Our thoughts and emotions are connected with each other. Thinking certain thoughts can trigger certain emotions, and certain emotions can trigger our thoughts. Further, we often experience these emotions automatically – we usually become aware of them only after or while we are experiencing them and the thoughts that come rushing into our heads.
Paul Gilbert has done a nice job simplifying Three Types of Affect Regulation Systems. The basic idea is:
(Adapted from Paul Gilbert, Advances in Psychiatric Treatment 2009;15:199-208,
Available as a pdf file HERE.)
Better Safe Than Sorry
Two of these systems are typically OVERdeveloped, because they are especially useful in keeping us alive during difficult circumstances. Can you guess which two?
If you're like most of us, you'll find yourself experiencing the Wanting and the Protecting states a lot more frequently than the Connecting/Soothing state.
And this raises an important point: our ‘negative’ emotions are actually quite important. If your brain activates the soothing system when what you need to do is get out of the way of the oncoming car, you won’t live very long! Anger-Anxiety-Disgust may be unpleasant and Wanting may motivate us to do inappropriate or dangerous things at times. And we may sometimes experience them when they are unnecessary or destructive.
But we could not survive without them.
Strengthening Our Weak Affect 'Muscles'
As true as this is, it also means that Content-Safe-Connected System is often UNDERdeveloped. And since the three systems influence each other, Protecting and Wanting often overpower our feelings of being Content-Safe-Connected. Self-compassion does not mean we eliminate emotions associated with defending or achieving. It means we strengthen our Content-Safe-Connected system so that it is also there when we need it. It means we are more balanced. And it means that we can influence the other systems when the time is right. We can re-train our minds to soothe and care for ourselves during difficult circumstances.
Inference Systems & Life Traps
So how does this work? One theory that is useful for understanding how our minds work brings attention to Inference Systems.
An inference system is just the way our minds link together certain thoughts, as well as the way it does this automatically. Inferences are shortcuts for what would otherwise be really long thought processes. For example, if you heard that my computer was broken by a virus introduced by Barry, you may think –
“David is angry because Barry broke his computer with a flash drive virus.”
What your brain is actually doing is much more involved. It may be something like this –
David is angry AND anger is caused by unpleasant events that other people cause AND anger is then pointed at those people AND David knows that Barry was using his computer AND he knows that Barry had a virus on his flash drive AND now David’s computer crashed because of a virus AND on and on.
It is very good that our brains can do all of this subconsciously, otherwise our conscious thinking would be exhausting! But the weakness is when an unhealthy thought gets incorporated into our inference systems. For example, what happens if you add, "AND people who make us angry deserve to be killed" into the system? Sure enough, you'll find yourself being driven by anger to want to severely punish others. It will seem obvious and irrefutable.
Jeff Young called this type of automatic thinking our “life traps” and summarized eighteen that he found most important.
- Emotional deprivation
- Social isolation/alienation
- Vulnerability to harm or illness
- Enmeshment/undeveloped self
- Insufficient self-control/self-discipline
- Emotional inhibition
- Unrelenting standards/hyper-criticalness
- Punitiveness (SOURCE)
Take some time now to read more about these life traps by visiting Dr. Young's website, Schema Therapy, HERE.
After learning more about these Life Traps, go back to your conflict story. Do you notice any of the life traps at work in your story?
You can also use this chart to reflect on how you'd like to respond to your life traps.