Today, we’re going to discuss early maladaptive schemas. There are so many of them that this will be a 2-part episode, so listen through to the end and make sure you’re ready for next week!
Have you ever heard of a schema before? A schema is a stable and enduring negative pattern that develops during childhood or adolescence. It persists and expands throughout our lives.
We view the world through the lens of our schemas. Schemas are closely held beliefs and feelings about yourself, others, and the world. Typically, you accept these beliefs without question and many people are not aware that they have them. They are self-perpetuating and are very resistant to change, but with appropriate treatment, you can change them!
For instance, children who develop a schema that they aren’t good enough rarely challenge this belief, even as adults. They can be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company and still go home feeling as though they’re inadequate. Schemas, like emotions, are self-serving. They attempt to mold your experiences and encourage you to engage in actions that keep them around.
Usually, schemas operate in subtle ways, outside of our awareness. However, when a schema is triggered by stimuli in our environment, our thoughts and feelings are dominated by schema-related content. In these moments we may experience maladaptive thinking, extreme and/or intense emotions, and have urges to act in ways that might not be in the interest of our psychological well-being.
Schemas are formed when our needs are not met during childhood. The schema often prevents these needs from being satisfied in adulthood. Relationships are a good example of how these schemas can persist. If we don’t have secure attachments in our caregiving relationships, often we will find that these patterns are replicated in our adult relationships with others. We may not even realize that we have replicated the same coldness in our romantic relationship that was present in our parental ones.
Schema therapy was first introduced in 1990 and defines 18 schemas. Over these next 2 episodes, I’m going to explain what they are and how they work. Make note of the schemas that appear familiar, either for you or for someone you know. Awareness is a skill!
1. Emotional Deprivation
This schema refers to the belief that your primary emotional needs will never be met by others. These needs can typically be described in three categories: nurturance, empathy, and protection. Nurturance relates to needs for closeness, affection, or love. Empathy is our need to feel understood and our need for direction, guidance, or advice is protection.
This schema can arise due to having parents who are more distant and don’t adequately attend to the emotional needs of their child. Parents can be well-meaning but have a child who has a more sensitive temperament and the parents aren’t equipped with the skills necessary to support them.
If you have fears of abandonment, this is one of your predominant schemas. Typically, people with this schema believe that they will soon lose anyone with whom an emotional attachment is formed. There are many ways this schema could develop in childhood. Did you have a disruption in your home life that was particularly damaging for you (e.g. the death of a parent)? Did you have parents that were inconsistent in attending to your needs? Were you left alone for extended periods of time?
This schema refers to the expectation that others will intentionally take advantage of you in some way. People with this schema expect others to hurt, cheat, demean, or abuse them in some way. They may often think in terms of attacking first or getting revenge afterwards.
4. Social Isolation/Alienation
Do you experience life as the black sheep? This schema refers to the belief that one is isolated from the world, different from other people, and/or not part of any community. This belief is usually caused by early experiences in which children see that either they, or their families, are different from other people.
Are you afraid that if someone got too emotionally close to you, they’d find out how awful you really are? This schema refers to the belief that you are deeply flawed, and that, if others get close, they will realize this and go running for the hills. This feeling of being flawed and inadequate often leads to a strong sense of shame. Oftentimes, children who develop this schema grew up in homes in which one or both parents were very critical and perhaps made them feel as though they were unworthy of love.
I think many of us have a fear of failure to some degree, but perhaps in your case, it’s more debilitating. This schema refers to the belief that you are incapable of excelling or performing as well as your peers in your personal life, career, school, or sports. Did you grow up in a family where anything less than an A was a failure? Were you put down if you didn’t get a medal at the swim meet? If you persistently had experiences like this as a child, you may have developed this schema.
This schema refers to the belief that you’re not capable of handling daily responsibilities competently and independently. People with this schema often rely on others for help excessively in areas such as decision making and initiating new tasks. Generally, parents did not encourage these children to act independently and develop confidence in their ability to take care of themselves.
8. Vulnerability to Harm and Illness
Do you always feel like your own personal doomsday clock is ticking away? This schema refers to the belief that the next major catastrophe is right around the corner, whether it be medical, financial, environmental, etc. Having this schema may lead to taking excessive precautions to protect oneself. In many cases, we may have grown up with an extremely fearful parent who communicated to us that the world is a dangerous place.
You might be saying, “but Dr. Johnson, look at the world!” Listen to me: I’m not your mama, but I am your friendly neighborhood psychologist. It is true that the world has bad things happening in it. But just because someone was robbed 34 miles from your apartment yesterday doesn’t mean you can’t walk to the grocery store at 8 P.M. to get a loaf of bread.
9. Enmeshment/Undeveloped Self
Are you too involved with your family or romantic partners? People who struggle with enmeshment often have little-to-no boundaries and are too emotionally involved in their relationships. It may also include the sense of internal emptiness, lacking your own sense of self, or no inner direction or compass. This schema is often brought on by parents who are controlling, abusive, or overprotective to the point that the child is discouraged from developing a separate sense of self.
Keep in mind with all of these schemas that while you may have grown up in a pretty average family, because of your unique needs, your family may not have been able to adequately support you.
Now that you have an awareness of these 9 schemas, pay attention this week for any that may be operating in your life. When we return next week, we will review the other 9!
In the meantime, let me know what schemas rang true for you. While I can’t respond to every comment or email, I do respond to as many as I can each week! So, let me know in the comments on Instagram @kindmindpsych, via my email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave a voicemail at (929) 256-2191.
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.