“You messed up again!"
“You should have known better!”
Does this sound familiar? Of course it does!
The negative "voices" in our heads
We all have "voices" inside our heads commenting on our moment-to-moment experiences, the quality of our past decisions, mistakes we could have avoided, and what we should have done differently. These voices can be really mean and make a bad situation much worse. Rather than empathize with your suffering, they criticize, disparage, and beat you down at every opportunity! The voices have a familiar ring to them and convey an emotional urgency that demands our attention. These voices are automatic, fear-based “rules for living” that act like inner bullies, keeping us stuck in the same old cycles and hampering our spontaneous enjoyment of life and our abilities to live and love freely.
Where do these voices come from?
Psychologists believe these voices are residues of childhood experiences—automatic patterns of neural firing stored in our brains and dissociated from the memory of the events they are trying to protect us from. While having fear-based self-protective and self-disciplining rules probably made sense and helped us to survive when we were helpless kids, at the mercy of our parents, they may no longer be appropriate to our lives as adults. As adults, we have more ability to walk away from unhealthy situations and make conscious choices about our lives and relationships based on our own feelings, needs, and interests. Yet, in many cases, we’re so used to living by these unwritten internal rules that we don’t even notice or question them.
What happens when the "voices" take charge of our lives?
If left unchecked, the voices in our heads will take charge of our lives and keep us stuck in mental and behavioral prisons of our own making. They scare us into believing that the outside world is dangerous, and that we need to obey their rules for living in order to survive and avoid pain. By following (or rigidly disobeying) these rules, we don’t allow ourselves to adapt our responses to experiences as they naturally unfold. Our behaviors and emotional responses become more a reflection of yesterday’s reality than what is happening today. And we never seem to escape our dysfunctional childhoods.
The Schema Therapy approach
Psychologist Jeffrey Young and his colleagues call these rigid rules of living and views of the world “schemas.” Based on our earliest experiences with caregivers, schemas contain information about our own abilities to survive independently, how others will treat us, what outcomes we deserve in life, and how safe or dangerous the world is. They can also get in the way of having healthy relationships in life, work, and love.
How Negative Schemas Affect Our Lives & Relationships
Young suggests that negative schemas limit our lives and relationships in several ways:
- We behave in ways that maintain them.
- We interpret our experiences in ways that make them seem true, even if they really aren’t.
- In efforts to avoid pain, we restrict our lives so we never get to test them out
- We sometimes overcompensate and act in rigid, oppositional ways that interfere with our relationships.
The Abandonment Schema – Diana’s Story
A woman who we will call Diana has a schema of “Abandonment.” When she was 5 years old, her father ran off with his secretary and disappeared from her life, not returning until she was a teenager. The pain of being abandoned was so devastating for young Diana that some part of her brain determined that she would never again allow herself to experience this amount of pain. Also, as many children do, she felt deep down that she was to blame; she wasn’t lovable enough, or else her father would have stuck around; a type of "Defectiveness" schema.
Once Diana developed this schema, she became very sensitive to rejection, seeing the normal ups and downs of children’s friendships and teenage dating as further proof that she was unlovable and destined to be abandoned. She also tried desperately to cover up for her perceived inadequacies by focusing on pleasing her romantic partners, and making them need her so much that they would never leave her. She felt a special chemistry for distant, commitment-phobic men. When she attracted a partner who was open and authentic, she became so controlling, insecure and needy that, tired of not being believed or trusted, he eventually gave up on the relationship.
Diana’s unspoken rule is that it is not safe to trust people and let relationships naturally unfold; if she relaxes her vigilance for even a moment, the other person may leave. In an effort to rebel against her schema, she also acted in ways that were opposite to how she felt; encouraging her partner to stay after work to hang out with his friends, in an attempt to convince herself (and him) that she was ultra-independent. This led to chronic anger and feelings of dissatisfaction with her partner's lack of understanding of her needs; she neither understood nor acknowledged her own role in the cycle.
What can we do?
Schema Therapy can help Diana (and her partner) understand how their schemas result in ways of relating to self and others that are repetitive, automatic, rigid, and dysfunctional. By acknowledging and empathically connecting with her unresolved fears and unmet needs, Diana can become more mentally flexible and free. Schema Therapy can help to heal couples' conflict and individual problems such as anxiety, depression, personality disorders, grief, and childhood trauma. The schema concept helps us understand how early childhood events continue to influence adult relationships and mental health issues. We need to recognize their influence, pay attention to what our automatic inner voices are saying, and (with professional help, if necessary), begin to free ourselves from their grip.