Shame
- Social Isolation / Alienation
- Vulnerability to harm or illness
- Enmeshment / undeveloped self
- Failure to Achieve
- Entitlement / Grandiosity