What Life Traps Do You Consistently Fall Into?

Do you want to reinvent your life?

In my top 20 psychology books countdown, 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 Jeffrey Young also developed. The best part of Schema Therapy is the in-depth questionnaires that help people 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 want to get a sense of what your life traps may be, Reinventing your life is an excellent place to start, as it goes into 11 different ones. If you want a more in-depth analysis, however, then go and see a Psychologist who specialises in Schema Therapy. They will have more thorough and scientific questionnaires that can result in 18 schemas or life traps. You might be able to access some of these questionnaires online. Still, only psychologists have the scoring and interpretation skills required to give you the answers and direction you need going forward.

My Life-traps

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 complicated relationship while 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. I have also stopped playing basketball at such an intense level and now play with some friends (and without a coach) twice a week, which is way more fun. I want to share these results with you to show you that:

  1. context influences personality and how people view themselves, the world and others, and
  2. 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 I will frequently fall into this life trap.

YSQ-L3
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%

What’s Improved?

Overall, I am less likely to fall into any life trap in 2017 than in 2014. For example, 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.

Here is Young’s description of the schemas that I have improved in:

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); © 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 developed the most with subjugation and dependence/incompetence, my top 2 ranked life traps in 2014. This means that I am now much less likely to put my emotions and needs entirely aside for others. I am also much less likely to feel overwhelmed by everyday life, which means I am now less dependent on others for practical advice or support with day-to-day responsibilities.

I also improved regarding my self-control, my fears of abandonment, my need for approval from others, my desire to inhibit what I am feeling and (to a lesser degree) my inclination to self-sacrifice and put others first.

What’s Gotten Worse?

Here is Young’s description of the schemas that have worsened for me from 2014 to 2017:

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.

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.

What Hasn’t Changed?

The one life trap that remained precisely 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 had 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 useful 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 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. This means 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 it didn’t matter what I wanted. In reality, it was just much more comfortable to let everyone else decide and take charge.

However, once you move out of the family home, these coping methods are generally ineffective. They tend to become maladaptive ways of interacting with yourself, others or the world. The three ways we can keep life traps going are by surrendering and acting as if they were right, 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 triggered, and how you respond to them can, therefore, help you determine a more adaptive way to react in these situations so that you can meet your emotional needs healthily.

If you have been trying with therapy for a long time but don’t think you are getting anywhere, please seek 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 most significant 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. I know that I will continue to improve with acceptance, self-compassion, patience, reflection, and perseverance, and I am confident that you can too!

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

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

Published by Dr Damon Ashworth

I am a Clinical Psychologist. I completed a Doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology at Monash University and a Bachelor of Behavioural Sciences and a Bachelor of Psychological Sciences with Honours at La Trobe University. I am passionate about the field of Psychology, and apply the latest empirical findings to best help individuals meet their psychological and emotional needs.

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