The Prison of Maladaptive Behaviors

I am an independent person by nature.  I was an only child until my mother remarried when I was 11 years-old suddenly making me the youngest of three girls.  My developing personality came to a grinding halt.  I didn’t know my place in my family anymore nor did I like my new stepsisters.  They didn’t like me either.  I look back and cringe particularly if there are family photos involved.  I did not make that transition gracefully.  As I got older, however, that new family became my family; I learned all sorts of things in that family, and then my mother and stepfather divorced a few months before I graduated from high school.  And, I left for the East Coast never to return to Texas again except for a funeral and to visit one of my stepsisters years later.

I learned that remaining independent–fiercely independent–was a good thing.  Self-reliant.  Literally.  I learned to rely on myself first and foremost to get things done.  My mother was too unstable and self-involved to count on for legitimate help.  My stepfather was too beholden to her for his emotional stability and sense of self for any kind of authentic help.  When the dreaded Choose-A-College time came around, I picked a women’s college and handled all the financial aid on my own–tax documentation and paperwork included.  I drove to college by myself.  I drove across the country numerous times alone, and it didn’t seem that dangerous or odd to me.  I spent days in hospitals alone.  Endured painful medical testing.  Alone.  As a teenager.  In my mind, I had to normalize this.  This, for me, had to become a social and emotional norm in order to be tolerated.

I once got into a serious car accident in an ice storm in Pennsylvania on one of my solitary cross-country road trips returning to college.  I remember knowing that it was serious.  I remember realizing that my car had fallen into a ravine and was not visible from the road.  I also realized, at the time, that I was going to freeze to death if I didn’t get out and go for help.  I have so many stories like this, and I’ve met many, many people who do as well.  You learn, by force of circumstance, that you must take care of yourself because there is no one who will do that for you.  You are on your own in the world.  Rely on yourself because you can always count on yourself.  You won’t betray you.  This becomes hard-wired.  It is the truth for you.  It has to be.  There is no other way to survive your life if you believe otherwise.

Then, long-term relationships enter the picture.  People expect to be trusted.  They want to be trusted and feel needed, but I’ve got this hard-wired belief that backs certain behaviors: “Trust myself.  Depend on myself.  Rely only on myself.”  I have saved my own ass countless times! I also have good evidence from past significant relationships and experiences, mostly from my family of origin (FOO), that my inner prosecutor can whip out anytime to prove that people are untrustworthy and not to be counted on.  People will fail you and even hurt you when you count on them.  Worse, they will attach strings or conditions to their help if and when they give it.

So, how does this work out? I either end up in relationships with people who are emotionally unavailable and happy not to be needed, thusly, enabling my extreme self-reliance, or I am challenged to discard my maladaptive extreme self-reliance and begin trusting people by asking for help while also offering help.  An even, reciprocal exchange and trust-building, relational exercises.  It feels aversive and gives me emotional hives.

This type of extreme self-reliance is, of course, a conditioned response.  It is an adaptation made to fit into and survive a particular environment.  I was very self-reliant when I got married, but I had expectations that I would be able to relax into a different kind of relationship once I was married.  I asked my husband for help quite often.  He rarely gave it to me.  Initially, I thought it was immaturity.  It wasn’t.  It was personality-based, and it remained a consistent problem throughout our relationship.  A year and half before our marriage ended, he refused to go with me to a diagnostic mammogram that involved an impromptu biopsy because he “felt unwell”.  He did, however, go to work.  On the morning of the appointment, I actually summoned the courage to ask him for help.  I asked him to go with me because I was nervous–a rarity for me.  I asked him for help often enough in terms of tasks, but this was different.  Admitting to someone that you’re scared is different.  Asking for their presence to offset fear is showing vulnerability.  I wasn’t asking him to take out the trash.  I was asking him to be my partner.  To be an emotional support.

He acted predictably.  He was unwilling to support me.  When he was willing to be helpful, he helped but on his terms putting me in the position of beggar.  That kind of disempowerment became intolerable.  I finally stopped asking and fell back into my previous position–it is better to be completely self-reliant.  At least one gets to keep one’s dignity.  That was my default mode, and that is my struggle today.

Asking for help is my Achilles’ Heel.  I don’t value extraordinary self-reliance as a measure of character.  I’m not a pioneer or Ralph Waldo Emerson.  For me, depending upon other people for just about anything has led to punishment.  Relying on others=hot stove experiences.  Or some sort of humiliation.

Does this ring anyone’s bell?

Now, this is where I get to be my own therapist.  This core belief and “stance”, if you will, only successfully works if I’m interacting with my ex-husband or my family of origin.  I adapted to living with them both, and I survived both experiences.  I cannot, however, take that particular adaptation, or psycho-emotional template, and apply it to other relationships.  Suddenly, it becomes MALadaptive meaning that it will not work outside the environments in which it was developed.  It will wreck my other relationships and potentially hurt other people.

The opposite of this would be trusting untrustworthy people.  If I had a healthy approach to relationships in which I could ask for help, depend upon people appropriately while also relying on myself, too, then would I practice this kind of relationship approach in, say, the prison system? Or, would I be far better off using the “extreme self-reliance” approach? The latter, yes? The former would be maladaptive in a prison environment while the latter would be highly adaptive in an exploitative and violent setting.

The term “maladaptive” when applied to a behavior means that the behavior was adaptive or worked successfully in the original environment, but it does not work successfully outside of that environment.  A very concrete example of adapting our behaviors to environments would be speaking softly in libraries.  As soon as we enter libraries, we speak softly–for four reasons.

d53897db0f9435d8931a79c5bbd4d356.jpg

  1. Social contract
  2. Respect for people reading and studying
  3. Fear of librarians who use shushing to warn and socially embarrass us
  4. Social embarrassment

When we leave the library, we resume speaking at a normal volume.  If we continued to speak at “library volume”, no one would understand us.  We would have failed to adapt to a new environment.  Our continued use of “library volume” would then be maladaptive.

In its most simplified terms, when we take behaviors that only serve us in abusive environments, be they extreme or not, and continue to use them in other environments where they do not work or are in no way understood by others, they lose their adaptive qualities.  We are the ones who are failing to adapt.  Often, we fail to adapt because we have come to believe something about people, the world, or ourselves based upon our experiences with a small group of people who were very important to us (our family and friends), or we had a very bad experience with a random person and developed beliefs about that event that we have generalized to every other random stranger (a random stranger mugged me on the street ergo all random strangers on the street might mug me at any time).

What is to be done about this? Maladaptive beliefs and behaviors are some of the primary reasons people go to therapy.  People survive abuse and continue to survive their lives because of these maladaptations, but they don’t often go beyond mere survival.  Maladaptations become a prison.  This I know a helluva lot about.  I have been asked to trust people and reach out when I need help.  You may as well ask me to drink poison.  That is how hard it is for me.  I have been conditioned from a very young age to solely rely on myself.  I have tried for years to overcome that, but I was met with such disdain and displeasure for even asking as if my need for companionship and aid from another human being was a sign of a character defect or congenital weakness.  It was used against me repeatedly and caused inordinate suffering and humiliation.

I resorted to what I knew.  I know that I did that.  It is harder now.  What eases the effort is viewing this as conditioning because that is what it is.  If I can be conditioned to rely on myself, then I can be conditioned through repeated positive experiences to rely on others in addition to myself.  The rub? You have to put yourself “out there” and ask for help. You have to be willing to make yourself vulnerable, and that can feel existentially terrifying.  It can lead to feelings of real panic particularly if the very reasons you are defaulting to extreme self-reliance have not be addressed or resolved.

This is what I know for certain.  You cannot grow beyond the point of survival and experience real intimacy with other people if you remain in the cycle of maladaptive behaviors and desolation.  It is impossible.  You must break that cycle, and one of the first ways that you do that is by reaching out.  Is it often anathema to you? Well, yes.  Who do you reach out to if you have zero safe people in your life? Get a therapist.  For real.  This is exactly what they are for.  They are there for practice.  They act as models for healthy human interactions.  They teach you how to adapt to new and healthy relationships, thusly, showing you where your maladaptive behaviors are, and they help you move from the maladaptive behaviors into new and better ones.

This is not pie in the sky.  This is all very real and possible.  It is hard and painful, but it is what must be done on the road towards healing and recovery.

Advertisements

21 thoughts on “The Prison of Maladaptive Behaviors

  1. Yep! I took myself, as a child, alone to the dentist to have two teeth out. As a pregnant woman, when my baby seemed unusually quiet, I went on the bus to have her monitored. A friend asked, puzzled, as to why my husband hadn’t simply driven me there? The answer was that it simply hadn’t occurred to either of us. I don’t think of asking and he wouldn’t have thought of supporting me. Recently though, life has intervened as I’ve broken a couple of bones and couldn’t manage alone, so I’m learning slowly to ask for and accept help but I’m not very comfortable with it!

    • Yes…it feels like being made to wear really tight underwear. WET underwear that rides up all the time. With sand in it.

      I’m sorry that you had to do all that alone. That isn’t right. And, that isn’t normal in terms of relationships. It just isn’t. I’m learning this. I hope your bones heal quickly, too.

  2. Cause and effect—which is the cause? Which is the effect? —is the self-reliance causes you to attract people who are unreliable? Or the unreliable people around you make you self-reliant? In other words your constituency, the way you access yourself,—does it have the self-reliance consciously or unconsciously?

    I am one of those pessimist who believe there is no enough time in one’s life time, and it could take a lot of time to change one’s constituency. I think your strong self-reliance is might be the reason why you have a lot to give to others, your compassion and your capacity to help others. Why change it? How about consciously/ mindfully integrate it?

    I am the opposite of how you described yourself, I rely on people a lot. I would love to have strong self-reliance. Ok I have very fragmented self, I have a very strong, kick ass side, I have sweet soft child like side. I access my strong, self-reliant self when I am forced to, when I am angry, when I am thrown in the deep end. The soft side is my default mode, if things are smooth I am this very dependent, sweet, shy person. For example in my relationships I am usually soft, sweet and very reliant on my partner in everything. My soft side isn’t because I am weak, I think it is a mode to make me lovable, I think it could be my unconscious attempt to be infantilized—trying to make up for the neglect as an infant?? My ex-husband used to say “Be strong”, I think he felt I rely on him a lot to the point he felt suffocated. Now I am on my own I am accessing the strong, kick ass self but in smaller scale, I feel I am more integrated to my soft and strong side because of grieve. Grieve was the emotion both side of myself felt and I think helps me to integrate. Also as being a mom to a toddler I can’t afford to indulge in my emotion, I needed to be practical, if I don’t have my baby I would be like don’t want to get up from bed. But my situation forces me to get up, put a smile for my son, sing a song, then prepare his meals.. then smile. This routine I think helped me to narrow the gap in my two sides. As in this situation the soft me can’t take over because I need to be strong, and the strong, kick ass can’t take over because I need to be in the right temperament, soft, loving and nurturing. The miracle of motherhood, eh?

    • Ah yes, motherhood will force growth more than anything I’ve experienced. And very quickly, too. I completely understand what you are saying here. Nature vs nurture. My nature is to be more independent for sure. *I* have to do it. That is hardwired. I’m not trying to change that. I don’t think I could. What I am getting at here is something that happens to many people who have experienced trauma, and that is this idea that they don’t want to be a burden. I hear this a lot. When asked if they thought of asking for help, they cringe and pale at thought. “Ask.for.help? NO!” And then it’s all shut down. The mere suggestion of asking another person to help them is anathema to them. Why is this? Why is this such a common trait in survivors of trauma? My theory is that it’s a maladaptive trait combined with conditioning from the original environment in which the trauma took place. A lot of people who can’t reach out and ask for help burn themselves out, suffer from autoimmune conditions, can’t foster long-term, meaningful relationships, and struggle terribly with loneliness. It’s as if we have to learn to do it all over again. How to relate. How to give. How to receive. Do that dance. Trust people and re-establish healthy expectations.

      But, I wouldn’t change my innate personality. It is most likely why I survived some of the conditions I lived under. One wants to keep that fire alive. Integration, as you say, seems key, doesn’t it?

      • “We are not our thoughts, we are what we experience them”

        MJ, knowing oneself is a very difficult job, for me my soft sweet side can be said maladaptive persona, so is my strong side, so is my fragmentation. You know even when I am soft, vulnerable, some part of me know this strong kick ass side can rescue me. So in relationships I might come across as this weak, soft person and very intimate and loving but even in that state I would maintain an awareness that my strong kick side can help me snap out of the dependency, vulnerability. Oh God I feel tired even describing myself, it is so complex, I don’t know if I can know myself in this life time. So I don’t think I had true intimacy, you see, even when I looked very intimate, I am not fully invested, there is tiny awareness on the side that assures me that I can get out of this…., So that way perhaps I never truly loved. Bloody hell that is a big revelation.

        Human beings are divided, it just the scale is different for different people.. I think integrating different side of us is what I call enlightenment. I love motherhood, I am always short on identity… I was reading once that the quest for identity is very consuming and addictive process and one thing that brings my all side together is motherhood. But there are times I had to cry on the changing table when my son didn’t want to be changed while my hands are in pain from arthritis, even when I broke my wrist and after being put in a cast in the emergency department, my worries was will I get home in time to breastfed my son, It killed me when I couldn’t pick him up after breaking my wrist. So this are authentic love I felt in my life and that is through motherhood. Those experience helped me to “solidify” me.

        Self-reliant is a very attractive quality, may be the hyper vigilante that usually comes with it may not so. Because it lessen the enjoyment you get out of people, if some part is always watching to deflect any real or perceived threat then yes it affects the quality of relationship one can have.

        One tip I can give is, you do people great favor by asking them for help. Why? because there is great pleasure in helping others, and we humans are wired to draw joy out of it. If they think they are doing you a big favor, it is their loss. So actually by doing things that makes us uncomfortable is the quickest way to grow and know oneself. What if they refuse to help? I think they will loss the life abundance they can get from the universe. The universe is designed in such that in giving one can receive. So for me the ability to help others I see it as an opportunity for me to grow, prosper and receive more. So when I ask for help, I know whoever helps me can receive gift of life. Sorry I sounded like a new age meme, but it doesn’t make it less true. Luke 6:38 Give, and it will be given to you

  3. My mom I think have BPD-Narssistic condition, she was self absorbed and abusive at times. I think MJ, for you, you were able to see through your moms abnormal conditions whereas for me growing up I worshiped my mom like a deity, I thought she is so beautiful(which she is), intelligent, strong, I couldn’t see through her act even when I was experiencing physical and verbal abuse. My goal in life was to get her approval and love. I think this is important junction, for you, you knew you can’t rely on your mom, for me, I believed that she can rescue me from the gates of hell. While you were able to adapt by strong self reliance, I was adapting by trying to please my mom, through academic achievement, by cleaning the house, .. so on.

    Then when I was teenage, 14/15 I think I started to see things for what they are, I felt my mom was unpleasant, I started to see how she let her life frustration out by punishing and abusing us. But it was too late, it just made me withdrew from her, I started to avoid her, I started to dread when she comes home, there were a huge void in that teenage heart, one of my older sister(9 years older) started to fill the void, she was/is so sweet, looked after me, she used to buy me things I want, I felt looked after and I was sweet, soft spoken cute girl. Then in my early twenties I wanted to date, that put a wedge between myself and my sister, because now i am trying to fill the void with guys( I was replacing her, and there were no room for her). I wanted guys to fill the void I felt, I wanted them to look after, love, appreciate me. I think I was looking for a second parent really. My dad is very absent not physically but was very detached. When my ex husband left me it felt like being an orphan seriously because he was the second parent I was trying to replace with.

    • You know, I had an instinct that my mother’s behavior was ‘off’ and even wrong, but I felt hugely responsible for her. In her dark moments, she would cry and beg me not to leave her–even when I was as little as 4 years-old. I was self-reliant, but my mother would not let me separate from her. I was at her beck and call 24/7. What isn’t said is that when I moved Eastward, she followed me. She would show up at my college randomly, and then throw fits if I didn’t look happy to see her. She punished me for any kind of normal developmental milestone if she perceived it as a sign of pending abandonment. When I got my period, she ignored me for days. When I got my driver’s license, she became hypercritical and gave me too many household tasks to do so that I’d have no reason to go anywhere i.e. leave her. Or, she would abandon the relationship by freezing everyone out. She would lock herself in her bedroom for the entire weekend, go to work during the week, and return to her bedroom nary speaking a word to anyone. If you even tried to speak to her, she would rage at you. She might punch a hole in a wall or throw something heavy. She did not self-regulate well at all. She struggled with depression in addition to her personality issues, and suicide attempts were almost the norm.

      I just didn’t figure out until my early 30s that I had to stop hoping that anything would change with her. So, I was very independent as a child, but my mother wouldn’t allow it with her. To be independently minded with her, I had to stop seeing her. To have another opinion around her is a complete affront with her. She can’t differentiate between disagreeing on opinions and a personal attack. I really did try to please her. I once told her that if Jesus lived in the house, then she would find something wrong with him, too. She thought that was funny. Nothing was ever good enough, but I understand *finally* that this is the case because she can’t find anything good about herself.

      I understand wanting male attention, validation, approval. There is something normal within that spectrum of desire, I think. I can imagine that you would feel abandoned/orphaned after being left by your ex. Our emotional selves are very complex, and we form very intricate bonds with our partners. I’m sorry that you have been through all of this.

      (I was terrified of men. I dated, but I didn’t like it at all….)

      • Wow, it looks like at emotional level you were the parent and your mom was the child. I can’t imagine what it felt like to feel responsible for someone’s emotional well being as far as the age of 4.
        When it comes to your mom, it is very sad affair. She seemed like she was living in hell, a prisoner of her mind with zero self examination and self awareness. It seems a very extreme case. She sounded like someone I am familiar with, if I may, I think she felt after she had you that you were going to give her identity, with your adoring admiring eyes because as a child our parents were almost a deity/ a hero. And that however long it lasted could have been a great source of joy, happiness, even a state of being for her. But maybe she didn’t expect to have a daughter with strong sense of will and independent spirit. Maybe she hasn’t accounted that when she was setting you, her daughter, as her sense of self/identity. As you individuate, it was nothing but an act of violent attack on her sense of self.

        She should have known better that you as a child weren’t there to fulfill her emotional need but she should have been there to fulfill your emotional need. This Fact is something I remind myself when my son sometimes rejects me (oh yeah, he does! he gets bored of being stuck with mom 24/7, when he hears his dad coming he leaps and jumps to his dad. And when his dad leaves and I have to hold him, he will be one grumpy pants), Once I caught myself getting sad with his action, but intellectually I understand (I would get away from myself if I can :D)

        This are the things I am being mindful of that, I should not be defining my son’s love or lack of it as my sense of being or identity. He might grow to love me, hate me or indifferent towards me, but my unwavering role as a parent is to be his sense of security, comfort, trust so he can fully individuate. As they say if they(children) don’t need you then you did great job. That is my conscious/mindful goal.

        • You have nailed my mother. She has a personality disorder, and she did, in fact, use me to meet very deep identity needs. Also, I think motherhood has a very specific way to solidify our own identity issues. When we love our kids, we WANT to grow up again in our “immature” areas and do right by them. We want to understand ourselves so that we don’t send them out into the world crippled by our “shit”. You are right. Very insightful.

  4. Until I read this, I never though of myself as having a maladaptive behavior, I just knew I was fiercely independent.

    I remember nothing of my pre-verbal life, and very little of my early years , but I now recognize that I was brought up in an emotional vacuum.

    In later years, my mother commented to others, but never to me, that I would never look her in the eye from birth. She never new about my Asperger’s, since I was only recently diagnosed as an adult several years after she passed away.

    My mother had some form of breakdown before I was born, but it was never spoken about. My father was a brilliant mathematician, and almost certainly on the autistic spectrum

    I don’t remember any closeness at home, and until we moved house and I changed school at the age of 6, I don’t remember having any friends.

    I learnt to be comfortable with my own company, and I became more and more independent. I remember spending summer holidays on my own, making models in a shed in the garden. I studied maths and physics in high school, and, while those were my parents degree subjects I would never ask for help. I remember spending more that 6 hours trying so solve a particular maths homework problem rather than ask for help. I was near the top of my school as a result of MY efforts

    As a teenager, I remember my mother telling me she could not wait for me to leave home, and I knew she meant it.

    I sought and obtained an industrial scholarship to study engineering at university, which meant I was financially independent straight after high school, and I have been in full time employment ever since.

    As an adult, that level on independence and stubbornness, compounded with Asperger’s Syndrome, can, and did, cause problems with personal relationships and in the workplace. But I am doing something about it. I am seeing a wonderful counsellor who is helping me greatly in all sorts of ways. I practice mindful meditation, and I am half way through a 4 week evening course on communication skills. Now that I can recognize this maladaptive behavior, I am optimistic that I can make positive changes thanks to the support from my long suffering wife, and from you and this blog, MJ.

    Thank you for your interesting and thought-provoking writing.

    BR

    • Well, that is just such a wonderful comment, BR. Not what your mother said to you–about her desire to see you leave. But the course of your life. Your insight. Your tenacity. Your choices. I have a daughter on the autism spectrum for what it’s worth. She, too, is high-functioning–Asperger’s. Never looked me in the eye for quite some time. Thank you for commenting. I really appreciate it. I would love to hear how your 4-week communication course turns out.

      Best to you, MJ

      • Hi MJ. Thanks for the supportive comments.
        I have now finished the course. Although my counsellor suggested it to help my communications skills, it was in fact an ‘Introduction to Counselling Skills’ course lasting 12 hours over 4 weeks. Talk about being the odd one out! I was the only male, in a room with 10 lovely ladies who were all thinking about becoming counsellors, and obviously the only one present on the autistic spectrum!
        I could not have coped two years ago, but thanks to seeing a wonderful counsellor myself, and lots of Mindfulness training and meditation this year, I really enjoyed enjoyed the course, and it helped me a lot. Each week there were a series of short structured conversations. Some 1-2-1 and some as a small group, with feedback as how the conversation went, and on eye contact, body posture, non-verbal communication, etc. There was also some teaching about active listening, non-verbal communication, empathy vs. Sympathy, and very basic principles of counselling.
        The only part I had a bit of difficulty over, was on the subject of empathy. The classic definition of empathy is ‘to understand someone else’s world, emotions and feelings as if they are your own’. I have never experienced any form of abuse, although I do know people who unfortunately have. How could I presume to know what that might feel like? That doesn’t prevent me being sensitive to their suffering. Like many people with Aspergers, I am very sensitive, but sometimes lack the skills to sensitively communicate that compassion, and I can feel overwhelmed.
        So, I researched a bit about empathy. There are several types of empathy described in various literature, but I settled on these three;
        Cognitive Empathy: perspective taking; seeing from another’s point of view
        Affective Empathy (concern/sympathy): feeling the pain/sorrow of others
        Empathic Concern: recognise another’s emotional state, feel and show appropriate concern.
        I can’t do (1), but I have no problem with (2) and (3)
        Quite obviously, it was a taster course to introduce the one year Foundation Certificate in Psychodynamic Counselling, with just the hint of a sales pitch on the last evening. I guess I must have done alright, because 3 of the ladies separately approached me afterwards to say they thought I should continue with the next course. I, myself am not sure. First, I going to repeat the 8-week Mindful Self-Compassion Course I did earlier this year (which covered a lot of ground about emotions and how to cope with them), and to prepare myself for my first ever 5-day silent Retreat in April, also on Mindful Self-Compassion. I think that will be soon enough to consider the next step on my journey.
        All the best to you and your readers
        BR

  5. I was waiting this week’s article after your Tuesday’s therapy session, so impatient like my life depend on it, no pressure MJ 🙂 Hope all is well.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s