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In the field of Psychology, Schemas have been defined in various ways over the years. Aaron Beck, founder of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy used the term schema to define a collection of negative beliefs, and other researchers and authors (i.e. Piaget) have introduced the idea that individuals experience a mix of adaptive and maladaptive schemas which usually develop in childhood and are elaborated upon throughout ones life.

More recently, Schema Therapy (initially developed by Jeffrey Young) focussed in on early maladaptive schemas. He described them as self defeating emotional and cognitive patterns developing from adverse childhood experiences where the child’s emotional needs were not met. Young’s schemas are grouped into 5 domains:

  • Disconnection and rejection.
  • Impaired autonomy and performance.
  • Impaired limits.
  • Other directedness.
  • Over-vigilance and inhibition.

The disconnection and rejection domain is characterised by a lack of safety and reliability in relationships. In childhood, important others may have treated the individual in a cold and rejecting manner, provided little support, or they could have been unpredictable, uninterested, or abusive. The schemas in this domain are: abandonment, mistrust/abuse, emotional deprivation, defectiveness/shame, and social isolation/alienation.

Individuals who score high in the impaired autonomy and performance domain generally hold a belief that they are incapable of functioning independently. They may have come from a family who were overbearing and didn’t allow sufficient opportunity to develop independence. They may have been repeatedly discouraged or talked down to. The schemas in this domain are: dependence/incompetence, vulnerability to harm or illness, enmeshment, and failure to achieve.

Impaired limits typically manifests as poor boundaries and a lack of responsibility. Individuals who score high in this domain may have difficulty applying consistent effort toward long term goals and may have difficulty working with others. They may have come from a family who provided little supervision or corrective feedback, or may have encouraged the child to believe that they were superior to others. The schemas which fall under this domain are: entitlement/grandiosity, and insufficient self-control/self discipline.

Individuals who score high in the other directness domain push down and repress their own needs while elevating the importance of the needs of others over their own. They may have come from a family where love and acceptance were conditional and the child may have had to suppress their true desires, thoughts, and emotions to gain love, attention, or approval. The schemas associated with this domain are: subjugation, self-sacrifice, and approval/recognition seeking.

Over vigilance and inhibition is the final domain and is characterised by a lack of spontaneity and play. Individuals who score high in this domain may suppress spontaneous feelings and impulses, and may tend to focus on meeting rigid expectations at the expense of happiness, health, and healthy relationships. The family of origin may have been tinged with high demands for performance and obligations. The child may have had to hide their emotions and strive for perfection. The schemas that apply to this domain are: negativity/pessimism, emotional inhibition, unrelenting standards/hyper-criticalness, and punitiveness.

If you would like to explore your own schemas and how they apply to your relationships, I recommend purchasing the self-help book Breaking Negative Relationship Patterns: A Schema Therapy Self-help and Support Book (Stevens and Roediger). A related text which may interest you is Breaking Negative Thinking Patterns: A Schema Therapy Self-help and Support Book (Jacob, vanGenderen, and Seebauer). The latter text has less of a focus on schemas and instead focuses on ‘modes’ which I will cover in a later post.

Of course, self-help texts do not replace good quality therapy with a registered professional. If you would like to explore your schemas further, you can make an appointment at one of the two locations listed on the welcome page of my website:

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