What is Schema Therapy? Part III

Part III: How we cope

Grace has had no trouble forming friendships, it’s keeping them that she finds difficult. “People act nice, but eventually you find out they just don’t care” she often says. When a friend doesn’t return a call, or fails to follow through on commitment to her, she becomes angry. She has lost friends because of this anger and the arguments it brings.

Callum has no time for anything negative. He will change the topic or walk away when anyone brings up something negative. He is especially intolerant of anyone speaking negative about himself. His past partners have accused him of “stonewalling” them.

Chris feels most uncomfortable when relaxing. Pleasure and leisure are always guilt or anxiety provoking. Working and planning are what he is drawn towards, but of course, these are stressful in themselves. He doesn’t have a place or time to exhale.

Most of us have an unmet emotional need in childhood, we spend much of our adulthood making up for that lack. Our unmet needs tell us something uncomfortable or unpalatable about ourselves, or about others, or about the world. That we are not good enough, or that people can’t be trusted, or that all others, in their heart-of-hearts don’t really care about us. These beliefs make life difficult, and so we need to strategies to cope.

Schema Therapy proposes three main ways that people learn to cope. Firstly, we can surrender to the schema. We act as if the schema was real. See the world as if the schema was real. We make assumptions about the actions and intentions of others on the basis of the schema. When we surrender to a schema, we think (unconsciously) we are saving ourselves the disappointment of being wounded again. If we have been abused or betrayed as a child, we are watchful and on guard. If we have been abandoned we act desperate and clingy, sure that rejection is imminent. Chris surrenders to his Vulnerability to Harm schema; he believes and acts as if disaster is looming.

The second way is through avoidance of the schema. We avoid people, places and situations where the schema could be tested. We might even avoid emotions themselves. In this way, someone with an Emotional Deprivation schema might avoid all emotional topics. A person with a failure schema might avoid anything that is academic or potentially tests intelligence. Callum copes with his Emotional Deprivation schema by avoiding all reminders of emotions. He denies his own emotional experience and is disinterested or uncomfortable of the emotions of others.

The third way is by overcompensating or counterattacking. Acting as-if the schema was not just untrue, but the opposite of true. This is no fake-it-till-you-make-it: the person doing this is reliving their childhood wound and desperately convincing themselves and others that they aren’t wounded. They have no understanding of early unmet needs that are driving them and they will not cure the need. Examples of this are people who throw themselves into work to get the validation that they missed as children. Other examples include people who are excessively orderly in order to control feelings that chaos or disaster is imminent.

Most people utilise more than one of these strategies in order to cope with their schemas. Sometimes, this can lead to confusion from loved ones. Why does he need help and push me away? Why does she always complain about stress, but throw herself into more work at the drop of a hat? Why does she fear abuse, yet always choose horrible partners? People can have different coping styles to the same schema, which can explain some of these confusing reactions.

Do you feel one way, but act another? Do you hide from the things you care about or crave the most? Do you find yourself in the same painful situations again and again and again? Schema therapy can help to explain and change some of these confusing and hurtful patterns.

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