Stories Like These ...

Depending on what we have experienced in our early childhoods, we hold certain beliefs about ourselves and the world and these ‘stories’ then become firmly established as we grow up. As an adult, we may, for example, hold the belief that bad things are going to happen to us, so (perhaps without realising) avoid tricky situations or anything that might present a risk. Or we may believe everybody will eventually abandon us or let us down, causing tensions in our relationships or even a tendency to avoid getting close to others. We all have such painful 'Achilles Heels' - our soft spots that can hold us back in life or even cause us suffering if we believe them to be true.

A psychologist called Jeffrey Young of Columbia University has identified 18 themes - what he calls personal ‘schemas’ - that can help us recognise our sore points. While reading through them, you might try bringing a mindful awareness to the thoughts and physical sensations you experience when you come across ones that you identify with. Try not to judge yourself or beat yourself up, but just kindly observe any physical reactions you have to the thoughts.

  1. Abandonment/Instability: My close relationships will end because people are unstable and unpredictable.
  2. Mistrust/Abuse: I expect to get hurt or be taken advantage of by others.
  3. Emotional deprivation: I can’t seem to get what I need from others, like understanding, support and attention.
  4. Defectiveness/Shame: I’m defective, bad, or inferior in some way that makes me unlovable.
  5. Social isolation/Alienation: I’m basically alone in this world and different from others.
  6. Dependence/Incompetence: I’m not capable of taking care of myself without help on simple tasks and decisions.
  7. Vulnerability to harm and illness: Danger is lurking around every corner, and I can’t prevent these things from happening.
  8. Enmeshment/Undeveloped self: I feel empty and lost without guidance from others, especially from people like my parents.
  9. Failure: I’m fundamentally inadequate (stupid, inept) compared to my peers and will inevitably fail.
  10. Entitlement/Self-centeredness: I deserve whatever I can get, even if it bothers others.
  11. Insufficient self-control/self-discipline: I have a hard time tolerating even small frustrations, which makes me act up or shut down.
  12. Subjugation: I tend to suppress my needs and emotions because of how others will react.
  13. Self-sacrifice: I’m very sensitive to others’ pain and tend to hide my own needs so that I’m not a bother.
  14. Approval-seeking/Recognition-seeking: Getting attention and admiration are often more important than what is truly satisfying to me.
  15. Negativity/Pessimism:I tend to focus on what will go wrong and mistakes I’ll probably make.
  16. Emotional inhibition: I avoid showing feelings, good and bad, and I tend to take a more rational approach.
  17. Unrelenting standards/Hypercriticalness: I’m a perfectionist, am focused on time and efficiency, and find it hard to slow down.
  18. Punitiveness: I tend to be angry and impatient, and I feel people should be punished for their mistakes.

Once you’ve identified the two or three schemas that are most resonant for you, see if you can notice when they reveal themselves in your life. You might find noticing them easier if you have a think beforehand of how these schemas manifest for you - the kind of thoughts, emotions and behaviour they trigger. Then, when those schemas or beliefs appear, see if you can recognise them for what they are: simply stories swirling around our heads. And although these stories might at times feel very real and can bring us much suffering, they might not always be true.

Do also remember that we all hold such beliefs and can therefore suffer at times. So don’t judge yourself for having them; instead, when they show up, be kind to yourself. By recognising the stories as simply stories and by holding them in a loving space, they will eventually loosen their grip.

For more instruction on how to respond to schemas with mindfulness and self-compassion, check out Christopher Germer’s: The mindful path to self-compassion.

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