Schema Therapy: Rethinking Your Thinking

When we recall a childhood experience that hurt us, and relive that pain, it’s not hard to see that it was damaging. If we really tap into what happened, the feelings we had then usually come rushing back and the coping strategies that we’ve developed make an innate kind of sense to us. The same is true of deep-seated thought patterns or beliefs.

However maladaptive or wrong they are, they’re comfortable and familiar. This is territory we know. So, for a lot of us, the ultimate goal of therapy is to understand where these well-worn paths come from and what we can do to change them. Schema Therapy has proven to be one of the most effective ways of doing just that.

How Schema Therapy Came About

This kind of psychological treatment is relatively new; it was developed in the 1980s by Dr Jeffrey E. Young. Dr Young originally worked with Cognitive Therapy founder Dr Aaron Beck but over time he found that some patients responded very well to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, or CBT, while others did not.

The clients who were not really seeing changes in their lives, Dr Young discovered, were usually those with long-term thought patterns or personality disorders – basically, the older a behaviour or belief was, the more entrenched and difficult to unseat it proved to be.

Young called these scripts that people have about themselves “Schemas”. Everyone develops them, but when they are critical and self-defeating, they are known more colloquially – but just as accurately! – as “Lifetraps”. Schema-Focused Cognitive Therapy, to use its proper name, was created in response to the Doctor’s observations.

Various Lifetraps in Schema Therapy

Most Lifetraps are formed very early in our lives, and consist of self-defeating thought patterns such as “everyone will leave me in time”, “something bad is going to happen soon” or “nobody really cares about me”. Of course, they can also develop later, for example as a response to trauma.

Our brains lay the groundwork and do such a good job of convincing us of these ideas that we accept them as fact and start to expect them to happen. And since we’re expecting certain outcomes and events, we interpret whatever we experience as evidence that they have occurred.

If you’re convinced that you are unlovable, a blunt comment from anyone will confirm that this is so. Or worse, you might stay in an abusive relationship because you don’t think anyone else will care about you. The behaviours that you engage in, in response to the schema, maintain your beliefs.

There are eighteen Lifetraps that could be tripping you up, including Abandonment, Mistrust, Emotional Deprivation, Shame, Social Isolation, Vulnerability to Self-Harm or Illness, Failure, Approval-Seeking, Unrelenting Standards, and Punitiveness.

How Schema Therapy Works

The idea with Schema Therapy is to live the dream outlined at the beginning of this article – to identify patterns, understand their underlying causes, and acknowledge the pain and difficult emotions they have caused in the past and still trigger in the present.

If you are able to do all of that, you can start to address the thoughts and behaviours that both cause and maintain your Lifetraps. That’s hard work, as anybody who has ever faced any kind of emotional pain can tell you. But if you’re brace enough, it’s seriously beneficial. Elements of Gestalt, Cognitive Behavioural, Object Relations and other psychological concepts are applied.

The three stages of Schema-Focused Cognitive Therapy are the Assessment, Awareness and Experiential, and the Behavioural Change Phase. During Assessment, you’ll work with your therapist to identify the scripts that are present in your life.

In the Awareness and Experiential Phase, your sessions will help you to get in touch with your Schema and learn to spot them in your day-to-day life. During Behavioural Change, you’ll be actively involved in replacing your old, negative patterns with healthy new thoughts and actions.

Schema Therapy for Eating Disorders

This type of treatment was originated predominantly to deal with Borderline Personality Disorder, but has since had great success with depression, self-awareness and several other issues, Eating Disorders included. Sufferers of Anorexia, Bulimia and Binge-Eating Disorders have all benefitted.

More structured and systematic than Integrative Therapy or traditional psychotherapy, Schema Therapy puts the power in the client’s hands in a tangible way. Depending on what you need, you’ll do different exercises and focus on various issues during your treatment sessions.

Schema Therapy certainly isn’t easy. Nobody ever said that it, or any kind of Eating Disorder recovery, was. But pretty much anybody who has tried it honestly, to the best of their abilities, says that it’s worth it. If you do the same, you might well find that it works for you too.