Schemas and Relationships

According to Jeffrey Young, schemas are core beliefs and stories that we have constructed about ourselves and our relationships in the world. A schema is a deep-rooted cognitive structure or framework that helps us organize information and make sense of the world. A schema is like a lens through which we view the world, organize our experiences, and interpret events.

These are stories that we have constructed about ourselves throughout our life. These stories are like lenses that distort our perceptions and experiences with others and can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies in relationships. Schemas develop in childhood from early experiences we have with our family and peers.

schemas and cognitive therapy, Oakland and San Francisco

Our minds are built to create cause-and-effect relationships and make connections between events, even if there isn’t much of a correlation. Making these correlations is advantageous in many ways, but schemas can become maladaptive when we take random events in the world and make causal connections about what these events mean about our identity and ourselves. These stories were developed in childhood from early experiences where our basic needs were not met. We build stories and theories about ourselves as to why it is that our needs did not get met. We form these schemas as we attempt to interpret events in the world and make sense of why they happened. For example, if you grew up with a mother who was depressed and who was inconsistently available, you might develop an abandonment/instability schema and build a story that you can’t rely or depend on others to be there for you consistently. You may even convince yourself that if you were just different or if you were better, then your needs would have been met, you may build a story that your emotions are too much and that you are the cause of your mother’s depression.

Schemas are like sunglasses that distort how we take in information and how we make meaning of events. For example, an individual with an abandonment schema is predisposed to interpreting others as rejecting or abandoning, and is more likely to reach the conclusion that they are being abandoned even if there is little evidence to suggest it. These lenses distort our perceptions and experiences with others and can lead to self-defeating patterns in relationships. Schemas are hard to give up because they help us organize our experience and create an illusion of safety and predictability in the world. They are hard to challenge because they create the impression that we can make predictions about the outcome of our relationships and protect ourselves.

portrait of amazed man with 3d glasses

Maladaptive schemas may lead to self-defeating themes and patterns that continue to repeat throughout our adult life. These schemas that were formed in childhood continue to get triggered throughout our life in stressful situations and the way you respond when you get triggered can create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Once a schema gets triggered, it brings up specific powerful, automatic, and conditioned thoughts and feelings about ourselves.

Schemas can influence interpersonal behaviors and interfere with our ability to satisfy basic needs in current relationships. When our schemas get triggered in relationships we tend to use certain coping behaviors, which we have learned in childhood, to try to control or block the pain connected to our schemas. These coping behaviors can end up reinforcing and maintaining our schemas by creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

For example, if someone with an abandonment schema gets triggered, he/she may cope with this experience by seeking excessive reassurance, getting clingy, acting jealous and possessive, or by blaming or accusing. These coping behaviors may actually increase the likelihood that others will withdraw or abandon. Reducing these maladaptive behaviors can help you heal as you learn new more effective ways of getting your emotional needs met, both inside the session with your therapist and in your everyday life. The goal of Schema Therapy is to help you identify the coping behaviors you do that damage your relationships and substitute these behaviors with more effective responses. Schema therapy aids you in healing your early maladaptive schemas, the stories you have constructed about yourself, and breaking self-defeating patterns in relationships.

To read more information about specific schemas click here