Wrong Self-Appraisals Result from the Use of Wrong Criteria

How pattern schemas regulate self-appraisals and interpersonal actions

Posted May 25, 2015

Individuals who suffer interpersonal violence-generated depression or PTSD typically show re-experiencing the traumatic events (e.g., intrusive recollections, thoughts and flashbacks regarding those violence, intimidations and/or abuses in interpersonal situations).  The conventional CBT approach tends to views negative self-concepts, negative interpretations, exaggerated negativity regarding the self, the world and future, or deficiency in emotional regulation as responsible for the trauma-related intrusive thoughts and emotions. Consequently, therapeutic methods based on these assumptions aim to reduce or terminate the person’s rumination or negative interpretations about the traumas, which are seen as a risk factor for depression (e.g., Cohen, Mor, & Henik, 2015; Joormann, Waugh, & Gotlib, 2015).           

However, the conventional CBT approach to maladaptive appraisals/emotions may be only ephemerally effective but lack sustainability in the long run.

Let’s talk about a woman’s case as an example. She was a middle-aged professional woman with many achievements. On the surface, she looked happy and confident in interpersonal situations, at least for those who met her on normal occasions. The issues she was concerned involved some global issues (e.g., charity for impoverished children whose lives had been ruined by wars or malnutrition; Middle-East conflicts). What she did not reveal was her emotional anguishes. As a young girl, she was sexually abused by her father.  As a young adult, her disclosure of the abuse to the authority was met with antipathy and accusation of betrayal by other family members, who stopped communicating with her thereafter.  Although she repressed her painful memories in social situations, deep inside, however, she carried fresh emotional scars and cognitive confusions. She suffered from regular nightmares and frequent flashback of the violence because she wanted to make sense of the experience by obtaining a new understanding about the social world and human behavior. With cognitive therapy sessions and training for emotional regulations, she was able to manage most of her thoughts and emotions by focusing on something bigger or noble. However, her emotional pains did not go away simply because she could shift her attention and regulate her emotions. This is because she had not understood the “why” question about her interpersonal trauma and had not developed more accurate cognitions that would guide her to meet her basic needs at the presence.

Her condition is not an exception. Many individuals have similar issues; even though they have learned skills in repressing painful memories of violent interpersonal traumas that occurred to them more than 30 or 40 years ago, they still relive the nightmare or often wake up in the middle of night, reflecting on the horrific experiences (Sun, 2013).

This post argues that the very reason for the ruminations, however, is not because of their lack of motivation or capacity to focus on the positive selves by regulating their emotions, but because they have not recognized that inaccurate self-concept (schemas) or self-appraisals are regulated by their distorted cognitive representations of patterns or criteria governing human interaction. Only by identifying and rectifying distorted pattern schemas (criteria) can the person truly modify distorted self-appraisals (Sun, 2014).

Unlearning past hurts and achieving mental peace entail the understanding that it is the pattern schemas that regulate self-appraisals.

The conventional CBT approach views self-schema, either negative or positive, as the mediator between stimuli and the mental well-being, thus views negative or maladaptive self-schema as the locus of distorted cognitions that serve as a main source of mental conflict. The interaction (uniting) schemas approach described here, however, posits that our cognitive structures of human interactions comprise three interrelated mental representations: the self-schema, pattern schemas (perceived patterns or rules governing human behavior and interactions), and interpersonal schemas (cognitions about others and situations in interaction with the self).  It is one’s pattern schemas that regulate appraisals of the self and others (Sun, 2014).

Just like the perception of a traffic light that all people in the context must follow, pattern schemas are the cognitive representations of ultimate patterns/criteria that are perceived as governing both the self and others in interaction and contexts.  They can be operationalized as one’s accurate or distorted cognitions about underlying forces that control both the self and interacting others, such as morality, love, violence, social status, physical perfection, wealth, or scientific understandings of social and physical worlds, as well as human behavior, which, if connected with or violated, can explain one’s experiences of success or failure/invalidation in interaction. People are implicitly or explicitly aware that the violation of the patterns is believed to generate serious consequences whereas following the patterns will empower the person to overcome all invalidations and achieve his/her goals.

The results of self-appraisals (regardless of being automatic or intentional) derive from following processes: (1) comparing the attributes/behavior of the self with one’s pattern schemas or criteria, (2), evaluating the relations (consistency or incongruity) between the attributes and the criteria, and (3) positive self-appraisals result from the perceived consistency whereas negative self-appraisals stem from the perceived inconsistency or deviance from the criteria. In other words, the attempt to modify a distorted self-concept will be futile without understanding how distorted pattern schemas shape self-evaluations, because self-appraisals involve the comparison processes. For example, to modify a person’s attributes of depression (e.g., feeling excessively ashamed and guilty) by focusing on the symptoms or negative self-schemas will be ineffective without understanding how her inaccurate pattern schemas (i.e., morality) and her perception of violation of the morality result in feeling ashamed and guilty. In other words, self-appraisals are just symptoms; the pattern schemas underline or explain perceived reasons or causations for one’s experiences.

It should be noted that although the patterns are perceived, their contents are assumed to represent objective patterns in reality that transcend the self and others. The self-schemas and pattern schemas are two distinctive cognitions. Therefore, it is impossible for a person to simply revise the criteria (e.g., physical perfection, wealth, social status or other socially desirable criteria), without a new understanding about human reality, in order to modify self-appraisals. Besides, individuals are typically unaware that their schemas are inaccurate or distorted, blindly assuming their distorted pattern schemas as the higher power explaining experiences and behavior (Sun, 2014). Neither can the person solve the problems of meeting one’s basic needs by just accepting his/her deviance from the criteria, because accepting available and distorted criteria cannot provide new guidelines to liberate the mind from misunderstanding about the self’s experiences. Developing more accurate pattern schemas requires integrate new interpersonal evidence with understanding the nature of the holistic cognitive system and its functions.

It also needs to emphasize that pattern schemas discussed here are totally different from the type of “rule” described in the conventional CBT, which includes such example as “If I try it, I will fail.” This type of “rule” includes self-related assumptions or self-talks, but it has nothing to do with valid laws governing human interaction or psychological mechanisms.

Furthermore, according to the interaction schemas model, reflection or rumination of negative experiences may or may not be maladaptive, because people are motivated to learn learning from experiences, specifically to learn about the rules or patterns that govern and explain human behavior and experiences, as well as the self’s relations with the rules (the violation or conformity). Consequently, negative self-appraisals result from the perceived infringements whereas positive self-appraisals stem from the perceived conformity to the patterns.

What are examples of distorted pattern schemas?

As discussed previously, self-appraisals are performed according to one’s pattern schemas and the perceived relations between the self attributes (e.g., physical defects, undesirable category memberships, moral violations) and the pattern schemas. It is distorted cognitive representations of the patterns that generate distorted self-evaluations. Distorted pattern schemas can be defined as cognitions of patterns about the world and psychological mechanisms that lack bilateral validity. In other words, distorted pattern schemas only carry unilateral validity for the person who follows them, but they can be mentally invalidated by the others in interaction. Examples of distorted pattern schemas include standards of perfection or social desirability, morality, violence, intimidation, wealth, beauty, physical or other types of perfection which are viewed as laws governing human interactions. Those pattern schemas are distorted, not because some of them are not useful values, they are, but because those ostensible rules represent misunderstandings about human behavior and interactions, unable to accurately explain people’s experiences of invalidations and frustrations in interpersonal situations even though they use them as the guidelines in human interaction. Well, intimidation or the threat of violence may make others act in certain way to avoid pain, but it has no mental validity for the recipients.

In summary, people with PTSD or depression have difficulty expurgating past hurts or eliminating the flashbacks, ruminations or reflections, not because they hold negative views about the self, the world or the future, or are deficient in emotional regulation, which are just symptoms, but because of their misrepresentations of patterns regulating and explaining human behavior and interactions and the use of them as the criteria for self-appraisals. On the other hand, healing results from understanding and applying accurate pattern schemas to evaluate the self and situations.

It is only a first step to identify distorted pattern schemas. However, it is necessary to understand accurate and true pattern schemas in the human domains before people can be empowered by the new cognition. It would need another article to examine the issue of accurate pattern schemas in details.


Cohen, N., Mor, N., & Henik, A. (2015). Linking executive control and emotional response: A training procedure to reduce rumination. Clinical Psychological Science, 3(1), 15-25. doi:10.1177/2167702614530114

Joormann, J., Waugh, C. E., & Gotlib, I. H. (2015). Cognitive bias modification for interpretation in major depression: Effects on memory and stress reactivity. Clinical Psychological Science, 3(1), 126-139. doi:10.1177/2167702614560748

Sun, K. (2013). Correctional counseling: A Cognitive growth Perspective (2nd ed.). Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning.

Sun, K. (2014). Treating Depression and PTSD behind Bars: An Interaction Schemas Approach.  In R. C. Tafrate and D. Mitchell (Eds.), Forensic CBT: A handbook for clinical practice  (Chap. 22, pp. 456-470).  Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell.