How Schema Therapy Can Help You Undo Harmful Patterns

06 April, 2021
Did you know that famous American psychologist Jeffrey Young came up with schema therapy? This successful therapy is an integrative approach that treats personality disorders. Read on to learn more.

Schema therapy is a newer type of therapy that famous American psychologist Jeffrey Young created. Young’s effective therapy combines elements of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), psychoanalysis, attachment theory, and emotion-focused therapy, among others. Likewise, it’s an integrative approach that aims to treat personality disorders.

Besides, it also treats other mental health concerns that don’t always respond to other treatment options. It can be particularly useful for treating borderline personality disorder. In schema therapy, you’ll work with a therapist to uncover and understand your schemas, sometimes called early maladaptive schemas.

Schemas are unhelpful patterns that some people develop if their emotional needs aren’t met as a child. Most importantly, the biggest factor in the development of schemas is not having your core emotional needs met as a child. These core needs include:

  • A sense of self-identity and autonomy.
  • The ability to play and be spontaneous.
  • Safe, age-appropriate limits and boundaries.

In addition, many types of negative experiences can also contribute to the development of schemas, including traumatization. For example, unfulfilled needs, victimization, overindulgence, internalization, lack of limits, and selective identification, among others. 

These schemas can affect you throughout life and contribute to problematic coping methods and behaviors if they aren’t addressed. Schema therapy aims to teach you how to ensure your emotional needs are met in a healthy way, without causing distress.

So, what are the goals of this innovative therapy? In this therapy, you’ll work with your therapist to identify and address both healing schemas and coping styles. Likewise, the schema therapist will help you change patterns of feelings and behaviors that result from schemas.

Ultimately, schema therapy will help you develop a strong, healthy adult mode. After all, a well-developed healthy adult mode can help heal and regulate other modes. Lastly, it helps keep you from being overwhelmed by their effects.

Different schemas

Schemas tend to develop in childhood and are usually resistant to change. But if we don’t manage schemas, they can cause negative patterns. Most importantly, we reinforce these negative patterns through unhealthy interactions.

Once you develop a schema, it can unconsciously influence your thoughts and actions in an effort to prevent emotional distress. While this sounds like it could be useful, the coping methods that schemas create are often unhealthy or harmful.

Most people tend to develop more than one schema in their lifetime. According to research, schema therapy experts identified 18 distinct schemas. But they all fall into one of five categories or domains:

  • Domain I, disconnection and rejection. It includes schemas that make it difficult to develop healthy relationships.
  • Domain II, impaired autonomy and performance. It includes schemas that make it difficult to develop a strong sense of self and function in the world as an adult.
  • Domain III, impaired limits. It includes schemas that affect self-control and the ability to respect boundaries and limits.
  • Domain IV, other-directedness. It features schemas that lead you to prioritize the needs of others above your own.
  • Domain V, over vigilance and inhibition. It features schemas that prioritize avoiding failure or mistakes through alertness, rules, and disregarding desires or emotions.

Coping styles schemas create

In schema therapy, your reactions to schemas are known as coping styles. These involve thoughts, feelings, or behaviors. They develop as a way of avoiding the painful emotions experienced as a result of a certain schema. Likewise, offering survival means, coping styles are helpful in childhood. But they reinforce schemas in adulthood.

There aren’t any firm rules about which schemas lead to certain coping styles. Your coping style might be based on your overall temperament or even coping styles you learned from your parents. Additionally, they also vary from person to person. For instance, two people respond to the same schema with the same style in different ways. 

Similarly, two people with the same schema might also respond with two separate styles. Your own coping style changes over time, although you’re still dealing with the same schema. The three main coping styles loosely correlate with the fight or flight or freeze response:

Surrender

This involves accepting a schema and giving into it. It usually results in behavior that reinforces or continues the schema pattern. For example, if you surrender to a schema that formed as a result of emotional neglect as a child, you’ll later find yourself in a relationship involving emotional neglect.

Avoidance

Firstly, it involves attempting to live without triggering the schema. You might avoid activities or situations that could possibly trigger it or make you feel vulnerable. Avoiding your schema leaves you more prone to substance use, risky or compulsive behavior, and other behaviors offering a distraction.

Overcompensation

This involves attempting to fight a schema by acting in complete opposition to it. Though it seems a healthy response to a schema, overcompensation generally goes too far. Often, it leads to actions that seem aggressive, demanding, or insensitive. In other words, it takes a toll on your relationships.

Important concepts

Schema therapists use several techniques over the course of therapy. However, certain techniques work better for some people and schemas than others. If a certain technique doesn’t work for you, be sure to inform your therapist.

On that note, keep in mind that your relationship with your therapist is an important part of schema therapy. There are two important concepts that pop up in many of the techniques we use in therapy. Both work best when you feel safe and comfortable with your therapist. These vital concepts are:

  • Empathic confrontation. Firstly, your therapist validates the schemas coming up in therapy, offering understanding and empathy. They’ll also help you realize how utterly important change is.
  • Limited reparenting. With compassion and respect, therapists will help you fulfill emotional needs, those that you didn’t meet in childhood. Obviously, they’ll ensure this reparenting aligns with ethical standards for mental health professionals.

“Patients must be willing to give up their maladaptive coping styles in order to change.”

Jeffrey Young-

Schema therapy techniques

Generally, we carry out the important concepts mentioned before with techniques that fall into four categories:

Behavioral

Behavioral techniques help you learn to make positive, healthy choices simply by changing the behavior patterns resulting from your coping style. It’s vital to change behavioral patterns by working on communication skills via role-play. Likewise, you may also talk through a problem and solution with your therapist. 

Interpersonal

Interpersonal techniques help you examine your relationships to identify ways schemas affect them. Likewise, seeing how schemas and responses play out in therapy can help you uncover similar patterns in your life. This might involve bringing in a partner or close friend to your therapy session.

Emotive

Did you know emotive techniques involve using emotions to counter schemas? Besides, they help you fully experience emotions and express them in the safety of a therapy session. In fact, common emotive techniques therapies use include guided imagery and role-playing.

Cognitive

Cognitive techniques involve identifying and challenging harmful thought patterns that result from schemas. Next, therapists will help you review life experiences for evidence supporting or contradicting the schema. They’ll do it by using flashcards. Another technique is a structured conversation where you’ll speak both in favor of and against a schema.

Ready to try Young’s successful therapy? Unfortunately, it’s harder to find a schema therapist than other types of therapists, especially in America. However, resources are out there. Lastly, since schema therapy costs much more than other mental health treatments, consider asking about the cost. 

  • Young, J. (2013). Terapia de esquemas. Guía práctica. Descree de Brouwer.