Let’s say your dad walked out on you as a child. You now have a robust abandonment complex (or schema, as I’ll introduce it). When people try to leave your life, you scratch and claw onto them in order to get them to stay. You go out of your way to cling onto people and prevent them from wanting to leave. You’re in a romantic relationship, but your child brain is saying “dad’s leaving me again!”
There is a niche way of approaching psychology that utterly reformed my treatment. It might not be terribly niche, I’m not certain, but it is somewhat new; by the time I heard of it over this most recent summer, I’d been through lots of treatment and it had never come round my parts. The schema approach is one I’ve flirted with in several posts, but I want to really start diving into it, now. It’s changed my life, and hopefully it can be of service to you, too.
A schema is an “organized pattern of thought and behavior.” It’s a childhood experience replaying itself, in sum. The goal of schema therapy is to first identify categorize the schemas, then work on replacing the behaviors that arise from the schemas. Let’s dig into what a schema really is.
There are 18 early maladaptive schemas that Dr. Jeffrey Young, the man who dreamed up schema therapy, has identified. Each schema can be experienced in three different ways: avoidance, surrender, and counter-attack. Here is a graphic that explains the first schema domain (“Disconnection and Rejection”), and below is how I experience schemas.
I scored very high on most of the 18 schemas, when I took my questionnaire, but one that has stood out for me in my treatment most particularly is the Abuse schema. Essentially, it is the long-standing belief that others will inevitably hurt or abuse me. This is a thought pattern deeply ingrained into my neural system by my childhood and early-to-late adolescent experiences.
I cope with this schema using the surrender mechanism, wherein I submit to the outcome of the schema and treat it as inevitable. I do this with almost all of my schema complexes. In the case of emotional deprivation, surrendering is internally “accepting” that everyone I meet and/or get close to is going to hurt me. In practice, this means that I’m very wary of becoming close with people, for in my mind they are going to hurt me. However, I have another schema at play, one that adds another layer to my emotional connectivity.
My second most influential schema is Emotional Deprivation. It’s defined as the expectation that basic emotional needs will go unmet, and this is my core childhood experience. Since I experienced it so acutely as I was growing up, it is stuck in my brain as an adult. I’m constantly expecting others to be unable to handle my emotions, be unwilling to engage with them, or grow tired of being close to me.
Once I’ve gotten over the considerable hump of opening up to someone, I pour my heart out to them, acting opposite of my schema and trying to be emotionally vulnerable to someone anyway, despite it. Sometimes this pays off and sometimes it doesn’t, such is life.
Just because I’ve been burned a few times, sometimes dramatically, it does not mean I will be continually hurt. But that’s what schemas are; they trick your brain into thinking that you’re experiencing something now that you originally did as a child or adolescent. Parents were neglectful? People don’t care about my emotions. They aren’t worth caring about. Abused as a child? People want to hurt me. They will. Absent parents? I’m not worth sticking around for. People always leave me.
The key to beginning to work with schemas is understanding what they are and where they come from. Out of the eighteen available schemas, I scored “very high,” or the highest available acuity, on sixteen of them. I’m very stuck in my childhood, one could say. One of the main focuses of my therapy, now, is freeing me from my past. Understanding my past must come first.
So, check out the above list of the Disconnection and Rejection schemas. I’ve reviewed them today, in this piece, but I’ll go over the rest of the handful of domains in future bits. They’re really important to my understanding of the world of therapy, even the world of psychology, and I’m eager to share what I’ve devoured with you all. The hope is that by learning about schema therapy, you’ll be able to reflect on your past and the ways in which it’s disproportionately affecting you today.
Here is a link to a quick schema questionnaire that Oprah has on her website. It only tests eight, and each can be experienced from levels of 0-18, but it’s a nice little peek into the world of schemas. Comment what your biggest result is, here’s mine!