Unravelling the subjugation schema

I found that I reflexively adopt a position of placating the people around me. Once I had identified this subjugation schema, the thoughts, feelings and behaviours associated with it eventually started to unravel.

A schema is a sub-conscious program that you run in response to the people and situations around you which has become established due to the circumstances in your past especially during your developmental years. A schema comprises a cluster of thoughts, feelings and behaviours which activate together in response to certain situations. Your particular schema may have evolved in response to developmental trauma as a survival style which served you at the time but now causes you problems in your adult life. I found that the schema which was causing me personally the most issues was my subjugation schema.

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As a child develops there are developmental milestones the child must pass through. Depending on when the trauma was experienced, one theory is that the personality organises around survival styles which were adaptive during the developmental years. In (1) the authors refer to the traumatic disruption of five organising principles during development which result in the associated survival style: connection, attunement, trust, autonomy and love-sexuality. There is a temporal window where the potential for disruption to each of these organising principles is at a maximum, with connection being the earliest and love-sexuality being the latest. Although I found I have some problems in all these areas, an important one for me was a failure of “autonomy”. In this survival style, the core fear is “If I show you how I really feel, you won’t love me”. The compromised core expressions are “No”, “I won’t” and any expression that might evoke conflict. A person with this survival style tends to placate others and remains invisible. Someone with a wound to their autonomy tends to subjugate themselves to others. Their tendency to placate others makes them a dream partner for the narcissist. This person seeks connection through self-subjugation and self-objectification and easily falls into relationships where the recognition goes only one way – towards the narcissist. This survival style is resolved when you know what is right for you and can express it to others so that a yes is a real yes and a no is a real no.

If you suffer with this, you likely were raised by someone who didn’t recognise you as a person in your own right. The caregiver’s subjectivity was everything and you were trained to experience yourself as a gratifying object. In other words your capacity for inter-subjective relatedness was thwarted. Rather than learning how to interact assertively with recognition going both ways, you learned that recognition only goes one way. You were forced instead to recognise the subjectivity of your caregiver at the expense of your own. Trying to assert yourself in natural, healthy ways was dangerous during childhood. This leaves you with a wound to your autonomy and a chronic inability to experience yourself as a subject. Now as an adult, you may tend to placate others. The book by Daniel Shaw, Traumatic Narcissism: Relational Systems of Subjugation talks about this in depth and was really transformative for me. If you have problems with autonomy I would really recommend reading this book. To get a feel for the book, reference (4) is a document available on the web which Shaw wrote when he was starting to put together his ideas which he would later formulate as several papers which he combined together in his book (5).

Something which helped me was to reframe this reflexive tendency to placate others and fall into the role of gratifying object as a form of control. Having suffered so much with being coercively controlled, the idea that somehow my behaviour was controlling was a shock to me. Rather than being straightforward and letting others respond to me as they will, my tendency was to placate those around me and to keep hidden behind a whole lot of falsely deferential behaviour. Once I saw this as dishonest and controlling, I realised that these were characteristics I didn’t want to associate with myself!

I then started to tune into what was going on with me once I began to have that all too familiar feeling of not being free to express myself around others. Getting this schema to unravel was another area where mindfulness was crucial. There are lots of good books on mindfulness, but the one that started it off for me which is a great introduction to Vipassana meditation was Bhante Guranatana, Mindfulness in Plain English. This book helped me so much and I can’t recommend it enough to anyone who is interested. It is one of a handful of books which have helped me that is covered in highlighted sections and annotations which for me always indicates it is a really cherished book.

Once I had understood my behaviour as a “subjugation schema” or an unwanted, ineffective subconscious program, I stepped back and mindfully observed myself freeze up, become compliant, become hyper-vigilant of the other person’s responses and non-verbal cues. I found the more I activated mindful awareness and observed my reactions, the more the subjugation schema began to unravel and this particular emotional complex started to evaporate. I now feel much freer in my interactions and do not experience the same reflexive tendency to subjugate myself. If it does creep back in, I notice it immediately and it feels strange.

There is something really powerful and miraculous about mindfulness. The intellectual understanding of your problems is not enough. Mindfulness is like giving the deeper Self control. Once you allow your deeper Self to observe all the contortions of the ego, that deeper part of you takes care of it for you. You are unravelling all those surface level aspects which control your life. Underneath all of those traumas somewhere is the unblemished unconscious of the infant. That unhindered unconscious motive power is spontaneous, expressive and seeks connection with others and I believe is still available to us all no matter what we have been through.

(1) Laurence Heller, PhD, and Aline LaPierre, PsyD, The NeuroAffective Relational Model for restoring connection, Healing Developmental Trauma, How Early Trauma Affects Self-Regulation, Self-Image and Capacity for Relationship.

(2) Michaela Lonning, A summary and discussion of the Autonomy Survival Style described in (1), http://michaelas-counseling.com/i-need-more-space-understanding-the-autonomy-survival-style/

(3) Laurence Heller PhD, and Brad J. Kammer LMFT LPCC, The NARM practitioner training, The NeuroAffective Relational Model for Complex Trauma, Manual, http://narmtraining.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/NARM-Training-Module-1-FULL-MANUAL-2-per-page.pdf.

(4) Daniel Shaw, The Relational System of the Traumatising Narcissist.

(5) Daniel Shaw, Traumatic Narcissism: Relational Systems of Subjugation.


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