- “A schema is an abstract representation of the distinctive characteristics of an event, a kind of blueprint of its most salient elements.”
- “[A schema is] an abstract cognitive plan that serves as guide for interpreting information and solving problems.”
- “[A schema is] any broad organizing principle for making sense of one’s life experience.”
Young, Klosko, and Weishaar (2003) describe how “schemas begin in early childhood or adolescence as reality-based representations of the child’s environment.” Schemas continue to be elaborated upon throughout the course of our life, and then superimposed on later life experiences even when they are no longer applicable. For example, if a child formed an accurate schema during childhood that “other people are scary and unpredictable” then they may live with the emotional and behavioral consequences of this schema even if they live in a substantially different context as an adult.
An important property of schemas is that they strive for ‘cognitive consistency’—that we prefer to maintain a stable view of ourselves and the world, even if this schema is inaccurate.
“Early maladaptive schemas fight for survival … although it causes suffering, it is comfortable and familiar, it feels right” (Young, Klosko, & Weishaar, 2003).
Schemas are a key maintenance factor in cognitive therapy because they determine “what we notice, attend to, and remember of our experiences” (Padesky, 1994). A schema of ‘I’m bad’ may make it hard for an individual to notice when they do something good, leading to the maintenance of the unhelpful way of thinking and being. Mechanisms by which schemas are maintained include:
- selective attention;
- selective memory;
- biased interpretation of ambiguous stimuli such as discounting contradictory information or by seeing the information as an exception to the schema.
Treatment Approaches That Target Schema Maintenance / Schema Change
Padesky (1994) describes a number of techniques within CBT which may be used to change schemas including:
- continuum methods to evaluate self/behavior on negative and adaptive continuum;
- positive data logs to collect disconfirmatory evidence;
- historical texts of schema;
- imagery techniques;
- psychodrama / role-play techniques.
Padesky, C. A. (1994). Schema change processes in cognitive therapy. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy, 1(5), 267–278.
Young, J. E., Klosko, J. S., & Weishaar, M. E. (2003). Schema therapy: A practitioner’s guide. New York: Guilford Press.
- Beck, A.T. (1967). Depression: Causes and treatment. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press).
- James, I. A., & Barton, S. (2004). Changing core beliefs with the continuum technique. Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy, 32(04), 431-442 download archive.org
- Kovacs, M., & Beck, A. T. (1978). Maladaptive cognitive structures in depression. American Journal of psychiatry, 135(5), 525-533 download archive.org
- Padesky, C. (1991). Schema as self-prejudice. International Cognitive Therapy Newsletter, 6, 6-7 download archive.org
- Wenzel, A. (2012). Modification of core beliefs in cognitive therapy. Standard and innovative strategies in Cognitive Behavior Therapy, 17-34 download