Do you find it difficult to trust people, always feeling certain that people will try to take advantage of you? Do you find yourself on guard and quick to attack others because you are expecting them to attack you? Do you ever find yourself setting up tests for people to see if they are really on your side? Do you find yourself repeatedly entering into relationships with partners who disrespect your needs or put you down? Similarly, have you ever been physically, verbally, or sexually abused by someone you should have been able to trust?
If you find yourself answering yes to any of these questions, you are not alone. Many people go through life deeply afraid of what other people may do to them. You may have learned at a very early age that people cannot be trusted. Relationships you’ve had and relationships you’ve seen around you have all confirmed your belief that anyone being nice is doing so with ulterior motives and that you must guard carefully to ensure you don’t get hurt.
What causes this?
Based on our life experiences we form beliefs and emotions about the world, known as “schemas.” Some of us have had the painful experience of being hurt, lied to, abused or manipulated by people we were close to. This may cause us to develop a belief that others care only for themselves and don’t mind hurting us to get what they want. We may expect others to lie, manipulate, cheat or take advantage of us. Understandably this will cause us to act in self protection, and avoid sharing our innermost thoughts and feelings with others, or, on the flip side, to cheat or abuse others in a sort of pre-emptive strike. Friends and partners may tell us we are being paranoid and get upset by our constant testing if they are worthy of our trust, but for us it is a necessary part of trying to feel safe.
How do we act as a result of this?
This schema usually translates into one of 3 patterns of behavior. We may surrender to this schema creating a self-fulfilling prophecy as we constantly find ourselves loving and attracted to abusive partners. Alternately, we may avoid this believed reality by guarding ourselves, avoiding vulnerability and making sure never to trust others, at the cost of our own potential to build a loving relationship. Finally, we may overcompensate for our fear, cheating on a partner or abusing others before they hurt us.
If I have this schema, what are the goals of therapy?
There are a few goals to therapy. The first is to learn that there is a spectrum to trustworthiness, that while some people are not trustworthy, some other people are. Therapy will help you learn to stand up for yourself when necessary. Therapy will help you identify who can be trusted, how to behave in a less guarded and suspicious manner with these people and how to bring more trustworthy people into your life.
When someone has been hurt by others, it is common to blame themself for the abuse. You may view yourself as worthless or believe that what happened was your fault. In therapy you learn to stop making excuses for the abuser and place responsibility where it belongs.
What can I expect in therapy?
You have had the experience of people hurting and abusing you. You have learned in life that people are not to be trusted, that being guarded and distant is essential for self-protection. Trusting your therapist and feeling safe with him or her will take patience and time. Honor your need for space. Take the time you need to feel safe and trust. Share your concerns with your therapist and remind yourself that you set the pace. You are in charge of the therapy process and you are the one who decides when and how much to share.
Part of therapy will involve identifying the past experiences that have taught you not to trust the world. As you begin to feel ready to do so, your therapist will help you examine the cognitions that maintain your mistrust. You will learn how to recognize a safe partner and who is trustworthy. If you have learned to blame yourself for the abuse, your therapist will slowly help you learn to stop making excuses for the abuser and help you identify your own worthiness. You and your therapist will build practical steps to help you learn to trust honest people and increase your level of intimacy with people who can be trusted. You will learn to set limits with abusive people and stop mistreating others.
Mistrust of the world is a painful consequence of being hurt, and one that maintains the cycle of hurt. If you recognize this pattern in yourself, you are not alone. Many of my clients come to therapy with this belief about the world. Learning to trust people who are trustworthy takes time and effort, and is wonderfully rewarding. I invite you to come in for a consultation session to discuss your relationship experiences and see if learning to regain trust will help you live the life you hope for.
All of these are common patterns that I see in my office every day. Clients often come to me wondering where this pattern comes from and how to change it. I will explain to you where this may come from and how you can create change in your life.
Let’s start from the beginning...
What causes me to repeat this pattern?
Our emotions, beliefs and patterns of behavior are based on schemas that we have about the world. A schema is a pattern or theme that runs through our life. It has memories, emotions, beliefs/thoughts and bodily sensations attached to it that cause us to behave in ways that make sense when we understand the schema behind them. These patterns are often self-destructive and self-perpetrating. They are familiar and powerful in shaping our life decisions. Jeffrey Young, in his marvelous book Reinventing Your Life, aptly describes schemas as lifetraps. They are views of the world that are deeply ingrained in us and haunt us incessantly.
If any of my questions at the beginning of this page sounded familiar, then there’s a good chance that there is a lifetrap, a deeply held schema, that is controlling your behavior. Some of us hold the sense and experiences that significant people in our lives will not continue to be there. We believe that the important people in our life will be emotionally unpredictable, unreliable, die or more leave us for someone else. This is a schema known as abandonment/instability.
Clients sometimes ask me what causes them to develop this schema. I believe the answer is multifaceted. Some of us have a natural biological temperment that pre-disposes us to this experience. You can often see this watching infants. Some infants have a very strong reaction to separation, while others less so. Additionally, our life experiences can lead to this. A parent who died or left home during your childhood, loss of attention from a parent in a significant way when you were younger, such as if the parent was depressed or a workaholic. On the flip side, if as a child you were so protected and close to your parents that you did not have the opportunity to learn to deal with life’s difficulties alone, you may now find yourself struggling with it as an adult.
How might I act as a result of this schema?
In my work I’ve noticed that there are generally two different ways people experience this inner sense of abandonment. For some of us, we believe that we cannot survive without the other person. We believe we need a strong figure in our life to guide us and direct us. If someone important leaves we will quickly find another dependent relationship.
Sometimes we experience fear of emotional abandonment to the extent that we simply avoid relationships. We can tolerate being alone for long periods of time, and find ourselves withdrawing from close relationships out of fear of being hurt again. For us, the process of loss is more devastating that the discomfort of being alone.
This schema will usually cause intense anxiety that your partner will leave, depression when your partner does (“after all, I knew this would happen. It always happens and I will always end up being alone”), and intense anger at the partner for leaving.
Sometimes this fear and expectation of abandonment will cause us to feel that we need to do whatever the other person wants in order to prevent them from leaving us. This may cause me to give up on my own needs and desires, because the need to keep my partner there is feels most important. It may cause me to feel incompetent, and wonder how I will function on my own if my partner leaves.
There are three different reactions one may have to this schema. Some people respond by surrendering to the schema, by avoiding intimate relationships out of an underlying expectation that these relationships anyhow won’t last. Other people avoid their feared situation by selecting partners who will not be emotionally committed, thus avoiding the presumed inevitable. They will usually experience intense chemistry with emotionally unavailable partners, falling obsessively in love. Finally, there are people who will try to overcompensate, clinging to their partner in a desperate attempt to prevent the dreaded experience of the partner leaving. He or she may attack their partner for even minor separations, and constantly look for signs that their partner may leave them.
If I have this schema, what are the goals of therapy?
The most important goal of therapy for someone with this schema is to learn who reliable partners are, and to learn to trust in their reliability. You will learn to select significant others who are there for you and emotionally available. You will be able to be alone without becoming anxious and depressed, and without feeling an intense need to reach out and connect immediately with others. And as you feel more secure in your relationships, you will no longer have the same need to control, cling to, and manipulate others, thus resulting in both you and your partner feeling more happy and secure in your relationship.
What to expect in therapy?
There are a number of different approaches that I use with my clients to help them confront and heal this schema.
Cognitive strategies, questions and exercises that help you identify and challenge your thoughts and beliefs. This can help you alter your view that all people are unreliable and that temporary separations are catastrophic. This will be hard at first, but you will find yourself getting better at it over time. You will learn new ways to accept other people’s need for space without feeling abandoned.
You will plan ways that you can choose partners who can commit. You will learn to stop acting in ways that are clingy, jealous or controlling that have sometimes driven your partners away.
I will likely use imagery and other reflective questions to help you remember and identify previous experiences of abandonment, both in childhood and adulthood. You will use the new beliefs you are developing to re-examine those experiences with the wisdom of a healthy adult.
If the patterns I’ve described here sound familiar to you and have been getting in the way of you living the life you would like to live, I invite you to give me a call and discuss whether therapy will be right for you. Therapy can be a scary process at first, especially when relationships and deep connections are an emotion-wraught experience. I always recommend coming in for a session or two to give yourself a chance to see how therapy feels and if you think it will be helpful to you.
Give me a call at 058.781.9788 or drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org to set up a consultation appointment.
I look forward to joining you on your journey toward meaningful, safe and lasting relationships.