Based on our earliest experiences with our caregivers, we form fixed beliefs and expectations about how lovable and deserving we are, how safe or dangerous the world is, and how we expect to be treated. Psychologist Jeffrey Young and his colleagues call these rules of living and views of the world “SCHEMAS.” While not all schemas are harmful, those that are overly rigid, self-critical, fear-based, hostile, or negative can interfere with our lives and relationships. When these negative schemas are triggered, we lose touch with the present moment. Instead we react automatically according to these rules for living which are often fear-based, mistrustful, critical, and extreme. For example, when triggered, you may yell at your partner or kids, get irrationally jealous, or feel too intimidated to defend yourself when criticized.
Schemas play a huge role in relationships. Without full awareness, we are often drawn to partners where there is a “schema chemistry.” For example, if you feel unworthy of love, you may choose a person who has a schema based on mistrust and is unable to commit. You then interpret their lack of commitment as proof of your unlovability. Therefore, the negative schema beliefs become self-fulfilling prophecies because they prompt us to behave in ways that make the schema true or to choose people whose behave towards us in ways that match the negative schema.
What Are Some Common Schemas?
Some common schemas are:
- EMOTIONAL DEPRIVATION – You don’t believe that other people are capable of or motivated to respond to your emotional needs. You automatically take care of others or are drawn to partners who are unable to give (like narcissists) while building up resentment and loneliness over time.
- SELF-SACRIFICE – You feel overly responsible for the wellbeing of others. You put your own needs aside in order to care for others and in so doing, don’t give them the opportunity to experience consequences of their actions and change.
- VULNERABILITY TO HARM – You are not able to trust your successes, relationships, financial security, safety, or abilities, believing they can be taken from you at any moment and you won’t be able to cope.
- ENTITLEMENT – You believe you deserve special treatment or that you have to fulfill every need and desires. You believe the rules don’t apply to you. You experience “wants”as “needs” and can get needy and demanding.
- DEFECTIVENESS – You feel there is something wrong with you, that you are unlovable, incompetent, or “bad.” You don’t trust your own judgment and don’t feel you deserve good treatment. You are drawn to people or situations in which you are treated badly.
- ABANDONMENT – You fear that partners or friends will leave you. You may inhibit yourself and avoid showing your true feelings for fear it will cause others to reject you. You don’t feel that loved ones can tolerate knowing how you really feel or who you really are. Alternatively, you may get jealous and controlling, which drives others away.
Schemas limit our lives and relationships in the following ways:
- We behave in ways that maintain them.
- We interpret our experiences in ways that make them seem true, even if they really aren’t.
- In efforts to avoid pain, we restrict our lives so we never get to test them out
- We sometimes overcompensate and act in just as rigid, oppositional ways that interfere with our relationships.
How Schema Therapy Helps and What You Can Do
- Schema Therapy can help you to figure out what your underlying schemas are and what the experiences were that created and maintained them.
- Schema Therapy helps you change the schemas by understanding and validating your core needs that weren’t met in childhood or previous relationships.
- You learn to identify the experiences that trigger you and cope in healthier ways. You understand the the types of situations that trigger your schemas. Some people may be fine at work but struggle in intimate relationships and so on.
- You learn to connect with your “Healthy Adult” part that can stay in touch with your current strengths, skills, and inner resources and remind you of these when you get triggered.
- You learn to rewire your brain by focusing your attention away from distorted beliefs, self-doubt, and negative self-evaluations and onto underlying feelings and needs, self-compassion and behavior change.
- Schema Therapy helps you stay present so you can focus on making healthy choices, setting boundaries, facing fears, or speaking up for what you want.
- You learn to connect with and nurture your inner child and validate your own needs for intimacy, comfort, and authenticity.
- Schema Therapy can help couples untangle the negative cycles and reactivity resulting from schemas and return to “”Healthy Adult” mode during conversations. In this mode, you can be more compassionate and understanding of both self and partner.
- Schema Therapy can help you choose better partners and friends that are more capable of fulfilling your needs. It also helps you have more realistic expectations of some people’s limitations.
Even without the full therapy, these self-help tips can help you tune in to your schemas, work to connect with and Strengthen your “Healthy Adult” and begin being a better self-advocate today.