Deprivation Sensitivity



At times we all struggle with self-control, whether with our spending, our eating, our drinking, our screen-time or some other habit. It might seem like a simple equation to work out how hard this will be, surely it is just about how much we want this thing versus how much we want the alternative -being thin, being rich, being healthier or whatever?When we fail to stick to our goals we might conclude, I just don’t have enough willpower.

But what if you found out that it wasn’t just about resistance? That actually you were being sabotaged. Whenever you thought about not having that glass of wine, or that cream cake, or that new jacket you got a painful electric shock. What if you discovered that you experience real physical discomfort whenever you are in a state of anticipated deprivation?

This is what it feels like to have Deprivation Sensitivity, and it is nothing to do with how much you like cream cakes. It is a neurological ‘alarm’ that goes off when you perceive yourself to be (or about to be) under-resourced. Some people never experience this. For them it’s I’d like to buy that Jacket, but I’d just as easy have the money in my pocket, and when they walk away it’s cost-neutral, they are no worse off. But if you have Deprivation Sensitivity when you walk away from that jacket in the shop you are one jacket down, even though you never had it in the first place. Not only is it hard to deny yourself, but it can be painful to see other people getting what appears to be a treat of some sort. One deprivation-sensitive person told me, “I felt envious when my friend got a kitten, even though I can’t stand cats. Just knowing that she’d got what she wanted made me feel bad. I must be a really horrible person.”

That’s absolutely not the case. Deprivation Sensitivity is a curious phenomenon. For each individual it probably has its origins in long periods of being genuinely deprived; wanting something badly that was never delivered such as care from a parent or approval from a significant other. It can be set off by periods of poverty, unrequited love or being thwarted in pursuit of an important goal. This original episode needed to have been painful enough to lurk at the back of the mind as a discomfort-memory, waiting to be triggered by a multitude of smaller, less significant deprivations. Each thing you are denied takes on an additional value; it represents compensation for those earlier much-wanted resources. Now you don’t just want that glass of wine, you feel as though you need it.

At this point your brain hijacks you. It is capable of conjuring up anticipation of the horrible feeling you will get when you are bereft, suffering the loss of the desired item. Past deprivations and current ones merge, so that it is impossible to recognise that these are associations. Eventually this predicted deprivation becomes so uncomfortable that you give in.

Ask yourself, how am I generally with minor deprivations? If on the whole you are not bothered by saying no, except for one Achilles heel (shoes, for example!) then this doesn’t really apply to you. But if you regularly suffer from FOMO (fear of missing out) then suspect Deprivation Sensitivity; it simply is not as easy for you to go without something as it is for others.  Stop being hard on yourself, your body is conspiring against you.

Another clue to having Deprivation Sensitivity is how easily your feelings are hurt by others. If you find yourself ruminating on minor slights long after other people would have forgotten or gotten over them, you may have this additional handicap. Having our needs met enables us to develop resilience, allowing us to shrug off self-esteem injuries. People who suffer from Deprivation Sensitivity often begin a friendship feeling like they are already in the one-down position, so the odd harsh remark can be particularly painful. They may be accused of over-reacting, but the emotional pain is more acute for them- it’s not a level playing field.

There are some things you can do to reduce Deprivation-Sensitivity. It is important to restore some perspective and this is where mindfulness comes in useful. When you notice those pangs of discomfort stop and ask yourself, what is the loss I will suffer in this moment if I deny myself this thing? What will it mean to my life? And how much sadness do I think is appropriate to that loss? Then see if the amount of pain you are having exceeds what you think would be normal. It’s always hard to judge, but initially just see if you can identify where there is a huge discrepancy between your internal distress and the real value of the item.

Next, formulate a sentence that describes the situation. This engages the cortex area of the brain, which has a dampening effect on the amygdala from where those painful feelings emanate. So for example you might say, “I have seen a new jacket that looks really nice on me, although the price is higher than I want to pay.” Avoid using the words, “I can’t” or “I mustn’t” or “I shouldn’t”. This won’t come naturally; you have to practice. After all, you are breaking associations with past deprivations.

Now we need to look at the manner in which you say this to yourself. You want to use the same tone of voice in your head as you would use if you found a missing sock under the bed; basically that this is No Big Deal. So definitely not “I’ve found a jacket that looks really fantastic on me! oh. It’s soo good but…” Keep your eyebrows in a rested position, not raised, and not furrowed.  Again, this might be very different to the natural tone of your thoughts. Get a degree of firmnes (but not rigidity) head and jaw; hold your body upright. Speak (whether out loud or in your mind) in a matter-of-fact voice, not too fast or slow. This change in postural and voice tone creates a very different experience because of the bio-feedback between your brain and your body. You will never know how powerful it is until you try it.

On a final note, there is another, even more destructive consequence of Deprivation Sensitivity, where instead of compensating yourself by giving yourself things you want, you go to the opposite extreme, continuing the deprivation-cycle by telling yourself “I don’t deserve this”. At some level this is psychologically satisfying, in that it fits perfectly with a very negative self-view. If this is you, then DON’T WAIT until you think you deserve something, work out if it is something you can afford and is not harmful and then treat yourself with kindness. You may have to do this even in the presence of the thought, I don’t deserve it.

Remember – don’t be hard on yourself, this will only exacerbate any pain you are already feeling, and set you up to need MORE compensation, or to feel MORE undeserving. Over time you will get much better at understanding which losses are in the here and now, and which are to do with prior deprivations. Even if you are able to say to yourself, “My Deprivation Sensitivity is making this out to be more important than it really is,” you have taken a vital step forward.


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