Schema therapy was developed as a way to treat patients with longstanding problems that hadn’t responded to other therapeutic methods.

Designed to help people with deeply-rooted personality disorders, schema therapy uses a mixture of:

“Schema therapy thus developed into a modality that sees clients understand why they behave in the ways that they do (psychodynamic/attachment), get in touch with their feelings and attain emotional relief (gestalt), and benefit from learning practical, active ways to make better choices for themselves in the future (cognitive).”

US psychologist Dr. Jeffrey E. Young devised schema therapy after finding that some patients with lifelong problems were not responding to cognitive therapy. Furthermore, he realised that for them to change their negative present-day behaviours, they had to recognise what was in the past that was holding them back.

In other words, whatever was holding them back was blocking them from moving forward. Dr. Young believed that the thing holding them back was rooted in their childhood. Consequently, he realised that this is the self-defeating patterns started.

However, the problem is that for many people with longstanding problems, the traumatic event in their childhood is hidden deep within their subconscious. Before we move on, it’s important to discuss schemas; what they are and how they impact our lives.

What are schemas and how do they work within schema therapy?

A schema is a mental concept that allows us to make sense of our experiences. In addition, it’s based on information we’ve collected from previous experiences. This information has been categorised to help us quickly understand the world around us. We have schemas for everything in life.

For instance, if we hear something above us in the air and it has a flapping sound, our previous schemas of birds (flying, wings, in the air, above us) will lead us to conclude that this is very likely to be another bird. We have schemas for gender, people, foreigners, food, animals, events and even our self.

There are four main concepts in Schema Therapy:

  1. Schemas
  2. Coping styles
  3. Modes
  4. Basic emotional needs

1. Schemas in Schema Therapy

The type of schemas we are interested in is the negative schemas that develop during childhood. These early maladaptive schemas are extremely enduring, self-defeating thought patterns we have about ourselves. We have learnt to accept these schemas without question.

Additionally, they are particularly resistant to change and very difficult to shake off without help. Established in our childhood, we repeat them throughout our lives.

These schemas can be made up of past emotional memories of traumas, fears, hurts, abuse, neglect, and abandonment, anything negative.

2. Coping Styles

We deal with maladaptive schemas by using various coping styles. As well as helping us deal with schemas they are also behavioural responses to the schemas.

Examples of coping styles:

  • A person who had experienced a schema involving a childhood trauma might avoid similar situations which lead to a phobia.
  • Someone who has experienced neglect may start using drugs or alcohol to ease the painful memories.
  • An adult who had a loveless relationship with their own parents may isolate themselves from their own children.

3. Modes

When a person suffers from a maladaptive schema and then uses a coping style, they fall into a temporary state of mind called a mode.

There are 4 categories of modes which include child, adult and parent:

  1. Child (Vulnerable Child, Angry Child, Impulsive/Undisciplined Child, and Happy Child)
  2. Dysfunctional Coping (Compliant Surrenderer, Detached Protector, and Overcompensator)
  3. Dysfunctional Parent (Punitive Parent and Demanding Parent)
  4. Healthy Adult

So take the adult in our example above who had a loveless relationship with their own parents. They could use a coping style of isolation from their children and fall into the detached protector mode (where they detach emotionally from people).

4. Basic emotional needs

A child’s basic emotional needs are:

If a child’s basic emotional needs are not met during childhood, then schemas, coping styles and modes can develop.

Schema therapy helps patients recognise these schemas or negative patterns. They learn to spot them in their daily lives and replace them with more positive and healthy thoughts.

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