What is Schema Therapy? Part I

This is the first in a series of blog posts on concepts from schema therapy. Enjoy!

Part I: Bad Habits and Lifetraps – What is a Schema?

Grace* hates to be alone but seems to always push people away. When a friend doesn’t return her messages within what she considers a reasonable timeframe, she finds herself getting angry and resentful. She will then either cease contacting the friend, or act in a sullen, cranky manner when next in her company.

Callum usually thinks of himself as a positive, easy-going guy. However, he can’t stand others wallowing in negativity and “bringing him down”. He is uncomfortable with any negative emotions and tends to change the subject or zone out if friends or partners try to have deep conversation with him. All his long-term relationships and many friendships have ended because of his emotional disengagement. He is lonely.

Chris is a hard worker. At 40, he has achieved more than most people would in their whole lives. However, he constantly feels that disaster is around the corner. If he doesn’t redouble his efforts to work, failure is imminent. He is heading for burnout and a crash.

Humans are creatures of habit. A large proportion of our day is spent in autopilot. Having a shower, brushing our teeth, driving to work, are some obvious examples of this. We have behavioural habits when we are interacting with others. We might get habitually defensive at certain times, or become overly compliant, or act aloof. We also have thinking habits, whether alone or with others. We might judge or criticise ourselves, or think of the worst-case scenarios, or feel that we are undeserving of love, attention or affection. Some of these thinking or behavioural habits have been around our whole life, we might think of them as constituting who we “really are”; our personality. Where do these habits come from?

From a scientific view, we typically think of the make-up of our personality as being influenced by either nature or nurture. Nature refers to biological/genetic factors that can be inherited. Traits like extroversion, conscientiousness and agreeableness are highly heritable. Nurture refers to the ways that our experience has shaped us, especially the way we were raised and childhood experiences. Our personality is an outcome of complex interaction between nature and nurture. By the time we are adults, the traditional view of personality holds that “who we are” is largely set in stone. For people with long-term personality habits like Grace, Callum and Chris, this is a depressing perspective.

More recently, there has been an increased understanding of the changeable nature of the brain. Psychiatrist, Norman Doidge, has popularized the term “Neuro-plasticity”. When writing about psychotherapy in his 2007 Classic, The Brain that Changes Itself, Doidge states that “we underestimate our own potential for (mental) flexibility”. Even lifelong habits, traits that we consider immutable parts of our personality can be changed. So, if we are not prisoners of our personality, how do we change? What do we change?

Schema Therapy was developed in the 1980’s by Jeffrey Young in the United States. Young trained under Aaron Beck, the founder of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which is the most commonly used therapeutic framework in Australia. He extended the CBT idea of Core Beliefs and developed a framework for understanding and treating people with long-term habits, called Schemas or more colloquially Lifetraps. He proposed that during childhood we may develop stable, but unhelpful, views of ourselves, others and the world in general. These develop due to having unmet emotional/developmental needs during our upbringing. For example, Grace may have not had her needs for safety and connection met. Once schemas develop they persist out of habit – we tend to see what we expect to see and act in a way we’ve always acted.

If you seem to fall into the same type of problem again and again, there is a good chance that your problems are related to a schema. It can be incredibly empowering to know that the source of your ongoing difficulties is not bad luck but rather the playing out of an early life experience. The first step to changing a schema is to recognise it and name it. To do that you need to discover the unmet need(s) of your childhood. This will be the topic of the next post.



* All names and key details changed to protect anonymity

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