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What Are Schemas?

Schema therapy posits that psychological difficulties stem from early maladaptive schemas (EMS) and peoples’ characteristic responses to them, referred to as ‘coping styles’. This What Are Schemas 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, 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, enabling 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. For this reason, schemas can be adaptive or maladaptive, and positive or negative, depending on their output (Young et al., 2003). Research confirms the existence of both adaptive and maladaptive schemas, the former being 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). However, 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 they are 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.

Studies have confirmed the links between EMS and psychopathology, indicating that schemas are not only more pronounced in clinical groups (Thimm & Chang, 2022) but predict the presence or absence of psychopathology (Rijkeboer et al., 2005). Moreover, research suggests that EMS influence responses to psychotherapy. For example, higher pre-treatment levels of abandonment schema are related to poorer outcomes in OCD, while decreases in failure are related to better outcomes (Haaland et al., 2011).

Schema characteristics

EMS are remarkably obstinate and “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.

Other characteristics of EMS include:

  • EMS are dynamic. EMS ‘sleep’ in the background until they are triggered by relevant cues (Roediger et al., 2018). In other words, schemas can be active or inactive (Beck, 2015). Situations resembling early experiences associated with EMS formation are likely to be most activating.
  • EMS are prepotent. Despite their inactivity, latent EMS are ready to supersede other schemas and bias information processing in unhelpful ways (Beck et al., 2004).
  • EMS are inhibitory. Once activated, EMS tend to displace other schemas that might be more adaptive or appropriate for the situation (e.g., positive schemas) (Beck, 2015).
  • EMS are dimensional. EMS vary in strength. Severe EMS are triggered by a broader range of cues, accompanied by greater affect, and remain activated for longer (Young et al., 2003). Pronounced EMS also have lower thresholds for activation (Beck, 2015).
  • EMS are dense. Schemas can be more or less prominent in the cognitive organization (Beck, 2015). Compared to other (e.g., positive) schemas, EMS have thicker and more tightly interconnected memory structures or ‘nodes’, meaning that activation of one node rapidly activates the entire EMS (Louis et al., 2018).

Finally, EMS are distinct from core beliefs (James et al., 2004). While some overlap exists in terms of their stability, emotional intensity, and overgeneralized nature, important differences include the following (Riso & McBride, 2007):

  • EMS go beyond cognitive content and include emotions, sensations, and memories. Accordingly, core beliefs represent the verbal-cognitive content or “narrative axioms” of EMS (e.g., “I’m different” in the social isolation EMS; Greenwald & Young, 1998; Rafaeli et al., 2016).
  • Schemas are not observable through introspection, although their content is accessible. In other words, core beliefs are easier to articulate, while EMS are more implicit and operate largely outside of awareness (Beck, 2015; Farrell & Shaw, 2012).
  • EMS are closely related to unmet childhood needs, although this might not be true for core beliefs.

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 (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) (see Kudryavtsev, 2011, for the importance of creativity). 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:

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

Research confirms that toxic childhood experiences contribute to EMS development, highlighting the roles of childhood abuse (Pilkington et al., 2021), dysfunctional parenting (e.g., Bach et al., 2018), bullying (Alba et al., 2018), and other traumatic events (Noor & Dildar, 2021; Wells & Hackmann, 1993). Evidence has also been found for the intergenerational transmission of EMS (e.g., Sundag et al., 2018).

Emotional temperament

Temperament refers to enduring differences in children’s behavioral style and reactivity (Zentner & Bates, 2008). Temperament 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

Several 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 also engender hopelessness about change (Young, 1999).
  • Behavioral factors. EMS lead to self-defeating behaviors, referred to as ‘coping responses’ (see below). 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 is 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). Coping styles and responses are described in more detail in the Psychology Tools Coping Styles And Responses information handout.

Schema domains

Young (1990) initially described 15 EMS, which were later expanded to include 18 schemas (Young et al., 2003). They were subsequently clustered into five hypothetical ‘schema domains’ corresponding to specific unmet emotional needs: disconnection and rejection, impaired autonomy and performance, impaired limits, other-directedness, overvigiliance and inhibition (Young et al., 2003). However, subsequent research suggests that the four domain structure that follows is more parsimonious (Bach et al., 2018; Hoffart et al., 2005; Mącik & Mącik, 2022).

Domain 1: Disconnection and rejection

Associated EMS: defectiveness, emotional deprivation, emotional inhibition, mistrust/abuse, pessimism, social isolation.

EMS in this domain are associated with the expectation that one’s needs for affection, safety, empathy, belonging, respect, emotional expression, and spontaneity will not be met. Childhood environments associated with this schema domain tend to be abusive, emotionally barren, or lonely. Individuals may have experienced critical, withholding, and/or emotionally detached parenting and/or peer group interactions characterized by difference or estrangement.

Domain 2: Impaired autonomy and performance

Associated EMS: abandonment, dependence/incompetence, enmeshment, failure to achieve, subjugation, vulnerability to harm.

EMS in this domain are associated with the expectation that one cannot function independently, perform successfully, and/or express needs and feelings freely. Fears about abandonment or not surviving in the world are also common. Childhood environments associated with this schema domain tend to be overprotective, enmeshed, and danger-orientated. Individuals may have experienced parenting that is intrusive, undermining, anxious, emotionally-invalidating, unrewarding, or unstable. Alternatively, individuals may have received little help or guidance from others (Young, 1999). Comparative lack of success or competence may have characterized peer group interactions.

Domain 3: Excessive responsibility and standards

Associated EMS: punitiveness, self-sacrifice, unrelenting standards.

EMS in this domain are associated with meeting strict internalized standards and expectations (e.g., around performance or responsibilities to others), often at the expense of personal needs (e.g., joy, rest, self-expression, and close relationships). Some individuals may expect others to meet these standards and responsibilities. Childhood environments associated with this domain may be strict, demanding, rule-orientated, and repressed. Individuals may have experienced parenting that is perfectionistic, expectant, and at times punitive or guilt-inducing. Peer group interactions may have been characterized by rivalry and competitiveness.

Domain 4: Impaired limits

Associated EMS: approval/admiration-seeking, entitlement, insufficient self-control.

EMS in this domain are associated with difficulties pursuing long-term goals, setting internal limits, and/or respecting the rights of others, resulting in impulsivity, grandiosity, or entitlement. Childhood environments associated with this schema domain tend to be permissive, indulgent, and/or haughty. Individuals are likely to have experienced parenting that was conditional, narcissistic, and/or did not emphasize discipline or reciprocal cooperation.

It should be noted that additional EMS have been proposed, such as fear of losing control, lack of coherent identity, lack of meaning, unfairness, and lack of connectedness to nature (Arntz et al., 2021; Brockman et al., 2023; Yalcin et al., 2023). However, these have not yet been fully elaborated or researched.

Therapist Guidance

"Early maladaptive schemas are negative themes or patterns in your thoughts and feelings that repeat themselves throughout your life. People usually develop these schemas in response to difficult childhood experiences. As adults, they influence how we see and respond to our experiences in unhelpful ways. You could think of them as unhealthy ‘traps’ that we keep falling into. Can we explore whether schemas might be relevant to your difficulties?"

  • "When you think about your life, are there any negative themes that seem to run through it?"
  • "Have you noticed unhelpful relationship patterns that you keep falling into?"
  • "Would you say there is a negative ‘same old story’ that seems to define your life?"
  • "Do you keep having similar setbacks in your life or your relationships?"
  • "Most schemas can be phrased as negative beliefs that you hold about yourself, other people, or the world. Can you try putting your schema(s) into words? For example, “I am…”, “I need to…”, or “People are…”."
  • "Where do you think these negative beliefs, themes, or patterns come from?"
  • "Can you relate to the idea of having unmet emotional needs as a child?"
  • "Do you see a link between these unmet needs and the patterns in your adult life?"
  • "What might be keeping these patterns going?"

References And Further Reading

  • 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.
  • Bach, B., Lockwood, G., & Young, J. E. (2018). A new look at the schema therapy model: organization and role of early maladaptive schemas. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, 47, 328-349. DOI: 10.1080/16506073.2017.1410566.
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