Change Your Schemas, Change Your Life To cope with abuse and neglect we develop maladaptive schemas

Schemas are mental maps we unconsciously form as we grow up. Right from birth onwards, our brain creates schemas or ‘cognitive frameworks’ to categorize and organize semantic memory. They help us quickly navigate similar future encounters.

Having these encoded shortcuts can make life, less taxing but it could also be problematic.  Because we make snap decisions based on what we think we know which may not always be right.

Our earliest experiences with our parents, immediate family, and social environment form our core schemas. However, as we grow and experience the good, bad, and ugly in life our ‘map’ becomes more nuanced and complex.

Schemas include emotional, cognitive, and memory aspects as well as bodily sensations.

We form schemas about all sorts of different things – people, places, situations, objects, and most of all ourselves.

Change Your Schemas, Change Your Life
Schemas are brain maps that help us quickly navigate similar situations

Childhood Abuse

Childhood abuse and neglect can mess up our schemas. We develop maladaptive schemas to help us deal with disturbing situations. Unfortunately, this becomes the blueprint that unconsciously drives us.

They may have helped us survive our dysfunctional environment but are detrimental in the long run. When we cope and conduct ourselves as we did in childhood we create more problems for ourselves.

Moreover, once schemas are formed they are often rigid and resistant to change.

The Concept of Schemas

The concept of schema was first used by British psychologist,  Frederic Bartlett as part of his learning theory. His theory suggested that our understanding of the world is formed by a network of abstract mental structures.

According to child development expert, Jean Piaget, a schema is both the category of knowledge as well as the process of acquiring that knowledge. He theorized that children are constantly adapting to the environment as they take in new information and learn new things. It’s a mental template to understand and interact with the world.

Nonetheless, a child whose basic needs were appropriately and lovingly met develops functional emotional schemas.

Different Types of Schemas

In our multi-dimensional world, we form schemas about everything we experience. These coalesce to form our general worldview in relation to ourselves.

1) Self-schemas – Knowledge about yourself. This includes your current self as well as ideas about your idealized or future self.

2) Person schemas – Information about specific individuals e.g. schema about a friend include details about her appearance, behaviors, personality, and preferences.

3) Social schemas – include general knowledge about how people behave in certain social situations.

4) Event schemas – Know how about social expectations and conduct that should be followed during certain events or social gatherings. certain events.

5) Linguistic schema – Refers to how speaking in a particular language influences how one perceives and relates to a situation. Speaking in Japanese makes you more subdued while conversing in Spanish can make you relationally more effusive.

A child’s temperament plays a critical role in how she perceives and reacts to the environment.  Certain traits could make her more susceptible while other attributes could make her more resilient.

You can check what’s your schema in this psychological questionnaire called the Young Schema Questionnaire. 

The Brain Area Involved In Schema-Processing

The ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) and hippocampus play important roles in schema-based processing. The vmPFC helps in emotional processing, decision-making, memory, self-perception, and social cognition.  The hippocampus is crucial to memory formation and storage.

Other brain regions include the angular gyrus and posterior cortical regions. The Default Mode Network (DMN) is also involved in schema encoding.

Schemas Affect Expectations and Behavior

Schemas influence what we pay attention to, how we interpret, or how we make sense of situations. Once a schema is in place, we subconsciously pay attention to information that confirms it, while ignoring information countering it.

Furthermore, as we grow older schemas become more entrenched in our psyche. And changing them is harder, more so if they were formed under duress or during emotionally charged situations.

If our basic emotional needs were not met in childhood, then maladaptive schemas or coping styles develop.

Maladaptive Schemas

Maladaptive schemas form when one (or more) of our 5 core human needs are not met.

  1. Secure attachments to others (includes safety, stability, nurturance, and acceptance)
  2. Autonomy, competence, and sense of identity
  3. Freedom to express valid needs and emotions
  4. Spontaneity and play
  5. Realistic limits and self-control

New negative experiences that are overwhelming shake our core schemas. To deal with those traumatic experiences we develop maladaptive coping mechanisms. Unaware, we stay stuck in these life traps, derailing our success and happiness.

Schema Modes

Schema Modes are stances we adopt to deal and cope with people, places, and circumstances. They are grouped into 4 categories –  Coping, Child, and Parent which are maladaptive.

Our maladaptive schema modes are triggered by situations that we are oversensitive to.  Many schema modes lead us to over or underreact to situations and, thus, to act in ways that end up hurting us or others.

While Healthy Modes appropriately performs adult functions. Healthy modes are reflexively adaptive to the environment, changing to accommodate any situational changes.

Those of us who experienced trauma usually have numerous maladaptive schema modes. They can change and overlap with each other depending on the situation.

 Adverse Childhood Experiences Distort Our Schemas

Maladaptive schemas form due to abuse, neglect, or other traumatic experiences. For example, if a parent is violent, you accept and tolerate violence in other relationships. If you were the family scapegoat you will not protest when treated unfairly. Or if you were bitten by a dog you may form the schema that dogs are bad.

If our needs for connection were unmet due to parental loss to death, divorce, neglect, or addiction, one may develop an abandonment schema.

My mother’s death and subsequent rejection and neglect by my father and extended family led to me developing an abandonment-subjugation schema. In order to keep people from abandoning me I have to repress my needs and feelings.

Adverse childhood experiences warp our mental blueprint about relationships and life. Moreover, maladaptive schemas can also make us prone to repetition compulsion choosing people who match our schema but who are very toxic.

 The Psychology of Schemas: Why Our Childhood Can Mess Us Up

Changing Schemas

Schemas are adjusted or changed through the process of assimilation, accommodation, and equilibration.

  • In assimilation– new information is incorporated into pre-existing schemas.
  • In accommodation – existing schemas might be altered or new schemas might be formed as a person learns new information and has new experiences.
  • In equilibration –  a person utilizes her self-adjustment mechanism to shift her cognitive equilibrium to a higher level.

Basically, schemas change when we have new and validating experiences that disconfirm or update that original view of reality. Thus inducing positive behaviors, enabling us to deal with our life in better and more efficient ways.

What Is Schema Therapy

In 1990 American Psychologist, Dr. Jeffrey E. Young created Schema Therapy (ST), a program designed to help individuals with Borderline Personality Disorder become healthy adults.

Young’s Schema Therapy model has 5 schema domains and 18 maladaptive schema modes.

The goal of Schema Therapy is to identify the maladaptive schemas and understand how they work and what caused them. Furthermore, it aims to create the ‘healthy adult’ schema and strengthen it to the point it’s always in control.

Core Emotional Needs

The goal of schema therapy is to help patients get their core emotional needs met. Key steps in accomplishing this involve learning how to:

1)  Stop using maladaptive coping styles and modes that block contact with feelings
2) Heal schemas and vulnerable modes by getting needs met in and outside of the therapeutic relationship
3) Incorporate reasonable limits for angry, impulsive, or overcompensating schemas and modes
4) Fight punitive, overly critical, or demanding schemas and modes
5) Build healthy schemas and modes

The 2 Pillars Of Schema Therapy

Empathic confrontation and limited reparenting are the two pillars of Schema Therapy.

In empathic confrontation, the therapist confronts the patient about her maladaptive thinking and behaviors. It is done in an empathic, non-judgmental way. This works only if the patient senses the therapist’s genuine compassion for her. In the safety of a supportive enlightened witness, a patient can truly let go of coping modes.

While limited reparenting refers to the therapist taking the role of a concerned and trustworthy parent establishing a degree of secure attachment. It involves warmth and nurturance, firmness, self-disclosure, confrontation, playfulness, and setting limits. In the security of the therapeutic relationship, a person feels safe to change maladaptive relational modes.

Limited parenting can also occur between spouses, friends, or adult children.

Someone Has My Back

I have been very fortunate that my adult son has been able to provide these 2 important roles in my healing journey. Once when I kept on about getting back at someone, my son asked ‘do you need to do it?’ And I just stared at him open-mouthed, realizing how foolish I was to waste time thinking about acting out my anger.

Furthermore, since he began working, he has showered me with all the things I missed receiving as a child. Particularly, not having to cook when I don’t feel like it, has alleviated the burden I felt having so many responsibilities thrust onto me since my mother died.

While experiences are important in rewiring the brain, narratives are considered even more important. How our mind makes sense and frames those reparative experiences alters our maladaptive childhood schemas.

Knowing that someone has my back and supports me has helped me move from the over-responsible, fear of abandonment schema. And this has definitely helped my scoliosis. How we feel and think undoubtedly affects our bodies.

Building A Flexible Self

Change is hard. Those of us who grew up in abusive, neglectful homes come into adulthood broken. We don’t have the appropriate life skills to navigate life.

Maintaining a schema diary can help you build awareness with regard to your reactions and behavior. When we pay attention to our thinking patterns we can slowly learn to control our reactivity

Inculcating new ways of responding come with regularly practicing these behaviors. My earlier maladaptive mode of social interaction was over-accommodating – I always put everyone else before myself. Earlier, when I was in a store, I’d always give the other person the chance to move ahead. My Christian habit. Now I try to be focused on what I want – I want to make my purchases and leave asap.

Always practice new behaviors with safe people first. Additionally, you could try schema imagery rescripting which helps us visualize how one must behave when faced with situations that can trigger you.  Through imagery, we can try to change how we perceive ourselves in situations.

Listening to guided meditations on confidence along with EFT tapping for boundaries has helped me redirect my earlier ‘not good enough’, and ‘people-pleasing’ schemas.

By building within healthy adult modes of thinking and behaving, you become more adept at foiling maladaptive coping patterns. You don’t have to remain the same person all your life — you can learn new habits of thinking and behaving. You can change your schemas to live a happier and more fulfilled life.

Here’s Wishing All My Dear Readers A Fruitful & Joyous 2023

Further Reading:

Reinventing Your Life –  Jeffrey Young

Don’t Believe Everything You Feel – Robert Leahy

Breaking Negative Thinking Patterns: A Schema Therapy Self-Help  – Gitta Jacob

Mindfulness and Schema Therapy: A Practical Guide – Michiel van Vreeswijk

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