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What are schemas?

Schemas (also called ‘Early Schemas’ or ‘Early Maladaptive Schemas’) are core themes and patterns that we develop in childhood and continue to repeat through our lives. They tend to be self-defeating and have a detrimental impact on our sense of self-worth and quality of life.

Schemas are related to what we would call basic emotional needs that every child requires during their early development. When these needs are consistently and repeatedly left unmet, the child will then develop core beliefs about themselves, others and the world that can be painful, critical and overwhelming. Schemas are emotional, cognitive and physiological experiences, they are not behaviours; however, the child develops cognitive and behavioural ways of coping with these painful experiences that they carry into adulthood.

Jeffrey Young identified 18 core schemas when he developed schema therapy (you can read more information about each of them here):

1. Abandonment / Instability
2. Mistrust / Abuse
3. Emotional Deprivation
4. Defectiveness / Shame
5. Social Isolation / Alienation
6. Dependence / Incompetence
7. Vulnerability to Harm or Illness
8. Enmeshment / Undeveloped Self
9. Failure to Achieve
10. Entitlement / Grandiosity
11. Insufficient self-control / self-discipline
12. Subjugation
13. Self-Sacrifice
14. Approval-Seeking / Recognition-Seeking
15. Negativity / Pessimism
16. Emotional Inhibition
17. Unrelenting Standards / Hypercriticalness
18. Punitiveness

There may be one (or indeed many more) of these schemas that we can relate to – and that’s completely okay and normal. We all have our vulnerabilities and challenges, so it would be unusual if you didn’t identify with any aspect of them. However, if you find that many of these schemas resonate, or importantly, they are impacting on your life in a way that is detrimental or even destructive, schema therapy may be a good therapeutic approach for you.

As humans, we find our own ways in which to cope with these difficulties. These patterns of behaviour are adaptive and help you to survive the painful emotions and physical responses that can occur alongside schemas. What we do find is that there are three main ways in which we adapt to our schemas:

• Surrender: ‘Giving in’ to the schema(s) and repeating them
• Avoidance: Blocking or escaping the schema(s)
• Overcompensation: Doing the opposite of what the schema(s) makes us feel

There are many subtypes of these coping styles which you can read about here.

It is very important to remember that an individual’s childhood does not need to be abusive in order for problematic schemas to develop. It is where there is an enduring pattern of a core basic need not being met and there are many ways and reasons as to why this can occur. For example, a parent themselves may have problematic schemas of their own and therefore struggle to know how to meet that same unmet need in their own child.