Maladaptive life skills: A Family Affair
BY Loretta Gilmore LCSW
What is a dysfunctional family:
We can all argue that our family is/was dysfunctional to some degree but this article will focus on the dysfunction that creates maladaptive coping skills and causes suffering. First let’s examine what a functional family looks like. A functional family provides for its members the basic needs of life, like food and shelter. A functional family also provides safety to members of the family, creates an environment where everyone feels like they belong and are loved. It also creates an environment where each member’s self-esteem is fostered and opportunity for growth is available. Therefore, if we were raised in an environment where these things were not addressed, or not available then the stage is set for a dysfunctional family system. As a result, maladaptive life skills are learned and practiced during childhood and often continue into adulthood.
Dysfunctional family roles
As a member of a dysfunctional family system we often begin to prescribe to maladaptive roles in order to adapt to a situation in which we are often powerless. Those roles often include the scapegoat, the hero, the mascot or the lost child. The hero tends to be the person who makes the family proud. He/ She is a perfectionist, and a high achiever but struggles with an internal fear of failure that seems to drive their every external action, way into adulthood. The mascot provides the humor and a sense of fun in the family. The mascot grows up to be the life of the party, the person everyone wants to be around but they are also the person who is internally miserable. The mascot often struggles with depression and feels inadequate. The scapegoat takes the blame and is the center of negative attention inside and outside of the home due to behavioral related issues. These children grow up and often continue to struggle into adulthood. The scapegoat often feels misunderstood, angry and or sad. The lost child does not receive much of the family’s attention. They minimize their own needs and wants. They put others needs ahead of their own and attempt to stay out the way of adults. These children grow up being fixers and continue putting others needs before their own. They are insecure and passive. Often, they have difficulties making decisions and may suffer from anxiety and depression. Regardless of where you identify within these roles, it is likely you began practicing maladaptive life skills at an early age.
Maladaptive life skills:
Maladaptive life skills are those things we do, or the ways in which we think that create an outcome we desire but also create additional hardships. Think of a maladaptive life skill being much like prescription medication. While the medication helps control a symptom (outcome) they often result in undesired symptoms (outcomes). Or think of them as a double edge sword, every time you use the sword to deal with an issue you are effectively (perhaps) dealing with the issue but at the same time you are harming yourself to some degree. Maladaptive life skills are present for a reason, they serve a purpose, and that is why they are hard to let go of. However, if you are ready, follow the steps below and seek additional help with a trained professional in your area if needed.
1.Become curious about the self, asking yourself these questions;
What am I doing? Why am I doing that? What am I reacting to? What is the core belief(s) attached to my reaction? Are these my own core beliefs or those that were encouraged or modeled for me during childhood? Are they working for me now?
2. How does this belief and or behavior protect and harm me or those close to me?
3. Am I ready to work on a more adaptive life skill?
4. Develop a plan of action
5. Anticipate barriers to success and create plan of action
6. Implement plan of action
7. Honestly and without judgment evaluate, what did you learn? Was it helpful? Where you disciplined and consistent?
8. Take what you learned and continue practicing, taking each mistake as a learning lesson instead of turning it into negative self-talk. Remember you did not develop a life skill without much practice, so too learning a new skill will require practice.
Emotional Safety Plan
How many times do you recall being encouraged to create an emotional safety plan, or even an emotional selfcare plan? Society, thus you and I, tend to focus on our physical safety and wellbeing more so than our emotional state of being. Unless of course our emotional state of being begins to adversely affect many parts of our lives or the lives of those around us. Things like feeling depressed, worthless and hopeless. Or feeling overwhelmed with uncontrollable worry and fear. We push those around us away sometimes deliberately and sometimes not. Which in turn only increases our negative internal dialog of self-defeating thoughts. To live in this state is exhausting at best.
What if I told you there is a better way, a way that requires a certain level of work on your part, but can decrease the intensity of those feelings and increase your quality of life? Would you be interested and willing to at least try? It is important to focus on three separate areas, daily living, additional life stressors, and the adjustment phase.
This area of emotional safety and wellbeing focuses on daily life with its normal stressors. This is the foundation of the emotional safety plan. It is important to develop and practice daily self-care. Basically, you need to be doing something good for yourself every day. This looks different for each person and should be tailored to your needs and desires. There are many different focal points of self-care but for this article we are going to focus on emotional self-care. To begin, ask yourself these questions; What do you like, in general, broadly and specifically? What are you interested in? What gives you great energy, or makes you feel excited? What helps you feel calm, centered and peaceful? What are you grateful for today? As you ask yourself these questions think in terms of activities that might bring an increased sense of happiness, and overall emotional wellbeing. Making sure to include things that involve others and things that can be done in solitude that will cause internal reflection, like journaling, drawling and crafting, as examples. It is important to have a mixture of external and internal sources of emotional self-care that way we find our personal balance and increase emotional stabilization. Remembering that this will look different for each person.
Additional life stressors
This section will focus on life’s curve balls, if you will. Those additional stressors that present themselves often without our permission, like monetary loss or need, physical illness, extra. Usually the first thing to go in these situation is our selfcare. However, decreasing, or disengaging from your self-care plan increases the likability of emotional disequilibrium. I often tell people, self-included; the level of selfcare must match or exceed that which we give out, or that which is required for our daily living. The most important thing for us to do in these situations is to increase our self-care. This feels counterproductive at first. You might not feel like you have the time to take care of yourself but this is preciously the time to do so. Things like increasing your interactions with your social support system. Call a friend to vent. Go to a social function or outing. Volunteer at your local church or community service agency. Helping others often increases our sense of belonging and accomplishment and helps get us out of our thoughts. Find ways to express yourself, for some this will be talking to friends, for others it will be a more private endeavor like journaling. Regardless of how, you need to express yourself. Emotions that get stuck in the body manifest not only in additional emotional issues but in physical health related issues as well. Increasing movement is another wonderful way to discharge emotional energy. Things like dancing, exercising, running, walking, and or boxing. In other words, when an additional stressor is introduced it will require more of your emotional resources, therefore you will need to increase your selfcare, thus creating a balance.
At this point the additional life stressors have either resolved themselves completely and / or have altered life as we knew it and we must adjust accordingly. This is a time of self-reflection, radical acceptance, and reevaluation. First, we must take inventory of the self, both internally and externally. Then determine how or what has changed. This must be done in a nonjudgmental way, which is where the radical acceptance part comes in. It is imperative to radically accept the change. This does not mean you agree with the outcomes, or that you do not work towards a goal. It is simply saying, it is what it is, I will change what I can and move forward. Then go back to your selfcare plan, is there a need to change anything? Do you need to add ways to care for yourself, or take things away that are no longer possible or fulfilling? As you begin to integrate these practices into your life, give yourself grace. Stay curious about yourself and the process. You are on your way to creating an emotional safety plan.
Life has a way of producing experiences that knock us down. Things do not always go the way we want them to go and sometimes those life events can be debilitating. These things happen to us all, at some point in our journey. But why do some people seemingly bounce back quickly while other do not? Is it genetics, or the way a person was raised? Is it a personality trait or a learned skill? Well this is a question that scientist, scholar and professional debate often and most would say it is a mixture of both. Today I would like to talk about resiliency. I believe this skill is a good predictors of how a person will deal with life's adversities and is a good predictor of positive outcomes. Now , I do not mean positive in the sense that you get your way. No, positive in that you are able to turn a bad situation into growth. I believe that this comes easier to some more than others, but regardless I believe the skills of resiliency can be learned.
Resiliency is the ability to seek and find something positive in every situation
Resiliency is the ability to know and understand that the situation will produce a learning opportunity, and the resilient person will seek out the lesson.
Resiliency is the ability to problem solve and the belief of your capabilities to do so.
Resiliency is knowing that even the mistakes have purpose in the bigger picture.
Resiliency is the ability to feel your emotions without being overcome by emotion.
Resiliency is knowing that , this too shall pass. An event does not dictate the whole.
Resiliency is asking for help when you need it without internalizing negative scripts about the self.
Life events can make it hard to practice being resilient, I know, I get it. I am not saying it is easy. I am saying you can do it. You can change your outlook and reaction to adverse situations and bounce back more quickly. You got this!
Have you ever had someone begin telling you about an issue and by the time they finished you sat in confusion as to what the problem was, or better yet felt like you understood the problem, only to offer suggestions , feedback or whatever, to find you missed the mark. The person with the problem is now more frustrated. Or maybe you are the person with the problem, but you are overwhelmed and having issues finding a solution.
So, the first step in the problem solving process is to identifying the issue(s), one issue at a time, listing each issue on a separate piece of paper.
With step one complete, and moving on to step two, let me ask you another question: When you have an issue/ problem does it sometimes seem difficult to find a solution? Or have you ever noticed your friend(s) having a difficult time finding a solution to their problem(s)?
We have either been the person with the problem or had a friend who was having a difficult time and could not seem to find any possible solutions to their problem. Sometimes it is a matter of being attached to the outcome and thus becoming reactive, often making the wrong decision or freezing, not making any decisions (welcome to being human). If this is the case, before you go on to step two, take a walk, meditate, practice deep breathing and grounding techniques or seek help from someone in your support system because step two in the problem solving process is to Identify ALL possible solutions.
Write down every possible solution. If you think it, then write it down. Nothing at this stage of the problem solving is right or wrong. We are just thinking, and writing.
Step three is to list the pros and cons of each possible solution you listed in step two; eliminating those that could cause additional harm, like robbing a bank. Robbing a bank might have been on your list in step two, but after really evaluating the pros and cons you have decided there are to many cons so ou mark it off the list.
Now, you are left with possible solutions that are plausible for you, now rank them in order deciding which one or ones you are going to do, then in what order.
Next, make a plan for each possible solution asking What, When, Where , Who and How type of questions.
Complete the plan.
Last step, PAUSE...and evaluate. How did it go? Is your problem fixed or not? What did you learn that will be helpful the next time there is an issue/ problem? What did you learn that you will not do next time?
I hope that helps :)
Loretta Gilmore MSW, LCSW
It is a set of life skills that are often clustered together and evolve over time. Most people can identify that codependency is a need to be in a relationship with another person, moving quickly into another relationship when the previous relationship ends and / or enabling a person who suffers from active addiction. All of those things are true. However childhood dynamics also play a role in the life skills we learn. Just looking at Bandura's stages of development can give us some insight on how social learning occurs.
If we reduce Bandura's theory into an equation it would look something like this; , Attention plus, Retention plus Replications, plus Reward equals a Learned Behavior (A+R+R+R=LB)
In other words, If I am paying attention to a behavior that I see in my environment (good or bad), and I retain / remember the behavior, and I then attempt to replicate the behavior I am creating a learned behavior.. However a large determining factor of the behavior becoming a pattern of behavior is dependent upon the reward, or lack thereof.
Reward in this context is assigned a value by the person replicating the behavior, not parents, authority figures or anyone for that matter. So reward can be negative or positive. A positive reward is when you get a raise at your job for doing great work, or when a child gets a cookie for cleaning their room. A negative reward is when we get fired for doing a bad job at work but your parents pay your rent and all of our bills. Or when a child acts out in school but all of his peers think he is funny and cool.
When a child grows up in a home where there is domestic violence, abuse, neglect, or with a parent who themselves has the life skills clustered together that are known as codependency, then the stage has been set for the child to have the opportunity to pay attention, retain, replicate and receive reward for the same behavior or an adaptation that could lead to codependency. Now, if these situations are far and few in-between there may not be as great an impact on the child, in theory. However , if there is much opportunity for the child to observe/ pay attention , retain, replicate and gain reward, then they practice. Practice without realizing they are hard wiring their responses to life to be unbalanced and eventually cause harm to themselves and maybe others.
Often by the time we reach adulthood and begin to realize that life is not going as we had hoped, and we want something different, we can't, we don't know how, after all we have always been this way, same old same ol. You know, things like putting others first, having a low self esteem, attempting to control the outcome of things but often with little success...in the end. Finding ourselves giving other ultimatums, saying yes to request then feeling angry, irritable, frustrated and maybe even used. Or maybe we just outright deny that there are even issues that are bothering us, we get really good at repressing our feelings, thoughts, and desires, becoming people pleasers. We are fixer, anticipating the needs of others often before the person even knows of their own need. We become obsessive thinking , worrying , in a constant state of thought and restlessness until we find a solution to problems, often the problems of others superseding those of our own. By the time you reach adulthood these life skills are so ingrained in our being that often I will hear people say, well it is just who I am , I have always been this way. Those beliefs often cripple us, making us incapable of change. After all if this is just who I am, then I have no control over it, so how could I possibly change. As such, I am better off just accepting that this is my lot in life..
Am I speaking to anyone? If so , please continue...
I believe that codependency is a set of life skills cluster together due to life circumstances, often beginning in childhood and the ability to adapt to those circumstances, coupled with much opportunity to practice those skills. I believe that most of these skills are greatly unbalanced causing conflict within the host (you). I believe that many people with these unbalanced life skills make great friends and coworkers. I believe that these people are beneficial to everyone around them, but often,at the expense and sacrifice of themselves. I believe the skill set is learned and can be unlearned with practice , time and effort. If you are struggling in this area of your life and would like support please feel free to reach out to Birchwood Healing Place at 859-312-6569.
Take a moment and ask yourself, why? Why do I love________________ (inserting whomever)? Allow your mind to pounder and explore all the reasons you love this or that person. Go head, ask yourself this question regarding all those you love. Ask those who love you the same question, see what their responses are.
Most people respond in one of two categories, they will either go on to explain characteristics about you, that they love . They will basically speak to the person you are .
Or they will speak of the things you do for them, or how you make them feel. It looks something like this. I love him so much, he is so good to me , he takes care of me, I feel like a princess when I am with him. Or I love him so much, he is a good person, kind and generous to animals and walks in integrity. Do you see the difference? Now, ask yourself, are you willing to be loved only for what you are to someone? Or should you be loved for who you are?
Here at BHP we believe that each person is worthy of love, love that we as individuals must provide for ourselves. We believe that though healing and exploration each person grows and loves themselves much more holistically and in doing so will demand that others love and respect them for the person they are.
If this is an area you would like to work on, please feel free to contact Loretta Gilmore at Birchwood Healing Place.
Loretta Gilmore MSW, LCSW