What are Schema’s?
We have found that people differ in what gets them depressed, anxious, or angry. We refer to these differences as schemas. Schemas are the habitual ways in which you see things. For example, depression is characterized by schemas about loss, deprivation, and failure; anxiety is characterized by schemas about threat or fear of failure; and anger is characterized by schemas about insult, humiliation, or violation of rules. Research on personality indicates that people differ in the themes that underlie their depression, anxiety or anger.
Each of us looks at our experiences in terms of certain habitual patterns of thinking. One person might focus a lot on issues of achievement, another on issues around rejection, and someone else on fears of being abandoned. Let’s say that your schema – your personal issue or vulnerability – is related to achievement. Things can be going well for you, but then you have a setback that activates your schema about achievement – your issue about needing to be very successful so that you will not see yourself as a failure. The setback might lead to the schema about being a failure (or being ‘not good enough’ which is equated with ‘failure’), and then you get anxious or depressed.
Or let’s say that your schema is related to issues about abandonment. You might be very vulnerable to any signs of being rejected and left alone. As long as a relationship is going well, you are not worried. But because of this schema, you might worry about being left or being rejected. If the relationship breaks up, it leads you to feel depressed because you can’t stand being alone.
How we Compensate For Our Schemas
If you have a schema about a specific issue, you might try to compensate for this vulnerability. for example if you have a schema about failure or that being average is bad, you might work excessively hard – you are trying to compensate for your perception that you might turn out to be inferior or not live up to the standards of perfection. you might compensate by checking your work over and over again. As a consequence, people might see you as too absorbed in your work. you might have a hard time relaxing, because you are worried that you are not working enough, that something is left undone, or that your are losing your motivation.
If your schema is about being abandoned, you might compensate for it by giving in to your partner all the time. You might be afraid of asserting yourself, because you fear being abandoned. Or you might constantly seek reassurance from your partner so that you can feel secure, but the reassurance doesn’t work for very long. You keep seeing signs of your partner pulling away. Another way that you might compensate for your schema about abandonment is to form relationships with people who do not meet your needs but with whom you are willing to connect because you don’t want to be alone. Or you stay in relationships far beyond a point that seems reasonable to you, because you think you can’t stand being on your own.
As you can see, trying to compensate for your underlying schemas can create problems of its own. The ‘compensation’ may lead you to sacrifice your needs, work compulsively, pursue no-win relationships, worry, demand reassurance, and other behaviours that are problematic for you. And the most important thing about these compensations is that you NEVER really change your schema. Its still there – ready to be activated by certain events it’s your continual vulnerability.
How We Avoid Facing Our Schemas
Another process that creates problems is ‘schema avoidance’ which means that you try to avoid facing any issues that tap into your schema. Let’s say that you have a schema about being a failure; your view is that deep down inside, you might really be incompetent. One way you might avoid testing out this schema is to never take on challenging tasks or to quit early on tasks. Or let’s say you have a schema about being unlovable or unattractive. How do you avoid facing that schema? You might avoid socializing with people you think wont accept your. You might avoid dating. You might avoid calling friends because you already assume that people think that you have nothing to offer. Or let’s say that you are afraid of being abandoned. You could avoid this schema by not allowing yourself to get close to anyone, or you could break off with the person early in the relationship so that you don’t get rejected later.
Another way that people avoid their schemas – whatever those schemas are – is by emotional escape through substance use or extreme behaviours such as drinking too much, using drugs to dull your feelings, binge eating, or even acting out sexually. You may feel that dealing with your thoughts and feelings is so painful that you have to avoid or escape them by these addictive behaviours. These behaviours ‘hide’ your underlying fears from you, at least while you are bingeing or drinking or using drugs. Of course, the bad feelings come back again, because you are not really examining and challenging your underlying schemas. And, ironically, these addictive behaviours feed into your negative schemas, making you feel even worse about yourself.
Where Do Schemas Come From?
We learn these negative schemas from our parents, siblings, peers, and partners. Parents might contribute to these negative schemas by making you feel that you are not good enough unless you are superior to everyone, telling you that you are too fat or not attractive, comparing you to other children who are doing ‘better’, telling you that your are selfish because you have needs, or intruding on you and ordering you around, or threatening to kill themselves or abandon you. There are many different ways that parents teach children these negative schemas about themselves and others. For example think about the following actual experiences that some people recalled about how their parents ‘taught’ them their negative schemas:
- “you could do better – why didn’t you get that B?”: Schema about the need to be perfect or avoid inferiority
- “your thighs are too fat and your nose is ugly”: Schema about fatness and ugliness
- “your cousin went to Harvard – why cant you be more like him?”: Schema about interiority and incompetence
- “Why are you always complaining? Cant you see that I have problems taking care of you kids?”: Schema about the selfishness of needs
- “maybe I should just leave and let you kids take care of yourself?”: Schema about burden and abandonment
Another source of schemas, as we indicated, might be people other than your parents. Perhaps your brother or sister mistreated you, leading you to form schemas of being abused, unlovable, rejected or controlled. Or perhaps your partner has told you that you are not good enough, leading to schemas of being unattractive, unworthy and unlovable. We even internalize schemas from popular culture, such as images of being thin and beautiful, having a perfect body, “what real men should be like”, perfect sex, lots of money, and enormous success. These unrealistic images reinforce schemas about perfection, superiority, inadequacy and defectiveness.
How Will Therapy Be Helpful?
Cognitive therapy can help you in a number of important ways:
- Learn what your specific schemas are
- Learn how you are compensating and avoiding your schemas
- Learn how your schemas are maintained or reinforced by the choices you’ve made or the experience you’ve had
- Examine how your schemas were learned
- Challenge and modify these negative schemas
- Develop new more adaptive and more positive schemas