Good enough parenting



Chapter Ten


We mentioned earlier that the 18 lifetraps identified by Dr. Jeffrey Young clustered into four domains; the second of these domains is known as “Impaired Autonomy”. To the extent that parents do not meet the core emotional need for healthy autonomy and performance, we believe their children will experience the opposite—Impaired Autonomy. This means that their children will be at risk of developing some or all of the lifetraps in the Domain of Impaired Autonomy, namely Vulnerability to Harm or Illness, Dependence, Enmeshment, Abandonment, Subjugation, and Negativity. This chapter explains these six lifetraps in detail, and contains an additional segment called “Basic Safety Zone”.

The Lifetrap of Vulnerability to Harm or Illness

The first maladaptive schema (lifetrap) in the domain of impaired autonomy is vulnerability to harm or illness. The core message of the vulnerability lifetrap is, “Catastrophe is just around the corner. Something bad is about to happen and I am powerless to do anything about it.”

Children who end up with this lifetrap are made to live in fear that danger is imminent. They are taught to think that it is only a matter of time before they contract a serious illness, lose money, be attacked, have an accident, or have other bad things happen to them. Their fears may become so exaggerated they may manifest in the form of anxiety or panic attacks. They may go for medical check-ups over and over again, since any sign of illness will be interpreted as something serious, like a heart attack. They are often able to function on a day-to-day basis but there is always a sense that danger is very close. Children with this lifetrap tend to be hyper-vigilant and go to great lengths to stop these disasters from taking place. This lifetrap may show up as excessive worry, such as trying to save large sums of money for the future since they believe that they might be left stranded. The worry may in turn induce a stress-related illness, which will then confirm their fears, resulting in more worry. They get stuck in a cycle, and resort to all kinds of medications and special diets in order to be prepared when danger strikes. Children who develop this lifetrap probably observed one or both parents being obsessed about health and safety issues, whose fear of being in danger was probably greatly exaggerated and who talked about tragedies not just as possibilities but as probabilities.

Early family environment that might cause this lifetrap to develop:

• The child’s parents lived out this lifetrap, talking incessantly about illness, safety, having no money and the tragedies that happened to others.

• The child’s parents were excessively in control of his life, forever ensuring he was not in danger.

• The child faced a traumatic event as a child that rendered him fearful of all situations.

• The child had a loved-one who died and he concluded that he should be on guard at all times.

• The child’s environment was not a safe place for him, or was unstable and unpredictable.


Figure 10.1: The Lifetrap of Vulnerability to Harm or Illness (Shen as an adult)


Figure 10.2: A Possible Early Environment Which Would Likely Contribute to the Development of the Vulnerability to Harm or Illness Lifetrap (Shen as a child) Go to Appendix 1

The Lifetrap of Dependence / Incompetence

The next maladaptive schema (lifetrap) in the domain of impaired autonomy is dependence / incompetence. The core message of the dependence lifetrap is, “I cannot take care of myself. I need to rely on those around me in order to survive. I cannot solve problems or make decisions on my own.”

Children who develop the dependence lifetrap were treated as if they are not able to handle life with all of its responsibilities and tasks. They were not able to develop confidence in their own abilities and they have the need for someone else to be around constantly. Left alone, they feel completely useless, without skills, and unable to make good decisions, hence their dependence on others to do things for them or to help them. They may vacillate and be double-minded about what to do, and worry about whether a previous decision was right. People with this lifetrap may function well in some settings, but be very dependent in other settings. Adults with the lifetrap of dependence do not know how frustrated others feel about their unhealthy reliance on them for daily tasks. They think they are expecting normal support from their spouse and friends, and don’t realize they are actually dependent on others for almost everything in life.

Early family environment that might cause this lifetrap to develop:

• The child’s parents were overprotective, and did not allow the child to do things by herself that were age-appropriate. For example, when other children were allowed to travel by themselves, the child was not allowed to do so. When they were allowed to learn tasks, she was not given the opportunity.

• The child’s parents valued something (e.g., grades, music or sports), and allowed her to focus only on that. Consequently, the child never learned to do other tasks that her peers learned.

• The child was given unusually strict boundaries. She may not have been allowed to go out of the house, or participate in extracurricular activities, such as sports.

• The child’s parents made all decisions about her life, or she was “rescued” by one parent in many situations.

• The child’s homework was done, or overly supervised, by one of her parents. When this was repeated many times, the child thought she couldn’t do it anyway. She may have also developed a sense of laziness.

• The child was criticized for making bad decisions so she lost her confidence. Her parents gladly stepped in when she hesitated, therefore she never quite developed the confidence to act on her own.


Figure 10.3: The Lifetrap of Dependence (Sierra as an adult)


Figure 10.4: A Possible Early Environment Which Would Likely Contribute to the Development of the Dependence Lifetrap (Sierra as a child) Go to Appendix 1

The Lifetrap of Enmeshment / Undeveloped Self

Another maladaptive schema (lifetrap) in the domain of impaired autonomy is enmeshment / undeveloped self. The core message of the enmeshment lifetrap is, “I cannot survive on my own without constant contact and closeness with my parent or partner. I need to know what they think in order to be sure of what I think.” This is about an underdeveloped sense of self as a separate person.

Children who develop this lifetrap are intertwined emotionally with one or both parents. For persons with the enmeshment lifetrap, it is hard to tell where one person ends and the other person begins. They are so closely interrelated with the other person that they are unable to tell themselves apart from that person. They feel empty and are often afraid of existing on their own. People can be enmeshed with their parents, their spouse, their children, a sibling, or their best friend. This becomes especially difficult when approaching or entering a marriage. If an adult male is enmeshed with a parent (usually the mother), he will communicate more with that parent than with his wife. His mother will be the first to know about what names he likes for a future child, what kind of house he would like to buy, or which job he will possibly take. Enmeshed individuals feel the need to constantly talk with their parent and tell them everything. There is a sense that the two of them are, in a strange way, one person. People with the enmeshment lifetrap have a hard time making decisions without first considering the opinions of the person with whom they are enmeshed. Enmeshed individuals do not learn healthy boundaries in childhood.

Early family environment that might cause this lifetrap to develop:

• There was a very close bond between the child and one of his parents. They were so close they were able to easily read one another’s non-verbal communication and know what the other person was thinking. The parent, probably a mother, would also share intimate issues with her child, such as the state of her marriage.

• The child’s parents were very controlling and did not allow him to make decisions on his own.

• The child’s parents were rigid in their thinking and opinions and did not allow for diversity of opinion.

• The child’s parents were over-protective (see “Possible Early Family Environment” under “Dependence Lifetrap”).

• The child was taught not to set boundaries with the parents, and if he did, then he would end up with unhealthy guilt.


Figure 10.5: The Lifetrap of Enmeshment (Raj as an adult)


Figure 10.6: A Possible Early Environment Which Would Likely Contribute to the Enmeshment Lifetrap (Raj as a child) Go to Appendix 1

The Lifetrap of Abandonment / Instability

Abandonment / Instability is the fourth maladaptive schema (lifetrap) in the domain of impaired autonomy. The core message of the abandonment lifetrap is, “I cannot count on anyone for consistent support, caring, and connection. I will be rejected; people I love and need will die; and people I love and need cannot be relied upon to be there when I need them.”

Children who are abandoned will almost certainly develop the abandonment schema. Virtually all children who are adopted will have these feelings, no matter how wonderful their adoptive home is, at least during some point in their lives. The fact is, they were abandoned, even if it was no one’s fault, for example, in the case of a death. The extent that a new family meets their core emotional needs will go a long way in determining how easy it will be for an adopted child to eventually come to terms with his abandonment, but it may take years. People who have the abandonment lifetrap fear that everyone they love will leave them. They believe that ultimately they will be alone, and that they cannot really count on people to be there for them. They have a constant need to hear that they are loved, and that their close relationships will not leave them. If they are married, and their spouse does not communicate that, they get resentful. Underneath their anger and hurt, they do not feel secure, they honestly believe that they are destined for loneliness. People with the lifetrap of abandonment will have exaggerated feelings of instability in their closest relationships.

Early family environment that might cause this lifetrap to develop:

• One of the child’s parents left the home, died, or lived separately.

• The child was given up for adoption.

• The child was forced to live with someone other than her parents for a period of time during childhood, perhaps because of difficult circumstances (e.g., divorce, illness, financial problems or war).

• One of the child’s parents was too ill to look after her.

• There was intense marital conflict between the child’s parents.

• Someone else in the family took the attention away from the child, for example a very ill sibling, perhaps a sibling with special needs, or maybe a sibling who was favored over the child.


Figure 10.7: The Lifetrap of Abandonment (Katya as an adult)


Figure 10.8: A Possible Early Environment Which Would Likely Contribute to the Abandonment Lifetrap (Katya as a child) Go to Appendix 1

The Lifetrap of Subjugation

Another maladaptive schema (lifetrap) in the domain of impaired autonomy is subjugation. The core message of the subjugation lifetrap is, “I must submit to the needs and desires of others before my own or I will be rejected by the anger or abandonment of people who are important to me.” The internal slogan is “I’m number two.” Subjugation is about needs—not showing preferences, desires, decisions and opinions, or emotions—not showing feelings, particularly anger.

Children who develop the subjugation lifetrap have been made to feel that their desires, needs and opinions are neither significant nor important. They tend to repress themselves, which leads to passive aggressive thoughts and behavior, withdrawing, and ultimately to intense anger. They believe they have to always put others’ needs and opinions above their own. They will often neglect themselves and give in to others because they are extremely afraid of conflict, which they fear will lead to some kind of punishment or loss of love and affection. They rarely express their opinions, and even if they do, they will not treat their opinion as being as important as others’ opinions because of their fear of conflict or rejection.

One of the dangerous aspects of this schema is, after being subjugated for a while, feelings of anger and resentment start to surface because they have not paid any attention to their own needs, and they haven’t asked others to meet their needs. They may feel very little excitement in life, because they have been too busy meeting others’ needs. People around them will tell them this is their strength, but it is actually their weakness. People with this lifetrap will not experience the kind of intimacy they want because all of their attention is focused on meeting their partner’s needs and wants, with nothing left over for them. They put their needs at the bottom of the priority list for fear of conflict if they do not do what others want of them. When subjugated adults start feeling the need for self-care, they are afraid they will be rejected in anger or abandonment. They have not learned to draw boundaries with unhealthy people. Eventually, people with this lifetrap will hit a wall. They will blow up and become aggressive. If married, this takes their partners by surprise and they think that their subjugated spouse is having a problem, when it is really about them coming out of subjugation, though not in a healthy way. This may lead to the subjugated person overreacting, swinging to the other extreme, becoming defiant to authority, and refusing to follow any form of rules, and may be mistaken for entitlement.

Early family environment that might cause this lifetrap to develop:

• The child’s parents were abusive and got upset when he did not yield to the wishes of either one or both parents.

• The child’s parents were controlling to the point that there was little autonomy on the child’s part to make his own decisions.

• The child saw one of his parents give in to the other and learned it was the best way to keep the peace.

• The child was made to feel guilty if his needs were given attention before others.


Figure 10.9: The Lifetrap of Subjugation (Lars as an adult)


Figure 10.10: A Possible Early Environment Which Would Likely Contribute to the Subjugation Lifetrap (Lars as a child) Go to Appendix 1

The Lifetrap of Negativity / Pessimism

The sixth and final maladaptive schema (lifetrap) in the domain of impaired autonomy is negativity / pessimism. The core message of the negativity lifetrap is, “I am destined to make a serious mistake that will result in big problems. Things will inevitably go wrong. Bad things will happen to me.” The negative aspects of life are emphasized at the expense of those things which are positive and which will potentially bring joy.

Children who develop this lifetrap are taught it is normal to feel down. Life is seen and experienced with a negative spin on it. The cup is never half-full; it is always half-empty. Those who develop this lifetrap hate making mistakes and fear the supposed consequences that may arise. They worry about the loss and humiliation that may come from taking risks (and experiencing what they see as failure). They would rather be safe than sorry and take the path that would least expose them to such risks. Usually their negativity is not accurate but blown out of proportion. People with the lifetrap of negativity were made to feel ashamed of making mistakes and being wrong when they were growing up. As adults, they still do not realize that making mistakes is part of being human, and that part of learning comes from making mistakes. This often damages relationships; for example, whenever their spouse or friends want to try something new, they may be the “wet blanket”.

Early family environment that might cause this lifetrap to develop:

• The child’s parents talked about things from a negative point of view. Their usual answer would be “no” because they would assume the worst possible outcome.

• The child’s parents went through very hard times, and so a strong signal was sent to avoid this fate at all costs, and to avoid making mistakes.

• The child actually experienced many negative events in her childhood, which reinforced what her negative parents told her about the world.

• The child has a more negative temperament, and her parents didn’t train her to be more positive.


Figure 10.11: The Lifetrap of Negativity (Nicole as an adult)


Figure 10.12: A Possible Early Environment Which Would Likely Contribute to the Negativity Lifetrap (Nicole as a child) Go to Appendix

Basic Safety Zone

The Basic Safety Zone for this core emotional need is three-fold: the first area of Basic Safety involves protecting children from abandonment, which in practical terms means parents need to protect their marriage. In our experience, the abandonment lifetrap is one of the harder ones to deal with, and we urge all parents to do their utmost to not inflict this on their children (RR10.1).

The second area has to do with making sure children are not neglected; that their basic needs for shelter, food, clothing, and sleep are met. Parents should learn basics of sleep, breastfeeding, nutrition, dealing with illnesses, and so forth.

Lastly, Basic Safety for this core emotional need also means ensuring that safety measures in and outside the home are put in place and that children are not allowed to be too autonomous too soon. Inappropriate (too soon) autonomy can become neglect or can inadvertently promote abuse. Parents should familiarize themselves with childproofing measures so that their homes are safe. For example, poisonous substances should be kept locked away, and babysitter instructions and emergency numbers kept handy. Children need to learn to cook eventually, but they should not be using sharp knives on their own or operating stoves when they are too young. Children should eventually bathe themselves, but infants and toddlers should never be left alone around a pail of water, much less in a bathtub. School age children should be able to walk home from school or take public transport eventually, but not before a certain age. There are all sorts of ways that parents can protect their children under the auspices of meeting the core emotional need for autonomy.

One more thing—while it is perfectly normal to allow an elementary school aged boy to go to the restroom by himself in a public place, the sad fact of today’s world is that sexual predators exist and they frequent places where young boys might be unattended. The Straits Times has reported several cases of boys under ten being forced to do unspeakable acts in public restrooms, even in a country as safe as Singapore.1

Louis Lowdown

When our son was young and felt the call of nature while out in public, my husband would accompany David. If David and I (Karen) were out on our own, I brought him to the ladies’ room. Not surprisingly, once he hit about seven years old, he was no longer open to that arrangement, and I didn’t blame him. However, I told him that the only way I would allow him to enter the men’s room by himself is if he would keep a semi-running conversation with me while he was inside. I would walk up to the door of the men’s room in such a way that I could not see in, but as David walked in, I would shout, “David, I’m standing right by the door, ok?” He would answer, and I would ask another question about every fifteen seconds. I absolutely would have charged in if he hadn’t answered me—luckily that never happened. Incidentally, when recounting this to my son as I was writing this book, he told me he had no memory of me standing guard anywhere, and congratulated me on keeping him safe while at the same time not making him paranoid.