Why This Photo?
This photo contains a story about how my schema’s developed. My brother and I appear excited to visit a strange and wonderous forest. My grandparents are less excited. If you look closely, I am not looking at the camera, have a look of anticipation, but I also look distracted. I am imagining what the experience ahead will be. I am “in my head.”
I recently crawled through the awkward little hatch that leads to our crawl space and dragged several boxes of memorabilia out from under the house to find the album that contained this photo.
I sought it out because it jumped into my mind while talking to my therapist. We were talking about my tendency to self-sacrifice and I remembered this day as one of the earliest memories of disguising my feelings to avoid disappointing someone else.
When I looked at the photo again, having not seen it for at least 6 years, the first thing I thought about was my mother, who took the photo. I have grown more and more appreciative of her photography as I have become deliberate at improving my own photography. Her artistic ambitions moved her from photography to painting later in her life, but at this time, when this photo was taken, she was at the top of her game with a camera. There is a look to the photo, the eye of the photographer revealed in it’s subjects and symmetry. And because of my connection to the photo I felt a weight in my chest looking at it. It was a sort of grief, but also a welling fondness for myself. I like that little kid who was me, and I like how much he was like his Granddad, right down to the hands-in-pockets stance.
What is a Schema?
Schemas are patterns of thought and behaviour that early in life helped us interpret the world. According to Well Doing, a schema may, “…create a framework, a filter through which an individual perceives the world. In schema therapy, a schema is considered to be an early maladaptive coping mechanism. They are patterns that develop as a result of needs not being met in childhood.”
Maladaptive. That means they were an attempt at dealing with the unmet need, that didn’t ultimately work. It ended up setting us on the wrong track.
It was schema therapy that helped me make significant progress in my struggle with anxiety back in 2013. At that time, my work was around my belief that I was not desirable or attractive because of my anxiety. The therapy involved challenging this belief with evidence.
About a year ago I started feeling my mental health slipping because of a few people in my life who were unhappy or unwell. As a highly sensitive person (HSP), I noticed their feelings and it impacted me. I began to ruminate about why I could not rise to meet these people with love and acceptance. I was not helping and in fact was making matters worse by being triggered myself. I saw that they wished I was different. They wished I was a stronger leader, or faster at completing tasks, or less reactive. I felt my own anxiety growing, started to judge my own performance, and old schemas rose up to help. I was flawed, not enough, not the right fit.
I started analyzing my performance in an attempt to see the truth. Was I just not meeting the mark? It was like a runaway train, my default mode network took off ruminating and reinforcing a belief that I was inadequate for the situation. All evidence pointed to this conclusion, but of course, it was the evidence that my schema was trained to see, confirmation of my bias. How do we get outside our beliefs to actually see the truth? It is a hard job.
Staring at this photo I knew that the defectiveness schema was related to self sacrafice. Because on that day, when I should have been enjoying an experience, I was instead adjusting my behaviour to spare other’s discomfort.
Because the truth was that the park I was imagining when the photo was taken, didn’t turn out to be the park I got. I was disappointed.
My Particular Shade of Blue
Right now my life is tinted like this photo. Its as if the colour shift of the old film stained both my memory of that day and my schema. That soft robin egg hue has become part of me now like the genes from my grandparents. It filters all my experiences.
Even at age 5 I saw the intention of the park; recognized it as someone’s projected idea of what a child would like. Not this child, not me, but an imagined child. My turquoise tinged memories from that day — forest light filtering in through tall trees, odd sculptures and puzzlements, a caged owl, were overshadowed by the new awareness of my inner thoughts.
At that time in my life I didn’t know it was ok to dislike flying monkeys, double crossing spirit creatures, and torso-absent humpty dumpty statues. I thought somehow that if they were in a story, or in the world, they were important and I had to meet them and make sense of them. Memory is funny that way, this one photo brought up other similarly coloured, memories of the Wizard of Oz, Japanese animated cartoons, and William Blakes organo-geometric vision of God.
This is a problem for HSPs. We learn early in life that the things we like and dislike are different from the majority around us. We start to notice a truth, that we are not like everyone else. And we process this all very deeply.
I remember that depth as we walked through the park that day, like a sliding tone of a flute played by a creature half animal and half human. It was the descent of a swanee whistle — that child’s whistle with the loop at the front that trombones out and back. But a tone with a strange range, going down lower than it should. As if the light and playful drop of the child’s slider inexplicably became a different instrument. High up, my uncomplicated child’s judgement of the theme park, a judgement I remember distinctly for it’s dismissive importance: “A for effort.” I felt smug in that judgement. It was an attempt to dismiss the effect the place was having on me, but that was when the tone started dropping down and down, becoming a sort of gulping clench in the pit of my stomach.
I wanted to believe, to feel the magic of suspended disbelief, but couldn’t. It wasn’t an appealing place for me, I wasn’t filled with wonder or pleasure on seeing storybook characters life-sized.
I remember my mother gently coaxing me to enjoy it. The 5 year old me knew he should be grateful and happy. He knew there were hopes in adult minds, hopes that he would enjoy the experience. But he could not un-feel the disappointment. Smugness, down to disappointment down to embarrassment. Down down down the tone went.
In the end I decided I just wasn’t like other kids. And that realization was slightly scary and slightly embarrassing. By itself, the realization and those feelings were not a game changer, but they were filaments I was collecting for my ball of wire.
A Ball of Wire
That day, my inner thoughts, and the functioning of the two developing schemas (defective and self sacrifice) were not horrendous or even disturbing, just unsettling and uncomfortable. I survived the day and didn’t think more about it for a long time. I remained a part of my loving family, and a new skill for buttoning down my feelings was developed a little more.
At 5 years old I was mostly emotional. A lot of feelings. I remember the way they dominated my world. Especially the embarrassment because it seemed unsafe to share. It was unacceptable to be disappointed and judgmental. I knew that. And I chose to feel uncomfortable so that my mother would not feel uncomfortable, and so that my grandparents would not think me odd.
Interestingly, the self-sacrifice schema appears already to have been in place. Side by side with a belief that I was abnormal, flawed, or defective in some way was this choice to not rock the boat. And now those old preserved patterns are still a part of what makes me, me. Not just the schemas, but also the habit of silence, and the habit of collecting things down deep inside.
Over the years there have been many strands of emotion tucked away, like short lengths of copper wire wound around themselves into a ball, rolling around at the core of me. A repository of shadowy filaments, some darker than others. Most of them uncomfortable. My saved ball of discomfort. Repressed, suppressed, squashed down with the belief that this would prevent them from causing more harm.
Much of that coppery memory is no longer distinct; but a few wires, like these from this day, remain identifiable, perhaps because of this photo. I can feel the thin toughness of these lengths of mental metal, the common substance of the memories. And what is that substance? That substance is pain. The ball of memory wires is a ball of squashed pain.
An Allegiance to Courtesy
Sounds pretty bad doesn’t it? Carrying around a collection of repressed or suppressed painful emotions and memories. Even admitting the early establishment of a self-sacrifice schema sounds bad.
Why did I self-sacrifice at such a young age?
My therapist suggests that in my case it was probably because my family did not discuss feelings, did not have the knowledge or understanding to engage with me in a way that felt safe. And something not discussed takes on a sense of shame.
Still, does that explain how so early in life I was already thinking of other’s comfort before my own? I don’t actually think so. Instead I think I was inspired by others, was acting out what I had seen done by adults. I was being courteous.
Courtesy, for me, and I think for our family, has always been high on the list of values. I remember feeling sad for Major Burns on the TV show Mash. I felt empathy for him, despite also finding him often insufferable. In one episode he said to major Houlihan, “Its nice to be nice to the nice.” I knew what he was talking about, even if the writers of the series found this to be a sign of his weakness. Much of my spiritual strivings over the years have been about this. I have searched for a community of nice people. And by nice, I mean courteous and considerate, considering the comfort of others and not deliberately making them uncomfortable.
Julie Jelland’s in her HSP quiz includes the measure, “You find it important to be Courteous.” Why yes, yes I do.
On that turquoise day, in a small way, I understood the importance of what was being done for me, understood the unspoken hopes, and perhaps even expectations of my parents, and I understood my part. I did not want to see disappointment on my mother’s face, wanted to receive the gift of the day in the spirit for which it was intended. I wanted to be nice.
That right there, is the paradox. A persistent pattern of thought and behaviour, formed early in my life, earlier than this photo was taken. A schema already pumping understanding, like a heart pumps blood. The self-sacrafice schema exists to keep niceness alive. And niceness is now generally not a good thing. Niceness is now most used in the phrase, “Too nice.”
Sorting out this paradox is going to take some time. I would value hearing from others. Anyone else out there struggling with this? Anyone else found answers? Here is where my current work begins.