It’s Okay to Still Fall into Life Traps… We All Do!

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, the book ‘Reinventing your life’ by Jeffrey Young is an excellent place to start, as it goes into 11 different ones. If you want a more in-depth analysis, however, then do go and see a Psychologist who specialises in Schema Therapy.

A Psychologist has much more thorough and scientific questionnaires that can give you results on 18 schemas (life-traps), help you to identify your most common traps, and show you what you can do both in therapy and outside of it whenever you realise that you have fallen into a trap.

My Life-traps

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Photo by Vusal Ibadzade on Pexels.com

I have taken the Young Schema Questionnaire (YSQ-L3) three times now to help identify my main life-traps. 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, when I was in a Clinical Psychology job that I loved and a warm and supportive relationship. I had also stopped playing basketball at such an intense level, and was just playing with some friends (and without a coach) twice a week, which was way more fun.

The most recent time was August 2018, where I had just finished up my work in private practice in Melbourne, Australia and was about to leave my friends and family to volunteer for two years in Port Vila, Vanuatu as past of the Australian Volunteers Program (funded by the Australian Government).

I’d like to share these results with you to show you that:

  1. context influences personality and how people view themselves, the world and others,
  2. personality and ways of perceiving yourself, relationships and the world can change, and
  3. even though it is possible to grow and improve over time, we all still fall into traps at times, and this is okay. It’s about trying to identify when you have fallen into a trap, and then knowing what you need to do to get out of it. 

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.

YSQ-L3
2014 Results 2017 Results 2018 Results
Schema or life-trap Schema or life-trap Schema or life-trap
1. Subjugation – 75% 1. Self-sacrifice – 60.78% 1.Self-sacrifice – 60.78%
2. Dependence – 64.44% 2. Punitiveness (self) – 57.14% 2. Emotional Deprivation – 59.26%
3. Self-sacrifice – 61.76% 3. Emotional Deprivation – 51.85% 3. Punitiveness (self) – 50%
4. Approval seeking – 54.76% 4. Unrelenting Standards/ Hyper-criticalness – 48.96% 4. Subjugation – 50%
5. Punitiveness (self) – 51.19% 5. Approval Seeking – 48.81% 5. Unrelenting standards – 43.75%
6. Unrelenting standards – 48.96% 6. Subjugation – 48.33% 6. Approval seeking – 41.67%
7. Insufficient self-control – 46.67% 7. Negativity/ Pessimism – 43.94% 7. Vulnerability to harm/illness – 40.28%
8. Emotional inhibition – 46.30% 8. Mistrust/ Abuse – 41.18% 8. Negativity/Pessimism – 39.39%
9. Emotional deprivation – 42.59% 9. Dependence/ Incompetence – 41.11% 9. Dependence/ Incompetence – 38.89%
10. Abandonment – 41.18% 10. Emotional Inhibition – 40.74% 10. Mistrust/Abuse – 37.25%

What’s Changed?

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Photo by Mark Lin on Pexels.com

By looking at the table above, the green items indicate an improvement in comparison to the prior assessment, meaning that these life-traps are a little bit less powerful for me. The yellow indicates no change since the last assessment, and the red indicates a worse score, meaning that these life-traps may have a more powerful sway over me.

From 2014 to 2017, 7 out of the initial top-10 life-traps had improved, one stayed the same, and two had worsened. Two additional traps not included in the initial top 10 had worsened and made the list (Negativity/Pessimism & Mistrust/Abuse).

From 2017 to 2018, 7 out of the 2017 top-10 life-traps had improved yet again, with one staying the same and two worsening. One additional trap (Vulnerability to harm/illness) had increased, but I believe this was due to the medical and safety briefings that I had been going through in the preparation of moving to Vanuatu for 2 years.

 

Overall, I am less likely to fall into any life-trap in 2018 than I was in 2014 and 2017. The average of my top ten in 2014 was 53.29%, whereas in 2017 it was 48.28% and in 2018 it was 46.13%.

I also rated 21 items a 6 (= describes me perfectly) in 2014, only five in 2017, and none in 2018. This means that I am much less likely to get completely pushed around by my life-traps, but they still do have some sway on me, especially the self-sacrifice and the emotional deprivation schemas, and to a lesser degree punitiveness and subjugation.

Here is Young’s description of these schemas:

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.

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:

  1. Deprivation of Nurturance: Absence of attention, affection, warmth, or companionship.
  2. Deprivation of Empathy: Absence of understanding, listening, self-disclosure, or mutual sharing of feelings from others.
  3. Deprivation of Protection: Absence of strength, direction, or guidance from others.

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 behaviour, uncontrolled outbursts of temper, psychosomatic symptoms, withdrawal of affection, “acting out”, substance abuse).

PUNITIVENESS: The belief that people should be harshly punished for making mistakes. Involves the tendency to be angry, intolerant, punitive, and impatient with oneself for not meeting one’s expectations or standards.  Usually includes difficulty forgiving mistakes in oneself, because of a reluctance to consider extenuating circumstances, allow for human imperfection, or empathize with one’s feelings.

Three out of my top four life-traps have improved since 2014, but emotional deprivation unfortunately continues to climb with each assessment. I’m not entirely sure why, but I do think that self-sacrifice, subjugation and emotional deprivation schemas may be common life-traps for people who decide to become psychologists. The therapeutic relationship is meant to be one sided, and focused on the patient or client’s needs, not the psychologist’s needs. It is for this reason that it is crucial for psychologists to get their relational needs met outside of their job, and to get their own therapy if needed to ensure that they can have a space that is about them too. I wonder how these life-traps will continue to evolve over the next two years while I am in Vanuatu…

How Can Life-traps Be Overcome?

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Photo by Anthony DeRosa on Pexels.com

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 maladaptive environments. What this means is that your life-traps 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 more comfortable to let everyone else decide and take charge. Then if things didn’t work out, I couldn’t be blamed. I saw it as a win-win, but often didn’t get what I wanted, because I didn’t speak up, and then complained that my parents loved my siblings more, who were more than happy to speak up and ask for what they wanted.

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. If I keep playing martyr and refuse speak up as an adult, my needs still don’t get met. As a result, I may become excessively demanding of others as a counterattack measure (not likely for me), or I may try to escape from all relationships where I need to speak up about my needs. Either way, it keeps the life-trap going, and it isn’t helpful.

I need to realise that there are relationships out there where it is beneficial for me to speak up, as people then know what I want, and can then respond effectively to the situation at hand. It still doesn’t “feel right” when I think about telling others my wants or needs (and I’m not sure if it ever will), but I logically know that it is the best approach for me to take going forward. If I want to break free from my main life-traps, I have to learn to speak up, in a reasonable way, when it is important to me (and others). By doing this, eventually, the life-traps will become much less prevalent and less powerful too.

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. If you are stuck in a relationship where your needs aren’t being met, it could help too.

Learning about Schema Therapy and undergoing training in it has taught me more about my own personal life-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. With acceptance, self-compassion, patience, reflection and perseverance I know that I will continue to improve, and I am confident that you can too!

 

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

 

P.S. For a full description of the other 14 maladaptive schemas, please click here.

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25 Ideas That Could Change Your Life

1. KAIZEN

jesus-in-taiwan-372790-unsplash.jpgA Japanese term meaning “improvement”.

I think of Kaizen as ‘continuous improvement’ or ‘continual change for the better, one small step at a time’, as this is how I first heard of the term.

A lot of the successful Japanese manufacturing companies in automobiles and technology have used this exact approach to obtain massive success over time.

What could you achieve if you just focused on taking one small step in the right direction today, and then another one every day after that?

2. BE THE CHANGE YOU WANT TO SEE…

luca-iaconelli-242679-unsplash.jpgGandhi did not say “Be the change you want to see in the world” even though it is often attributed to him. What he actually said was this: 

“We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.” – Mahatma Gandhi

3. BE HERE NOW

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If we are fully present in the moment and aware of what is going on both internally and externally, we have a choice in what we decide to do.

If you do not feel present, meditate, ground yourself, get outside, move and connect with your five senses in the moment and the world around you.

“Awareness is all about restoring your freedom to choose what you want instead of what your past imposes on you.” – Deepak Chopra

4. CHOICES DEFINE YOUR LEGACY

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This happens through a lengthy process of choices becoming actions, actions becoming habits, and all of your habits informing your character and ultimate legacy. A quote along these lines has been attributed to a Mr Wiseman in 1856, and it tells us that whatever we sow, we must later reap.

It is therefore essential to engage in as many helpful actions as possible when we still have a choice and before they become habitual. The more engrained something is, the easier it is to do automatically, and the harder it can be to stop.

“Neurons that fire together, wire together.” – Donald Hebb

5. LIFE WASN’T MEANT TO BE EASY

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We often don’t appreciate things that just fall into our lap, and we tend to value things much more when we put in some hard work to get it. Even people that build their own IKEA furniture rate the furniture as being more valuable than people who see that same furniture complete but haven’t made it themselves.

I know I’d be more proud of the $3million I built up through hard work than the equivalent amount of money won through a lottery. How about you?

Anything in life worth having is worth working for.” – Andrew Carnegie

6. THE MAGIC HAPPENS OUTSIDE YOUR COMFORT ZONE

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Move out of your comfort zone. You can only grow if you are willing to feel awkward and uncomfortable when you try something new.” – Brian Tracy

So many people want a comfortable life and therefore stick to what feels safe. Unfortunately, if you are not willing to feel uncomfortable, your life will only get smaller over time.

When you first step out of your comfort zone, it will be scary, you will feel awkward, and it may even feel unsafe. But is it really, or does it just feel threatening because it is new? If at this moment, you run back to what you are used to, you won’t grow. However, if you can persist through the initial pain, it will only get more comfortable in time, and your comfort zone will continue to expand and grow.

7. RETHINK WHAT IT MEANS TO BE FREE

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What is real freedom to you?

Doing whatever your parents, school, bosses or government wants you to do? UMM NO. This is called compliance.

Being a rebel and doing the exact opposite of what your parents, school, bosses and government told you to do? STILL NO. This is called counterpliance and is always defined by what you have been shown to do, which means that you are still part of the system. Plus you may end up grounded, expelled, fired or in prison, which doesn’t sound too free to me.

Just living for the moment and indulging in all of your passions and pleasures whenever you want, because YOLO, right? NOPE. This is called hedonism, and may feel great for a night, but not for a lifetime. It can have some pretty nasty side-effects too if you aren’t careful, including weight gain, disease, debt, dissatisfaction and even death.

True freedom must come from making the choice that is likely to be the best for you in the long-term, even if it denies you that last alcoholic drink or dessert, or the fun that happens after 2am, or that extra TV episode, or the added snooze time in the mornings. If we can’t get ourselves to do things that are difficult or painful in the short-term but beneficial in the long run, we can never honestly be free in the long-term. As a former NAVY SEAL famously said:

Discipline equals freedom.” – Jocko Willink

8. GETTING STARTED IS ALWAYS THE HARDEST PART

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The secret of getting ahead is getting started” – Mark Twain.

In a book that I once read (the Willpower Instinct I think), I came across a 10-minute rule that I found surprisingly useful. Basically, if you are not sure if you are up for doing something, give it a go for 10 minutes, and if after 10 minutes you still don’t feel up to it, stop. I tried it a few times with going to the gym, and usually, once I get there and get into it, I’m fine, but my brain often tries to tell me that I am too tired before I go.

The reason the 10-minute strategy seems to work is that it is much easier to get our brain to do something for 10 minutes than it is for a considerable chunk of time. This is because it requires much less energy when we are forecasting our capacity to do the task. Human brains are cognitive misers, which means they are always trying to “help” by conserving energy. If you want to get started or you feel tired, think small. Also…

9. THE FIRST DRAFT OF ANYTHING IS RUBBISH

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Don’t get discouraged because there’s a lot of mechanical work to writing. There is, and you can’t get out of it. I rewrote the first part of A Farewell to Arms at least fifty times. You’ve got to work it over. The first draft of anything is shit. When you first start to write you get all the kick and the reader gets none, but after you learn to work it’s your object to convey everything to the reader so that he remembers it not as a story he had read but something that happened to himself.” – Ernest Hemingway

This quote is fantastic because too often people think that the need to produce a masterpiece the first time they try or do something. If one of the most famous authors of all time produced crap on their first draft, why should we expect more on ours? The solution is to focus on the process, not the outcome, and just produce work before trying to edit, review or criticise what you have done.

10. DON’T PUT THINGS OFF TIL LATER

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If something takes less than 2 minutes to do, don’t write it down or add it to your to do list – do it now.” – David Allen, Getting Things Done

Most people have so much stuff to do at any one time that it is very difficult to ever get their to-do-list down to zero. This can cause anxiety and stress for some people, but the key is to have an excellent system to manage everything that comes in so that you don’t have to keep worrying and thinking about all of the things you need to do. Getting things done, or GTD is one such system. And the two-minute-rule from GTD says that small tasks should never go on your to-do-list if you can just get them done now. This rule alone means that my email inbox rarely has any unopened or unreplied emails.

11. BE YOURSELF; EVERYONE ELSE IS TAKEN

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Some believe that Oscar Wilde first said this, but the fascinating quote investigator website said that they could not find it in any of his writings. Keith craft said something similar that I like better, in announcing that we all have a unique fingerprint and that we can, therefore “leave a unique imprint that no one else can leave.”

To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

12. WE REGRET THE THINGS WE DON’T DO MORE THAN THE THINGS WE DO

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When making a decision about the future, we tend to think about what we may lose if we take a risk. However, when reflecting on the past, we feel more regret about what we missed by not taking a chance. The question then becomes, do we:

  1. Play it safe, and not put ourselves out there because people may judge us or criticise us for giving something a go and not succeeding? Or
  2. Criticise others for being brave enough to try something that they believe in? Or
  3. Throw caution to the wind and give it our best shot, knowing that we will learn and grow more from mistakes and setbacks than we ever would have by sitting back and criticising others?

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” – Theodore Roosevelt

13. FEEL THE FEAR AND DO IT ANYWAY!

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Susan Jeffers was my hero back when I read her top-selling self-help book. I couldn’t believe that I didn’t have to get rid of the fear before I acted fearlessly.

The Confidence Gap by Russ Harris then further highlighted to me that the action of confidence tends to come before the feeling of confidence, not the other way around.

Fear was designed to keep us safe as a hunter-gatherer but holds us back more in modern day life than it helps us sometimes. We need to instead assess the real level of risk whenever we feel fear, and go for it if the situation feels scary but is actually pretty safe. This could be horror movies, roller coaster rides, plane flights, or public speaking.

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” – FDR inaugural address, 1932

14. WYSIATI

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What you see is all there is.” – Daniel Kahneman

How you are thinking and feeling in the moment is very much influenced by how you are thinking and feeling at the moment. If you feel on top of the world, you are likely to be feeling happy, thinking positively about yourself, others, the world and the future. Anything may feel possible. Then the next week you have a setback or get sick, and you start to feel depressed and hopeless and think negatively about yourself, others, the world and the future. Both can’t be true, if they are only a week apart, so it’s important to understand the power of WYSIATI.

Don’t think too big picture if you are feeling flat and down, and try not to shop if you’re too hungry. The choices you’ll make once you’ve picked up a bit and have eaten something are likely to be very different.

15. MEMENTO MORI

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Latin: “Remember that you have to die.

In many cultures around the world and through history, the acknowledging of our own mortality through prayer, meditation, reflection, ceremony, or celebration is much more common than it is in atheistic modern-day Western life.

The phrase memento mori helped people to consider the transient nature of earthly life, our goods and our pursuits and enabled them to become humble and clarify what was really important to them.

16. THINGS FADE; ALTERNATIVES EXCLUDE

Two things that are inevitable in life are:

1. no matter what we do, time passes and things erode over time (also known as the second law of thermodynamics), and

2. if we go down one path, we cannot go down another track at the same time.

– “Decisions are difficult for many reasons, some reaching down into the very socket of our being. John Gardner, in his novel Grendel, tells of a wise man who sums up his meditations on life’s mysteries in two simple but terrible postulates: “Things fade: alternatives exclude.” […] Decision invariably involves renunciation: for every yes there must be a no, each decision eliminating or killing other options (the root of the word decide means “slay,” as in homicide or suicide).” – Irvin Yalom (1991). Love’s executioner. p. 10. Penguin Books.

17. PARKINSON’S LAW

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Ever wondered how on some days, when you are super busy, you manage to get way more work done. Then on quiet days, you don’t have much work to do, but struggle to get it all done. The reason for this is Parkinson’s law:

Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.

The Stock–Sanford corollary to Parkinson’s rule is better in my opinion, and it is something I used a lot when studying at uni:

If you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute to do.

If productivity is what you are going for, give yourself a closer deadline and someone to hold you accountable if you don’t meet it, and voila, productivity and efficiency improve!

18. THE IMPORTANCE OF MEANING AND PURPOSE

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He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

Nietzsche was a nihilist, which meant that he didn’t think the world had any meaning in it. Irvin Yalom said that even if the world is meaningless overall, it is still essential for each of us to find things that are personally meaningful to us, either as an individual or as a group. Viktor Frankl showed that in the concentration camps in WWII, those with some higher purpose beyond the camps were the ones who could manage to survive the horrible atrocities they faced every day.

What’s personally meaningful to you? Where could you find purpose?

19. DON’T LISTEN TO THE DOUBTERS

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Impossibility is not a fact – it’s an opinion.” – Muhammed Ali

Think of anyone who has done something groundbreaking or is still trying to do something pioneering today – Henry Ford, Walt Disney, Steve Jobs, Barack Obama, Richard Branson, Elon Musk, Bill Gates. I wonder how many of them were told to give up, grow up, stop being deluded or to think realistically? I’d say most of them.

Just because something hasn’t been done before, doesn’t mean it can’t be. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have had the massive amount of progression that we have had over the past 200 years.

20. CLARIFY YOUR VALUES AND MAKE DECISIONS BASED ON THESE

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(Some people spend) their lives doing work they detest to make money they don’t want to buy things they don’t need in order to impress people they dislike.” – Emile Gauvreau

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that your life has to be a certain way just because everyone else is doing something a certain way and telling you that you should too.

By clarifying your own values first and building your own hierarchy, you can then see if what you are currently doing is consistent with what is really important for you. If not, what changes could you make, that you’d be willing to make, that would help you to start heading in the right direction? The earlier that you make these changes, or at least concrete plans to make them, the higher chance there is that you will be happy with the path that you are on.

21. RELATIONSHIP WARMTH IS THE NUMBER ONE PREDICTOR OF LONG-TERM HEALTH AND HAPPINESS

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“Love people, use things. The opposite never works.” – Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus – The Minimalists

The minimalist movement has really picked up in the last 20 years in response to most of us in the Western world having way too much stuff and realising that it doesn’t make us any happier. If anything, it causes us more stress. Clothing used to be a scarce and valuable thing. Now wardrobes and houses are overflowing, and storage facilities are popping up everywhere to help clear some space.

What if we just bought fewer things, and focused more on what really matters: our connections with the important people in our lives. Robert Waldinger, director of the Harvard study of Adult Development, found that in the end, close relationships are more critical to our health and happiness than anything else.

22. OCCAM’S RAZOR

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Given several possible explanations about something, the simplest one is probably right.

Is the dog above trying to read, or is it merely sniffing the book?

Occam’s razor is why conspiracy theories are never likely to be true. Think about the moon landing, or 9/11, or the Illuminati, flat earth theories, or any other conspiracy out there. For the plot to be real, there are so many added levels that would have all had to run flawlessly for them to work out, and so many people would have had to keep this a secret for such an extended period of time without turning themselves in or trying to make money out of it in a tell-all. It’s much more likely that there is no conspiracy.

Occam’s razor can also be applied to losing weight, sleeping well, getting stronger, or improving any skill. Some people have complicated theories, but usually, the answer lies in relatively simple explanations. Doing too much, or complicating things beyond what is necessary often backfires.

Reduce things back to the bare essentials, and see what happens.

23. LAW OF DIMINISHING RETURNS

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The law of diminishing returns says that each time we do something to receive a benefit, the benefit will be less and less.

Let’s say you order this massive stack of pancakes in the picture above. The first pancake may taste amazing, and the pleasure received is a 9 out of 10. Each bite is likely to be slightly less enjoyable than the one before, especially after you become full. If you somehow managed to get through the whole stack, the last bite could be a 1 out of 10 on the pleasure scale. Come back for pancakes again next month, however, and pleasure bounces back up to a 9 out of 10 again.

The solution is to wait for long enough between doing the same thing twice so that you enjoy it just as much the next time.

Variety is the very spice of life, that gives it all its flavour.” – William Cowper

24. BE KINDphotography of a man and woman laughing

 

If you’re kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway.” – Mother Teresa

If you know why you are doing something, try not to worry about what others think. People who do not understand why you are doing what you are doing will choose to see it from their point of view. If they could not do what you are without getting something in return, they will assume the same intention is within you. But being kind is a reward within itself. If you can give just for the sake of it, do it. You can thank me later.

25. DESIGN YOUR OWN LIFE

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When you grow up you tend to get told the world is the way it is and (you should) just live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family, have fun, save a little money. That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again“. – Steve Jobs

As far as I see the world, we only have one life to live. We can spend it doing what others expect of us, or we can spend it doing what is right for us. We can blame everyone else for how things turn out, or we can go our own way.

Regardless of what you decide, time passes, and eventually, you will either feel that you made the most of what you had, or you will accumulate regrets. I try to live my life with no regrets, and I wish the same for you too.

 

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

What if You Could Change Your Attachment Style?

In my top 20 psychology books countdown, I put the 2012 title: ‘Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment, and How It Can Help You Find – and Keep – Love’ by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller in 9th place, thanks to its Amazon.com star rating of 4.6/5.

 

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Attachment styles research is an area that I’ve been fascinated in since I first learnt about it in year 11 psychology class. If you are interested in learning more about it, I do recommend checking the book out, as our attachment styles tend to have a much more significant impact on how we are in intimate relationships than most people are aware of.

What Are Attachment Styles?

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Attachment styles are initially developed in the context of our relationship with our primary caregiver growing up. This is usually the mother, but in other cases, it can be the father, guardian or potentially even a nanny.

Almost all children can usually be categorised as having one of four attachment styles based on how they respond to the strange situation test, which was initially designed and researched by Mary Ainsworth in 1969. They can be considered to have a secure attachment, an ambivalent insecure attachment, an avoidance insecure attachment, or a disorganised attachment.

In the strange situation procedure, an infant between the ages of 9 and 18 months is placed in a room with some toys for 21 minutes and is observed playing through a two-way mirror while the primary caregiver and a stranger enter and leave the room. This situation was meant to recreate what may happen in a normal infant’s life so that their typical reactions could be observed.

The strange situation procedure went as follows:

  1. The primary caregiver and infant enter the room.
  2. The infant explores the room while the caregiver watches but doesn’t play with the infant.
  3. A stranger enters and talks with the caregiver, then approaches the infant. Caregiver leaves while this occurs without saying goodbye.
  4. The stranger tries to engage with the infant.
  5. The primary caregiver then returns and greets and comforts the infant. Stranger leaves.
  6. Caregiver leaves again, and the infant is alone.
  7. The stranger comes back in and tries to interact with the infant.
  8. The primary caregiver then comes back in, greets and picks up the infant, and the stranger leaves.

What is worth looking at during this process is how the infant interacts with the new environment and toys in the room, how they associate with the stranger, and how the infant reacts to when the primary caregiver leaves the room (departures) and comes back in to greet or soothe the infant (reunions). These responses are very predictive of what attachment style the infant has, and also what attachment style the primary caregiver may have.

Attachment styles are not set in stone, and they can change over time, but like most things I write about, gaining an awareness of your own attachment style is a crucial first step before you try to look at how you can improve it.

A Secure Attachment

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Infants who are securely attached to their primary caregiver will be willing to explore a new room when they enter it. They will turn around and check in with their parent from time to time as they are their “secure base”. They may even come back if they are starting to feel too scared or overwhelmed, as their parents are their “safe haven” and help them to calm down emotionally and physically when they are distressed. Once they feel calm and safe again, which may be very quickly, they will then go back out and explore once more.

The secure infant will engage with the stranger when the primary caregiver is there, but might be warier when alone with the stranger, and could become upset when the parent leaves, but is then able to calm themselves down after a little bit. They are thrilled to see their primary caregiver once they return, however, and will be responsive to their communication and interactions.

Essentially, a secure child feels that their primary caregiver will meet their needs appropriately and responsively, and they learn to turn to them when they need it and do things by themselves when they do not. It is the ideal attachment style for learning, development of skills, and forming and establishing healthy, long-term relationships.

In intimate relationships, being securely attached is ideal. It means that you enjoy being close and intimate with your partner when they are there and are happy to do your own thing when they are not. You feel comfortable opening up to them or talking to them about your feelings or concerns, and feel comfortable helping your partner out with their issues too. Relationships seem relatively natural to you, and you are more likely to have a happy, long-term relationship.

An Anxious/Ambivalent Insecure Attachment

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Infants who are anxious or resistant are usually this way as a result of unpredictably responsive caregiving, where sometimes their caregiver is too full-on, sometimes they are appropriately responsive, and other times they are not responsive. As a result of these inconsistencies, the infant usually amplifies their emotional needs in an attempt to try and get them met on a more regular basis.

Anxiously attached infants are distressed even before the separation in the strange situation procedure, do not like to explore the area or interact with the stranger, show resentment for being left alone and are quite clingy and unable to calm down or be comforted easily once the parent returns.

In intimate relationships, being anxiously attached is tough. It means that you love being close with your partner, but find it quite difficult to be apart, often fearing that they don’t care or that they will stop loving you or will be unfaithful towards you when they are not around. You have a tendency to become preoccupied with fears of abandonment, especially in times of high stress, and may inadvertently push your partners away by making them feel like they don’t have enough independence or that you don’t trust them enough.

An Avoidance Insecure Attachment

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Infants who have this style will try to ignore or avoid the primary caregiver in the strange situation. They outwardly show little emotion during departures and reunions with the caregiver, and they will also not explore too much regardless of who is in the room.

The ignoring or turning away from the primary caregiver is actually a mask for internal distress, however, as heart-rate and other physiological responses are similar to that of the anxiously attached infants upon the separation from their primary caregiver. It seems to be that these infants want to be comforted when distressed, but over time try to suppress their emotional needs because their parents are not attuned or responsive to their distress or able to meet their needs in ways that would help them. As a result, they try to pull away, keep to themselves, and show the world that they don’t have any needs.

As an adult, having an avoidant attachment is also tricky for intimate relationships. It means that you are likely to value independence and freedom a lot, and tend to feel smothered or trapped if you spend too much time with your partner. As a result, you will manage to push partners away, especially if they are demanding or needy. You are also likely to not share enough of your own emotional needs or desires with your partner and may resent them for expressing these things to you.

Two avoidantly attached individuals may seem like they could have a good relationship together, but often there is “not enough glue to keep them together”, and they fade further apart from each other over time.

A Disorganised Attachment

 

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There is a fourth attachment style known as a fearful or disorganised. This was later identified by one of Ainsworth’s graduate students Mary Main and is where the infant flips between signs that they are overwhelmed with a “flooded attachment system” and strategies of desperation. This is often a consequence of significant trauma, as a reliable coping mechanism has not been established in the infant. They want to be close to their primary caregiver, but they are also terrified of being close to them.

Adults with a disorganised attachment who have been through a complicated relationship with their parents or guardians will find it tough to initiate and maintain a healthy and happy intimate relationship when they are older. They will often vacillate between feelings of being trapped and smothered and wanting freedom one minute and then worrying about how they would ever cope if they lost their partner the next. Their behaviour and strong emotional reactions can be confusing to both an individual with a disorganised attachment and the people they date.

But How Do I Find Out What Attachment Style I Have?

If you aren’t too sure what attachment style you have based on the descriptions above or from reflecting on your experience as a child or in intimate relationships, you can also take a free online test to find out. I have taken the test titled “Your Actual and Ideal Attachment Styles” at personalityassessor.com on three occasions now. The first time was on the 22nd of October 2014, back when I was still married, the 12th of April 2017, when I had just bought an apartment with my girlfriend, and the 12th of August 2018, 4 days before I was about to leave everyone in my life in Australia to move to Vanuatu for 2 years.

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Can Attachment Styles Change Over Time?

These are the results from the three attachment style surveys that I took, followed by the description that was included in my 2018 results at the personality assessor website:
Attachment Anxiety:
  • 2014 = 13th percentile – very low
  • 2017 = 3rd percentile – extremely low
  • 2018 = 2nd percentile – extremely low

You are currently extremely low in attachment anxiety. People extremely low in attachment anxiety tend to desire extremely low levels of closeness in their relationships, and also experience extremely low concerns about rejection and abandonment.

You’ve decreased a lot in Attachment Anxiety over time.

The decreases that you have experienced in Attachment Anxiety have been extremely consistent over time.

You indicated that you would like to stay the same with respect to attachment anxiety. Researchers believe that most people want to decrease at least a little bit in attachment anxiety.

Attachment Avoidance:
  • 2014 = 89th percentile – extremely high
  • 2017 = 47th percentile – about average
  • 2018 = 52nd percentile – about average

You are currently about average in attachment avoidance. People about average in attachment avoidance tend to desire about average levels of independence in their relationships, and they tend to experience about average levels of comfort with depending on romantic partners and opening up to them.

You’ve decreased an extreme amount in Attachment Avoidance over time.

The decreases that you have experienced in Attachment Avoidance have been extremely consistent over time.


You indicated that you would like to decrease with respect to attachment avoidance. Researchers believe that most people want to become a little less avoidant.

My Attachment Style

Based on the 2014 finding, I had an avoidant attachment style. That makes a lot of sense to me and is how I have typically been in most relationships. I was also a pretty quiet and anxious child growing up and kept to myself a lot even though on some level I really valued and craved for a solid relationship where it was possible to feel connected and have a sense of belonging without losing my sense of self in the relationship. I’ve always kind of struggled to show this to the other person, however, and often got accused of not caring enough in the relationships that I have been in.

While I can definitely see my part in the unhealthy relationships I have been in, I also have had a tendency to be attracted to and get involved with females who exhibited an anxious attachment, which only made the issue worse. If things go well in an avoidant/anxious relationship, which they usually do at the start, the quality of the relationship can feel great. Both of you are getting your relational needs met (maybe for the first time) and it is exciting and fun and nice. Once one person becomes distressed is when the problems begin, however, and they always do…

Before 2015 had a big tendency to shut down emotionally whenever I was overwhelmed or distressed, focus on getting through what I needed to do practically, and in general minimise my emotional needs. It was classic avoidance attachment behaviour. This pulling away caused distress in someone with an anxious attachment, however, and they would then amplify their emotional needs in response to the greater perceived distance in the relationship. They may have feared abandonment, and protested that I didn’t care or needed to give them more so that they would feel secure. I would then feel more overwhelmed and trapped, and pull away further in an attempt to calm myself down. Anyone with an anxious attachment would then begin to feel even more insecure and distressed and try to protest further. This vicious cycle often continued to play out and escalate, maybe with brief interludes, until the relationship ended, usually in a not so pleasant way.

Based on my 2017 and 2018 findings, it says that I would now be considered to have a secure attachment style:

Your prototypical attachment style is secure. Securely attached individuals enjoy being close with others, and form new friendships easily. They usually desire moderate levels of involvement in their close relationships.

This is pleasantly surprising to me because I still do feel more avoidant in my attachment then I would like to be, but my avoidance is now considered average, and my anxiety is extremely low. Comparatively speaking, I am still much more avoidant than anxious when it comes to relationships, but securely attached overall. I am a bit sad to see that my avoidance has crept up a little bit again since 2017, but hope that if I keep working at it that I can continue to bring it down further in the future.

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How Do We Improve Our Attachment Style?

Occasional conflict is inevitable in any relationship. Being in a relationship with someone with a secure attachment will help you to get through difficulties in life and your relationship, no matter what your age or attachment style is.

  • If you have a secure attachment too, it is likely to be pretty easy for you to have a happy relationship.
  • If you have an avoidant attachment, a secure partner can give you the space you need when you need it without getting annoyed at you or demanding for more.
  • If you are anxious, a secure partner can sit with your distress and hear you out until you have calmed down and your emotional needs have been met.
  • If you are disorganised, a secure partner will also try to help you work through and make sense of whatever it is that you are feeling and give you what you need, whether that is more space, a calming presence or greater closeness.

In time, a relationship with someone who is securely attached can help you to become securely attached too.

If you have had similar difficulties in multiple romantic relationships, think that you may be avoidant or anxious in your attachment style, or are securely attached but are in a romantic relationship with someone who you feel may be avoidant or anxiously attached, I hope that this information has been helpful to you.

An understanding of your own and others attachment styles really could stop you from falling into the same relationship traps, and give you a much better chance to have a long, happy and healthy relationship going forward.

 

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist