What is Schema Therapy?
Schemas are ways that we have come to understand ourselves, others, and the world. Schemas become maladaptive when our needs that are universal (e.g., needs for safety and belonging; needs for emotional validation and understanding) are not consistently met in childhood and adolescence. Because they begin early in life, schemas become familiar and therefore comfortable and we engage in behaviours that reinforce the schemas. Schemas may remain dormant until they are activated by situations relevant to that particular schema and we engage in different behaviours that aim to help us deal with the triggers – sometimes these ways of coping, end up perpetuating the schema (see example below).
Schema therapy is an integrative therapy that combines elements from cognitive behavioural therapy, attachment and object relations theories, and Gestalt and experiential therapies. Schema therapy assists you to understand your schemas, what behaviours (“coping modes”) you use to protect yourself from these schemas occurring, and, how these coping modes may no longer be serving you in your life currently. Schema therapy does this by working on cognitive and behavioural strategies for change, as well as closely focusing on experiential activities to enact emotional change and healing.
Research has shown schema therapy to be effective in treating high prevalence disorders (such as depression and anxiety) as well as low prevalence and persistent disorders (such as personality disorders, chronic mental health difficulties, and relationship issues) and developmental trauma.
Below is an example of one maladaptive schema and the coping modes that might occur with this mode.
Jaz has experienced recurrent episodes of depression since she was 15 and has found therapy helpful but even outside of depressive episodes she has consistently had the feeling that she can’t do anything right and feels that she will never succeed. Jaz recalls always being behind in primary school because she has dyslexia and remembers being picked on by teachers and peers for being slow. She also felt inferior to her brothers who were popular, smart, and good at sports, nothing she did seemed to match up to them. In secondary school and university she performed strongly but she couldn’t shake this feeling that she was behind.
Now in her 30s, Jaz has a successful work role, but she feels like it will slip away from her at any point. She says at work she presents so differently - she is an absolute perfectionist but whenever someone compliments her achievements she is quick to dismiss them. Jaz also has a partner who is semi-famous and well-liked; this just makes her feel like she’ll never live up to her partner’s success and that at any point her partner will leave for someone good enough. The reason she is coming to therapy is because she keeps putting off a seemingly simple training course that would lead to a promotion and big pay-rise at work.
Jaz has a “failure” schema where she has a core belief that she will inevitably fail, or, is fundamentally inadequate relative to one’s peers in areas of achievement. The failure schema can involve beliefs that one is: stupid, inept, untalented, lower in status, or less successful than others. Jaz has learned to cope with these feelings in different ways. She has developed a “helpless surrender” side where she gives in to the belief that she is not as good at others and focuses on others (particularly her brothers and partner’s) successes and how she does not live up to them. This protects Jaz by “getting in first” before someone else calls her inept she says how hopeless she is first. Jaz has also learned to cope with feeling like a failure by developing a “perfectionistic over-controller” where she focuses on being in control of getting everything right at work to try and minimise the times that she feels like a failure. Finally, Jaz has learned to cope by avoiding failure by not trying this “avoidant protector” side is what is making it hard for her to complete a relatively simple task at work, it protects her from having to take on a promotion where she may feel like a failure if she doesn’t succeed (avoiding doesn’t trigger her failure schema).
Although we can understand each of these “coping modes”, these coping modes keep Jaz stuck and maintains this feeling that she is a failure. Working to understand these coping modes (where they come from and how they operate) begins the shift towards healing the underlying schemas.