Monday, June 23, 2008

Monday Madness [Lifetraps]

¡Hola! Everybody…
You see, there were seven words you couldn’t say on television…

So George Carlin said them all at Milwaukee’s Summerfest in 1972 and was arrested and charged with violating obscenity laws.

I woke up this morning to discover that comedian George Carlin had passed away. I love Carlin’s work. I loved his passion for pushing the envelope, his passion for free speech. Mostly I loved Carlin’s irreverent look at those things we as a society take far too seriously. He was able to articulate the Grand Cosmic Joke in a way that made us laugh with him and at our terminal self-importance.

You will be missed Mr. Carlin, but the waves you caused while here will continue to affect our lives…

* * *


“In baseball, the object is to go home, and be safe—‘I hope I’ll be safe at home!’”
-- George Carlin

Imagine, if you can, being thrust into a strange world. One moment you’re in the familiar world, the world you have always known and the next, everything and everyone you know has disappeared. You find yourself in a land of strange giants that walk by you without acknowledging you. You begin to cry, it’s so frightening, and when you’re asked, you find that you can’t describe who you are, or where you’re from.

All you can do is cry…

That’s how I remember feeling when I was a little boy and was lost. I was an active child and my when my mother stopped to talk to one of her friends, I walked away and became lost. She would eventually find me at the local supermarket eating an ice cream, but to me that was a terrifying moment. My mother expressed surprise that I could remember the incident. I couldn’t have been more than three years old. But I remember it clearly: it was winter, a cloudy gray day in New York City. I remember the horror of being lost – of thinking I had lost everything I knew of the world.

The thing is that most of my childhood was filled with the feeling of being lost – of the feeling that there was no safety. My parents fought a lot and I was often in the middle of it. My father was an addict and there was violence and abuse in my childhood. In addition, because I was the oldest, I often felt that I had to take care of things. I often acted as a surrogate spouse to a mother who was impulsive and sometimes acted irresponsibly.

I would like to state at this moment that I do not blame my parents for the person I am today. In fact, everything that is good about me is a direct consequence of my parents’ influence on my life. I feel so strongly about this that I honestly feel that even if I were to carry my mother on my back for the rest of her life, I would still fall far short of the debt I owe her.

The point of bringing this up is to illustrate and important factor: We continue to repeat the pain of our childhood. This is one of the core insights of contemporary psychology. Freud called it repetition compulsion. The child of an alcoholic grows up to marry an alcoholic. The abused child grows up to marry an abuser or becomes an abuser herself. The sexually molested child grows up to be a prostitute. The overly controlled child allows others to control him.

You might think this unwise. Why would we re-enact our pain – repeatedly? Why don’t we build better lives and break free of the destructive patterns of our lives? The fact remains that we do re-enact our pain. Almost everyone repeats negative patterns from childhood in self-defeating ways. Healers are constantly confronted with this basic truth in their work. Somehow, we manage to create in adulthood conditions similar to those that were so destructive in childhood.

Life patterns are made from deeply held beliefs about ourselves and the world learned early in life. These patterns, or schemas, are crucial to our sense of self. To give up our belief in a schema would mean to surrender the security of knowing who we are and what we think we know of the world. Therefore, we cling to it, even when it hurts; they are comfortable and familiar. In a very weird way, they make us feel at home.

For a long time, two major lifetraps (schemas) for me were abandonment and emotional deprivation. To be truthful, though I have been able to transcend these two lifetraps to the point where they no longer run my life, both of these lifetraps still hold a powerful attraction for me.

For a long time, this was not the case. For me, my abandonment issues get played out in the arena of romantic relationships. The lifetrap (or schema) of abandonment is the feeling that people you love will leave you, and you will end up emotionally isolated forever. Whether it’s people you love leaving or dying, or preferring someone else, you feel that you will be left alone. For me, this feeling was a lot like my childhood experience of being left utterly alone and vulnerable.

The irony of this lifetrap was that I would often play out my fear of abandonment, causing people to leave me, or becoming attracted only to emotionally unavailable women.

My other major hang-up was the emotional deprivation lifetrap. Emotional deprivation is the belief that your need for love will never be met adequately by other people. You feel that no one truly cares for you or understands how you feel. What would happen is that I often found myself attracted to cold and ungiving people, or I would become cold and ungiving myself. All this would lead me to form relationships that were ultimately profoundly dissatisfying. The emotional deprivation lifetrap creates a huge feeling of emptiness and loneliness, of emotional disconnection.

As I stated before, I no longer play out these patterns (at least not as often), but they still hold a powerful attraction for me because my early childhood experiences wired me for such relationship patterns. Lifetraps are lifelong patterns of relating that are self-destructive. They almost take on a life of their own and struggle for survival. If you were to have known me then, it would’ve broken your heart to see me get abandoned over and over again.

In order for a child to thrive they need their basic needs met. Without these basic needs, children have to develop a defense mechanism that helps us make sense of the world. That’s how these patterns develop. A child that lacks safety, a connection to others, a sense of autonomy, self-esteem, freedom for self-expression, and realistic limits will develop dysfunctional behavior patterns.

Some lifetraps are more core than others. Issues arising from basic safety are the most problematic. People who are abused or abandoned as children are the most fragmented *grin*. There is nowhere they feel safe. There is an underlying sense that at any moment someone they love might hurt them or leave them. There is a deeply felt sense of vulnerability. It takes very little disrupt their balance and their moods are erratic, and they tend to be impulsive and self-destructive.

The first step to stopping the lifetraps (or patterns) is to identify them. Lifetraps work actively to organize our experiences. They operate under cover in subtle ways to influence how we think, feel, and act. Because lifetraps are so hard to change, the fist step is to understand them so that we can recognize them. In naming your patterns, you get a better understanding of them. This insight is only the first step.

There are several other steps involved in breaking the patterns of suffering we all create. I will write about this in some future post. If anything I have written today sounds like something you would like to learn more about, check out one of the best books about change I have ever read, Reinventing Your Life: How to Break Free from Negative Life Patterns. You can also visit a website on Schema therapy (click here) with a presentation and resource page for finding therapists practicing this orientation. In addition, Tara Bennet-Goleman wrote a great book, Emotional Alchemy, fusing Buddhist practices with Schema Therapy. I took some workshops on Schema Therapy and use aspects of it in my own work.

This whole approach changed my life for the better. today, I no longer seek out emotionally unavailable women, nor do my abandonment issues hold the same power they used to.



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