What is Schema Therapy — and how can it set you free from negative patterns?

22nd March 2022
 minute read

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Ever feel there are patterns in your life that you just can’t break? Schema therapy can help you to make sense of them — and finally start to make changes…

Why does this keep happening?

You’re ending a relationship at the six-month mark yet again, because that’s always when you start feeling suffocated…

You’re upset and reaching for a bottle of wine yet again, even though you’ve learned that drinking away your feelings doesn’t help…

You’ve fallen out with yet another friend, because you just seem to get hurt by people so easily…

Sometimes it feels as if there are patterns in life that we just can’t break, or sets of circumstances that keep showing up time and again, like an unwelcome guest.

Whatever that pattern is for you, it might feel like you are doomed to living your life on repeat, dealing with the same issues continuously. You know that this is causing you pain and even holding you back from your dreams, yet you feel powerless to stop it.

What is going on, exactly? Why are some life patterns so powerful that it feels as if they have a permanent hold over us? Is it just bad luck or circumstance, or is something much deeper going on?

The fact is that most of us have a few ongoing issues in our lives that any good, qualified therapist could help to explore. But there is one type of therapy in particular that has put negative patterns — and how to break them — at the very centre of its approach.

What is Schema Therapy? 

Schema Therapy draws from a variety of approaches, including Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), Psychodynamic Therapy and Attachment Theory. At its core, it aims to combine exploring your past with examining your thoughts and reactions to events in the present.

In the words of Dr Jeffrey Young, founder of Schema Therapy and author of Reinventing Your Life: ‘We grow up accustomed to certain roles and certain ways of being perceived. If we grow up in a family in which we are abused, neglected, yelled at, constantly criticised, or dominated, then that is the environment that feels most comfortable to us. Unhealthy as it may be, most people seek and create environments that feel familiar and similar to the ones where they grew up.’

Put simply, Schema Therapy can help you to make sense of unhelpful cycles in your life and the ways that you might unconsciously be recreating the conditions of your younger years. A schema therapist can help you to explore any ongoing patterns that are causing problems, then try to work out what unfulfilled needs in childhood might have caused them.

What are core emotional needs?

Childhood wounds aren’t just caused by painful events that happened but can also be developed through not having our core emotional needs met — the absence of experiences that should have happened.  

In essence, children have a set of core emotional needs that, when adequately met, help them to develop into healthy, stable and self-confident adults. These include:

  • Having secure, safe and nurturing attachments.
  • Having autonomy and a chance to develop a sense of our own identity.
  • Having the chance to be spontaneous and express ourselves in play.
  • Having the freedom to express our needs and emotions.
  • Having realistic limits being set for us and the chance to learn self-control as a result.

However, sometimes one or more of these needs aren’t met for a whole host of reasons. These could include the death of a parent, divorce, poverty, abuse or having a caregiver with a mental health issue, physical illness or addiction. For more on the impact of stress in childhood, take a look at our post on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)


What are negative schemas and how can we identify them?

When hurtful, confusing or painful things happen to us in childhood, we internalise messages about ourselves, others and the world more generally, creating a story around the experience to make sense of it. This helps us to make sense of complex or cold behaviour from caregivers. Or why certain needs weren’t met — even if parents were doing their best under challenging conditions.

It can give a shape and meaning to hurts, rejections or traumatic events, creating a narrative out of chaos and confusion (albeit an inaccurate one). These stories, together with how we feel and act, form patterns or ‘schemas’ that become part of us. We can think of a schema as an entire perceptual filter — sort of like a pair of tinted sunglasses — that affects how we experience everything from career choices to relationships to how we manage money. 

Schemas will often deepen and become more entrenched throughout our lives, as we might unconsciously create patterns that reinforce these deep-seated negative beliefs about ourselves or the world, even if the reality of our life is very different now. And while some people are well aware that these ideas are rattling around in their head as a critical voice, others might protect themselves from them by burying them out of awareness or finding ways of deflecting from them. Either way, these stories or schemas will still have a huge impact on how a person sees themselves and relates to others, as well as the choices that they make and what they expect from life in general.

One way to get to know your schemas is noticing when your reaction is bigger than you would expect given the circumstances — you’re not just reacting to what’s happening in the here and now, one of your schemas has been triggered. In other words, you’re re-experiencing the familiar emotions (and perhaps bodily sensations and accompanying thoughts) that go with the experiences that led to the schema developing originally.

For instance, if you grew up in a family where you were frequently humiliated or criticised, compared unfavourably to others, or your parents had lots of other pressures that took away their attention, you may have developed a ‘defectiveness schema’. This schema often involves feelings of shame, a sense of being worthless, unacceptable or unloveable, and often a chronically low mood and/or sense of unhappiness. Even though you may no longer be living with your family, you may find that your defectiveness schema gets triggered when you get feedback at work, you don’t hear back from a friend or a relationship doesn’t work out — making something that ordinarily might sting slightly feel deeply wounding.

While not all schemas are damaging or self-defeating, many can be and these tend to be the ones that schema therapists focus on. Schema Therapy lists 18 main schemas that commonly show up when people are experiencing long-standing emotional and/or relational difficulties.

What are maladaptive coping strategies?

Living with these schemas is so painful that we might also develop a set of coping strategies to deal with them — as well as deal with the actual unmet needs that led to them. And while these coping strategies might be necessary in childhood, they can often be unhelpful — and even destructive — when carried into adulthood.

Examples of unhelpful coping strategies can include people pleasing, perfectionism and status seeking. Yet sadly, these behaviours can often make it difficult to form close and meaningful bonds with others, which in turn can lead to painful patterns like being attracted to emotionally unavailable people. This can then become a vicious cycle, where the unavailability of a person’s partner reinforces their self-belief of not being worthy. In fact, being attracted to people who reinforce unhelpful beliefs is known as ‘schema chemistry’.

Sometimes our coping strategies might be so effective that we can be totally unaware of these areas where needs weren’t met, describing our childhood as ‘normal’ and ‘happy’ when it might have been much more complicated. At other times we might be well aware of the issues in our younger years but less aware of how they might still be impacting us in the present.

For instance, someone who was frequently called ‘useless’ by their parents might think that they have overcome this by becoming a high-achiever in their career. However, their ‘failure’ schema still lies there dormant, buried by alcohol and easily activated, for example by missing out on a deal or a promotion.

Schema therapists believe that coping strategies actually fall into three categories, all with their own particular purpose. So, for instance, if you had a parent who died or left the family home when you were a child, you might have developed an ‘abandonment schema’ that you will never get the love and connection that you need. And as a result, you could also develop one of the three following types of coping strategy to manage this:

i) ‘Surrendering’ coping strategies

This just means falling into patterns of behaviour that ‘agree’ with our schemas. So for instance, if you felt abandoned by a parent then you might unconsciously choose partners who are unable or unwilling to commit. Entering into this kind of relationship dynamic brings you into 'agreement' with your schema that you will be abandoned.

ii) ‘Avoidant’ coping strategies

This means escaping from being reminded of your schemas, because they bring you too much pain. This could include not getting into relationships by staying away from people or having only casual contact, so you don't have to experience the pain of abandonment. 

iii) ‘Over-compensating’ or coping strategies

This involves doing the opposite of our schema to unconsciously try to ‘prove it wrong’ or go on the counterattack. For instance, by choosing partners who are not equal to you or who are in some way dependent on you. This means that you will have a sense of ‘control’ in the relationship and also reduce the risk of your partner abandoning you. 

As we have seen, a great many life patterns that are hard to break — and might not even seem to make much sense — can actually be coping strategies that we have developed to cope with dysfunctional schemas. 

But the question is, how can a therapist help with this in a practical way?


What happens in Schema Therapy? 

Schema Therapy can include traditional talk therapy, written exercises, roleplay and imagery. Together, you and your therapist will explore what needs went unmet in childhood, the schemas that you developed as a result and the coping mechanisms you are using to manage all of this. The main goal is for you to find new and more effective ways to get your emotional needs met, through the following:

i) Creating close relationships with others (which often starts with your therapist and then broadens out into other relationships).

ii) Developing healthy coping strategies such as self-soothing, emotional regulation and self-expression.

In Schema Therapy, you will work with a therapist to uncover which of these core needs weren’t met in our early years and explore how these unmet needs have shaped your ‘schemas’ — in other words, your beliefs about yourself, other people and the world. They will also help you understand the ways in which you learned to cope with not having these needs met and the impact these coping strategies may be having on your life now. 

Your therapist will work to challenge inaccurate ideas that you have developed about yourself based on your past, for instance, ‘No one will ever love me for who I truly am’, helping you to replace these with newer, healthier beliefs. They will also help you to develop more helpful coping strategies that you can use when you are feeling sad, angry, anxious, alone or triggered.

A large component is using what’s happening in the therapy room between you and the therapist as an opportunity to shed light and work on these patterns. The therapist will take a parental stance and try to provide an experience where emotional needs are met. Depending on what unmet needs are being worked on, the therapist may use ‘empathic confrontation’ to highlight the unhelpful consequences of something you’re doing. They might also use limit setting to help you change a behaviour that is harming you or your relationships. Whilst it can be challenging at times, this is balanced by empathy, guidance and support — helping you to get your emotional needs met is always the guiding principle.

A schema therapist will work with you to bring the beliefs that hide beneath destructive patterns to the surface, so that you can finally break free of both. In this way, you can develop a better self-image, enjoy more fulfilling relationships and start making decisions that genuinely benefit you.

What can Schema Therapy help with?

A schema therapist can help you to get to the bottom of a wide range of issues, including relationship problems, depression, anxiety, trauma, C-PTSD, eating issues and addictions. This approach is also thought to be helpful for people who have received  the diagnostic label of Borderline Personality Disorder or Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

Generally, if you are dealing with long term, painful life patterns that feel difficult to break, then Schema Therapy can help you to make sense of these. And by identifying the childhood roots of these patterns, you can start replacing them with a healthier, more self-nurturing way of being.

Interested in trying out the benefits of Schema Therapy or therapy in general? Book an in-person, video or live chat appointment with an MTA psychotherapist or psychologist today.

 What is Schema Therapy — and how can it set you free from negative patterns?
Clinical Director
Lumo Health team
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