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Schema therapy posits that psychological difficulties stem from early maladaptive schemas (EMS) and clients’ characteristic responses to them, referred to as ‘coping styles’. This Abandonment information handout forms part of the Psychology Tools Schema series. It is designed to help clients and therapists to work more effectively with common early maladaptive schemas (EMS).

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Introduction & Theoretical Background

A brief introduction to schema therapy

Schema therapy is an integrative therapy initially developed for treating complex, longstanding, and diffuse psychological difficulties. It combines cognitive behavioral, attachment, gestalt, object relationships, constructivist, psychoanalytic, and neurobiological approaches within a unifying conceptual model (Young, 1990, 1999; Young et al., 2003). Additional interventions have since been outlined, such as EMDR (Young et al., 2002), mindfulness (van Vreeswijk et al., 2014), and body-focused methods (Briedis & Startup, 2020). Schema therapy expands on CBT by emphasizing the developmental origins of psychological problems, incorporating relational and experiential interventions, and targeting the maladaptive coping styles that perpetuate these difficulties (Young et al., 2003).

Early maladaptive schemas

Schemas are enduring and foundational mental structures that play an essential role in cognitive processing, enabling humans to represent the complexities of the world (Rafaeli et al., 2016). By simplifying reality, they make the vast array of information we encounter manageable, so that we can take quick and automatic action. Schemas also act as shortcuts that help us reach conclusions without unnecessary processing. However, while these shortcuts are efficient, they can produce distorted interpretations of reality. Research confirms that schemas can be adaptive or maladaptive, and positive or negative, depending on their output (Young et al., 2003). Adaptive schemas are associated with positive functions and adaptive behavioral dispositions (Louis et al., 2018).

In schema therapy, EMS are defined as negative, pervasive themes or patterns regarding oneself and one’s relationship with others that are dysfunctional and self-defeating. Structurally, EMS are believed to consist of thoughts, memories, emotions, bodily sensations, and the meanings ascribed to them (Van Genderen et al., 2012). Importantly, behavior is not a component of schemas, but a response to their activation. In other words, EMS activation results in schema-driven actions (Young et al., 2003).

Interactions between a child’s temperament, parenting, sociocultural context, and significant life experiences (e.g., traumatic events) can give rise to unmet emotional needs, which form the basis of EMS. EMS are usually accurate representations of these early environments and lead to responses that help the child survive and adapt to these contexts (Farrell et al., 2014; Young et al., 2003). EMS become dysfunctional when they are indiscriminately and repeatedly applied to later life experiences.

EMS are elaborated and strengthened throughout their lifespan, becoming the ‘filters’ through which individuals understand and make predictions about themselves, others, and the world (Young & Klosko, 1994). Accordingly, EMS developed in early life are superimposed on current events (even when not applicable), leading to dysfunctional patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior (Young et al., 2003).

[EMS] become dysfunctional because … they render all new situations, even ones that are profoundly different from the toxic early experiences, similarly toxic (even when in reality they are not), and … lead the person to maintain particular types of [toxic] environments or relationships, even when they can exert influence or choice and create other kinds of experiences. 

Rafaeli et al., 2011.

Schema development

Core emotional needs

Satisfying core emotional needs during childhood leads to the development of healthy schemas, while unmet needs give rise to EMS. Young and colleagues (2003) originally outlined 5 core emotional needs based on Bowlby’s (1977) attachment theory and clinical observation (Bach et al., 2018). While they are believed to be universal, the strength of these needs can vary across individuals and potentially across cultures (e.g., Hahn & Oishi, 2006). They are:

  1. Secure attachments (e.g., safety, protection, acceptance, stability, and belonging).
  2. Autonomy, competence, and sense of identity.
  3. Freedom to express needs and emotions.
  4. Spontaneity and play.
  5. Realistic limits and self-control.

Given that core needs initially relate to the child’s primary attachments, difficulties within the nuclear family are often the principal source of EMS (Rafaeli et al., 2011). Young acknowledged that attachment needs were of primary importance for the developing child, laying the foundation for the satisfaction of other needs (Brockman et al., 2023). However, as children mature, needs arising other arenas such as school and the wider community become important (e.g., stable friendships, peer group acceptance, etc.). While unmet needs in these later contexts can lead to EMS, schemas emerging in adolescence are usually less pervasive than those developed during childhood (Young et al., 2003). EMS can also develop in later life (such as in response to deeply disturbing events), although this is much less common (Louis et al., 2018).

Other core needs have also been proposed, such as fairness, self-coherence (Arntz et al., 2021), novelty, self-comprehension (Flanagan, 2010), self-esteem (Loose et al., 2020), meaning (Meier, 2019), and connectedness to nature (O’Sheedy, 2021). However, these core needs have not yet been fully incorporated into the schema therapy model. Core needs are described in more detail in the Psychology Tools Unmet Emotional Needs information handout.

Early experiences

Interactions between a child’s early environment and innate temperament can frustrate their core emotional needs, leading to EMS development. Young and colleagues (2003) identify 4 childhood experiences that contribute to EMS:

  • Toxic withholding. The child is given too little of what they need (e.g., insufficient attention, affection, protection, etc.).
  • Toxic excess. The child is given too much of what they need (e.g., they are over-indulged, overprotected, granted excessive freedoms, etc.).
  • Traumatization. The child is harmed, victimized, or humiliated (e.g., parental abuse, bullying, discrimination, etc.).
  • Selective internalization. The child internalizes maladaptive attitudes that are modeled by a caregiver or family member  (e.g., perfectionism, pessimism, etc.).

Emotional temperament

Temperament refers to enduring differences in children’s behavioral style and reactivity (Zentner & Bates, 2008). It can contribute to EMS formation by influencing parenting styles (Eisenberg et al., 1999; Kiff et al., 2011; Pekdoğan & Mehmet, 2022). For example:

  • Irritable children tend to elicit punitive parenting, leading to increased anger.
  • Fearful children tend to elicit protective parenting, leading to increased anxiety.
  • Impulsive children tend to elicit controlling parenting, increasing impulsivity.

Moreover, children have a ‘differential susceptibility’ to their childhood environments and experiences (Belsky, 2013). For example, reactive children are more likely to flounder in response to poor parenting. This partly explains why some individuals develop EMS in the absence of severe trauma (Lockwood & Perris, 2012).

Schema perpetuation

EMS are remarkably obstinate: they “fight for survival”. Young and colleagues (2003) suggest the durability of EMS partly stems the need for ‘cognitive consistency’: people strive to maintain a stable view of themselves and the world, even if it is inaccurate and distressing. Moreover, EMS are often central to an individual’s sense of self, making the idea of a schematic “paradigm shift” extremely threatening (Beck et al., 2004; Young & Klokso, 1994):

Although [the client’s] schematic structure may be unrewarding and lonely, change means that [they] are in new territory... They are being asked not just to change a single chain of behaviors, or reframe a simple perception, but rather to give up who they are and how they have defined themselves for many years, and across many contexts.

Beck et al., 2004.

Several other factors account for why EMS persist and are strengthened over time.

  • Cognitive factors. EMS act as cognitive filters, distorting information and generating unhelpful thinking styles (Young et al., 2003). For example, schema-consistent information is exaggerated, while schema-inconsistent information is filtered out (i.e., magnification and minimization). Other cognitive distortions linked to EMS perpetuation include selective abstraction, overgeneralization, and labeling (Da Luz et al., 2017; Young, 1999). Research indicates schema activation not only generates negative automatic thoughts, but that these appraisals in turn reinforce EMS (Calvete et al., 2013).
  • Affective factors. Individuals often block painful emotions linked to their EMS. Consequently, EMS do not reach conscious awareness which prevents their disconfirmation (Young et al., 2003). Affect can also make schema-congruent perceptions feel true. Finally, schema maintenance processes and their centrality to the individual’s sense of self can engender hopelessness about change (Young, 1999).
  • Behavioral factors. EMS lead to self-defeating behaviors, referred to as ‘coping responses’. For example, individuals might remain in toxic situations, provoke negative responses from others, or select partners that reinforce their EMS (Rafaeli et al., 2011).

Maladaptive coping styles

Coping styles refer to the characteristic ways individuals manage their EMS. Coping styles develop in childhood and operate outside of awareness, helping individuals adapt to their EMS, the intense affect accompanying them, and the environments in which they were formed (Rafaeli et al., 2011; Young et al., 2003). Much like EMS, factors that may influence the emergence of coping styles include temperament, modeling, conditioning, and culture (Loose et al., 2020; Nia & Sovani, 2014). While they are apparent in all individuals, coping styles tend to be more rigid, extreme, and ‘overlearned’ in clinical groups (Beck et al., 2004). Most importantly, coping styles play a central role in EMS perpetuation. 

Coping styles, in turn, give rise to idiographic ‘coping responses’ – the situation-specific manifestations of the client’s coping style. While coping styles are repetitious, coping responses are more variable and can take the form of behavioral, cognitive, or emotional reactions to EMS activation (Simeone-DiFrancesco et al., 2015).

Young and colleagues (Young & Klosko, 1994; Young et al., 2003) identify three coping styles, recently reformulated by an international working group (Arntz et al., 2021).  
While most individuals use a mix of coping styles, some disorders are characterized by the predominance of one coping style (e.g., overcompensatory control in narcissistic personality disorder; Rafaeli et al., 2011):

  • ‘Surrender’ (Young et al., 2003) or ‘Resignation’ (Arntz et al., 2021). Corresponding to the evolutionary ‘freeze’ or ‘fawn’ response, the individual responds to their EMS by accepting its core message and behaving as if it were true. Consequently, they experience the pain of the EMS directly.
  • ‘Avoidance’ (Young et al., 2003) or ‘Escape’ (Young & Klosko, 1994). Corresponding to the evolutionary ‘flight’ response, the individual arranges their life such that their EMS is not triggered. The pain of their EMS is avoided or suppressed. Avoidant coping may be overt (e.g., escaping from schema activating situations or individuals) or covert (e.g., using substances or dissociation to dull schema-related distress).
  • ‘Overcompensation’ (Young et al., 2003) or ‘Inversion’ (Arntz et al., 2021). Corresponding to the ‘fight’ response, the individual responds to schema activation by attacking, overcorrecting, or externalizing their EMS (Greenwald & Young, 1998). The pain of the EMS is masked with other thoughts, emotions, and actions (e.g., the individual replaces feelings of inferiority with superiority).

Three additional coping styles (indolence, mockery, and gaucherie) have also been proposed (Askari, 2021).

Young (1990) originally described 15 EMS, which were later increased to 18 schemas (Young et al., 2003). Additional schemas have since been proposed (e.g., Arntz et al., 2021; Brockman et al., 2023; Yalcin et al., 2023). The 18 EMS described by Young and colleagues (2003) were subsequently clustered into ‘schema domains’ which correspond to specific unmet emotional needs. Abandonment is grouped with EMS in the ‘disconnection and rejection’ domain, which are characterized by difficulties forming secure and satisfying relationships with others (Bach et al., 2018; Young et al., 2003).


Abandonment is characterized by a fear that important relationships will end abruptly and irreconcilably. Individuals with this EMS experience anxiety about potential losses and are hypervigilant for signs of desertion (Young et al., 2003). Consequently, their close relationships tend to be less satisfying and more conflictual (Harandi, 2021).

[Your] relationships are seldom calm and steady. Rather, they often feel like roller coaster rides. This is because you experience the relationship as perpetually on the brink of catastrophe… You feel that if your connection to the loved person were lost, you would be plunged into utter aloneness.

Young & Klosko, 1994.

For others, abandonment is experienced as a perceived lack of security and reliability; that significant others cannot or will not provide consistent emotional support, protection, or connection due to their unpredictability or volatility. Young and Klosko (1994) suggest this sense of ‘emotional abandonment’ often stems from unstable caregivers (e.g., individuals who were suddenly aggressive or rejecting).

As a result, individuals with abandonment are often high in ‘rejection sensitivity’: the tendency to anticipate, perceive, and overreact to real or imagined rejection (De Paoli et al., 2017; Downey & Feldman, 1996). Furthermore, they are likely to interpret ambiguous cues as rejection and selectively attend to threatening social cues. However, attributions for being abandoned will vary according to individuals’ developmental experiences. They might include:

  • Internal factors (e.g., the client will not sustain the other person’s interest or attention).
  • External factors (e.g., that other people are inherently fickle, emotionally unpredictable, or inconsistent).
  • Catastrophic events (e.g., the other person will die or suddenly disappear).

People experience abandonment most acutely within intimate relationships. While physical separation (e.g., brief periods apart, divorce, death) is a common trigger for this EMS, emotional disconnection can be equally distressing (e.g., instances where the other person seems bored, distracted, or focused on another individual). Young and Klosko (1994) also note that abandonment can be triggered in absence of relational threats – some people have stable relationships that nonetheless feel precarious. Due to these fears, individuals with abandonment often seek excessive reassurance, negatively impacting both their relationships and well-being (Evraire & Dozois, 2014). ‘Schema chemistry’ may also play a role in perpetuating this EMS – individuals with abandonment are sometimes attracted to partners who are unavailable and uncommitted (Young et al., 2003).

Young and Klosko (1994) identify two common abandonment patterns associated with different childhood experiences:

  • Individuals with functional abandonment fear that they will not survive in the world without the assistance of another person. These individuals have often experienced overprotective childhoods, leading to a dependence/incompetence EMS alongside abandonment.
  • Individuals with emotional abandonment are preoccupied with the intense hurt accompanying disconnection from others. These concerns often stem from early experiences of loss or instability.

Finally, therapists should note that abandonment can have a detrimental impact on clients’ response to therapy. Research indicates that individuals with higher pre-treatment levels of abandonment tend to experience poorer outcomes in CBT for OCD (Haaland et al., 2011). Furthermore, individuals with this EMS sometimes struggle to form a therapeutic alliance, especially early in treatment, which has the potential to sabotage therapy.

As with all EMS, abandonment has many structural components. Individuals with this schema are prone to several cognitive distortions or ‘unhelpful thinking styles’ (Lorzangeneh & Issazadegan, 2022; Young et al., 2003), which may include:

  • All-or-nothing thinking (e.g., “Either we always get along or our relationship is doomed to end”).
  • Catastrophizing (e.g., “My partner hasn’t returned my call – they’ve found someone better than me”).
  • Emotional reasoning (e.g., “My wife says she loves me, but I still feel like she could walk out at any moment”).
  • Fortune-telling (e.g., “They will think I’m selfish and abandon me if I put myself first”).
  • Overgeneralizing (e.g., “My relationships never last: everyone leaves me eventually”).
  • ‘Should’ statements (e.g., “People should be there for me whenever I need them”).
  • Thought-abandonment fusion (e.g., “Thinking about being abandoned is almost as painful as being abandoned”; Pozo et al., 2018).

Clinical observation suggests that abandonment often co-occurs with other schemas (Young & Klosko, 1994; Young et al., 2003). EMS associated with abandonment include:

  • Defectiveness. The client believes that other people will leave if they discover how flawed they are.
  • Dependence/Incompetence. The client fears they will be unable to function without the help of the other person.
  • Emotional deprivation. Perceived or actual abandonment leaves the client feeling emotionally neglected and deprived. These schemas often share an origin in unavailable or inconsistent caregivers.
  • Emotional inhibition. The client believes that other people will leave if they express their true feelings.
  • Pessimism. Abandonment and pessimism share a common origin in significant losses during childhood (e.g., the death of a parent).
  • Self-sacrifice. Often mirroring early life experiences, the client self-sacrifices and cares for others in the hope that this will prevent them from leaving.
  • Subjugation. The client does whatever other people want to avoid being abandoned.
  • Unrelenting standards. The client strives to be perfect to prevent desertion or to suppress the emotional pain of past losses.

Emotions associated with abandonment EMS include:

  • Worry, fear, or panic associated with being abandoned.
  • Grief, sadness, or depression associated with actual or perceived losses.
  • Anger associated with minor separations and/or past experiences of abandonment.
  • Loneliness associated with actual or perceived isolation.
  • Shame associated with the distress accompanying abandonment and isolation.
  • Jealousy and competitiveness associated with perceived rivals.

As a result, people with abandonment may experience difficulties when it comes to:

  • Tolerating separations, conflict, and time alone.
  • Accepting others’ independence, autonomy, and outside interests.
  • Holding realistic expectations about others’ availability.
  • Accepting uncertainty and minor disruptions in relationships.
  • Establishing intimate relationships that are consistent and predictable.
  • Over- or under-investing in intimate relationships.
  • Sensitivity to rejection.

Other difficulties associated with abandonment EMS include addictions (Sakulsriprasert et al., 2023), anger (Askari, 2019), anxiety (Nicol et al., 2020), bipolar disorder (Nilsson et al., 2015), borderline personality disorder (Barazandeh et al., 2016), burnout (Simpson et al., 2019), childhood trauma (Pilkington et al., 2021), complicated grief (Thimm & Holland, 2017), dependent personality disorder (Nordahl et al., 2005), depression (Bishop et al., 2022), domestic violence (Hassija et al., 2018), eating disorders (Maher et al., 2022), OCD (Kizilagac & Cerit, 2019), passive-aggressive personality disorder (Nordahl et al., 2005), PTSD (Cockram et al., 2010), relationship problems (Janovsky et al., 2020), self-harm (Pilkington et al., 2021), sleep problems (Rodrigues et al., 2019), somatoform disorders (Henker et al., 2019), and suicide (Ahmadpanah et al., 2017).

Development origins

Research suggests that genetic factors may contribute to abandonment (e.g., Scaini et al., 2012). However, developmental experiences are likely to play a more important role.

Abandonment is associated with unmet emotional needs relating to stable and predictable attachments. Formative experiences that play a role in the development of this EMS may include:

  • Loss of an attachment figure (e.g., due to death, separation, or divorce).
  • Unpredictable or inconsistent parenting (e.g., changeability due to addiction or depression).
  • Extended or repeated episodes of parental abandonment or isolation.
  • Loss of parental attention (e.g., a younger sibling who requires intensive care).
  • Conflict between parents.
  • Changeable attachment figures (e.g., being raised in foster care).

Research confirms that developmental experiences are associated with abandonment, including early trauma (May et al., 2022; Pilkington et al., 2021) and loss of attachment figures (D’Rozario & Pilkington, 2022). Parenting styles that are belittling, fearful, overprotective, controlling, and punitive have also been linked to this EMS (Bruysters & Pilkington, 2022; Sheffield et al., 2005). However, it should be noted that abandonment may emerge during pre-verbal stages of development, meaning that some clients are unable to identify the origins of this EMS (Young & Klosko, 1994).

Therapist Guidance

"Many people struggle with abandonment, and it sounds as though this might be relevant to you too. Would you be willing to explore this schema more with me?"

Clinicians might begin by providing psychoeducation about abandonment and EMS more generally:

  • Schemas are negative themes and patterns that start in your childhood and continue throughout your life. Some are very common.
  • Schemas usually get stronger as time passes, becoming the negative filters people use to understand and make predictions about the world. You could think of them as dark sunglasses – they colour and distort our experiences in unhelpful ways. 
  • Schemas operate ‘behind the scenes’: we’re not usually aware of them or when they are active. However, with practice, you can become more aware of them. It is a bit like a theatre – you can learn to bring your backstage schemas to the main stage. 
  • One common schema is ‘abandonment’. If you have this schema, you expect that the people closest to you will leave and abandon you. Alternatively, you might experience them as unreliable or inconsistent when you most need support. As a result, your relationships feel unpredictable and unstable. 
  • Signs that you have an abandonment schema include worrying people will leave or forget about you, being clingy or possessive, asking for lots of reassurance, or avoiding intimate relationships so you aren’t abandoned.   
  • People develop schemas because some of their emotional needs were not met while they were growing up. As children, schemas help us make sense of our early experiences and get by. If you have an abandonment schema, you might have experienced significant losses as a child or had parents who were unpredictable, unavailable, inconsistent, or just seemed to come and go. 
  • Schemas are painful, so people learn to cope with them in different ways. You might cope with abandonment by worrying about people leaving you (you surrender to your schema), avoiding relationships or withdrawing from people so you don’t get hurt (you escape your schema), or by punishing people for not being there for you, either physically or emotionally (you counter-attack your schema).

Standard treatment techniques for working with abandonment are listed below. They include:

  • Self-monitoring (e.g., schema diaries). 
  • Cognitive interventions (e.g., historical review, decentring, flashcards).
  • Emotion-focused interventions (e.g., imagery rescripting, chairwork, letter-writing). 
  • Relational interventions (e.g., limited reparenting, empathic confrontation).
  • Behavioural interventions (e.g., experimentation, behavioural pattern-breaking).  

In light of the unmet needs associated with abandonment, individuals with this EMS also require a specific ‘need-meeting’ style of interaction from the outset of therapy (Cutland Green & Balfour, 2020). This includes dependability, commitment, and reliability (e.g., following up on homework assignments). Therapists will also need to help the client tolerate periods of unavailability and correct the expectation that they will be abandoned (Lockwood & Perris, 2012; Lockwood & Samson, 2020; Young et al., 2003).

References And Further Reading

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Alba, J., Calvete, E., Wante, L., Van Beveren, M. L., & Braet, C. (2018). Early maladaptive schemas as moderators of the association between bullying victimization and depressive symptoms in adolescents. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 42, 24-35. DOI: 10.1007/s10608-017-9874-5.

Arntz, A., Rijkeboer, M., Chan, E., Fassbinder, E., Karaosmanoglu, A., Lee, C. W., & Panzeri, M. (2021). Towards a reformulated theory underlying schema therapy: Position paper of an international workgroup. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 45, 1007-1020. DOI: 10.1007/s10608-021-10209-5.

Askari, A. (2021). New concepts of schema therapy: The six coping styles. Amir Askari.

Askari, I. (2019). Early maladaptive schemas and cognitive-behavioral aspect of anger: Schema model perspective. Journal of Rational-Emotive and Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, 37, 262-283. DOI: 10.1007/s10942-018-0311-9.

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Barazandeh, H., Kissane, D. W., Saeedi, N., & Gordon, M. (2016). A systematic review of the relationship between early maladaptive schemas and borderline personality disorder/traits. Personality and Individual Differences, 94, 130-139. DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2016.01.021.

Beck, A. T., Freeman, A., & Davis, D. D. (2004). Cognitive therapy of personality disorders. Guilford Press.

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Bishop, A., Younan, R., Low, J., & Pilkington, P. D. (2022). Early maladaptive schemas and depression in adulthood: A systematic review and meta‐analysis. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, 29, 111-130. DOI: 10.1002/cpp.2630.

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Brockman, R. N., Simpson, S., Hayes, C., Wijingaart, R. V. D., & Smout, M. (2023). Cambridge guide to schema therapy. Cambridge University Press.

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Haaland, A. T., Vogel, P. A., Launes, G., Haaland, V. Ø., Hansen, B., Solem, S., & Himle, J. A. (2011). The role of early maladaptive schemas in predicting exposure and response prevention outcome for obsessive-compulsive disorder. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 49, 781-788. DOI: 10.1016/j.brat.2011.08.007.

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Harandi, R. J. (2021). The role of abandonment schema, self–other overlap, and negative emotions in predicting marital conflict. Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy, 20, 405-421. DOI: 10.1080/15332691.2021.1900009.

Hassija, C. M., Robinson, D., Silva, Y., & Lewin, M. R. (2018). Dysfunctional parenting and intimate partner violence perpetration and victimization among college women: The mediating role of schemas. Journal of Family Violence, 33, 65–73. DOI: 10.1007/s10896-017- 9942-3.

Henker, J., Keller, A., Reiss, N., Siepmann, M., Croy, I., & Weidner, K. (2019). Early maladaptive schemas in patients with somatoform disorders and somatization. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, 26, 418-429. DOI: 10.1002/cpp.2363.

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