Schema Therapy

What are Schemas?

Schemas are deeply ingrained beliefs and patterns of thought that influence how individuals perceive and respond to the world. They continue to develop and evolve over the lifespan, but many of our core schemas develop during childhood as we learn about the world.

Mostly schemas are useful and adaptive. They act as mental models through which we make sense of events and make decisions based on patterns. However, they can also be dysfunctional, where we engage in recurrent patterns and seem to fall into the same life traps over and over again. These dysfactional patterns are referred to as Early Maladaptive Schemas.

What are the 20 Early Maladaptive Schemas?

Dr. Jeffrey E. Young initially identified 11 Early Maladaptive Schemas that he wrote about referring to them as "life traps" in his book Reinventing your Life, which was first published in 1993.

In 2021 Dr. Ozgur Yalcin and colleagues published an updated list of 20 Early Maladaptive Schemas as part of a Young Schema Questionnaire - Revised (YSQ-R). You can complete the YSQ-R, which was built by Unravel Psychology in partnership with Dr. Yalcin by clicking this link.

The 20 Maladaptive Schemas are: 

  • Emotional Deprivation: The expectation that others will not adequately meet one’s needs for nurturance and support.
  • Abandonment: The expectation that one will eventually be abandoned by significant others.
  • Mistrust: The expectation that one will be abused, humiliated, or manipulated by others.
  • Social Isolation: The belief that one is different from others and does not belong within a community.
  • Defectiveness: The belief that one is fundamentally flawed, unworthy, or unlovable
  • Failure: The expectation that one will inevitably fail, or is fundamentally inadequate compared to others.
  • Dependence: The belief that that one is completely hopeless, dependent on others, and is incapable of making everyday decisions on their own.
  • Vulnerability to Harm: The belief that the world is dangerous, and that disaster can strike at any moment.
  • Enmeshment: Excessive emotional involvement with others due to the belief that one cannot cope without the other.
  • Subjugation: Excessive submission of one’s needs to avoid punishment, abandonment, and rejection.
  • Self-Sacrifice: Excessive sense of duty to meet the needs of others to the sacrifice of one's own needs.
  • Fear of Losing Control: A belief that dire consequences will result from failing to maintain control of emotions.
  • Emotional Constriction: Excessive overcontrol of emotions due to feelings of shame and embarrassment of all emotions.
  • Unrelenting Standards: The belief that one will be harshly criticised if they do not meet very high (often internalised) standards of performance or behaviour often at the expense of gratification.
  • Entitlement: The belief that one is superior to others and is entitled to special privileges and rights.
  • Insufficient Self-Control: Difficulties exercising self-control to achieve goals, low frustration tolerance, and inability to control urges and impulses.
  • Approval Seeking: Excessive focus on gaining the attention, recognition, and approval of others often at the expense one’s own sense of self.
  • Negativity: An increased focus on the negative aspects of life, whilst minimising the positive.
  • Punitiveness (Self): The belief that oneself should be punished for any mistakes or imperfections; hypercriticalness towards one's self.
  • Punitiveness (Other): The belief that others should be punished for any mistakes or imperfections; hypercriticalness towards others.

What is Schema Therapy?

Schema therapy, developed by Dr. Young in the 1980s, is a therapeutic approach designed to identify and modify maladaptive schemas. The therapy integrates elements from cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), attachment theory, and psychodynamic approaches. It typically involves the following components:

  1. Assessment: A comprehensive assessment helps therapists identify a client's maladaptive schemas, often through the use of questionnaires and interviews.
  2. Schema Identification: Clients learn to recognise their maladaptive schemas and understand how they impact their emotions and behaviors.
  3. Cognitive Restructuring: Clients work with the therapist to challenge and change these maladaptive thought patterns.
  4. Behavioural Techniques: Clients engage in specific exercises and behavioral interventions to address schema-driven behaviours.
  5. Limited Reparenting: Clients learn to meet their unmet emotional needs by working with the therapist, who provides a safe and supportive environment.
  6. Imagery and Visualisation: Techniques such as guided imagery and visualisation help clients connect with their emotions and reprocess traumatic experiences.

Schema therapy evolved from traditional cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) as a response to some clients not responding well to standard CBT techniques for deeply ingrained issues. Schema therapy was developed to address these more resistant and pervasive problems, particularly related to long-standing emotional difficulties.

Schema therapy is evidence-based, with studies showing significant improvements in symptoms, particularly in the treatment of complex and chronic psychological issues, including chronic depression, trauma-related disorders, and personality disorders.

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Schema assessments