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Schemas and Self-Distortions

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Schemas are the mental frameworks that help us navigate the complex world around us. They are built from our cumulative experiences, starting from early childhood and continuously evolving throughout our lives. These schemas are essential for our survival; they allow us to process vast amounts of information rapidly by categorizing and interpreting new data based on previous knowledge and experiences. In essence, schemas are the templates or lenses through which we view everything around us, guiding our reactions, decisions, and interactions with others.

The Formation of Schemas

From the moment we are born, our brains begin to develop schemas to make sense of the world. A simple example is a child learning what a dog is. Through encounters with various dogs, the child forms a schema that includes all the characteristics of what they understand a dog to be. This schema then helps the child recognize and identify dogs in the future. Similarly, we develop schemas for more abstract concepts, such as love, trust, and safety, based on our experiences.

The Shift to Maladaptive Schemas

While schemas are inherently designed to be adaptive, helping us to understand and predict our environment, they can become maladaptive due to negative or traumatic experiences. Maladaptive schemas are distorted belief systems that lead us to interpret the world in ways that are often out of sync with reality. These distorted schemas can be likened to a pair of sunglasses that color everything we see, altering our perception based on the “tint” of past experiences.

For instance, someone who has repeatedly experienced betrayal may develop a Mistrust/Abuse schema, the belief that people are inherently untrustworthy. This schema acts like a pair of dark glasses that casts a shadow over all their relationships, causing them to perceive threats where there may be none. As a result, they might struggle with forming close relationships, driven by the fear and expectation of betrayal ingrained in their schema.

The Impact of Maladaptive Schemas

Maladaptive schemas can profoundly affect our lives, shaping our self-image, relationships, and overall well-being. They can lead to persistent patterns of negative thinking, emotional distress, and dysfunctional behavior. For example, a person with a schema centered around failure might avoid new challenges or opportunities, interpreting any potential for failure as a confirmation of their inherent inadequacy.

These schemas can trap us in a cycle of self-fulfilling prophecies, where our distorted perceptions and reactions reinforce the very beliefs that underpin them. Just as a pair of tinted glasses would make the world appear a certain color regardless of its true hue, maladaptive schemas filter our experiences, reinforcing themselves with every situation that seems to confirm their distorted view.

Understanding Maladaptive Schemas

Schemas are cognitive frameworks that help us organize and interpret information. From childhood, schemas are formed based on our interactions with the world around us. They help us make sense of complex information quickly and efficiently by fitting new experiences into these pre-existing categories. However, not all schemas are adaptive or beneficial. Maladaptive schemas, formed from negative or traumatic experiences, can significantly distort our perception of ourselves, others, and the world.

Viewing the World Through Tinted Glasses

Imagine wearing a pair of sunglasses that tint everything you see. These glasses represent maladaptive schemas—distorted beliefs about the world that are deeply ingrained in our psyche. Just as sunglasses can make the world appear darker or colored, maladaptive schemas can color our experiences, influencing our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in ways that are often not aligned with reality.

These schemas are like filters that skew our interpretation of events, leading to biased perceptions and reactions. For example, someone with a schema centered around abandonment might interpret a friend’s delayed response to a text message as proof that they are going to be left alone, even when there is no evidence to support this belief.

How Schemas Distort Our Perception of Ourselves

This video really touched me because it captures a common problem that I regularly see; the way that our schemas and core beliefs radically distort our perceptions of ourselves. While these thoughts may never completely disappear, they don’t need to be so distressing and powerful. By understanding schemas, and learning how to relate to uncomfortable thoughts and feelings with more compassion and acceptance, you can learn to become your own best friend and ally.

In the video, a forensic police sketch artist draws people, hidden from view, based on their description. Next, strangers who have briefly met these people describe them to the same artist.  The difference between the self-described sketches and those dictated by casual observers were startling. The self-described portraits appeared caricature-like and featured sadder looking people with harsher features. One participant said the portrait she helped create looked “closed off and fatter,” while the portrait that was created by the outside observer looked “more open, friendly and happy.”

Observing the Glasses, Rather Than Looking Through Them

The key to overcoming the distortions caused by maladaptive schemas lies in learning to observe these “glasses” rather than looking through them. This process involves developing an awareness of our schemas and recognizing how they influence our perception and behavior. Mindfulness and cognitive-behavioral techniques can be particularly effective in achieving this awareness, helping us to identify and challenge the distorted beliefs underlying our schemas.

By observing our schemas, we can begin to question and reevaluate the accuracy of the beliefs they represent. This process allows us to gradually remove the tinted glasses, seeing ourselves, others, and the world more clearly and realistically. It’s a journey of self-discovery and healing, one that enables us to break free from the constraints of our conditioning and embrace a more adaptive and flexible approach to life.

Our schemas can often be wildly inaccurate, like fun-house mirrors. They’re frequently biased by perfectionism—holding ourselves to unreasonable standards—and incomplete comparisons—relating our self-worth to how we feel others are—resulting in harsh self-judgments that impact our health and happiness. The solution to this self-shaming? Self-compassion, distancing from harsh thoughts and defusing from them. Use the following two metaphors to help you relate to your mind differently and make distance from your thoughts:

Thoughts as Commercials

Instead of thinking of your thoughts as carriers of absolute truths, think of them like commercials, filled with salespeople pitching products that aren’t necessarily good for you. If we don’t pay much attention to the commercials, they pass by without notice. However, if we call the number at the bottom of the screen, we’re giving into a conversation about something we never needed. The next time you find yourself absorbed in a commercial-like conversation with yourself about your worth, ask yourself which negative thoughts feel most compelling, which thoughts do you notice yourself automatically accepting, buying into, or getting caught up in?

Now, instead of doing what may feel natural, like negating or criticizing these thoughts, notice them without judgment. Approach them with curiosity and empathy, and politely decline the products your mind is trying to sell you. Notice your mind trying to sell you old stories and negative hypotheses about yourself and recognize that you don’t have to buy into it. Simply thank your mind for doing what minds do and reply by saying:  “thank you mind for that enticing story, but I’m not going to buy this product right now.”

Thoughts As Bullies

One of the hardest skills for my clients to learn is how to cultivate and practice self-compassion. Many of us believe the best way to correct a behavior is to punish—or bully—the person responsible. Negative thoughts are met with more negative thinking, which creates a vicious cycle of self-criticism.

However, our negative thoughts are not bad deeds. When you find yourself bullying yourself into being a better person, ask your inner bully a few questions. What does it need, what is it trying to protect you from? What are you afraid might happen if the bully stops?

Next, just like the commercials, stop engaging and arguing. Place your hands over your heart and consciously send love and compassion to yourself and all your inner bullies. Give the bully compassion and validation. Thank the bully for its misguided attempt to do a good deed, but remind it that this approach isn’t helpful.The more you practice non-judgmental awareness of these thoughts, the more you’ll be able to let them go. Just like the women in the Dove video, you’ll find you’ll be able to see a more beautiful you; the way many others already see you.

Transforming Your Relationship with Maladaptive Schemas

Navigating maladaptive schemas involves a shift in how we relate to these deep-seated belief systems. It’s about observing these mental frameworks—as if looking at a pair of tinted glasses rather than viewing the world through them—and creating a mindful distance from the narratives they weave. This approach encourages us to recognize and acknowledge our schemas without being ruled by them.

Mindfulness and cognitive-behavioral therapy provide effective strategies for recognizing and addressing our 12 maladaptive schemas—such as believing you’re defective, fearing abandonment, feeling dependent, distrusting others, feeling entitled, fearing failure, feeling vulnerable to harm, feeling subjugated, engaging in self-sacrifice, feeling socially alienated, feeling emotionally deprived, and adhering to unrelenting standards.

By altering our relationship with these schemas, we gradually see the world and ourselves more clearly. This transformation is a journey of self-discovery, where we learn to distinguish between our schemas and our true selves—the observer of these schemas. As we do, we embrace a more flexible and compassionate way of engaging with life, unshackled by the distortions of our past. This newfound perspective allows us to live more fully, enriched by an understanding and acceptance of both ourselves and the diverse world around us.

Take the schema quiz to identify your own schemas in relationships.

At the Bay Area CBT Center, we offer individualized therapy that provides you with the tools you need to improve well-being and create the life you desire. To learn more about how we can help, you can click here to book an appointment online. We have office locations in both San Francisco and Oakland.

Frequently Asked Questions

Evidence-based therapy involves interventions that are scientifically proven to be effective for particular issues. In this approach, a strong partnership based on trust and collaboration is formed between you and your therapist. Within this supportive and unbiased environment, you can freely express yourself without fear of judgment. Over a series of sessions, you and your therapist will work together to address obstacles and set goals aimed at personal growth and fulfillment. This method ensures that the techniques and strategies used are not only supportive but also empirically validated to help you achieve your therapeutic goals.

The Bay Area CBT Center provides therapy services for everyone, from children to adults, and welcomes individuals, couples, and groups. We help with various concerns like anxiety, depression, trauma, relationship issues, and behavior challenges. We value diversity and cultural differences, offering personalized and culturally sensitive care to each client.

Studies show that the bond between you and your therapist, known as the therapeutic alliance, is a key factor in treatment success. This alliance is characterized by the strength of your relationship and how well you both agree on treatment goals. Research indicates that individuals with a solid therapeutic alliance experience better treatment outcomes including greater productivity at work, more satisfying relationships, improved stress management, and decreased engagement in risky behaviors.

You can expect a 15-30 minute phone call with our care coordinator, who is extensively trained in ensuring the perfect match for you. During this conversation, our matching expert will collaborate with you to understand your therapy needs, preferences, and scheduling availability. This discussion builds upon the information you provided during sign-up and offers an opportunity for you to address any personal questions or concerns you may have about therapy or our services at The Bay Area CBT Center. Following your conversation, we’ll pair you with the therapist who best aligns with your needs, goals, and preferences.

At your matching appointment, we will match you with a therapist specifically chosen for you and schedule your first session. Depending on your availability, you can expect to meet your therapist anywhere from one day to a week after this appointment.

Our approach to therapy includes a flexible hybrid model, blending both online and face-to-face sessions. This option is perfect for clients situated close to our clinics in the Bay Area who prefer the flexibility of choosing between virtual consultations or meeting their therapist in person. Our aim with hybrid care is to ensure every client is matched with the ideal therapist and therapy environment, be it from the convenience of your own home or in one of our clinics.

At the Bay Area CBT Center, we accept PPO insurance plans that allow you to use out-of-network providers. This means if your insurance plan is a PPO and it includes mental health benefits, you could get back some or all of the money you pay for our services, depending on what your insurance company allows. When you see one of our therapists, they’ll give you a superbill. You can send this superbill to your insurance company to ask for reimbursement. If you’re not sure if your insurance covers services from providers not in their network, it’s a good idea to give them a call and check.

You may be eligible to have 60-80% of your costs covered by out-of-network benefits.

Also, if you have an FSA (Flexible Spending Account), you can usually use it to pay for individual counseling sessions. It’s wise to double-check with your FSA provider or talk to your accountant to make sure that counseling sessions are considered an allowed expense.


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