How Schemas Shape Your World

According to Young, schemas are the stable, rooted, and enduring patterns that develop over the course of an individual's life.
How Schemas Shape Your World

Last update: 04 December, 2020

According to Young, schemas are the stable, rooted, and enduring patterns that develop over the course of an individual’s life. They’re so pervasive and unconscious that it isn’t easy to be aware of how they shape your world.

In simplest terms, it’s the way you are and how you behave in the world. When schemas are maladaptive, you might find, for example, an individual who continuously ends up in relationships with people who are bad for them, behaves in toxic and destructive ways, reacts disproportionately to situations, and often ends up in undesirable problems or situations.

An individual with maladaptive schemas end up in these circumstances with relative frequency and don’t seem to realize they’re stuck in a pattern. They’re often confused about why they can’t explain what’s happening to them.

Schemas share certain characteristics. According to Schema therapy, developed by Dr. J. Young, they have the following characteristics: they’re self-perpetuating, resistant to change, dysfunctional, tend to be caused and activated by external experiences, and involve heightened emotions.

Certain traumatic or negative experiences also feed into schemas. That creates a vicious cycle that gives some permanence to the bad experiences.

A woman looking out at the city.

Your schemas lead the way

The fact that schemas are connected to deep-rooted emotional experiences means that, when you’re trying to deal with a problem in front of you, your schemas have already set off on a particular path.

Think about situations in your life that seem to repeat themselves. Maybe you tend to be emotionally dependent on your significant other, put others’ needs above your own, struggle with addiction… It could be any kind of self-harming behavior but it’s always there. You can’t seem to escape it even though it’s causing problems. Does this sound familiar?

Now, try to reason with it. You know you’re on the wrong path, that there are better options, that you’ll feel terrible afterward… No matter what you do or say to yourself, you keep up this toxic behavior. The reason is that, when you think about it, the schema has already reproduced the behavioral pattern that it’s used to.

When someone asks you why you keep engaging in this unhealthy behavior, you can’t offer a solid answer. You know it isn’t good, you know it throws you off balance, but it’s difficult or almost impossible to behave differently.

That’s due to the fact that schemas are highly emotional. They’re born in the gut, indomitable beasts created as the result of different childhood experiences. When you’re in a “risky” situation, you lose control before you even realize what’s happening. Your schema took over.

How can I change my schemas?

Simple inertia isn’t likely to help, though you could wait for a miracle. If you want to be proactive, however, you’ll have to do an exercise in conscious analysis, drawing your determination and your will.

Different psychological strategies and techniques can also help, whether they’re cognitive, behavioral, or emotional in nature. Try keeping track of the situations that emotionally disturb you in some way. You should also note those that trigger you to act contrary to what you would do if you were making conscious decisions.

If you suffer from emotional dependency because your parents weren’t around when you were a child, you might have an abandonment schema. Now in your adult life, you repeat the pattern with your significant others until they do end up leaving you. It’s like a self-fullilling prophecy.

A depressed guy looking out the window thinking about schemas.

Consequently, it can be helpful for you to understand these patterns, visualize them every day, and monitor them. Note situations in which you feel emotional dependency and everything that goes with it. Once you’ve recorded everything in your therapy journal, you can analyze the thoughts and behaviors that all these situations have in common. Do you tend to be fairly passive in your social relationships? Is it hard for you to leave a relationship even if you aren’t getting anything out of it?

Preventing dysfunctional behavior

Once you’ve identified your weak points, come up with some strategies to prevent them from happening. Breaking your schema is possible, but not with bull-headedness. You need intelligence and determination.

If you have a hard time saying no, stop avoiding situations that require you to be assertive. If you end up in toxic relationships because you’re afraid of being alone, explore all of the positive things about the solitude you’re so afraid of.

The process is uncomfortable at first, and you’ll have to get to a point where you can tolerate that discomfort. Remember that you aren’t used to operating this way. All your automatic responses are programmed in a different way.

Also, no matter how well you’re able to deal with your maladaptive schema, sometimes you’ll just have to learn to live with them.

In conclusion, although it’ll take longer to change the way you move through the world, you’ll get there. Just try to look past those schemas and work towards your goals.

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  • Rodríguez Vílchez, E., La terapia centrada en esquemas de Jeffrey Young. Avances en psicología (2009)