Sometimes clients will ask me 'what do I do?', or 'what skills or strategies can I use to get rid of this distress?', and while there are many psychological tips, tricks and tools one could use to respond to challenging experiences, it is important to start with understanding. We could jump right in to problem-solving (and sometimes this is the obvious and appropriate response), however what is often missing is the opportunity to slow down and consider the influential determinants of out response. Without developing this kind of insight, we are quite likely to keep playing out dysfunctional patterns. Jeffrey Young describes these as 'lifetraps' in his book Reinventing Your Life (Young & Klosko, 2019) which originate from unmet needs, and are referred to elsewhere in the psychological literature as schemas. The potential for healing of our pain and distress in discovering how early experiences still exert influence, and perhaps you recognise yourself in one of the following patterns:
Success doesn't relieve a deep-seated sense of feeling lost, directionless and unfulfilled
You feel perpetually unsafe in relationships
You believe that relationships won't last, and people will eventually leave you
Your view of yourself is one where you feel inadequate, insignificant, and a failure
An awareness of what you need and deserve drives you in many situations
You believe that bad things will happen to you and think anxiously about them in anticipation
Reducing the suffering of others drives you, and you experience strong guilt when resting or pursuing personal interest or pleasure so you avoid it
Life feels relentless and there is no time to enjoy what you have achieved
You feel like the rules are optional and don't apply to you
If any of these lifetraps resonate for you, take some time to understand your unmet needs and how your lifetrap represents an attempt to cope. For example, if you feel unfulfilled and experienced superficial connection in your early development, your unmet need may be one of love and attention, nurture or empathy. If you get yourself into difficult situations acting outside of rules of expectations, your unmet need earlier in life may be one of realistic limit-setting.
If you're not sure what your unmet needs are, try this simple self-assessment (created by Lynda Parry, Advanced Schema Therapist, Supervisor and Trainer):
Label six paper cups with the following core emotional needs: Protection from danger/abuse; Love, nurturing, attention and empathy; Acceptance and delight; Autonomy; Spontaneity and play; Realistic limits
Draw a line on each cup to the level that need was met as a child
Move cups with less volume further away and those with more closer to you
Reflect by journalling or chatting with your therapist or close friend on how you have been influenced and learned to cope with this core emotional needs profile.
Next time you find yourself experiencing an emotional or behavioural response in a challenging situation, perhaps you could bring this awareness to it, creating new pathways of understanding for what you might need in that moment? Chances are you'll be well-placed to respond from a place of insight, and create an opportunity to step in with insight to meet these needs and exit a lifetrap*.
*Sometimes lifetraps that originate in relationships are best healed within a safe therapeutic relationship, and if this is you, consider bringing your core emotional needs awareness to therapy.