Reinventing Your Life (1994) is a manual on how to pull yourself out of negative habits and improve your life. By identifying key stumbling blocks to growth – or “lifetraps” – and presenting ways to overcome them, it guides you toward sustainable personal growth and happiness.
Introduction: Change the Harmful Behaviors that Hold You Back
Do you feel stuck in the same negative pattern? Has a swirl of bad choices and raging emotions followed you since childhood? If so, you may be caught in a Lifetrap.
One of the authors, Jeffrey Young, had a revelation during his early years as a cognitive therapist. He was helping many of his patients change their behaviors and become happier and healthier people, but he also had a growing number of patients who weren’t improving.
He began to notice a common thread among those who were not getting better, and that’s when the lightning bolt struck. These patients were all caught in repeating patterns of self-destruction that began with some kind of childhood trauma. They were caught in Lifetraps.
In this summary, you’ll learn all about the 11 key Lifetraps that we may face as individuals, as well as the types of childhood neglect that lead to them. But most importantly, you’ll learn how to escape these Lifetraps in seven actionable steps.
Climbing out of a Lifetrap is difficult. This summary may provide enough information to help you escape your Lifetrap, but you might find you want the kind of comprehensive explanations and examples that can only be found in the book. Or you may feel like you need to see a therapist in person to safely climb out of your Lifetrap.
With that said, let’s get to work!
Michelle’s father left when she was two. Her mother stayed, but she was an alcoholic. Sometimes mom would be gone for days, binge drinking, and Michelle would be left in a worried panic. Even when mom was home, she would drink and wouldn’t be present – wouldn’t be a mother.
Now, Michelle has recreated her childhood environment by dating Thomas. She’s 31 and wants to get married, but he won’t fully commit, even though they’ve been dating on and off for 10 years. They’ve broken up three times, and each time Thomas leaves, Michelle goes through a whirlwind of crippling emotions. There’s the panicky fear that this breakup is real and he’s never coming back. The grief so heavy Michelle feels like she can’t move. The anger so hot she wants to break something, anything. And when Michelle and Thomas are together, she lives in constant fear that he is going to leave, again and for good.
Michelle is stuck in the first of our 11 lifetraps: the Abandonment Lifetrap.
Lifetraps start to form when something is done to us in childhood by our families or our peers. Maybe we were criticized, deprived, abused or, in Michelle’s case, abandoned by our parents. Perhaps our families were overprotective or over-indulgent, and that has negatively affected us. Or maybe we were excluded or bullied at school.
When we recreate our damaging childhood environment as adults, we build our own Lifetrap. In Michelle’s case, she was abandoned by her parents, and even though she was hurt at the time and knows now how harmful it was, she still recreates the situation with Thomas, who she feels may abandon her at any moment.
Lifetraps take over our lives and control how we think, feel and act. They lead to self-destructive behaviors. They trigger overwhelming emotions, like anger, anxiety, fear and sadness. They are very difficult to change because they are ingrained into our very beings. Michelle’s Lifetrap is so deep-rooted that she feels a powerful chemistry with Thomas, an attraction so strong it keeps her in the trap.
But change is possible.
The first step to escaping your Lifetrap is giving it a name. In the next section, we’ll describe the 11 Lifetraps and the traumatic childhood experiences that, typically, lead to each one. As we’re going through the list, keep in mind that you may have only one Lifetrap, but it’s common to have several of them weighing you down at once. One Lifetrap may be dominant, but the others are still hanging on and causing damage.
Six Needs, Eleven Lifetraps
Children have six core needs – Safety, Connection to Others, Autonomy, Self-Esteem, Self-Expression and Realistic Limits. When these needs are met, we mature into well-adjusted adults. When they’re not, we can develop Lifetraps that permanently derail us.
If there’s a lack of basic safety and security in our childhood, we can fall into the Abandonment Lifetrap, like Michelle. Or the Mistrust and Abuse Lifetrap, which is the expectation that people will hurt us by lying, humiliating, harming or taking advantage of us in some way. Stuck in this Lifetrap, we avoid all close relationships because we fear anyone we love will betray us.
We all need love, respect and understanding from our families and peers to feel a true connection to others. When we don’t connect in childhood, the two Lifetraps we can develop are the Emotional Deprivation Lifetrap and the Social Exclusion Lifetrap. If you feel that no one truly cares about you, and your need for love will never be met, you likely didn’t get enough love from your family and are stuck in the Emotional Deprivation Lifetrap. If you feel different and isolated from the rest of the world, and you were shunned by your childhood peers, chances are you’re in the Social Exclusion Lifetrap. People stuck in these traps sabotage relationships before they can develop.
Now, some parents are so overprotective, or so enmeshed in their children’s lives, that the children never cultivate a sense of Autonomy, and they sink into the Dependence Lifetrap or Vulnerability Lifetrap. When you feel like you need support 24/7, or you can’t handle basic life tasks on your own, you’re caught in the Dependence trap. If you live in constant fear that the worst is about to happen, no matter how unrealistic that worst is, then it’s the Vulnerability trap keeping you stuck inside your house.
When we’re overly criticized by our family or friends, it’s hard to develop self-esteem, the feeling that we are worthwhile. If this happens, we can get stuck in the Defectiveness Lifetrap or the Failure Lifetrap. Defectiveness makes us feel inwardly flawed. We believe no one will love us, so we’re afraid of love as adults. And you feel painfully inferior to your peers in terms of achievement – at work, school, sports or other areas – then you are caught in the Failure Lifetrap.
We can fall into the Subjugation Lifetrap or the Unrelenting Standards Lifetrap if we are not allowed to express our needs, feelings and desires, causing our self-expression to be stunted. When you sacrifice your own needs out of guilt in order to please others, you are in the Subjugation Lifetrap. If you place excessive emphasis and expectations on things like your social status, financial standing or looks, you may be in the Unrelenting Standards Lifetrap, and you were probably expected to get all As and finish first in every race as a kid.
Some parents let their kids run wild with no consequences. When this is the case, we lack realistic limits, and we can get stuck in the Entitlement Lifetrap. If this happens, we don’t care about the feelings or needs of others, and we become upset when our needs and wants aren’t met immediately.
Getting stuck in any one of these traps can be easy, but getting out is always hard. Most of us look for unhealthy escape routes, which we need to know about if we’re ever going to make real change. Let’s have a look at them now.
The Common Coping Mechanisms
How we develop and deal with Lifetraps depends on our temperament and environment. Two siblings growing up in the same abusive household, for example, can react differently. One can fight back while the other becomes passive. The fighter may have been born with a more aggressive temperament, or perhaps one of the parents was the abuser and the other the victim, and the passive child just happened to model the victim.
While different people react to Lifetraps in different ways, there are three main coping mechanisms – Surrender, Avoid and Counterattack. To demonstrate these three mechanisms, we’ll look at three men – Sam, Bobby and Alex. They’re all stuck in the Defective Lifetrap – they feel inwardly flawed. But none of them cope in the same way.
Sam is a 20-year-old college student who surrenders to his feelings of defectiveness. He mumbles and blushes when you meet him. He puts himself down in front of others and is always apologizing, even when it’s not his fault. He feels “less than” with his peers in every way – academically, socially, financially. His only friend is constantly making fun of him, and Sam agrees with every word.
Sam grew up in a family that belittled and criticized him. As an adult, he behaves in ways that ensure he will continue to be demeaned. He acts ashamed, befriends people who are mean to him and distances himself from anyone who is kind. He thinks, acts and feels defective, completely surrendering to the Lifetrap.
Bobby avoids his sense of defectiveness by drinking. He’s 40-years-old and has never had a close relationship, even with his wife. He’s most comfortable with his casual drinking buddies at the neighborhood bar, where they never talk about anything personal. Unlike Sam, Bobby makes sure he is absolutely not in touch with his defective feelings. He’s repressed the memories of his domineering father, and it’s not until he starts Lifetrap Therapy that Bobby even realizes he has low self-esteem, or that it began with his dad.
Now for Alex. Alex counterattacks his Defective Lifetrap by feeling, thinking and acting like he is special. He looks the part – confident smile, expensive clothes, flashy watch. He also puts himself in situations where he can feel superior. He married a meek woman, for example, and he chooses sycophant friends. Alex does all this so he can feel the opposite of how he felt as a child, which was devalued and neglected. Counterattackers like Alex can be successful – some famous actors, rock stars and politicians are Counterattackers. But most suffer from inner turmoil and feel defective beneath their beautiful surface.
You might recognize yourself in one of these men, or maybe all three of them. Fortunately, you don’t have to follow their harmful examples. There are other ways out your Lifetrap.
Remember Michelle, the 31-year-old stuck in the Abandonment Lifetrap with her non-committal boyfriend, Thomas?
While looking for help during a breakup, Michelle found Lifetrap Therapy. It uses components from multiple types of therapies – psychoanalytic, experiential, cognitive, pharmacological and behavioral – to change Lifetraps in seven steps. It may sound simple, but it’s far from easy.
First, you need to identify your Lifetrap. After realizing she was caught in an Abandonment trap, Michelle had a sensation common to many Lifetrap Therapy patients. She said, “I guess I always knew on some level I had issues with abandonment.”
The second step is to understand the childhood origins of your Lifetrap. To do this, you must remember your childhood. Just let the images flood your mind. And when they do, you need to communicate with your inner child. Comfort them, give them advice, empathize. This may seem silly at first, but most patients find it very beneficial.
The third step is building a case against your Lifetrap. Most people stuck in Lifetraps accept them both emotionally and intellectually – they feel trapped and they know there is no way out. This step casts doubts on those beliefs. Make a list of ‘pros’ – reasons why your Lifetrap is real – and ‘cons’ – reasons why it’s not.
Michelle made a list of all the people who haven’t abandoned her, and all the ways she actually pushes Thomas away when she’s trying to keep him close. If your list of pros is longer than your cons, ask yourself if the pros are true, or if you were brainwashed into believing them in childhood.
In step four, we write letters to the parents, siblings or peers who helped create our Lifetrap. This gives us a safe and appropriate way to vent anger and sadness. Actually sending the letters is optional.
Step five requires thorough and honest evaluation of your Lifetrap. You must write down all the ways your Lifetrap impacts your life. Then, write down how you can change all of those ways. Not only did Michelle write about Thomas, she also wrote about clinging to her friends for fear they would abandon her, and how she could change that.
In step six, you break the patterns you identified in step five. Start with the changes you feel confident you can make. Michelle started with her friends. She gave them more space, and she stayed calm when they didn’t immediately return her phone calls.
Step seven is simply keep trying. This process is hard, but don’t give up! Challenge your Lifetrap until all of the self-destructive patterns are broken.
When children’s core needs aren’t met, it sets the stage for a lifetime of trouble. As adults, those kids will recreate their harmful childhood environments, and they will keep falling into the same messy Lifetraps that go with it. They’ll stay stuck in those traps, unless they’re willing to do the work it takes to escape – facing your fears, being honest with yourself and keep on trying.
Escaping Lifetraps is no easy feat, and dredging up childhood memories can be so painful we might need a therapist to help. You’ll need to put in constant and consistent effort, but you can climb out of your Lifetraps, and when you do, your life will take a sharp turn for the better.
About the author
Jeffrey E. Young, PhD, serves on the faculty of the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia University. He is director of the Cognitive Therapy Center of New York as well as the Schema Therapy Institute. Dr. Young founded schema therapy, and is a founding fellow of the Academy of Cognitive Therapy. Dr. Young has lectured and presented workshops on cognitive and schema therapies for the past 25 years and consistently receives outstanding evaluations internationally for his teaching skills. He has published extensively, including two major books, Schema Therapy: A Practitioner’s Guide, for mental health professionals, and Reinventing Your Life, a bestselling self-help book.
Dr. Young is coauthor of a psychotherapy outcome study evaluating the effectiveness of cognitive therapy in comparison to antidepressant medication. He has also served as consultant on many cognitive and schema therapy research grants, including the NIMH Collaborative Study of Depression, and on the editorial boards of journals including Cognitive Therapy and Research and Cognitive & Behavioral Practice. For his exceptional teaching skills, Dr. Young was awarded the prestigious NEEI Mental Health Educator of the Year award in 2003.
Janet S. Klosko, PhD, Codirector of the Cognitive Therapy Center of Long Island, in Great Neck, New York, is senior psychologist at the Schema Therapy Institute and at Woodstock Women’s Health in Woodstock, New York.
Psychology, Personal Development, Self Help, Nonfiction, Mental Health, Health, Education, How To, Relationships, Self-Improvement Success, Motivation, Self-Esteem, Personal Growth, Cognitive Psychology, Personal Transformation
Table of Contents
Reinventing Your Life Foreword by Aaron Beck, M.D.
2. Which Lifetraps Do You Have?
3. Understanding Lifetraps
4. Surrender, Escape, and Counterattack
5. How Lifetraps Change
6. “Please Don’t Leave Me!”: The Abandonment Lifetrap
7. “I Can’t Trust You”: The Mistrust and Abuse Lifetrap
8. “I’ll Never Get the Love I Need”: The Emotional Deprivation Lifetrap
9. “I Don’t Fit In”: The Social Exclusion Lifetrap
10. “I Can’t Make It on My Own”: The Dependence Lifetrap
11. “Catastrophe Is About to Strike”: The Vulnerability Lifetrap
12. “I’m Worthless”: The Defectiveness Lifetrap
13. “I Feel Like Such a Failure”: The Failure Lifetrap
14. “I Always Do It Your Way!”: The Subjugation Lifetrap
15. “It’s Never Quite Good Enough”: The Unrelenting Standards Lifetrap
16. “I Can Have Whatever I Want”: The Entitlement Lifetrap
17. A Philosophy of Change
Learn how to end the self-destructive behaviors that stop you from living your best life with this breakthrough program.
- Put the needs of others above your own?
- Start to panic when someone you love leaves—or threatens to?
- Often feel anxious about natural disasters, losing all your money, or getting seriously ill?
- Find that no matter how successful you are, you still feel unhappy, unfulfilled, or undeserving?
Unsatisfactory relationships, irrational lack of self-esteem, feelings of being unfulfilled—these are all problems that can be solved by changing the types of messages that people internalize. These self-defeating behavior patterns are called “lifetraps,” and Reinventing Your Life shows you how to stop the cycle that keeps you from attaining happiness.
Two of America’s leading psychologists, Jeffrey E. Young, Ph.D., and Janet S. Klosko, Ph.D., draw on the breakthrough principles of cognitive therapy to help you recognize and change negative thought patterns, without the aid of drugs or long-term traditional therapy. They describe eleven of the most common lifetraps, provide a diagnostic test for each, and offer step-by-step suggestions to help you break free of the traps. Thousands of men and women have seen the immediate and long-term results of the extraordinary program outlines in this clear, compassionate, liberating book. Its innovative approach to solving ongoing emotional problems will help you create a more fulfilling, productive life.
“Several of the most painful petards upon which people become hoisted during an unhappy childhood are neatly dispatched here by two cognitive therapists, who attack 11 common ‘lifetraps’—destructive patterns that underlie a variety of emotional problems. Young and Klosko ably demonstrate how to deal with issues of abandonment, dependence, trust, social rejection, emotional deprivation, failure and vulnerability. They provide meaningful case histories, perceptive descriptions, diagnostic tests and a variety of nugget-sized, easily understood lists detailing the causes, danger signs and effects of negative impulses and actions, as well as ways to short-circuit them.”—Publishers Weekly
“Using illustrations from case studies, the authors describe each lifetrap, discuss its origins in childhood experience, and provide a questionnaire for self-assessment. They then offer a program for change using techniques ranging from experiential (getting in touch with your inner child) to cognitive (writing a ‘case’ against your lifetrap) and behavioral (identifying specific behaviors to be changed).”—Library Journal