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Schema Therapy: Challenging Negative Life Beliefs.

Published: Feb 26, 07:20 pm

Do any of these emotional states sound familiar to you?
*Emotional Deprivation
*Unrelenting Standards/Hypercriticalness
These mental states, made up of a combination of feelings, thoughts and memories, are internalized patterns or Schemas that have a powerful influence on our interpersonal relationships, how we define ourselves and how we relate to the world generally. They are, if you like, relationship templates described as Schemas in a psychological intervention known as Schema Therapy, developed by Young and colleagues (Young, 1990, 1999).
The term Schema has a long pedigree within psychology and can be thought of as a pattern or working model, existing subconsciously which is then projected onto reality to assist individuals explain reality, to filter our perception of it and to organize our responses to it. The important thing to note about these schemas is that they are faulty representations of the world we live in, especially our expectations of others, derived from distorted self-concepts laid down in early childhood.
An adult male comes to psychotherapy seeking help because in all his relationships he seems to attract people who end up exploiting and emotionally abusing him. It is a repetitive pattern or schema in his life that he is unable to break out of. That is what he has come to expect, and in therapy he makes the surprising discovery that subconsciously he seeks out abusive types to confirm that prediction. His self-concept is: I am a bad person, so I deserve abuse. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. He further discovers that this pattern of behaviour is an internalized schema of which its core elements are Mistrust and Abuse. The expectation (based, let us suppose, on being abused by a parent as a child) is that others will hurt, abuse, manipulate or take advantage of me.
This is just one example of a maladaptive schema. The schema therapy model has identified 18 schemas, including such internalized patterns as Entitlement/Grandiosity, Approval Seeking/Recognition Seeking and Unrelenting Standards/Hypercriticalness.
These maladaptive schemas, distorting reality, laid down in childhood, can be challenged, altering in a positive and more realistic way our old habit of negatively evaluating ourselves, others and the world.
Identifying these schemas forms the initial phase of therapy. To assist in this, the client is asked to fill out several different questionnaires covering childhood memories, parenting experiences and defensive coping strategies. The responses to these questions help to map out the internalized schemas that determine outlook and behaviour.
Here is an example of treatment based on a schema therapy intervention.
A female client struggles with an Approval Seeking schema. She is excessively accommodating, often sacrificing her own needs, opinions, tastes in order to keep the other person happy. This is self-sacrifice in the extreme, with the person suppressing important aspects of themselves in order to gain love and approval – fuelled by a fear of rejection.

To help the client diminish the power that this schema has in her life, the therapist may decide to use an experiential strategy, encouraging the client to engage in an imaginary dialogue. Here the client imagines challenging the internalized voice of a parent – a voice which perhaps repeatedly communicated the message of conditional love.
bq. If you do this for me or manage to achieve that, then and only then will I love you.
The dialogue can be enacted with the therapist assuming the parent’s script and the client fighting back, saying,
bq. Accepting myself, my weaknesses as well as my strengths, and listening to my own needs is more important than attempting to meet your impossible standards!
Here the client is fighting back not just against the parental terms and conditions, but against a relentless approval seeking schema. The technique impacts at an emotional level. She feels empowered and freer to express her own emotions. She is beginning to assert her own personal bill of rights.
Dismantling the schema this way, the client begins to generalize and apply this reformed self-concept as new, self-affirming behaviours.
Generally, clients are discouraged from expressing anger directly at their parents in ‘real life’, as the symbolic enactment usually suffices. If the client still wishes to go ahead and consolidate the gains made through the dialogue technique, the pros and cons of taking direct confrontation must be weighed up very carefully beforehand.
Later in the therapy, the therapist may discuss with the client the possibility of forgiving the parent. Reflecting on the parent’s good qualities may help to pave the way for this, in addition to acknowledging the parent’s limitations as a fallible human being. Awareness of the parents own flawed childhood and upbringing, and how those unhealthy patterns the parent inherited were passed on down the generational line, may also help to ameliorate the anger. In order to transition through maltreatment to forgiveness and to overcome the schema, the expression of anger is often the prerequisite to positive change and growth. For most clients, the expression of anger in therapy is essential. In its absence, there may be intellectual understanding, but emotionally the client remains within the grip of the schema.
Schemas are negative life beliefs that we all struggle with at some point in our lives. They are pervasive life patterns that keep cropping up, sabotaging our best intentions, stymieing our relationships. They are our deeply entrenched emotional triggers that are easily set off, sending shockwaves that disturb us at all levels, emotional, physical, mental and behavioural. They are our alter egos, our alternative scripts, our sub personalities, always ready to grab the limelight.
Schema therapy is powerful because it is a psychotherapeutic approach that works on many levels of the personality – the emotional, cognitive, behavioural, and physical. A relatively new kind of psychotherapy emerging in the 1980’s, Schema therapy was used originally to treat people with personality disorders or problems that were resistant to many of the mainstream therapies. But most people benefit from Schema therapy because we all have internalized schemas that can create difficulty in our lives. Below are some key symptoms that can be worked with through Schema therapy: -
Recurring anxiety and / or depression
Relationship problems and attachment difficulties
Impulse control problems, addictions
Anger issues
Self-criticism and low self esteem
Identity problems
Eating disorder
Problematic personality traits
If you are interested in finding out more about Schema Therapy, check out the following The Schema Therapy Institute website –

Young, J.E., Klosko, J.S., &, M.E. (2003) Schema Therapy: A Practitioner’s Guide. The Guilford Press