Why in response to negative mood, do some people initiate a self-defeating cycle of increasing negative thinking and intensifying negative feeling? One possible answer is the way we see the events through the mental filter of our schemas. Schemas are overarching mental representations of oneself, others, and the world: “I am not worth being loved by someone.” “If people know the real me, they will reject me." "People should do better, try harder." With repeated activation (rehearsal), the negative schemas acquire a stronger habitual thought pattern that over time is more easily accessed by stressful life events. The awareness of our schemas provides an opportunity to grow.
Schemas are stable and rigid belief about oneself and one’s relationship with others. Basically, these schemas form the glasses through which we look at the world. For example, a person who has the notion that everybody hates her will tend to interpret other people’s reactions on the basis of this attitude. Schemas lead to a selective attention. This explains why a person with social anxiety sees only the one frowning face in a room full of smiles. An individual vulnerable to social anxiety will also likely interpret ambiguous facial expressions as sign of disapproval. Furthermore, these distorted beliefs perpetuate the flawed behavior in vicious circles. The more anxiety a person experiences, the lower the level of emotional closeness in a relationship.
Where do these schemas come from? Schemas come from our conditioning and our learning habits. For example, a person growing up with an overly abusive and critical father has a chronic fear of authority figures and is always careful to get everything right. He acts as if he were a helpless child. Once the learning habit has been formed, stimuli similar to the original may evoke the conditioned response. The experience of repeated failures or criticism during early childhood is likely to lead to themes of low worth. Later on, potential job loss may automatically bring to mind thoughts of failure, leading to depressive moods.
In short, a schema is a thinking pattern for screening, coding, and interpreting events. We are not born with such habits. We have learned these patterns of thinking. These dysfunctional beliefs are inaccessible for direct inspection and can remain dormant until activated by changes in mood. It is as if we have cut down a tree but have left the roots. The tree may appear to be gone, but it still exists in hidden form in the roots that remain underground. Similarly, these mental habits, if left unchecked, can reactivate automatic negative thinking (e.g., feeling inadequate and worthless). They can block mental exploration and realistic self-observation.
The task of changing schemas is to unlearn the self-defeating old habit and replace it with a new, healthier one. That change is very different from mere intellectual understanding. The change involves persistent practice of mindfulness to what had been unconscious behavior, and sustained effort to try out a new way of thinking. For example, by recognizing in advance a typical schema (e.g., seeking constant approval to maintain a sense of worthiness), the person is less likely to overreact. In essence, the purpose of therapy is to transfer patient’s awareness from stimulus → emotion to stimulus → self-thinking → emotion. The person learns to view automatic thoughts from a distance and question their validity. The whole process of changing deep schema patterns can take years.