Early Maladaptive Schemas: Understand Your Patterns

Understanding Unhealthy Patterns through Early Maladaptive Schemas

“We do not grow absolutely, chronologically. We grow sometimes in one dimension, and not in another, unevenly. We grow partially. We are relative. We are mature in one realm, childish in another.” – Anaïs Nin

Have you ever wondered why you may repeat unhealthy, yet familiar, patterns in relationships with others or why you have particular tendencies to view yourself, others, and the world in a certain way? One psychological perspective for understanding these patterns and ways of making sense of your experience involves a focus on how early childhood experiences shape important beliefs and feelings about yourself.

This integrative form of psychotherapy, Schema Therapy (ST), combines principles of cognitive, behavioral, object-relations, attachment, and experiential approaches to treatment. The basic goal of ST is to learn how to get your basic needs met in a healthy way through changing maladaptive schemas. A schema is considered to be a stable longstanding pattern that develops through early childhood experiences and develops into an unquestioned lens through which you view the world as an adult.

When core basic childhood needs such as safety, predictability/consistency, love/nurturance/attention, acceptance/praise, empathy, guidance/protection, and validation go significantly unmet, maladaptive schemas may form as a result. Jeffrey Young, Ph.D., explains that there are five basic schema domains which are related to these basic childhood needs. Organized within these five schema domains are 18 specific early maladaptive schemas (EMS) which are specific self-defeating core relational patterns and themes that were learned in childhood and become repeated in adulthood.

As you read through and reflect on the following schema domains and EMS’s, pause to mindfully tune in to any emotional and physical reactions that you may notice arising within. Allow yourself to become open to identifying with any specific schemas that seem to ring true or fit with your lifetime of personal experiences

The idea is that an EMS develops as a protective measure when your core childhood needs are not sufficiently met, thus serving a functional purpose at the time. Problems may develop when EMS’s persist into adulthood and adversely impact the development of a meaningful life or relationships. An EMS that may have served a useful (protective) purpose in childhood may become an outdated, maladaptive, and ineffective complex defense mechanism in adulthood.

Pay particular attention to the sense you may have of any longstanding patterns of the ways in which you interact with others. Remember that the idea is that these schemas develop as a consequence of your early repetitive relational patterns with parents or important caregivers. Try reflecting back on those early experiences as you consider where you may have learned and internalized these beliefs about yourself and others.

Disconnection & Rejection

The essence of this schema domain is about a general expectation that your basic needs will be met by others in an unpredictable or inconsistent way. Many people who identify with schemas within this domain come from families perceived as cold, detached, explosive, lonely, abusive, or rejecting.

(1) Abandonment/Instability:

This EMS involves the experience of real or perceived unreliability and instability of others for basic connection and support. There is often an accompanying belief that others are unwilling or incapable of meeting your needs due to their own emotional instability and inconsistent presence. There may be an underlying fear of being abandoned for someone “better.”

(2) Mistrust/Abuse:

This is a basic belief that others will inevitably hurt, take advantage, manipulate, or lie to you in some way. There is often a belief that these harmful behaviors are intentional or the result of negligence. As an adult, there may be a belief of always feeling that you get the “short end of the stick” in comparison to others.

(3) Emotional Deprivation:

This EMS includes a general expectation for basic emotional needs to go unmet or unnoticed. Three major forms of emotional deprivation include deprivation of nurturance, protection, and empathy.

(4) Defectiveness/Shame:

This involves a core feeling of a sense of defectiveness or inherent “badness.” There is often a belief that if you were actually exposed to others as your true self, you would discover that you were actually unlovable. This EMS may manifest itself through heightened sensitivity to criticism and blame, intense self-consciousness, insecurity, and comparisons around others.

(5) Social Alienation/Rejection:

This EMS involves a deep sense of feeling isolated from the world, disconnected from other people,  and not feeling a sense of social belonging to any group or community.

Impaired Autonomy & Performance

This schema domain is typified by expectations about yourself and your personal environment interfering with your belief in your ability to survive, function on your own, or demonstrate success. Typical early family dynamics associated with these schemas are enmeshment, overprotection, or a failure to reinforce your ability (as a child) to show independent competence (perhaps by doing things for you rather than teaching you how to do things for yourself).

(6) Dependence/Incompetence:

This EMS is associated with a belief that you are not capable of dealing with everyday responsibilities without significant help from others. These beliefs may become evident through failure to take care of yourself, make healthy decisions, or solve daily problems without seeking excessive outside assistance – a general sense of helplessness.

(7) Vulnerability to Harm/Illness:

This schema may be experienced as a pronounced fear of looming or imminent disaster, coupled with the belief that it cannot be avoided/prevented. These fears are generally associated with medical, emotional, or external catastrophes.

(8) Enmeshment/Undeveloped Self:

This may be experienced as intense emotional closeness and involvement with significant others (other parents); the cost of which is often forgoing healthy social development or building a sense of a personal identity. This EMS often includes feelings of being smothered by or overly attached (fused) to others, while also experiencing a lack of personal direction or emptiness.

(9) Failure:

This EMS is generally rooted in the sense that you have failed, will fail, or are fundamentally inadequate in comparison to others in areas of achievement. There are associated core beliefs of being stupid, ignorant, untalented, or inferior.

Impaired Limits

This domain is related to a general lack of responsibility to others, internal limits, and/or future goals. EMS’s categorized within this schema domain tend to result in difficulty cooperating with others, respecting their rights, and making commitments. People who identify with the following EMS’s may come from families characterized by a permissive parenting style, overindulgence, lack of guidance/direction, or a sense of superiority, accompanied by parental failure to set limits related to taking responsibility or healthy confrontation. As a child, you may not have been pushed to learn to tolerate normal levels of discomfort or given appropriate guidance or direction (and thus did not learn how to do these things).

(10) Entitlement/Grandiosity:

This EMS is related to a belief in your superiority to others or a general belief in being entitled to special privileges, rights, or exceptions. These is often a belief that “normal” rules of social interactions don’t apply to you and that you should be able to do as you please without concern for the impact on others or an exaggerated focus on/need to be the “best” in some way to achieve power/control (not primarily related to attention/approval). There may be a tendency toward exerting power over others, forcing viewpoints upon others, or generally trying to control others’ behaviors in self-serving ways.

(11) Insufficient Self-Control/Self-Discipline:

This schema involves significant difficulty or refusal to demonstrate adequate self-control and to tolerate frustration/discomfort in the service of achieving goals. There may be a focus on avoiding discomfort (pain, conflict, overexertion, responsibility, or confrontation) with the potential cost of personal fulfillment of goals or relationships.

Other-Directedness

This domain tends to present itself with an excessive focus on the wants, needs, desires, and reactions of others (at the cost of your own needs). Sacrifices tend to be made in hopes of gaining love and approval or maintaining relational ties to others. Many children who develop the following EMS’s come from families who show conditional acceptance, which can result in denying or over-representing parts of yourself in hopes of gaining love/acceptance. Many parents within these families tend to place their own emotional needs/desires or social status/acceptance above the needs of their children (consciously or otherwise).

(12) Subjugation:

This involves a tendency to surrender control to others in attempts to avoid abandonment, anger, or conflict. You may identify with this EMS through a pattern of subjugating your needs/emotions coupled with a perception that your own needs, feelings, wants, or beliefs are unimportant or invalid to others. As a result of this EMS, your current experience may include excessive compliance to the needs/wishes of others while simultaneously feeling trapped.

(13) Self-Sacrifice:

There may be excessive focus on going “above and beyond” to meet the (real or imagined) needs of others, while sacrificing your own gratification/needs in the process. There may be internal motivations related to desires to avoid causing pain to others or guilt from feeling selfish in some way. This EMS may develop into an underlying sense that your own needs are going unmet (and are possibly unvocalized to others), followed by increased resentment toward the recipients of your self-sacrifices.

(14) Approval-Seeking/Recognition-Seeking:

This schema is related to placing an excessive amount of importance on recognition, attention, or approval from others (at the expense of development a mature and authentic self). Self-esteem may be rigidly tied to the (actual or perceived) reactions from other people, as opposed to trusting your own intuition or inclinations. For some, this EMS manifests itself through attempting to meet these deep needs by overly emphasizing money, appearance, status, power, or prestige. The focus here is basically about the earnest need for approval and recognition, as opposed to seeking power or control.

Overvigilance & Inhibition

This domain includes schemas that share common themes of suppressing spontaneous emotions/decisions/impulses or focusing on a deep desire to adhere to rigid rules and expectations regarding ethical behavior and performance. The basic cost is authentic happiness, inner peace, overall relaxation, and meaningful relationships. These schemas may develop within families who are demanding (perhaps punitive), hide/avoid emotions, require perfection/high achievement, and place emphasis on avoiding mistakes over happiness and relaxation. There may be a basic fear that without strict adherence to these rigid rules/standards, things may “fall apart.”

(15) Negativity/Pessimism:

This EMS relates to a consistent underlying focus on the perceived negative parts of life (death, pain, suffering, betrayal, etc.) with a simultaneous effort to minimize or avoid the positive or optimistic sides of life. There may be an exaggerated expectation that things will ultimately go horribly wrong and that any parts of your life that “seem” to be going well will end up falling apart. Because negative possibilities are exaggerated, there is often a tendency to worry excessively or complain.

(16) Emotional Inhibition:

This involves overly suppressing forms of spontaneous emotional expression, action, or communication out of fear that these expressions of emotion will result in shame, disapproval, rejection, or loss of impulse control. Commonly, attempts may be made to inhibit: anger/aggression, positive impulses (spontaneous expressions of joy/happiness), and vulnerability/open communication about feelings or needs. There may also be a proclivity toward an overemphasis on rationality with a disregard for emotions.

(17) Unrelenting Standards/Hypercriticalness:

This is an EMS characterized by a deep belief that you must meet incredibly high standards (performance/behavior) in order to avoid criticism. You may experience feelings of pressure, notice difficulty slowing down, and hypercriticalness/unrealistically high standards of yourself and others. This schema may present itself outwardly as perfectionism, excessive attention to detail, rigidity toward behavioral, moral, or ethical rules/standards, or a preoccupation with time and efficiency (in hopes of getting more accomplished).

(18) Punitiveness:

This EMS may be experienced as a belief that people should be punished or judged harshly for their mistakes. People who identify with this schema may feel intolerant, angry, impatient, and punitive toward themselves and others who don’t meet certain high expectations or standards. There may be an accompanying difficulty in forgiveness toward oneself and others due to a general reluctance to consider the impact of external factors. Individuals with this EMS may share an inner sense of reluctance to accept natural human imperfection and empathize with others.

Which of the five broad schema domains stood out to you the most as you reflect back on your personal lifetime of experiences? Try to slow down and allow yourself to remain open to any uncomfortable or suppressed feelings that may arise from your early childhood experiences. If you notice yourself beginning to identify with a schema domain or particular EMS, take the time to consider the ways in which you may have learned to develop these deep-seated beliefs to protect yourself from the continued agony of your basic childhood needs going unmet.

I look forward to exploring the various coping styles (the ways in which children learn to adapt to painful childhood experiences in efforts to protect themselves) and schema modes (moment-to-moment states of emotion and coping responses that we all share) in future articles. It can be helpful to identify these schema modes to increase awareness of particular situations, events, or interactions that push your unique emotional “hot buttons.”

You may benefit from exploring the basic concepts of Schema Therapy in your own growth and development if you find yourself repeatedly using maladaptive (unhealthy/ineffective) coping styles, would like to feel more in touch with your true/core feelings and needs, sense that you would like to work through and heal the pain associated with early schemas, or would like to learn how to get your basic emotional needs met in everyday life more consistently and effectively.

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For more information: Schema Therapy treatment centers and “A Client’s Guide to Schema Therapy

Young, J. E., Klosko, J. S., & Weishaar, M. (2003). Schema therapy: A practitioner’s guide. New York: Guilford.

Young, J. E. (1999). Cognitive therapy for personality disorders: A schema-focused approach (3rd ed.). Sarasota, FL: Professional Resource Press.

Young, J. E., & Klosko, J. S. (1999). Reinventing your life. New York: Plume Books.

Featured image: parent and child by skyseeker / CC BY 2.0

2 Responses to Early Maladaptive Schemas: Understand Your Patterns
  1. Ken Walsh
    February 10, 2013 | 10:13 am

    I have been using Schema Therapy in private practice for Ten years. I have found that using it in combination with cbt, I am better placed to treat the majority of my clients problems successfully.

    • anonymous
      November 12, 2014 | 6:30 pm

      I found it very useful. Before schema therapy, I had debilitating psychosomatic symptoms but no awareness of any emotion. Diagnosed with anxiety, but not feeling worried, just feeling like I could barely stand up. My life was extremely difficult because I constantly felt knocked out with flu-like symptoms and I refused to accept the ME diagnosis due to a poor evidence base and because it seemed logical that it would be psychological due to a history of eating disorders, dissociation and anxiety issues.

      Emotional deprivation, social isolation, self sacrifice, emotional inhibition and unrelenting standards.

      I have found emotional deprivation+social isolation to be the most difficult combination.

      I feel very different from everyone else and like I do not belong in any group or community, and I also do not anticipate receiving love in romantic relationships. This translated to me just not bothering with either to some extent. I stayed in a very distant relationship with someone I didn’t love and barely ever had sex with or even kissed for that matter, but who I had a friendship with. He was fine with this as he was a cold and distant person. I didn’t bother try to make new friends or create deeper connections with existing ones because I believed we were too different anyway.

      I have stopped ‘not bothering to look’ for either platonic or romantic relationships (and I’m trying not to feel disappointed by what appears to me to be constant evidence that everyone else is bland to me), and as a result I feel a little less like I exist on another planet by myself and everyone else is constantly lightyears away even if they are my best friend – or boyfriend for that matter. But I find that those two schemas together just mean loneliness and emptiness all over the place. I find it hard to believe that there will be potential friends out there who I’ll feel are on just the same wavelength as me, or a boyfriend I will feel I have anything in common with and find physically attractive and who won’t be cold or narcissistic or otherwise emotionally immature. The idea that ‘my people’ exist out there feels like magic to me.

      I keep trying though – it’s a numbers game and I never really put any effort in before. The more people I meet the more chance I have to make new friends who have a lot in common with me.

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