The Mistrust and Abuse Schema

“You can’t trust anyone!” Clara announced. “They might act nice, but at the end of the day they are only out for number one”. Clara’s employer was funding psychology sessions to treat depression and alcohol addiction. She was reluctant to attend and even more reluctant to open up. “At the end of the day, you work for my boss!” she asserted.

Bob’s father had all sorts of names for him growing up. “Wuss, wimp, P***y, weakling; Dad used to love putting us down”. He grew up scared of his Dad, but also of authorities. Dad would tell us that if anyone found out about his beatings we’d be taken away. Bob is aloof, guarded and alone.

Brigit was sexually abused by her older brother. “He was 7 years older than me and I idolised him. When he started giving me attention around age 7-8 over my middle brother, I was so proud and happy”. Unfortunately, the attention was part of the grooming process. “I felt so guilty and ashamed, and now I just don’t trust men”.

Kids need love. They look to their parents and trusted older people for love. For most of human history we didn’t have the state to intervene and save us; a kid who couldn’t get love from their parents was in big trouble! Luckily most parents love their kids and try to provide them with safe, unconditional love. Unfortunately, some parents are either unwilling (or more commonly) unable to give this love. In these families physical, sexual and emotional abuse can occur.

Imagine the confusion and pain. The big strong carer. You need him to love and care for you. You idolise him, hand your innocence on a platter. And he takes his anger or frustration or sexual impulses out on. The child can’t run away, it needs the carer. So, the child grows up to blame himself. “Maybe I led him on”. “Maybe it was my weakness that made this happen”. This is how the Mistrust and Abuse Schema develops.

A milder form of this schema can form through modelling. Some parents tell their children that they can’t trust outsiders. Maybe these parents had their own abuse history. This was true for Clara. Her family was close, but her father was constantly at war with institutions and individuals that had seemingly mistreated him. He propagated the family culture: “the only people you could trust are other family members”.

The abused child today: The Guardian

Now, the adult carries the abused child within. This child feels unsafe, scared of others and of its own need for affection, love and companionship. For many people with this schema, The Guardian has developed. The Guardian is a prickly, defensive, vigilant coping mode which protects the inner child. The only problem is that the Guardian is too effective. Other people are scared off – good people and bad people indiscriminately.


The adult carrying an abused child within is always on the look out for people’s ulterior motives. They say they like me, but do they really like me? Even old friends might turn out to be untrustworthy. And the more paranoid you get, the more you’ll seek evidence of betrayal. And the harder you look for betrayal, the more you’ll find!


Its no surprise that adults with the Mistrust Abuse Schema have difficulties with relationships. Perversely, the mistrustful adult might seek out an abuser as a partner. Maybe because of the early link between love and abuse. Maybe because of a sense of brokenness – “I’m worthless, he’s as good as I’ll get”.


Healing is possible with this schema. Clara worked on Black and White Thinking, she realised that people were not all good or bad, trustworthy or untrustworthy. Bob worked on dismantling the guardian and letting people in. Brigit worked on Mind Reading; She stopped inferring bad intentions to other people and started to give the benefit of the doubt (when she was safe to do so). For all three, realising that their worldview was warped by the childhood abuse they suffered helped them to see a way out of the pain.

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