Have you ever felt sort of – or very – stuck in a behavior pattern that doesn’t really help you or improve your life? What psychologists call “maladaptive behavior” can be any form of addiction, as well as other patterns you might not think of as an addiction: micro-managing people or isolating from them, for example. Mal, as in Spanish for “badly,” plus adaptive = badly adaptive behavior. These maladaptations are strategies custom-built by a child to manage the stresses of childhood, then grown up to adult versions that aren't particularly effective at coping with adult stress.
Whenever I engage in one of these patterns, I always hope to realize – ideally sooner, rather than later – that it’s a sort of IM from my body/mind/spirit that something is awry. Hello? Carol? Some Childhood Treasure clearly needs more mining or polishing!
So what are your maladaptations? Reflect for a moment on the behaviors that make you think, “Why do I keep doing this?” or “Whoa, something must really be bothering me.” What behavior provokes the thought, “You know, this is really not good for me.” Almost anything, even a typically healthy pattern, can be maladaptive when done in excess, like dieting and exercising to extremes, obsessing sexually, or sleeping 12 or more hours a day.
Do you recognize your maladaptive patterns? How do you behave when you’re hoping to escape the emotions you’re really feeling? What talisman of activity helps you feel safe when life seems out of your control? What sacred dance do you perform to ward off the sense that you’re not enough, too much, or perhaps simply of insufficient value to deserve your life?
Maybe you overeat, or over-consume recreational substances? Walk away and refuse communication, or blow up in a screaming, accusatory tantrum when confronted with unpleasant feedback? Maybe you pull away and isolate at home, binge watching media or sleeping your life away. Perhaps you throw yourself into work, taking extra shifts or bringing work home every night and weekend. Or do you stir up drama, churning it up in your wake wherever you go, and leave others to deal with the fallout? Maybe you’ve engaged in more than one of these “mal” patterns.
When life gets hard, what do you do to try to ease your way, or at least make it tolerable?
I won’t make either of us uncomfortable with a list of all my maladaptive coping strategies. Suffice it to say that I have a fairly pedestrian assortment that is probably similar to what you display when you’re trying not to feel or deal with something.
Here’s what’s new for me. I have just recently understood that all those maladaptive behaviors actually have a shared goal. The same goal; they are all expressions of one seeking. Finally naming that goal has opened a new byway on my healing journey, giving me another opportunity to polish up my Childhood Treasure of Independence.
Thinking about the idea that my various maladaptations all share a single goal suddenly plopped me into my scientist/researcher point of view. My memory files pushed up the folder from a segment of one undergrad course in which I used principles of behavior modification to shape patterns of movement in a Norwegian white rat, using a “Skinner box.”
By the end of my 6-week lab, my rat developed and consistently repeated this complex chain of behavior: press a lever 25 times, stand up on hind legs, ring bell hanging from top of box, press lever 10 times...and only do this pattern when the light is on, rather than in the darkened box. Hardly the typical, “in the wild” behavior for a Norwegian white rat...and, in the end, he did all that as a single chain of behavior to earn one little pellet of rat kibble.
I’d say that, to an objective observer, some of my patterns of behavior look just as random and nonsensical, as a supposedly effective way to achieve my goal...a goal that turns out to be truly meaningless, by the way. My desired outcome is, frankly, of less value than a rat food pellet. I suspect my patterns were developed similarly, too: random reinforcements, chaining together an intricate dance of superstitious steps that I still feel compelled to repeat, like the physical version of an incantation -- a charm to ward off harm.
That’s another interesting part of this discovery for me: my maladaptive behavior is much more complex than a simple pushing of a lever. Each of my “mal” patterns is a complex chain of behaviors, thoughts, and feelings, and I execute them only when certain circumstances trigger them. Like the light turning on in the Skinner box, a condition in my life lights up the stage for some maladaptation or other to run its script. Completely programmed, I whirl into my learned chain of escape....
Finally seeing all that striving toward a ridiculous goal has generated a revelation! You see, once unmasked and named, the goal turned into a mirror, allowing me a great view of a pretty gargantuan blind spot. That’s where the healing work really lies, in seeing that blind spot and addressing the lie that it represents. The goal, and the maladaptive patterns that are my striving for the goal, are just layers of confusion designed to keep me from the truth of who I am.
So. Here it is: turns out that I’ve been missing a pretty important part of the toddler’s Treasure of Independence – a body boundary. Oh, sure, like you, I’ve got a skin bag that holds all the bones, muscles, water, organs, and other stuff inside. The physical boundary is there; I guess a better way to name what I’ve been missing is ownership of that boundary, integrity of that boundary, and allowing that boundary to have a voice. I’ve been missing a sense of that physical boundary’s proper authority.
It’s kind of crazy-sounding, really. The goal of all my maladaptive patterns is to make sure that I never again am touched in a sexual way that I don’t want. Pretty simple, and pretty obvious, once I finally saw it. And then came the but..., as in, but doesn’t that beg the question of why I need such an elaborate prevention strategy? Couldn’t I, mostly, just say NO? Or, even, 'no thank you,' with a smile? Why do I need my addictions, my control issues, my anger, and all my other unsuccessful efforts to avoid ever having to defend my body’s boundary?
The deeply ingrained learning from the “training box” of my childhood is that NO doesn’t work! Instead, I came to believe that, if I dance the steps of my maladaptive jigs well enough, I can ward off every occurrence of the need to say NO. I’m desperately dancing to sidestep a confrontation with unwanted sexual touch, to evade the adult responsibility of responding and stopping what’s happening in the moment. True, NO didn’t work in my childhood, but 99% of the time it will work now.
There’s the blind spot: I have come to believe that I cannot gently rebuff or openly refuse sexual touch I don’t want. On the one hand, my internal response is, “How silly!” I say no all the time, to lots and lots of things. I’m pretty good at saying no in my job, my family, my friendships, and my volunteer service. Yet, I clearly believe that I cannot transfer this well-honed skill to protection of my body...a lesson logically learned from 16 years of sexual assaults by my father.
All around me there is evidence to the contrary. I see women I know and admire handle these kinds of situations all the time, in healthy and non-aggressive, or even gentle or generous ways. I see women behave as if they feel no threat from the public flirtatious and suggestive behavior of men, no threat from being “hit on.” They appear to feel completely in control, as the sovereign of their own lives. My decision. My choice. Period.
I must admit that I just don’t get that. I’ve never felt that kind of safety inside my skin, that kind of sovereignty over my body and the intimacy of sharing it. I’d like to. I crave knowing such a sense of ownership and dominion over this fleshy vehicle for my consciousness.
Wait. Put like that, it doesn’t sound so important and, yet, finding this feeling state feels crucial to me. I want to hold this story of myself: My body brings value to my life and I steward that value with care and love. I am confident and happy in my body and know it is mine to use as a tool in all aspects of life, as I see fit.
That seems to me a goal more worthy of my striving...and one that won’t require any maladaptations.
What are your maladaptive patterns and for what goal do they collectively strive? How do you avoid feeling, dealing, and healing...and why? What is the shared, unifying goal of all your various maladaptive strategies for avoiding the now? Is it a goal worthy of your striving, or just some leftover whisper, of an echo, of a memory, of childhood’s dramas and traumas? I invite you to share in the comments any responses you have to any of these questions, or share any questions you have about this dynamic.
Let’s work together to shift from stress adaptations that are “mal” to ones that are “pos-adaptive.”
Watch this blog for news of her weekend intensive this fall, Live a Sovereign Life with the 7 Childhood Treasures. She expects to publish her book of the same name in 2017.