Cyclical Maladaptive Pattern (CMP)


Cyclical Malaptive Pattern (CMP) describes “the cycles or patterns people get into that involve inflexible,…self-defeating expectations, and negative self-appraisals – that lead to dysfunctional  and maladaptive interactions with others”, so writes clinical psychologist Hanna Levenson, PhD, in her book Brief Dynamic Therapy (2010).

Dr. Levenson is perhaps best known for her work in what’s known as Time Limited Dynamic, Psychotherapy, or TLDP.  Often when we hear the term “psychodynamic” we think of Freud, psychoanalysis, and long-term therapy. So, “time-limited dynamic therapy” might sound like an oxymoron. But, TLDP was developed and empirically tested by Hans Strupp, PhD and associates at Vanderbilt University in the 1980s. Reflecting on TLDP, Levenson writes: “The major objective of TLDP as originally conceived was to examine recurrent, maladaptive themes as evident in the client’s interactions with others, (even) with his or her therapist.”

Several assumptions, or themes, permeate the rationale and practice of TLDP. Some of those themes include the following:

1. People are innately motivated to search for and maintain human relatedness. This means, as attachment theory tells us, we are hardwired for human connectedness. In other words, we really do need each other.

2. Maladaptive relationship patterns are acquired early in life, and underlie many presenting complaints. For example, let’s say a man had parents who treated him harshly and in an authoritarian manner. As a boy, the man learned to be overly placating and deferential to avoid his parents’ anger. He did so to stay close to them. His learned expectation? Be compliant or get hurt. While such thinking serves an adaptive purpose in childhood, it easily becomes obsolete and counterproductive if rigidly practiced in adulthood.

3. Relationship patterns persist because they are maintained in current relationships. Acquiescence becomes a problem when assertiveness is needed in adult situations. For example, the man above consistently acts in passive, even subservient ways as an adult. This invites others (spouse, friends, coworkers, strangers) to relate to him in more authoritarian and domineering ways. While emotionally and relationally stressful for the man, it feels strangely familiar.

4. In TLDP, clients are viewed as stuck, not sick. As Levenson observes, “The viewpoint of TLDP is that clients are in a rut for the same reason soldiers dig foxholes in war – for self-protection. The goal of therapy is to help them get out of that hole and put down their rifles – to give themselves the opportunity to see what would happen. Perhaps peace would break out.”


Which brings us back to the concept of “Cyclical Maladaptive Pattern” (CMP). The CMP is composed of four categories or stages:

1. Acts of The Self Toward Others – which includes our thoughts, feelings, motives, perceptions, behaviors – in relationship to other people. For example, a girl is afraid (a feeling) to go to a dance.

2. Expectations of Others’ Reactions – which include how we “imagine” (expect) others will react to us. For example, the girl thinks: “If I go the dance, no one will ask me to dance.” So, she distances herself from the group and sits off in the corner. (NOTICE how this girl’s “expectation” has now become “solicitation”! She’s actually soliciting her expections [self-fulfilling prophecy?] – to not be asked to dance. Attachment theorist and clinical psychologist David Wallin, PhD, observes: “That which we cannot verbalize, we tend to enact with others, (and/or) evoke in others…” (2007) . This is exactly what we’re seeing in the girl at the dance. She’s enacting/evoking (I call it “soliciting”) her expectations. By distancing herself from the others and sitting off in the corner, she actually saying: “Don’t ask me to dance!” Sometimes these actions are conscious, but oftentimes these actions are unconscious; outside our awareness.

3. Acts of Others Toward The Self – which involves our “interpretations” of others’ actions. For example, let’s say that the girl is asked to dance, numerous times. The girl thinks to herself (interprets): “When I got to the dance, guys asked me to dance, but only because they felt sorry for me.” The girl’s interpretation corroborates (strengthens) her expectation/solicitation.

4. Acts of the The Self Toward One’s Self – which involve all the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors we internalize (introject) about ourselves. Basically, it’s how we treat ourselves. So, the girl at the dance concluded that guys felt sorry for her–therefore asking her to dance–because she’s “fat, ugly, and unlovable,” prompting her to pour herself a drink.

To summarize, the CMP consists of four categories or stages:


To quote Hanna Levenson again from a 2007 interview: “I act, think, feel in a certain way and expect other people will treat me in such and such a way. In fact, they treat me in this way, and all of this leaves me feeling ??? about myself, which causes me to act, feel, think; and then what we have is a cyclical maladaptive pattern. It’s cyclical; it feeds on itself. It’s maladaptive because it doesn’t work well for the person, and it’s a pattern because it occurs over time, over place, over people.”

Despite our complaints and protestations to the contrary, CMP tells us we could be getting what we’re asking for.

Bill Bray, Colorado Springs, CO

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