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  • Writer's picture Heidi Ashley

What are “schemas”?

Updated: May 11


Can schema therapy help with our schemas?

Schemas = expectations

 

Once upon a time, there lived a schema therapist …

 

… And you’re now expecting a fairy story, aren’t you?

 

Same as if I dealt out a pack of cards. You’ll naturally expect that spades will be black, and hearts red. They always are, aren’t they?

 

And if we went to a coffee shop, you’d know what to expect there. We place our order. They make our drinks. We can linger, as we sip coffee and chat. Then we pay and leave.

 

These are all examples of schemas. Our brains look for patterns: this is how our brains work. We notice that hearts are always red, and clubs black. Once our brains find these patterns, they search for these patterns in new information. Schemas therefore tell us what to expect, or predict, in our world.

 

Sometimes they are helpful

 

Schemas allow our brains to process huge amounts of information very quickly, with minimal effort and fuss, by telling us what to expect: that hearts will be red, “Once upon a time” ends with “happily ever after”, or the procedure to order coffee in any cafe.  

 

If we didn’t have schemas to organise new information, or predict what comes next, our brains would instantly become overwhelmed. The world would feel exhausting. We’d have no idea how to make sense of things. New situations would seem chaotic, random.

 

Schemas help, by saying “You already know this! Expect THIS next”.

 

We know what’s expected of us if a friend invites us to a party. We’ve all been to parties before. We put on something nice and bring a bottle with us. We expect to socialise.

 

So, schemas help us interpret new situations based on prior experience in similar situations. They tell us how to proceed. Handy!

 

We don’t like it when our schemas are disrupted

 

If you played with a deck of cards that reversed your expectations – if hearts are black -it would instantly disrupt your schemas. You’d feel confused.

 

Likewise, if I said “Once upon a time, there were three bears, who lived together in a house of their own in the woods …” you’d feel unsettled if the story turned into a shopping list of what I plan to buy for my dinner tonight.

If you entered a coffee shop and the barista ignored you, handed you a coffee before taking your order, or didn’t charge, you’d feel confusion, anxiety. This isn’t what we expect!

 

What’s going on here?

 

We are extremely motivated to maintain our schemas. We all need the world to feel meaningful, consistent with our expectations, and predictable. This is such a strong need that when it is disrupted, we feel anxious and will increase our efforts to maintain our existing schemas.  

 

For instance, you’d probably urgently insist on paying for your coffee in the above example. Free things are great but it’s likely your anxiety would be far greater.

 

So, schemas help our brains cope with huge amounts of information by taking quick mental shortcuts based on patterns we’ve learned before. Schemas help us make sense of and predict the future based in the past. They tell us what to expect.

 

But schemas also prevent new learning. We protect our schemas and will strongly resist learning anything different. We don’t want hearts to be black, it feels weird and wrong.

 

What does this have to do with mental health?

 

The schemas I’m interested in are properly termed “Early Maladaptive Schemas”, which is somewhat of a mouthful. So, I’ll call them ‘Ems’.

 

We all have Ems. They are deeply held “truths” about ourselves, the world we live in, and our relationships with other people. Like any other schema, Ems organise new information along old lines, influencing our expectations.  

 

Thoughts like “no-one cares about me”; “I’ll be abandoned” or “no-one can be trusted” are connected to Ems. You can see how relevant this is to mental health and wellbeing.

 

These ‘truths’ – like “I don’t matter” - form in response to unmet need in childhood. If we weren’t kept safe as children, didn’t feel loved, were ignored growing up, or treated cruelly, Ems form as patterns learned from experience by our developing brains.

 

Once our brains learn these patterns in childhood, they search for the same patterns in new situations, far into adulthood. We transfer old learning to new situations. 

 

There are so many problems with this in terms of our emotional health.

 

Ems predict that we’ll never feel safe, or loved, ever. They predict we’ll never fit in or be a good person. They predict, “You’ll always be rejected”. We pass a group of teenagers in the street who are laughing: our Ems tell us they’re laughing at us. Or a friend doesn’t quickly reply to a message and we immediately personalise it and feel rejected.

 

We interpret new situations along old lines, with the same painful outcomes for us.

 

Ems are triggered by situations that resemble childhood experiences: when our brain thinks it’s spotted an old pattern in a new situation. Then we are hit by a wave of painful emotion. These feelings are intense because the Ems carries emotion from childhood into the current situation. It feels familiar, and awful. We think “It’s happening all over again”. Our consciousness is dominated by the experience of Ems being activated.

 

Ems stem from experiences of unmet need during childhood. Then they prevent our needs from being met as adults. Old patterns become predictors of future patterns. This happens outside our awareness. Ems keep the drama of childhood going on around us, bringing despair and hopelessness.  


Ems explain how a child who was mistreated or neglected becomes an adult who continues to expect this from others. They explain why the distressing experiences we had in childhood have a habit of repeating themselves over and again, into our adulthood. Ems actively sabotage us and prevent healing. They do this by creating life patterns that keep us stuck and that stop our needs from being met

 

Because we grew up with Ems, we just accept them. We don’t question them. Their messages – like “I don’t belong” – just feel ‘true’. We strongly resist evidence that doesn’t fit with our Ems. Although though they cause us to suffer, they’re what we know and feel sure of. They’re how we have always made sense of the world. When we feel worthless, we discount it when someone values us. We dismiss it with “They’re just being nice” or “They don’t really know me”. The Ems is maintained.  Ems strongly resist being updated or changed.

 

Because of this, Ems usually need therapy to change. Our habitual ways of coping with them only reinforce them. But Ems can be changed and there absolutely is hope!

 

If you recognise Ems in yourself, rest assured that you are not alone. If you need help to start changing your Ems, start by sending me an email at drheidiashley@protonmail.com and let’s take it from there.

 

Reference: A Client’s Guide to Schema Therapy, David C. Bricker, and Jeffrey E. Young, (2004)

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