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What are Schemas?

Schemas are referred to as clusters of knowledge or conceptual frameworks that encode complex generalisations about oneself, others, situations, events, objects and the environment (Gerrig and Zimbardo, 2012).  There are many healthy and adaptive schemas that we may have about ourselves which support us in our everyday lives such knowing that in a time of need there will be support and connection, or knowing that fundamentally one is capable and able to navigate through hard times.

On the other hand there are unhealthy or maladaptive schemas that can limit us and play havoc in our relationships and lives. The founder of Schema Therapy, Dr Jeffrey Young, labelled these patterns and themes or schemas as ‘lifetraps’. Young defined them as broad, pervasive themes or patterns comprised of memories, emotions, cognitions, and bodily sensations regarding oneself and one’s relationships with others that are dysfunctional to a significant degree.  He asserts that these maladaptive schemas are developed during childhood when a child’s basic needs are not being met and this vulnerability can continue into adolescence and then elaborated throughout one’s lifetime (Young, Klosko &Weishaar, 2006).

Basic needs that children have:

  • Secure attachments to others which include safety, stability, acceptance and nurturance.
  • Belonging; Children need to be able to feel that they belong, as well as experience connection and communication with others.
  • Spontaneity and play
  • Freedom to express thoughts, emotions and valid needs
  • To feel appreciated for who they are as people and what they achieve, which in turn fosters a healthy self esteem.
  • Autonomy, competence and a sense of identity. To become empowered adults, children need to have a safe and secure environment in which they can explore and experience the world.
  • Realistic limits; Children need to gradually and age appropriately learn about rights, responsibility and self control.

When a child’s basic needs are not met, the child is vulnerable to taking on limiting beliefs and maladaptive schemas about themselves and the world. Toxic childhood experiences and emotional temperament also play roles in the development of these maladaptive schemas (Young et al., 2006).

In their book Schema Therapy, Jeffrey Young, Janet Klosko and Marjorie Weishaar identified five domains and eighteen specific schemas. As you read through this list of schemas, see if any feel familiar to you.

Domain I: Disconnection and rejection

In this domain there is an expectation that one’s own needs for safety, security, stability, nurturance, acceptance, respect and empathy will not be met. Individuals struggle to form secure, satisfying attachments with others. These schemas develop when the family of origin is insecure, unstable, unpredictable, humiliating, withholding, rejecting, cold, explosive, abusive, traumatic or treats individuals differently.

  1. Abandonment/Instability. Individuals fear that others are not available for connection or that others are unreliable or unwilling to support them.
  1. Mistrust/Abuse. Individuals fear that others will hurt, abuse, humiliate, cheat, lie, manipulate or take advantage of them. They may attack first and take revenge later on.
  1. Emotional Deprivation. Individuals fear that their desire for healthy emotional support, nurturance, empathy and protection will not be met.
  1. Defectiveness/Shame. Individuals fear that fundamentally they are flawed, bad, inferior or worthless and therefore unlovable and insignificant to others. They may be sensitive to criticism, rejection and blame and thus believe that if others become close they will see the flawed self and leave.
  1. Social Isolation/Alienation. Individuals fear that they are different from others and do not fit into family, nor society.
Domain II: Impaired autonomy and performance

In this domain there is an expectation about oneself and the environment that may interfere with the individual’s ability to function and survive independently or to perform successfully. These schemas develop when the family of origin is over protective and/or controlling. The child may be neglected, ignored or undermined and be left feeling incompetent or dependant up on others.

  1. Dependence/Incompetence. Individuals fear that they are not capable and cannot manage everyday responsibilities without help from others.
  1. Vulnerability to Harm or Illness. Individuals fear that they are on the verge of a major catastrophe. They may catastrophise about their physical, mental and emotional health, and external events such as accidents or natural disasters.
  1. Enmeshment/Undeveloped Self. Individuals become over involved emotionally or extremely close to other family members. There may be feelings of being smothered or lack of personal identity. This may also be experienced as feeling empty or having no direction in life.
  1. Failure. Individuals fear that they incapable of performing as well as others.  They may believe that they have always failed, failing now and always will.
Domain III: Impaired limits

In this domain individuals lack internal limits, responsibility to others, or long term goals. These schemas develop when children experience lack of rules, boundaries, discipline, guidance, direction or are overindulged and their internal sense of control is not developed. This can lead to lack of respect for others, lack of ability to cooperate with others, make commitments or create long term goals. At times these schemas form because the child has not been supported to tolerate normal levels of discomfort.

  1. Entitlement/Grandiosity. Individuals have the belief that they are superior to others and therefore have special rights and privileges. They believe they should be able to say and do what they choose regardless of the consequences for others. Some insist they can do whatever they want regardless of the cost to others.
  1. Insufficient Self-Control/Self-Discipline. Individuals do not exercise appropriate self control and tolerance. They may become frustrated in attaining their goals and do not regulate the expression of their emotions and impulses. Some may avoid pain, conflict and responsibility denying themselves personal fulfilment, commitment and integrity.
Domain IV: Other-directedness

In this domain there is an excessive focus on the feelings, desires and responses of others at the expense of the individuals own needs in an attempt to gain approval, connection and love, or to avoid retaliation. These schemas develop when children need to suppress their own needs in order to have attention, approval and love. At times the parent’s needs may overshadow the child’s needs.

  1. Subjugation. Individuals believe they must submit to the control of others to avoid retaliation, anger or abandonment. They ignore and suppress their own needs or emotions.
  1. Self-Sacrifice. Individuals fear a loss of connection or fear hurting others, therefore neglect or suppress their own needs and focus on helping others to feel gratified.
  1. Approval-Seeking/Recognition-Seeking. Individuals may feel over responsible for others and feel guilt if they attend to their own needs, therefore sacrifice their own needs to support others for approval, attention and admiration.
Domain V: Over-vigilance and inhibition

In this domain individuals suppress spontaneous choices, impulses and feelings. There is a focus on meeting expectations about performance or internal rigid rules at the cost of self expression, happiness, intimacy, relaxation or health. These schemas develop when the family of origin is demanding, perfectionist, performance driven, negative and strict parental control is used to gain compliance. Children become frightened of severe punishment to express feelings and they become watchful and vigilant for bad things to happen.

  1. Negativity/Pessimism. Individuals who have experienced loss, pain, death, conflict, guilt, resentment, betrayal or disappointment lose an optimistic view of life and become very negative or pessimistic.
  1. Emotional Inhibition. Individuals suppress spontaneous emotions and impulses such as anger as they fear it could harm others or lead to loss of self esteem.
  1. Unrelenting Standards/Hyper-criticalness. Individuals fear that whatever they do will never be good enough and therefore they need to continually strive to do better and do things perfectly to avoid incompetence and self criticism.
  1. Punitiveness. Individuals believe that people should be harshly punished for their mistakes.
The nervous system is involved;
  • Childhood trauma and/or unmet needs can involve deep emotional wounds and the activation of the limbic systems fight, flight, freeze and fold.
  • The amygdala which is a part of the limbic system controls emotion and the formation of emotional memory (Gerrig and Zimbardo, 2012).
Coping styles and reponses

Schema’s can perpetuate through three maladaptive coping styles and responses formed in early life to adapt, cope and avoid the overwhelming emotions that schemas can involve. Even though these coping styles may seemingly alleviate the effects of the schema, they do not heal them (Young et al., 2006). Reflecting upon these coping styles for yourself can be very enlightening as this is how schemas live on in our lives.

  1. Schema surrender (linked to the freeze response in the nervous system) occurs when an individual accepts that the schema is true. They behave in ways that confirm the schema and consequently feel the emotional pain. An individual with an abandonment schema may be attracted to another individual who is unable to commit to a long term relationship.
  2. Schema avoidance or escape (linked to the flight response in the nervous system)is when the individual attempts to live life as though the schema doesn’t exist. They avoid thinking about the schema and suppress any feelings associated with the schema, e.g. an individual with an abandonment schema may avoid relationships and be vulnerable to other coping strategies such as drinking when alone.
  3. Schema overcompensation (linked to the fight response in the nervous system) is when the individual attempts to convince themselves and others that the opposite of the schema is true. They do the opposite of what occurred when they were a child to avoid triggering the schema e.g. an individual with an abandonment schema may cling to others and be attacking if others for example, spend time with anyone else.
Schema modes

According to Young et al. (2006) schema modes are the emotional states and coping responses in the present moment when an adaptive or maladaptive schema is active. In other words if a schema is triggered this is how you may respond at the time.

Child modes such as

  • The vulnerable child is the abandoned, abused, deprived child or rejected child.
  • The angry child is enraged that needs aren’t met and behaves without regard for consequence.
  • The impulsive or undisciplined child expresses emotions, acts of desires and inclinations, without regard to consequences for self nor others.
  • The happy child is one whose emotional needs are being met.

Dysfunctional coping modes such as

  • The compliant surrender is the passive, helpless child who gives in to others.
  • The detached protector withdraws from others and detaches from the psychological pain through e.g. substance abuse or other escapes.
  • The over compensator fights back and mistreats others to disprove the schema.

Dysfunctional parent modes such as

  • The punitive parent where the individual becomes the parent who punishes.
  • The demanding parent where the individual pressures and pushes themselves to meet very high standards.

If ever you find yourself feeling triggered and responding in these types of ways it can be a powerful opportunity to witness your emotional reaction and your impulsive behaviour and choose differently by applying the Empowerment strategy.

Schemas, although resistant to change can be weakened, diminished and healed through a holistic approach of education, self awareness as well as deep self work involving ones beliefs, behaviours and nervous system. In the research of Keyfitz et al. (2013) findings support positive and healthy schemas contribute to good mental health and resilience while unhealthy, maladaptive schemas play a role in poor mental health and illnesses such as depression.


Gerrig, R., Zimbardo, P. G. (2012) Psychology and Life (2nd ed.). Frenchs Forrest: Pearson Australia.

Keyfitz, L., Lumley, M. N., Hennig, K. H., Dozois, D. J., & A. (2013). The role of positive schemas in child psychopathology and resilience. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 37(1), 97-108. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10608-012-9455-6

Young, J., E., Klosko, J.,S., Weishaar, M.,E. (2006). Schema Therapy. New York: Guildford Press