What is Schema Therapy? Part II

Part II – Little People, Little Wounds & Unmet Needs

The second part of this series

Grace* was raised as an only child and her parents separated when she was five. After separation, Grace missed her father terribly, who took a job in another city, and her mother too, who now worked long hours to be able to support her.

Callum was an anxious child. Callum’s father was critical and distant. Showing any sign of weakness or vulnerability was not OK. From an early age, Callum’s father would call him a “big girl” if he displayed any emotions. He would be beaten if he was “carrying on”, that is, complaining, raising his voice, or even looking sad.

Chris’ family experienced a shock when both his parents lost their jobs simultaneously (they worked at the same factory). His father never regained employment and developed an alcohol use disorder. The family’s problems were bigger than Chris’ problems and he learnt not to rely on family members for emotional support.

Nothing is more vulnerable than a human infant. All humans are born “premature” – the enormous brains of babies (enormous compared to the brains of other animal newborns) prevent human babies from remaining much longer in the womb. So, we leave in a state of radical helplessness. Human nature is less fixed than other animals – we learn a great deal more from our environment than all other mammals. So, there we are at birth – weak, needy, looking to our parents to tells us how to act and think about ourselves and others and the world.

As we grow we have needs. First the need for safety, care and acceptance. The child must feel that she is loved and cared for, that her environment is free from significant harms, that her care-givers can be trusted to look after her consistently. As the child grows she needs to gain a sense of self. Autonomy and identity become crucial. She needs to feel she can trust herself and that she is competent and confident. But the child also needs to know that there are limits to her behaviour. She lives in a world of others, each of whom have their own wants and needs. She lives in a society that has rules. She must learn realistic limits and self-control. These rules can’t be too rigid though. Spontaneity and free expression of emotions she also needs. The child must learn to express her wants, needs and emotions. To be able to stand up for herself. With these ingredients, an adult is made.

No childhood is perfect. No parenting is perfect, though most parents try their best. Life wounds all. Little wounds occur when any of these needs are not adequately met. In some case, traumatic incidents, like physical or sexual abuse inflict wounds. In other cases, family strain can wound. Divorce, job loss and severe illness are examples of events which can lead to childhood needs being unmet. In yet other cases, overly meeting one need might undermine the meeting of another need. For example, overly meeting the need for attachment by always being involved in the child’s life, might impact the child’s need to develop autonomy. Sometimes, children can be wounded by events outside of the home, bullying or failure at school are examples of life events that can lead to unmet needs.

Grace, Callum and Chris are wounded, they all had unmet needs as children. A guiding principle of Schema Therapy is that all children have core needs such as safety, attachment, acceptance, autonomy and reasonable limits. When these needs are not adequately met, we are wounded. We develop a Maladaptive Schema. This wound may become a sensitive point in our later life, an Achilles Heel. Or, it might impede us from seeing how things really are, a Blind Spot, like the abused child who, as a teenager, can’t see the care and good intentions of those tasked with providing support for him. Or, we might become overprotective of our scar, and our attempts to guard the wound from further harm might cause more problems than the wound itself.

Grace, Callum and Chris are wounded, they all had unmet needs as children. Grace’s need for secure attachment was unmet, and now she feels that abandonment is imminent. Callum’s need for acceptance of his emotions was unmet, and now he lives by forever avoiding any reminders of negative emotions. Chris’ need for free expression of emotions and validation was unmet, he copes by throwing himself into work.

It can be one of the hardest things to accept that we have been wounded by the shortcomings in our childhood. But in this knowledge is real power. The power to change. Once we have identified and accepted, we can learn to cope better with the wound. And more powerful still, we can ensure that our needs as an adult are met, regardless of our childhood experiences.



* All names and key details changed to protect anonymity

3 thoughts on “What is Schema Therapy? Part II”

  1. Lucas says:

    Nice blog justin.

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