Monday, July 24, 2006

Seek balance in your beliefs to make necessary changes
Stress for Success
July 25, 2006

If you worry about the effects of stress on your mental and physical health but do nothing about them, you're in good company along with half of all Americans. The reason for your inaction might be that you have life-schemas that perpetuate your inertia.

All behavior is dictated by your beliefs. Life schemas are a way to organize your beliefs to more easily understand them and to change them where necessary.

According to the authors of “Why Can't I Get What I Want”, Drs. Kirby Lassen and Elliott, there are two maladaptive schemas and one adaptive one that fall along each continuum in the zones of self-worth, empowerment and relationships. For instance one schema deals with your level of desirability. This continuum runs from feeling undesirable to desirable to irresistible. The trick for your mental health is to have a balance between the extremes, which in this example means to see yourself as desirable.

Here’s the list of all the schemas, which influence your reactions to everything. The first and third of each continuum are the maladaptive ones. The center schema in each is the adaptive, or healthiest one. They're mostly self-explanatory so as you scan through these guess which ones might be keeping you in your unhealthy patterns. (To truly benefit from this concept you’ll need to read their book.)

The self-worth zone:
• Blameworthy - accepting - blameless
• Undesirable - desirable - irresistible
• Unworthy - worthy - entitled
• Inadequate - adequate - perfectionist

The empowerment zone:
• Acquiescent – assertive - domineering
• Dependent - capable - stubbornly independent
• Powerless - empowered - omnipotent
• Vulnerable - resilient - invulnerable

The relationship zone:
• Other-centered - centered - self-centered
• Abandonment - intimate - avoidant
• Undefined - defined - aggrandizing
• Distrusting – trusting – na├»ve

The trick, remember, is to seek balance between the two extremes.
Let's say that the schema that’s keeping you from making healthier routine choices is the dependent schema. This means that, “you often feel incapable of handling everyday decisions and responsibilities and usually seek help from others.” To become more capable, the authors encourage you to do a cost-benefit analysis for your maladaptive schema. Unless the costs are great enough you aren’t likely to change.

Benefits to being dependent:
• Having someone to depend upon keeps me from being alone.
• When something goes wrong someone will be there to help me.
• Life is easier when someone else handles the decisions.
• If something goes wrong it's not my fault.

Costs to being dependent:
• Some people may get tired of making decisions for me.
• Being dependent keeps me vulnerable and stunts my personal growth.
• My spouse, upon whom I depend, doesn’t encourage me to change my habits possibly because he doesn’t want to change his.
• Sometimes the people I depend upon don't really have my best interests in mind.
• Being dependent makes it more difficult for others and for me to respect me.

The first step in breaking a schema’s hold on you, is to be aware of not only which ones are operating but also their costs. When the cost becomes too great you’ll hopefully find more motivation to change.

The second step is to strive for balance between the extremes; in this example to become more capable and less dependent in making your own daily choices. Making healthier lifestyle choices, even if you start with one little decision at a time, will eventually make it easier for you to actually change your habits, turning your inertia into movement.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., of InterAction Associates, is a trainer and a Stress Coach. Her mission is to inspire people to live conscious lives of personal responsibility in relations with themselves and with others. E-mail her at or call 239-693-8111 for information about her workshops on this and other topics or to invite her to speak to your organization.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Maladaptive schemas are normal reactions to abnormal situations
Stress for Success
July 18, 2006

Last week I addressed how “life-schemas” can explain why some of the 50 percent of Americans who worry that stress is wrecking their physical and mental health do nothing about it. Can a person’s mostly subconscious beliefs keep them in unhealthy lifestyle patterns decade after decade?

In short, the answer is a definite yes.

Everyone interprets life's events through their own personal "schema lens". Schemas are your beliefs about yourself and your world. You tend not to question them but rather react out of them time and time again.

Your schemas develop from your experiences starting at birth, so it’s not like you chose yours. Family, culture, religion, and biology influence them, so no two people develop the exact same ones. “Maladaptive schemas are normal reactions to abnormal life experiences,” say the authors of Why Can’t I Get What I Want, Drs. Elliott and Kirby Lassen. They say that schemas are developed from four channels that carry information to the brain:
• How you're treated
• How you maneuver your world
• What you hear
• What you see

For example, a child whose obese parents overate and were very physically inactive developed life-schemas that dictated his later health practices. When either parent tried to change their unhealthy habits the other would berate him/her for trying to effect genetics. So as not to upset anyone, that parent would go back to his/her usual bad lifestyle. From this repeated scenario their son developed these schemas:
• Other-centered: you shouldn’t do anything to upset your spouse
• Blameless: weight is totally determined by genetics; if you’re overweight it’s not your fault
• Powerless: it doesn't do any good to try to lose weight

As an overweight adult he found himself in an endless cycle of overeating and under-exercising, dieting, and slipping back into his old, unhealthy habits. He probably has no awareness whatsoever that his behavior is driven by his life-schemas.

Elliott and Kirby Lassen say that there are three life-schemas through which we view the world: self-worth, empowerment, and relationships. These “zones” intersect and influence each other.
The most elaborate of all the schemas is the self-schema; your beliefs about your own traits, strengths, weaknesses, preferences, and how you relate to others. Self-schema is the most important one because it’s fundamental to the others. If you have poor self-esteem you’ll also have problems with the empowerment and relationship areas. So, if you have a dependent-schema, meaning that you’re incapable of handling everyday decisions well, the thought of changing bad health habits may seem beyond you.

The second schema is the empowerment zone. This can also adversely affect the others; if you feel powerless, for instance, to make healthier life choices it depresses your self-esteem and can make you vulnerable in your relationships.

Finally, there’s the relationship-schema, which is also hugely important. Maladaptive schemas are the root of most problems and conflicts in relationships and represent your "hot buttons". Each person's schemas interact, oftentimes creating power struggles and conflicts. If you have an “other-centered”-schema you’ll likely avoid doing anything you think would upset another person. You may say yes when you really want to say no.

The good side of schemas is that they give a sense of order to your world. Without them you’d have to work at interpreting everyday experiences every time they occur.

The downside, however, is that your schemas can subconsciously mislead you by distorting your perceptions, thus your behavior.

So, if you worry about the negative effects of stress but do nothing about them, you must increase your awareness (always the first step) of the schemas that inhibit you from changing. Next week I’ll cover the most likely schema culprits for doing nothing to improve health habits.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., of InterAction Associates, is a trainer and a Stress Coach. Her mission is to inspire people to live conscious lives of personal responsibility in relations with themselves and with others. E-mail her at or call 239-693-8111 for information about her workshops on this and other topics or to invite her to speak to your organization.

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Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Life schemas can keep you in bad habits decade after decade
Stress for Success
July 11, 2006

A recent Psychology Today sidebar article said that “half of Americans worry that stress is wrecking their mental and physical health, but very few are taking steps to tackle the problem.” Why?

It went on to say, “One in four Americans say they overeat to comfort themselves, while 25 percent of those who describe themselves as ‘very concerned’ about stress turn to cigarettes for relief of frustration and anxiety.”

Some of the very people who most need to do good things for themselves turn to bad habits. Why? And then why does it too often take a heart attack or some other serious physical breakdown to convince them to change?

Change, even small change that’s good for you, is difficult for everyone.

There are many reasons people continue with bad habits. Some do because they're in a state of denial; they don't think they have a problem. Others may experience "learned helplessness", which means they've learned to be helpless in certain areas of life so don't even bother trying to improve them. These people are often also depressed, yet another reason for not changing.

A helpful psychological explanation for why those who don't replace bad habits with good ones is that they have a "life schema" that holds them in the same unproductive behavior decade after decade, even in the face of deteriorating health.

“Schemas are an information processing program in our minds that interpret and organize life experiences, much as computer software organizes incoming information”, say Charles Elliott and Maureen Kirby-Lassen, authors of Why Can’t I Get What I Want? (Davies-Black Publishing, 1998.)

Schemas create our expectations, so we find what we look for. “You see the world not as it is, but as you are.” Stephen Covey. We interpret situations according to our schemas and react predictably to them.

For example, you received lukewarm applause after a presentation you gave. If you have an inadequate life schema you might respond by thinking, "I must have been really bad." If you have an entitlement life schema you might respond after the lukewarm applause with, "I can't believe they aren't applauding louder. What a lousy audience!"

If you’re one of those who knows stress is wrecking your health and you do nothing about it, perhaps you have a life schema that's getting in your way of changing. Identifying your schema roadblock, challenging it and ultimately changing it would have to happen before any change is likely to occur; and as importantly, to last.

Elliott and Kirby-Lassen say there are basically three types of schemas:
• Self-worth: which includes your sense of adequacy, worthiness, desirability and your ability to accept yourself
• Empowerment: which includes how assertive you are, how capable, empowered, and resilient you perceive yourself to be
• Relationship: which includes whether you’re centered upon yourself or others, your capacity for intimacy, your self-definition and your ability to trust

Which bad habits do you indulge in too frequently that you know you should change for your mental and/or physical well-being? Which areas in the above three schemas would you guess are impeding your ability to make the desired changes?

Over the next weeks we’ll take a closer look at how schemas function and what you can do about them.
Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., of InterAction Associates, is a trainer and a Stress Coach. Her mission is to inspire people to live conscious lives of personal responsibility in relations with themselves and with others. E-mail her at or call 239-693-8111 for information about her workshops on this and other topics or to invite her to speak to your organization.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Celebrate many benefits of living in free society
Stress for Success
July 4, 2006

The Fourth of July is like a big outdoor block party with lots of family, friends, food and fireworks. I love this day, and along with Thanksgiving, it has always been my favorite holiday. They're both such unifying celebrations because all Americans (or virtually all) commemorate them regardless of race, religion or region. And they represent two important American values: freedom and gratefulness.

To sustain our free society a contract between a democracy and its citizenry is essential: for every freedom there is a corresponding personal responsibility.

Let’s define freedom first. A thesaurus lists these synonyms: liberty, independence, choice, free will, autonomy, self-determination and lack of restrictions. Wow! That's a wonderful list of what this country affords us.

It’s truly revolutionary in the annals of human history that each of us has such liberty. To live successfully in a free society you need a great deal of self-determination. In other words, it’s your responsibility to determine what you want your life to be.

Once you figure that out you must then take the next step and make your desired life a reality. Big Brother isn’t here to make it happen for you. A great deal of personal accountability is required to make your vision come true; in other words, you must make the necessary choices to accomplish your goals.

Who you are today is the sum total of all of the choices, conscious and unconscious, that you’ve made over your lifetime, along with the luck of the draw regarding the circumstances of your birth and upbringing. You can’t do anything about the circumstances of your birth, but you do control the choices that you make.

If you've done a great job of taking advantage of our system and putting together a life you’re proud of and happy with, you can pat yourself on the back for your choices. If you're not happy with your life, hold yourself accountable for those choices that got you where you are. For a different life make new and better decisions.

Freedom also requires significant independence and self-sufficiency. For example, compared to socialist nations, our economic system is quite brutal. Our social safety net has much bigger holes in it, requiring us to hustle to make something happen should we lose a job or get into financial difficulty. It’s our responsibility to live within our means and to have a cushion for the down times (even if that means saving only $5 - $10/month every month, year after year.) Or after hurricanes, we’re learning that we must rely upon ourselves the first days after a storm vs. expect the government to come to our rescue immediately. It’s our responsibility to prepare ahead of time.

Another synonym for freedom is lack of restrictions. We certainly have many laws that restrict our behavior in this country, and some would say entirely too many. But compared to most societies we have significantly fewer limitations. (If I lived in Saudi Arabia, for instance, I, a woman, wouldn’t be allowed to drive or vote!) As citizens it’s our responsibility to be educated on the issues of the day and politicians’ stances on these issues and to vote accordingly.

Freedom is a wonderful thing when anchored by personal responsibility. I am free to make my choices and to be responsible for the consequences of them. It sounds fair to me.

Enjoy this great holiday!

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., of InterAction Associates, is a trainer and a Stress Coach. Her mission is to inspire people to live conscious lives of personal responsibility in relations with themselves and with others. E-mail her at or call 239-693-8111 for information about her workshops on this and other topics or to invite her to speak to your organization.