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18 Schemas That Change the Way You See the World

These beliefs could be affecting your life without you even realizing it.

Key points

  • There are 18 different schemas that, if developed in childhood, may have an unpleasant effect on how one views the world.
  • A person may not even realize they have schemas—in fact, the ideology may feel entirely ordinary.
  • Once a person becomes aware of their schemas, they can decide how they wish to respond to and combat them.

Have you ever heard of a schema before? A schema is an enduring negative pattern that develops during childhood or adolescence, which persists and expands throughout our lives.

We experience the world through the lens of our schemas. Typically, you accept these beliefs without question and might not even be aware that they exist. They are self-perpetuating and are very resistant to change, but with appropriate treatment, you can change them.

phototimedp/Shutterstock
Source: phototimedp/Shutterstock

For instance, children who develop a schema that they aren’t good enough rarely challenge this belief, even as adults. They can be the best-selling author of a renowned book series and still go home feeling as though they're inadequate. Schemas attempt to mold your experiences and encourage you to live in a way that keeps them around.

Schemas are formed when our needs are not met during childhood. The schema, acting as its self-serving self, often prevents these needs from being satisfied in adulthood.

Relationships are a good example of how these schemas can persist. If we don't have secure attachments with our childhood caregivers, often we will find that these patterns are replicated in our adult relationships. Schema therapy was first introduced in 1990 and defines 18 schemas. Make note of the schemas that appear familiar, either for you or for someone you know. Awareness is a skill!

1. Emotional Deprivation

This schema refers to the belief that your primary emotional needs will never be met. These needs can be placed in three categories: nurturance, empathy, and protection. Nurturance relates to needs for closeness, affection, or love. Empathy is our need to feel understood. Our need for direction, guidance, or advice is protection. This schema often arises in adults who had more distant parents who didn’t adequately attend to the emotional needs of their child.

2. Abandonment/Instability

If you have fears of abandonment, this is one of your predominant schemas. Typically, people with this schema believe that they will soon lose anyone they form an emotional attachment with. There are many ways this schema could develop in childhood. Was there a disruption in your home life that was particularly damaging for you (e.g. the death of a caregiver)? Did you have parents who were inconsistent in attending to your needs?

3. Mistrust/Abuse

This schema refers to the expectation that others will intentionally take advantage of you in some way. People with this schema expect others to hurt, cheat, demean, or abuse them, and may often think in terms of attacking first or getting revenge afterward.

4. Social Isolation/Alienation

This schema refers to the belief that one is secluded from the world and/or not part of any community. This belief is often caused by experiences in which children see that they are different from other people.

5. Defectiveness/Shame

This schema refers to the belief that you are deeply flawed, and that, if others get close, they will realize this and leave you. This feeling of being flawed and inadequate often leads to a strong sense of shame. Individuals who develop this schema grew up in homes in which one or both parents were very critical and perhaps made them feel as though they were unworthy of love.

6. Failure

This schema refers to the belief that you are incapable of excelling or even performing as well as your peers in your personal life, career, school, or sports. Did you grow up in a family where anything less than an "A" was a failure? If you persistently had experiences like this as a child, you may have developed this schema.

7. Dependence/Incompetence

This schema refers to the belief that you’re not capable of handling daily responsibilities adequately and independently. Generally, children with this schema were not encouraged by their parents to act independently and develop confidence in their ability to take care of themselves.

8. Vulnerability to Harm and Illness

Do you always feel like your own personal doomsday clock is ticking away? This schema refers to the belief that your next major catastrophe is looming, whether it be medical, financial, mental, etc. Having this schema may lead to taking extreme precautions to protect oneself. In many cases, we may have grown up with a fearful parent who communicated to us that the world is a dangerous place.

9. Enmeshment/Undeveloped Self

People who struggle with enmeshment often have little-to-no boundaries and are too emotionally involved in their relationships. It may also include lacking your own sense of self or no inner direction or compass. This schema is often brought on by parents who are controlling, abusive, or overprotective to the point that the child is discouraged from developing their own sense of self.

10. Entitlement/Grandiosity

This schema is the belief that you’re superior to others. Some may have an exaggerated focus on details that they believe display this superiority (e.g. being amongst the most wealthy or successful). Individuals with this schema are engaging in these behaviors to achieve power and control, and not primarily seeking approval or attention.

11. Insufficient Self-Control or Self-Discipline

This schema refers to the inability to tolerate any irritation in reaching your goals, as well as an inability to avoid making your impulses or feelings known. In its milder form, you may have an exaggerated emphasis on avoiding pain, conflict, confrontation, or responsibility. When lack of self-control is extreme, criminal or addictive behavior may be apparent.

12. Subjugation

This is the excessive surrendering of control to others because you feel coerced. This behavior is usually done to avoid things like conflict, anger, or abandonment. People with this schema typically think that their experiences, opinions, feelings, and desires are not as important as those around them. Many times, subjugation can lead to a build-up of anger over time which may display itself in unhealthy symptoms such as passive-aggressive behavior or anger outbursts.

13. Self-Sacrifice

This schema refers to the excessive sacrifice of your own needs in order to help others. Common reasons are to prevent causing pain to others and to avoid guilt from feeling selfish. This sometimes leads to the realization that your own needs are not being adequately met, and you may develop resentment towards those for whom you are making sacrifices.

14. Emotional Inhibition

This schema involves the belief that you must suppress spontaneous action, feeling or communication. This is usually to avoid disapproval by others, feelings of shame, or losing control of your impulses. Additionally, you may have difficulty expressing vulnerability or freely communicating your needs or feelings and may disregard emotional experiences for an excessive emphasis on being rational.

15. Approval Seeking/Recognition Seeking

This schema refers to placing emphasis on gaining the approval and recognition of others at the expense of your own genuine needs and sense of self. It can also include placing excessive importance on status and appearance as a means of gaining recognition and acceptance.

16. Negativity/Pessimism

This schema refers to a prevalent, lifelong focus on the negative aspects of life while minimizing, ignoring, or discounting the positive aspects. People with this schema have trouble enjoying things because they are always concerned with elements of displeasure or potential future problems that could possibly arise.

17. Unrelenting Standards/Hypercriticalness

This schema refers to a belief that you have to meet extremely high standards of performance or behavior. The person with this belief pattern is usually doing this to avoid criticism. The unrelenting standards typically present as perfectionism, rigidity, and living by a lot of abnormal “shoulds” in several areas of their life (e.g. we “should” always be productive). This schema often leads to significant damage in a person’s ability to experience pleasure and relaxation, and can negatively impact health, self-confidence, and relationship satisfaction.

18. Punitiveness

This is the belief that people should be harshly punished for making mistakes. People with this schema tend to be critical and unforgiving. This often presents itself as people who are angry, intolerant, disciplinary, and impatient with people (including themselves) who do not meet their standards.

Unhelpful Responses to Schemas

There are three main unhelpful responses to schemas: surrender, avoidance, and overcompensation.

Schema surrender

Schema surrender refers to ways in which people passively give in to the schema. They accept the schema as fact and then act in ways that confirm the schema.

For instance, a person with an abandonment/instability schema might choose partners who are unable to commit to long-term relationships. They’ll fall for people who are not emotionally ready for a relationship, or people who are “perfect” but happen to be married. Above feeling good, people want to be right. If we believe something to be true, you will do everything in your power to create that reality, even if it costs your own happiness.

Schema avoidance

Schema avoidance refers to the ways in which people avoid activating schemas.

There are three types of schema avoidance: cognitive, emotional, and behavioral. Cognitive avoidance refers to efforts that people make not to think about upsetting events.

Emotional avoidance refers to automatic or voluntary attempts to block painful emotion.

Behavioral avoidance is taking (or not taking) action to avoid situations that trigger schemas and the associated psychological pain.

Schema overcompensation

The third is schema overcompensation. The individual behaves in a manner that seems to be the opposite of what their schema is to avoid triggering the schema. It may appear that you are behaving in a healthy way, but overdoing it is just another extreme that has its own set of consequences. More likely than not, you will only create more problem patterns that lead to your schemas being triggered anyway.

These early maladaptive schemas can be developed in all types of families, from the abusive to the well-meaning. Now that you have an idea of what these schemas are and how you might be responding to them, you have the chance to choose a different pathway.

References

Young, J. E., Klosko, J. S., & Weishaar, M. E. (2007). Schema therapy: A practitioner's guide. Guilford.

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