Breaking free from deeply embedded maladaptive beliefs

Schemas are the beliefs we hold about ourselves, and our habitual reactions to experiences, that were formed in our earliest years and which we have grown up with, without really ever questioning them…and often without even being fully aware they exist.

Jeffrey Young, the American founder of the Schema Therapy Institute, has popularised this form of therapy in a self-help book, ‘Reinventing Your Life: How to Break Free from Negative Schema therapy helps to identify and replace damaging habitual beliefsLife Patterns’, which remains one of Amazon’s top ten books on cognitive psychology. In the book he coins the term ‘Life Trap’ as a more accessible interpretation of the concept of schemas.

Because these schemas, or life traps, are so embedded within us, and because we may unconsciously cling onto them, they can be very resistant to challenge or change. Therapists identify particular ‘early maladaptive schemas’ which result in us thinking about, and reacting to, later events, relationships and experiences, in ways which may prevent us from meeting our goals and from having an enjoyably fulfilling life. Along the way they may damage our relationships with friends, colleagues and the people we love.

Schemas may persist because they offer us a way of avoiding facing our deepest feelings. For example, if one of the schemas you have was formed early in life as a reaction to emotional deprivation (perhaps from your mother or another significant caregiver), this may then lead you to believe you will not, or cannot, be worthy of love. You may therefore protect yourself from this hurtful feeling by unconsciously pushing people away – including people who could in reality meet that need.

As many as eighteen separate schemas have been identified through psychological research, which therapists and their clients will together try to identify and explore. Most people engaging in this form of therapy will have more than one schema, and some schemas appear to work ‘collaboratively’, each reinforcing the effects of the other.

Typically, therapy which focuses on schemas is longer-lasting than other forms of therapy like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Clients who have not found success with one form of therapy, or who have found the results are short-lived, may find a course of schema therapy is more suited to their needs.

The initial part of schema therapy aims to identify which are the active schemas in a particular client’s life. The therapist may use a question and answer technique or a written questionnaire for this stage. The next stage is for you to work with the therapist to recognise the schemas and when and how they work. Are there particular circumstances where you can become aware of their effects? What are the ‘giveaways’ that show you that ‘your’ schema or schemas are emerging and producing in you the connected thought patterns, feelings and reactions? The third part of therapy is to explore how to replace negative thoughts and actions with ones that produce a different, more fulfilling emotional and behavioural outcome.

Like all therapy, these stages are not likely to be perfectly linear, or sequential. There may be steps forward and steps back; there is likely to be a return to cover old ground once more, in order to review strategies and perhaps change them.

The House Partnership, 29th March 2012