As many of my regular readers know, I suffer from a mental illness. I served 15 years in the military and as a result now suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. This is an anxiety-based disorder and commonly presents as anxiety and depression. I’ve suffered from this illness for about 10 years now and was formally diagnosed about four years ago. In the past four years I have received a variety of different kinds of therapy, from multiple psychologists. Psychotherapy can be a bit hit and miss. This is not a failing of the therapy itself, but in my opinion more to do with different patients responding to different therapies in different ways. I’ve been fortunate enough that last year I was referred to an excellent therapist, and I feel that I am making real progress in overcoming some of the difficulties that I’ve experienced in the past. One of the concepts that she introduced me to was that of schema therapy. This was not something I had been exposed to previously, and it has been somewhat of a revelation in helping me to understand my symptoms and what might be causing them.
Introduction to Schema
The concept of Schema is very broad, while that of Schema therapy is quite specific. What I hope to do over several posts is outline what schema therapy is, and then discuss some of the different schemata (the plural of schema) and how they might affect a person day-to-day. There are a couple of objectives in me writing on this topic. First and foremost is that I find this type of therapy extremely useful and I would like to increase awareness of it amongst other people who might be experiencing difficulties are similar to my own. Secondly, I think it’s really fascinating, and I believe that regardless of your mental state, having an understanding of what’s happening in your mind at a subconscious level is interesting and informative as a standalone topic.
Today’s post will outline what schemas are and what schema therapy entails. In subsequent posts I will discuss individual schema in greater depth. There are a lot of different schema about which I could write. I will start with those that affect me because these are the ones of which I have the best understanding, and also those which I wish to understand better. I will continue to write about them for as long as the feedback is positive from my followers.
What Are Schema?
In psychology and cognitive science, a schema (plural schemata or schemas) describes a pattern of thought or behaviour that organizes categories of information and the relationships among them. It can also be described as a mental structure of preconceived ideas, a framework representing some aspect of the world, or a system of organizing and perceiving new information.
That’s quite a mouthful, but what does it really mean? In its simplest sense a schema is a way for your brain to organise information. I personally find them to be similar to the concept of heuristics. Heuristics are mental shortcuts that your brain makes in order to process the vast quantities of information that it receives each and every day. Schema similarly exist to allow us to make sense of various pieces of information, but they act in a very different way.
Schema vs Heuristic - Whats The Difference?
A heuristic is a mental shortcut that we use to assist us to make a decision when faced with incomplete information.
Heuristics exist because of evolution. Over hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, human brains have developed particular shortcuts which have been found to be evolutionarily beneficial in terms of survival of the species. For example, in caveman times, when faced with a threat such as a sabre-tooth tiger, it would have been evolutionarily efficient for the caveman to run away. A caveman whose natural reaction to seeing a sabre-tooth tiger was to approach the tiger and attempt to give it a pat is one who is unlikely to survive for long and therefore pass their genes on to succeeding generations.
Most modern humans when faced with a tiger will instinctively know not to approach it. They don’t need to know anything else about the tiger such as where it came from, what its name is, or whether it is friendly. Even if they have never seen a tiger before, based on a simple piece of information, there is a tiger, the human brain shortcuts to the decision to run away. This is an example of a heuristic. There is a lot of work done in the field of behavioural economics around studying heuristics to explain some of the most common mistakes that investors make in financial settings. The conditioned response to a threat that may have been appropriate in prehistoric times is unlikely to be the most appropriate response to a threat or risk in a financial setting. This is a topic for another post however.
So That's Heuristics! But What About Schema?
Just like heuristics, schema allow your brain to process information efficiently. They act in a very different way however. A heuristic consists of preferences that help you decide in a situation where you do not have enough information to make an informed decision, whereas a schema is a workflow or storyboard that tells you what to do in a recurring situation. One key to the meaning of schema is in the word itself. Schema is related to schematic. When acting in accordance with a pre-existing schema you follow a course of action in a schematic way – without considering alternatives.
Schema are perfectly normal parts of the functioning of a healthy human mind. You may have a particular schema around eating at a restaurant for example. You know that you arrive at the restaurant, approach a waiter and wait to be seated, sit at your table and read the menu, make an order, receive your meal and then after eating it pay a bill. This is a simple schema. Schema exist to allow the brain to process complex information without much effort.
For example, I know that when I am seated at my table, a waiter will approach me and ask me for my order, therefore I am not surprised when this occurs. The brain creates schemata based on our previous experiences in order to make similar situations easier to navigate in the future. You can think of schemas as conditioned responses. If you have experienced a certain type of situation multiple times in the past, and generally the situation has played out the same, then you will have a schema based on these experiences that leads you to expect future situations to play out in a similar way to what you have experienced previously.
As mentioned above, schema are perfectly normal ways in which the human mind functions as it goes about its job of processing information. Schemas only become problematic when they become maladaptive. Maladaptive means “Not adjusting adequately or appropriately to the environment or situation.” So using our example above, the restaurant schema that we described is a perfectly normal way to respond to what you can reasonably expect to happen when you enter a restaurant. If in the past you had a series of episodes of food poisoning whilst eating in public restaurants, you may develop a maladaptive schema that causes you to avoid going to restaurants for fear of contracting food poisoning. In essence, when it’s maladaptive, the schema that your mind has created begins to interfere with your day-to-day functioning.
What Are Maladaptive Schema?
Schema in general is a very broad term that can apply to a variety of different ways in which the human brain processes information. Maladaptive schemas in the realm of psychotherapy refer to a specific subset of schemas that influence the way a person views of themselves. They can be considered to be:
an extremely stable, enduring negative pattern that develops during childhood or adolescence and is elaborated throughout an individual’s life. We view the world through our schemas. Schemas are important beliefs and feelings about oneself and the environment which the individual accepts without question. They are self-perpetuating, and are very resistant to change.
David Bricker PhD
They can be thought of as the way we view ourselves, based on our experiences very early in our lives. Schemas can develop later in life. For example I have several schema that have developed as a result of my military service. This service has changed the way I view the world in certain situations. Generally however schema are formed on the basis of our childhood experiences. There are 18 commonly accepted maladaptive schemata, which are listed below:
1. ABANDONMENT / INSTABILITY - The perceived instability or unreliability of those available for support and connection.
2. MISTRUST / ABUSE - The expectation that others will hurt, abuse, humiliate, cheat, lie, manipulate, or take advantage.
3. EMOTIONAL DEPRIVATION - Expectation that one's desire for a normal degree of emotional support will not be adequately met by others.
4. DEFECTIVENESS / SHAME - The feeling that one is defective, bad, unwanted, inferior, or invalid in important respects; or that one would be unlovable to significant others if exposed.
5. SOCIAL ISOLATION / ALIENATION - The feeling that one is isolated from the rest of the world, different from other people, and/or not part of any group or community.
6. DEPENDENCE / INCOMPETENCE - Belief that one is unable to handle one's everyday responsibilities in a competent manner, without considerable help from others.
7. VULNERABILITY TO HARM OR ILLNESS - Exaggerated fear that imminent catastrophe will strike at any time and that one will be unable to prevent it.
8. ENMESHMENT / UNDEVELOPED SELF - Excessive emotional involvement and closeness with one or more significant others (often parents), at the expense of full individuation or normal social development.
9. FAILURE TO ACHIEVE - The belief that one has failed, will inevitably fail, or is fundamentally inadequate relative to one's peers.
10. ENTITLEMENT / GRANDIOSITY - The belief that one is superior to other people; entitled to special rights and privileges; or not bound by the rules of reciprocity that guide normal social interaction.
11. INSUFFICIENT SELF-CONTROL / SELF-DISCIPLINE - Pervasive difficulty or refusal to exercise sufficient self-control and frustration tolerance to achieve one's personal goals, or to restrain the excessive expression of one's emotions and impulses.
12. SUBJUGATION - Excessive surrendering of control to others because one feels coerced - - usually to avoid anger, retaliation, or abandonment.
13. SELF-SACRIFICE - Excessive focus on voluntarily meeting the needs of others in daily situations, at the expense of one's own gratification.
14. APPROVAL-SEEKING / RECOGNITION-SEEKING - Excessive emphasis on gaining approval, recognition, or attention from other people, or fitting in, at the expense of developing a secure and true sense of self.
15. NEGATIVITY / PESSIMISM - A pervasive, lifelong focus on the negative aspects of life (pain, death, loss, disappointment, conflict, guilt, resentment, unsolved problems, potential mistakes, betrayal, things that could go wrong, etc.) while minimizing or neglecting the positive or optimistic aspects.
16. EMOTIONAL INHIBITION - The excessive inhibition of spontaneous action, feeling, or communication -- usually to avoid disapproval by others, feelings of shame, or losing control of one's impulses.
17. UNRELENTING STANDARDS / HYPERCRITICALNESS - The underlying belief that one must strive to meet very high internalized standards of behavior and performance, usually to avoid criticism.
18. PUNITIVENESS - The belief that people should be harshly punished for making mistakes.
I will go through some of these schemata in more detail in subsequent articles. What is important to note is that maladaptive schema are self perpetuating. Your view of the world shapes your behaviour in a way that reinforces your existing worldview. To give an idea of how they work let’s consider a few examples.
The abandonment schema is often present in those who experienced the death of a parent at a young age. It can also be present in situations where parents divorced, or where a parent is emotionally unavailable. It causes you to have a view of the world where you feel that people close to you are destined to abandon or leave you. It often manifests itself in relationships where a person with this schema will be overly clingy and needy. It is self-reinforcing in that your view of the world causes you to believe that those close to you are destined to abandon you. This results in you being overly clingy and demanding, which in turn results in those close to you being more likely to leave.
I have a friend that I believe suffers from this schema. Her father was an alcoholic who abandoned the family very early in my friends life. Her adult life is littered with failed relationships. In her own words, “I can feel myself pushing them away, but I cant stop myself.’ This is a classic example of how enduring the story we have woven for our self is, even in the absence of information that confirms our fears. My friend interprets the behaviours of her partner in a way that fits to the narrative (schema) that her mind has recreated, regardless of whether that interpretation is valid in the context of her relationship.
The vulnerability schema is one where you feel like catastrophe is always about to strike. It most notably manifests itself as anxiety. It could be caused by anyone of a number of things, such as having a parent who also suffered from this particular schema and passed it on to you, a parent who is overprotective of you and taught you that the world was more dangerous than is, or it could come from growing up in an environment where a parent did not protect you and you did not feel physically, emotionally or financially secure.
The vulnerability life trap is particularly common in military veterans who, after spending significant periods of time in war zones, where catastrophe can quite literally strike at any time, come to view the world as a fearful and dangerous place.
The concept of schema can be overlaid to a wide variety of situations. They can be used to help understand why certain people exhibit a wide variety of negative behaviours. In my next article I will discuss the different ways in which schema can present themselves, and in subsequent articles I will discuss individual schemata in more detail.
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