• In childhood, we develop 'schemas' – beliefs that help us make sense of the world. Depending on our upbringing, these schemas might be damaging

  • Schema therapist Samantha Holt explores how schema therapy can help

  • We have therapists available to support you with childhood difficulties here

What are schemas?

Schemas are cognitive structures which help us to make sense of the world, our environment and the people in it, which helps reduce our cognitive load and make room for us to pay attention to other stimuli. An example of a helpful schema could be when we visit a restaurant: we build a social schema regarding how to behave and what to do, such as which utensil to use for which serving and how to appropriately address the waiter.

Other types of schemas inform how we interact in personal and professional relationships. These types of schemas form in early childhood and throughout early development. 

We can construct relationship schemas, love schemas, social schemas; these form psychological templates that we use throughout the lifespan regarding how to behave when a similar situation or experience arises.

The formation of schemas

Schemas generally form in childhood. For example, the relationship we have with our caregivers provides a template for future relationships. If these experiences or situations are negative, unhelpful, or traumatic, during early development, this can lead to long-term issues, subsequent traumas, and problems with relationships. We may also repeat negative patterns or replay our traumatic experiences.

In childhood, there may have been times when our caregiver was unable to meet our emotional needs, leading to impaired social development; that is, harmful and unhealthy social interactions and beliefs leading to schematic formation. These can lead to problematic interactions with others in our environment.

Where a caregiver or significant other is unable to provide essential safety for a child and chronic unsafety is experienced by the child, this can lead to a schema of functional dependency. This may be experienced as one of two extremes; one end of the scale an individual may feel unable to function on their own and at the other end, an individual may be fiercely independent.

An individual may feel unable to function in their own right and experience the world as a dangerous place and form a vulnerable child coping strategy, which manifests as externally seeking reassurance, safety, and reliance from others. Alternatively, where one is fiercely independent, an individual may develop an overprotectiveness and feel fiercely defensive and disproportionate anger in interpersonal relationships. This is known as overcompensating and as a consequence, addictions can develop as a way to soothe the void and anger which is being suppressed. 

There are approximately eighteen documented unhelpful themes of thinking and behaving which can negatively impact our daily lives and can subsequently lead to failures in relationships as well as ill-health, both physically and mentally.

What is Schema Therapy?

Schema Therapy, initially developed by Jeff Young (1990), is a relatively contemporary therapeutic approach, which encompasses the individual as a whole. More often than not, multiple schema patterns interplay. These can be identified and addressed together in therapeutic sessions. 

In Schema Therapy, the client and therapist work together to identify situations in which the client feels unsafe and incompetent. Schema Therapy involves working together with a therapist in experiential ways; that is, homework tasks or trying different ways of thinking, which can lead to cognitive restructuring. This might include practices like Empty Chair work and using imagery and/or creative arts and music.

Empty chair work can involve expressing thoughts and words to those who have hurt you without experiencing any consequences. This is a powerful technique which helps to process unresolved anger and enables clients to move forward and not repeat unhelpful patterns in interpersonal relationships.

Schema Therapy can also involve imagery; that is, drawing or painting when words to verbalise can feel too overwhelming which helps address intrusive thoughts. When our experiences have been overwhelming, it can be difficult to verbalise the experience and we may experience intrusive thoughts as a result which can occur at any time. 

The therapeutic relationship between therapist and client can also be used to help heal unhelpful schemas. For example, another common schematic pattern is mistrust and abuse, which can develop early in life, or alternatively, can occur following our first romantic relationships. 

Having a schema of mistrust can influence all our subsequent relationships, including within the workplace, social circles, and those in authority. We may not be aware that we have developed mistrust of others as this schema can be quite subtle and often manifests as being involved with others who we perceive as mistrustful, which can serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy. These can be seen as seeking out or engaging with those who may trigger this schema; thus, leading us to believe our cognitive distortions.

This schema will likely also be present in the relationship between therapist and client. In Schema Therapy, the therapist can help raise the client’s awareness of their mistrustful schema pattern and further explore how this has developed. Once explored, helpful interventions can be identified to correct this. Alternatively, unconscious events can be explored and processed if the individual feels this would be beneficial and helpful.

The schema of mistrust and abuse often develops when we have been mistreated as a child consistently over a prolonged period of time or where boundaries have been violated. The most common symptoms of an underlying mistrust and abuse schema are: 

  • suspicious of others motives

  • unable to form close connections or experiencing superficial relationships

  • fear of emotional intimacy

  • all or nothing thinking

  • feelings of helplessness 

  • being hypersensitive in recognising abuse in others

It can be difficult to recognise these symptoms in ourselves, however, our relations and interactions with others may seem to follow the same patterns and you may wonder “why do I always attract the same type?” or “why can’t I trust anyone?”

Examples of other common schemas include: 

  • emotional deprivation, abandonment

  • incompetence

  • vulnerabilities to others

  • an underdeveloped sense of self

  • feeling shameful

  • social alienation

  • failing to achieve

  • inability to express our needs

  • inability to show our emotions

  • feeling over-responsible

  • having unrelenting standards

  • a sense of entitlement

  • having little to no self-control 

  • being consistently negative or pessimistic

Therapeutic intervention involves working cognitively, experientially and behaviourally and sometimes can include working with unconscious events, and thoughts if deemed helpful.  

The practice of Schema Therapy holds a solid evidence-base and can be used to treat and support a wide range of psychological and emotional challenges and issues.

Samantha Holt is a verified Welldoing online therapist

Further reading

The impact of domestic violence in childhood

Recovering from narcissistic abuse

Why is Internal Family Systems therapy so effective?

Why do we get stuck in life?

Why does my therapist ask about my childhood?