Do You Feel Trapped or Boxed In?
It could be your schemas or life-traps.
Posted December 31, 2021 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
- Schemas are patterns developed in early childhood as a way to adapt to our environment, and which organise our experience.
- Some of your schemas are very likely to become maladaptive or harmful, and become life-traps that distort your experiences.
- Psychotherapy offers a safe environment to explore and work through your life-traps.
- Individuals who undergo psychotherapy are able to make conscious decisions, and become the best version of themselves.
Have you found yourself trying very hard to change certain aspects of your life without getting the results you want? If so, Schema Therapy could be for you.
Schema-Focused Cognitive Therapy or Schema Therapy (ST) is a relatively new integrative form of psychotherapy. It was initially developed to treat resistant depression and personality disorders. Due to its flexibility, ST has become popular among psychotherapists as a preferred transdiagnostic treatment approach. ST emerged from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and has been recognised as an effective and pragmatic type of psychotherapy, which integrates previously existing therapies, such as Attachment Theory; Psychoanalytic Object Relations; Self-psychology; Relational Psychoanalysis; Social Constructivism; and Gestalt Therapy. ST emphasizes the role of processing information that escapes mental consciousness, and it bridges psychotherapeutic and cultural traditions.
A key concept in ST is that of the schema. These are foundational mental structures that we all develop in early childhood, as a way to survive and adapt to our environment. Given that schemas are useful and adaptive early in life, we keep repeating them (reinforcing and elaborating) during middle childhood and adolescence. They provide us with a strong sense of security, certainty, and predictability. As a result, our schemas feel highly familiar and comfortable. They make us feel at home, as it were. Eventually, such schemas reverberate throughout life and become entrenched patterns that organise our everyday experience.
Inevitably, schemas become unconscious core beliefs that determine our patterns of thinking, feeling, and acting towards others in life. Not surprisingly, schemas become highly stable, self-perpetuating, and very resistant to change.
The problem is that the context in which you developed your early schemas will have changed dramatically. You grow up (e.g. study, travel, develop relationships, secure a job, progress in your career, and perhaps get married and have children). What once were effective and adaptive ways to deal with reality are no longer necessarily useful or effective. Imagine a grown-up adult living life guided by the rules of a child. Without knowing it, this is usually the main reason why people present to psychotherapy.
Let's use Marcus (pseudonym) as an example. At an early age, he learned to make others laugh by being funny, as a way to relieve tensions among his family members. Given that, to a large extent, this was useful back then, Marcus kept doing this throughout his school years. He became the class clown. The big payoff for Marcus, of course, was that everyone liked him. Others saw him as the nice guy who cheered them up. He kept doing it more and more. Years later, at work, everyone referred to him as a joker. Unsurprisingly, Marcus came to psychotherapy with this problem: People didn’t take him seriously, and he had become increasingly depressed.
Here are other examples, individuals learn to be people-pleasers, perfectionists, emotionally distant, fearful of intimate relationships, emotionally needy and clingy to others, defective and shameful, narcissistic, pessimistic, addicted to drugs, or convinced themselves they are absolute failures. At some point in people’s lives, like with Marcus, their schemas have become maladaptive (not useful but harmful, obsolete). This is why schemas are referred to as early maladaptive schemas (EMS) or life-traps. There is a total of 18 maladaptive schemas, which I preclude listing here due to the length limitations of this blog.
Our schemas become central to our sense of self. Marcus, for example, saw himself as a clown, joker, or nice guy, whose main purpose in life was to make others laugh and feel good. His problem was that he was doing this unconsciously (in a compelling way). He was unable to stop himself from doing it. This is because life-traps become the meaning-making perspectives and mechanisms through which individuals filter all their experiences. Such mindsets become lenses and templates through which these same experiences are interpreted, evaluated, and often distorted; thereby, precluding individuals to learn from new experiences.
Steps to change your life-traps
Psychotherapy offers a safe environment to explore and work through your life-traps and distortive mindsets. This is so you don’t keep repeating the same negative patterns that keep you from becoming the best version of yourself.
In brief, this entails four main steps:
- Recognising your life-traps (uncovering your blind spots)
- Understanding the origin of your life-traps (identifying when, why, and how your schemas developed)
- Deconstructing your life-traps (disabling, dismantling, or weakening their action mechanisms, and breaking down your schema-driven life patterns)
- Developing and embracing new and more effective or adaptive ways to be in the world (having your core emotional needs met in everyday life, so can live to your full potential).
This process constitutes emotional and transformational learning. That is, the expansion of consciousness through which individuals question and redefine their beliefs, feelings, assumptions, perspectives, and their meaning and purpose in life
During psychotherapy, individuals develop the ability to reflect on themselves and things that they may have taken for granted or were unaware of in the past. This enables them to return to learning from experience without negative filters, reframe their life history, and develop a clearer and stronger sense of identity.
Individuals who undergo the transformative process of psychotherapy rewire and transform their beliefs, assumptions, and experiences into new expressive perspectives. This enables them to act in more self-motivated, purpose-driven, goal-directed, empathetic, self-governing, and self-empowering ways. As a result, they are able to make conscious decisions about their lives by acting as fully developed and healthy adults, becoming more critical, autonomous, and responsible, and live to their full potential.
Today, Marcus lives a satisfying life. He is highly respected at work and in his social life. If he ever tells a joke, he now does it consciously and out of choice – without compulsion, automatic or conditioned behaviour.
Young, J. E., & Klosko, J. S. (1994). Reinventing your life: The breakthrough program to end negative behavior and feel great again. Penguin.
Young, J. E., Klosko, J. S., & Weishaar, M. E. (2006). Schema therapy: A practitioner’s guide. Guilford Press.