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What is Schema Therapy?

Schema Therapy is a type of psychotherapy that can help you overcome emotional and relationship problems. It is designed to tackle difficulties that are complex, long-term, or frequently return after a period of absence. Schema Therapy looks closely at your personal history, current difficulties, and how you typically cope with stressful events. It takes the view that our problems are the result of poor coping strategies. In therapy, you are helped to identify patterns of behavior that are unhelpful, and guided to meet your emotional needs in healthy ways.

Healthier coping mechanisms result in less emotional distress and help eliminate unhealthy behaviors. Schema Therapy can be used to address a wide range of emotional, behavioral, and relationship problems. Many people like Schema Therapy because it allows them to make sense of themselves and their difficulties. The goal of Schema Therapy is to reduce your symptoms and improve your overall quality of life.

What Problems Does Schema Therapy Address?

Schema Therapy is an evidence-based therapy that has shown to effectively treat some of the more complex mental health difficulties people face, including chronic depression, complex trauma, and borderline personality disorder. It is well suited to treat common relationship concerns, such as feelings of insecurity, codependency, conflict, controlling behavior, intimacy problems, and behaviors intended to keep others at a distance. Schema Therapy is also suitable for individuals struggling with isolation, emotional withdrawal, addiction, risky behaviors, perfectionism, and self-criticism, among other issues.

What are Schemas?

A schema is made up of thoughts, memories, and feelings that concern a particular theme, such as trusting others. The content of our schemas begins with our earliest experiences in childhood, and continues to be written throughout our lives based on our experiences. As schemas develop, they begin to influence our perception of events and people, and our usual way of reacting in certain situations. When a child’s emotional needs are not met in a repetitive, neglectful, or traumatic way, they can develop what are called “maladaptive schemas.” These maladaptive schemas are likely to have been useful in the past by shielding us from emotional pain and helping us cope. However, by adulthood, they are usually unhelpful and lead us into emotional or relationship difficulties.

Jeffrey Young, Ph.D., who developed Schema Therapy, identified 18 Maladaptive Schemas, which are described at the bottom of this page. Having any one of these schemas can cause distress and difficulty in life and in relationships. In therapy you become aware of your schemas, your underlying emotional needs, and how to meet those needs in appropriate ways while balancing the needs of others. Engaging in healthier behaviors is likely to improve your psychological well-being and relationships.

How Do Schemas Affect Us

Schemas act a bit like colored sunglasses in that we are usually unaware of their influence on our perception of events. To illustrate, imagine you had the “Defectiveness Schema.” This schema typically develops after an extended period of time feeling criticized or discouraged (perhaps due to poor parenting or rejection by peers). In adulthood, when faced with feedback from friends or colleagues about something of importance, your “Defectiveness Schema” becomes activated. Since schemas guide our perception, you begin to scan for negative comments and pick up on the absence of praise. The schema filters out positive feedback or downplays its importance. Once a critical remark or careless comment is noticed, you feel a tremendous amount of anxiety and try your best to cope. Anyone with this schema may want to bury themselves in shame, avoid sharing their personal flaws, or try to appear perfect.

The way you cope with distress is of great importance in Schema Therapy. Most often, we cope in ways that lead to a strengthening of a schema, by feeling bad about ourselves or avoiding situations that activate a schema. Schema Therapy helps by unearthing and breaking cycles such as these, and helps people develop better coping strategies. This, in turn, weakens the schema.

Schema Modes – Where our Problems Fit in with Schema Therapy

While the majority of people have maladaptive schemas to some extent, it is the degree of distress that occurs when they are activated that is important. When one or several schemas are triggered, we may enter what is called a Schema Mode. Our behavior within this mode is typically what leads us to seek therapy. During a Schema Mode, we enter a limited period of time in which we feel and behave in a way that is distressing or harmful to ourselves or others.

For example, we might enter a vulnerable episode in which we feel incredibly helpless and needy. Or we may become demanding or manipulate of loved ones. Others may enter periods in which they numb themselves from stress by drug or alcohol abuse, unhealthy sexual behavior, or binging on games, TV, or food. Still others may put up a wall of anger to keep friends or partners at a distance. What these episodes have in common is that at some point they come to an end and the person feels normal once again.

Through therapy, we come to understand that our problems are often maintained by attempts to manage our maladaptive schemas. We learn to nurture our vulnerable emotions, set appropriate limits on our behavior, treat others fairly, and eliminate self-criticism. This allows us to bring meaning and value to our lives through work, parenting, committing to obligations, pursuing pleasurable activities, and engaging in healthy, consensual intimate relationships.

An Example of How Schemas Might Affect Couples

Schemas frequently show up in our personal relationships, as illustrated in the following fictitious example. Liam has a Self-Sacrifice Schema, which means he is always trying to put others first and accommodate their needs. His fiancé, Sophia, has an Abandonment schema, which means she is fearful of important relationships coming to an end. Sophia comes home from work and learns that Liam will be leaving for a 2-day business trip next month. Sophia’s Abandonment Schema is activated by this news and leads her to fear for the safety of their relationship. She might cope by behaving in a weepy and clingy fashion, or she may become enraged and angrily insist that Liam cancel the trip.

Liam withdraws from the business trip to accommodate Sophia, but privately feels resentful. What appears on the surface as another argument about work is in fact due to a schema being triggered. When we understand the schemas behind a person’s distress, therapy can proceed to address the underlying needs of a person (in this case, their need for connection) instead of accommodating both schemas by agreeing to give more notice about business trips, which may not be possible or helpful in the long-term.

What Are My Schemas?

Below is a very brief description of each of the 18 maladaptive schemas, followed by brief examples of how someone might cope by either surrendering, avoiding, or overcompensating for the schema. These three coping styles correspond to acting as if the schema is true, avoiding the schema, and acting as if the opposite of the schema is true.

THE 18 MALADAPTIVE SCHEMAS

DISCONNECTION

Abandonment – fears that an important relationship will not last, either because the other person will disappear, leave, or no longer care about them. People might cope by staying with unreliable partners, avoiding intimate relationships, or reacting angrily to separations.

Mistrust – strong expectations that other people will mistreat, humiliate, or exploit them. People might cope by accepting untrustworthy partners, avoiding self-disclosure, or exploiting others who trust them.

Emotional Deprivation – a perception that love and support is not being received. People might cope by discouraging others from giving support, withdrawing from intimate encounters, or by making unrealistic demands that others meet their every emotional need.

Shame/Defectiveness – a feeling of inferiority, shame, and unworthiness, especially of others’ love, respect, and attention. There is intense sensitivity to criticism. People might cope by enduring criticism from partners and friends, avoiding sharing their personal flaws, or by appearing perfect and critical of others’ flaws.

Social Alienation – feeling so different from everyone else that they cannot find a group, event, or a “cause” in which to belong. People may cope by remaining on the outside of groups, spending all their time alone, or putting on a false persona in order to integrate.

IMPAIRED AUTONOMY

Dependency – feeling unable to manage daily decisions and life without the help and advice of others. People may cope by surrounding themselves with helpers, procrastinating, or refusing help from others when it would be beneficial.

Vulnerability to harm – a lingering fear that some kind of disaster (e.g. in finances or health) could occur unexpectedly to oneself, or someone close. People might cope by worrying, inconveniencing themselves and others in efforts to avoid catastrophe, or periodically engaging in reckless and dangerous behavior.

Enmeshment – a difficulty forming a separate identity, opinions, and life from significant others. People may cope by becoming overly involved with others’ affairs, avoiding people who strive for autonomy, or by engaging in excessive autonomy themselves.

Failure – feeling inferior to others, less talented, and likely to fail in some important area of life (career, sport, social life). People may cope by selecting jobs below their ability, avoiding difficult tasks and goals, or by striving for perfectionism.

OTHER-DIRECTED

Subjugation – feeling compelled to surrender control to others in order to avoid some negative reaction. People may cope by complying with dominant people, avoiding situations where people seek different things, or rebelling with passive-aggressive behaviors.

Self-sacrificing – voluntarily attending to the needs of others at the expense of one’s own needs. People might cope by completely ignoring their own needs for years, avoiding relationships, or refusing to do anything for others.

Approval-seeking – feeling compelled to gain the approval, attention, or acceptance of others at the expense of being true to one’s own identity. People might cope by drawing attention to accomplishments, avoiding people they admire, or purposely eliciting disapproval from people they admire.

IMPAIRED LIMITS

Entitlement – feeling deserving of special privileges and entitled to opinions, behavior, and possessions, regardless of the impact on others. People may cope by behaving selfishly, avoiding situations in which they will not excel, or by compensating with extravagant generosity.

Insufficient self-controlfeeling unable to exercise self-control, to delay gratification, or resist impulses. People may cope by excessive eating, spending, drug-use, dropping out of school/work, or engaging in intense short-term projects.

HYPERVIGILANCE/INHIBITION

Negativity/Pessimism – feeling drawn to the negative and pessimistic aspects of life, such as loss, betrayal, mistakes, and guilt. People may cope by expecting and exaggerating negative events, developing low expectations, or by behaving in an overly optimistic manner.

Emotional Inhibition – feeling uncomfortable with spontaneous displays of affection, action, feelings, or communication. People may cope by being excessively rational, avoiding events that involve self-expression, or by behaving overly disinhibited (often with alcohol).

Unrelenting Standards – feeling under pressure to achieve and meet lofty goals at the expense of engaging in simple pleasures that do not further ambitions. People might cope by setting very high standards for themselves and others, procrastinating, or by producing work far below expectations.

Punitiveness – feeling little mercy, that all mistakes should be met with punishment. People may cope by behaving in a punitive and harsh manner, avoiding situations in which mistakes could occur, or by faking forgiveness while being inwardly angry.

If you are interested in learning more about schema therapy or learning more about your own schemas, please get in touch. All clients are given an opportunity to take the schema questionnaire, as well as other clinical assessments relevant to their needs.

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