The Dependence / Incompetence Schema

This is the last of my series on the 18 Early Maladaptive Schemas. Coming in much later than the other articles in this series – I have to admit I hadn’t realised I had omitted this one.

Schema theory is transdiagnostic model of psychotherapy/psychology was developed by Jeff Young in the 1980’s. I hope you’ve enjoyed this series!


“I can’t stand my mum! She never listens to what I want, only does what she wants!” Wendy* is in her early 30’s, has never lived out of home and is angry at her mum for tidying her room. “I get so angry! Then I make all these plans to move out, but I know I’ll never carry through with them, I feel so pathetic!”

The first job of a parent is to attend to the needs of their infant. The little one cannot care for itself; it is utterly dependent. Much more reliant on parents for a much longer period of time we are, much more than any other mammals. Humans gain independence, gain autonomy, slowly slowly.

The second job of a parent is letting go. Letting go of control. Letting go of nurturance and support. The child now must try new things on their own. This way we teach little ones to be to build competence in the world. The child’s self-confidence is bolstered by building competence. A positive feedback loop ensues. Competence building confidence building competence. The virtuous cycle recurring all the way to adulthood and beyond.

Only sometimes, this virtuous cycle doesn’t launch. Over-protective parenting is one way that the child’s autonomy can be restricted. The child’s basic needs continue to be met by the parent long after they are ready to learn to do so on their own. This is what happened to Wendy.

Mum and dad were super-cautious with me. I wasn’t allowed out much and they didn’t give me any responsibility. I wasn’t allowed to use the toaster until I was in Year 10. On the other hand, they were super-busy with work, and didn’t have much time to teach me simple things like how to ride a bike. Dad was Mr Fix-it. My lazy side liked it this way, and I would play up the whole “damsel in distress thing” in order to get out of having to try too hard.

Sometimes this schema can develop when a child has a serious injury or illness when they are young. Understandably, these youngsters are wrapped in cotton wool. Other times the schema develops due to a denigrating parent. The child absorbs the hypercritical message of their caregiver and learns an aversion to trying new things.

Once this schema develops, the affected person appears highly helpless. They often use sentences like “I can’t cope”. They often feel like something has been missed in their development. A missing ingredient that makes them forever a child. Sometimes they (and their peer group) embrace their fragility:

In my 20’s I was heavily involved with some ‘friends’ I met online. They were probably pretty similar to me, they found it hard to be an adult. It felt nice to be validated. But ultimately, I realised it wasn’t good for me to spend all my time with them and I let those friendships go.

Sometimes, people with the schema will often find themselves drifting toward partners or friends who seem strong and capable. These relationships can feel comfortable, but obviously serve to entrench the incompetence feeling. The Dependence Schema individual will often find it difficult to make important decisions without checking with an important other. They commonly lack faith in their own judgement.

Sometimes, the schema leads to resentment. Their dependence is a frustrating trap from which they feel incapable of escaping. This is what happened to Wendy:

I get so angry at my mum and dad for solving my problems for me, but the truth is: I let it happen. Even this age I will let things get so bad that mum and dad feel like they have to rescue me. When I’m getting angry with mum, I know a part of me is really angry with myself for being this way.

Treating this schema involves building confidence and competence. Competence is built through trying new things and making a commitment to accept the negative consequences without being rescued:

I did what you said, I drove somewhere randomly without my phone. I nearly had several panic attacks, but I felt this huge wave of relief and pride when I got home. I had to ask a couple of people for directions, which made me feel like an idiot, but I did it!

Confidence builds as these tasks are tackled. It is also rebuilt by rescripting old messages and memories which reinforce the dependence:

I when I’m trying something new, now I just imagine I’m talking to Little Wendy. I say, “You’ve got this, you can do this, you’re strong enough!”


* Names and key details change to protect anonymity.

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