Understanding Yourself. Schema Theory Explained...(Kind of).
I find that there is a massive gap between psychologists’ knowledge of theories and the understanding of those theories by clients. One of the things that I find most helpful in my therapy, is to share and psycho-educate clients on potential theories that may help with their individual cases.
Lately, Schema Theory has come up quite often, and as such, I wanted to share some key points of the theory, and generate an understanding of it without the negative connotations of “looking into our past”. People automatically shy away from the idea of delving into our younger selves and searching for meaning and deeper understanding of our current selves through perhaps addressing longstanding psychological difficulties from the past. I find it quite difficult to share theories with clients online, as searching for them in most cases comes up with the most extreme cases and descriptions of the theories, creating stigma and fear of diagnosis which may be far from the natural truth.
If you search “schema theory” or “schema therapy”, one of the first things that becomes apparent, is that it is a type of theory or therapy associated with individuals with “personality disorders”. BUT, what I am saying is that not all things therapy have to be pushed to an extreme which, in most cases, actually scares clients away, and can scare individuals away from potentially seeking out help. Because schema theory is so broad and integrative that, reading about it, we can ALL find connections to the maladaptive coping modes it outlines and the self-defeating or even self-destructive behaviours we may all have. And then to scare us away with the unhelpful belief that this clearly means diagnosis for most of us. This is simply not true.
So – back to the theory (applicable to almost all of us, but can you relate?). Schema theory has four main concepts, our core emotional needs, early maladaptive schemas, schema modes and maladaptive coping styles.
Let’s start with the basic needs of children. When these needs are not met in childhood, schemas develop that lead to unhealthy life patterns, behaviours and emotional responses. Research outlines our core needs as:
1. Need for safety and stability. The need may be unmet if children are born into unsafe situations or environments
2. The need for a secure, loving and reliable bond with one or more caregivers. Needing a warm, loving person who enjoys giving care to you.
3. The need to be supported over the course of growing up, in moving from helplessness and dependence to a sense of competence and autonomy. If need one is not met and a child feels unsafe in the world, this need may also not be met. If caregivers fail with need 2, children will not have consistent loving support when venturing out into the world and trying to understand how it works. Overprotective caregivers allow for a space where children become too attached and struggle with dependence and helplessness.
4. The need to find appropriate expression for emotions and needs. Having the right kind of loving support allows children to learn to identify and express their feelings and needs in appropriate ways.
5. The need to learn how to flexibly manage and control one’s emotional and behavioural reactions. This need may not be met if needs 1,2 and 3 are not met.
6. The need to express oneself spontaneously, playfully and creatively. Playfulness and spontaneity are normal features of human behaviour and development and is an important aspect that all of us need in our adult worlds.
Early maladaptive schemas are self-defeating, core themes or patterns that we keep repeating throughout our lives. Experts have come up with 18 early schemas that represent specific emotional needs that were not adequately met in childhood or adolescence (I won’t bore you with naming all 18 here , but they are helpful and completely common if you want to go look them up and check which ones you may feel a kinship with. There is also a test, if necessary).
What is important to understand about schemas, is that we all have them. Whether or not they get triggered is a different story. They are not active all the time, and it takes a complex set of processes or triggers in our day to day lives to “activate” these. To normalise this and make you feel better about the fact that we are all just a little bit broken, it is an automatic response and outside of our conscious control in most cases, and so we have very little awareness of how they affect us.
The main classes of schema modes are:
· Our healthy modes:
1. Healthy Adult: Being aware of feelings and their meaning, taking responsibility for choices and actions.
2. Happy or Contented child: a child whose needs were met. Being able to feel safe, connected to others and able to experience curiosity about the world.
· Unhealthy child modes:
1. Vulnerable child
2. Angry child
3. Impulsive child
These schemas may be triggered to create a result where we are puzzled by our own automatic responses, we don’t understand our reactions to things. We are confused by our moods, our feelings, our behaviours and sometimes repeated behaviours and yet, never really looking under the surface. This may be because we trigger our psychological fight, flight or freeze responses in an attempt to protect ourselves.
1. The Fight Response:
Schema overcompensation is a strategy that individuals may adopt to such an extent that they completely try to contradict the initial triggered schema. Let’s say, for example, that you are a person who as a child felt flawed and worthless, you may then later on, become achievement orientated and a perfectionist.
2. The Flight Response:
Schema avoidance, because schemas are associated with painful states, individuals actively avoid situations that may trigger them. Flight responses can take three main forms; behavioural (actively avoiding certain places, situations or people), cognitive (actively avoiding thinking about things), and emotional (shutting down emotionally when a schema has been triggered, to avoid feeling the associated pain). For example, let’s say that you are a person who has an abandonment schema, you may then later on, avoid getting close to anyone at all due to the intense pain that any separation or break up in the relationship might cause you. People with a failure schema may avoid striving to achieve at all, ensuring that they never fail.
3. The Freeze Response:
Schema Surrender - as is implied, we surrender to our painful schema, we take it on as a part of our identity and in turn don’t do anything to actively try and make the situation better. For example, an individual who has an emotional abandonment schema may always feel rejected, that the world is harsh and unforgiving, and will always question why everyone always leaves them. Schema surrender is a self-perpetuating maladaptive mode, as the individual may never see through their cognitive distortion to cases where people have NOT abandoned them and do not notice the love or caring behaviour directed to them.
So, at this point in time, if you are completely and utterly confused, here is my very simple, visual way of explaining the theory (Doodle below).
We have multiple triggers in our daily life, which ultimately trigger our early maladaptive schema modes. These schema modes are unhelpful and cause us to react with maladaptive coping modes. And to overcome these, we need to gain an awareness of our triggers, insight into out early schema modes and to catch ourselves in unhelpful behaviours. During therapy, building on the healthy adult state becomes the focus. Techniques to try and overcome these maladaptive modes may include:
1. Building self-awareness and cultivating mindfulness
2. Building an understanding of how schema modes work theoretically and then individually
3. Addressing cognitive distortions (or as my clients know, I call them mind traps), which identify beliefs, assumptions, and everyday thoughts that are inaccurate.
4. Behavioural pattern-breaking. Experimenting with new ways of behaving to replace the self-defeating behaviours.
5. Cultivating self-enhancing activities and behaviours.
6. Learning to use feelings as a guide to behaviour.