by Jennifer Martin Rieck, LCPC
An Overview of Early Maladaptive Schemas and Schema Therapy
In the world of Schema Therapy, which is the type of therapy I practice, an Early Maladaptive Schema is an adaptive but harmful belief system, or blueprint for interpreting information, that underpins the way that someone processes new information. According to the theory of Cognitive Consistency, as humans we are hardwired to look for consistency in our beliefs and experiences, even if doing so causes us problems. An Early Maladaptive Schema is formed when we have early childhood experiences that we internalize as representing truth, or being how things are globally. This is an example of a cognitive distortion called Overgeneralization, which occurs when we come to a conclusion about a specific event and then apply it to other unrelated events. When someone experiences a loss, such as losing a caregiver or parent by death or divorce early in life, they often form the belief that people will always leave in the end. This scenario often results in an individual having an Abandonment schema, which later results in repeated experiences that enforce the schema due to the individual engaging in behaviors driven by the anxiety caused by such a belief.
For example, most of us are familiar with relationally insecure individuals commonly being referred to as having “abandonment issues”. These individuals are often so clingy or needy with partners or friends that the partner or friends ends up leaving the relationship or making boundaries that cause the individual to feel abandoned. Many times these individuals are misunderstood by themselves and others, as they are acting on strong feelings and automatic thoughts. Without processing when and how their Abandonment schema was formed, and how it might be at the root of their painful feelings, these individuals will tend to misinterpret current situations and engage in behaviors that result in them being re-injured time and time again. The goal of Schema Therapy is not to pretend that painful early childhood experiences haven’t occurred or that painful messages haven’t been internalized, but rather to fully explore and acknowledge those experiences, and the messages that we’ve taken away from them, in a way that prevents us from acting unconsciously and subsequently reliving the same painful scenarios over and over again.
An Introduction to Other-Directedness Schemas
Other-Directedness domain schemas of Subjugation, Self-Sacrifice, and Approval Seeking are three different Early Maladaptive Schemas that are evaluated for and treated as problematic in Schema Therapy due to the fact that they often underpin an individual’s anxiety and/or depression. Each of these three schemas have to do with being overly focused on the feelings, needs, opinions, and reactions of others. Individuals with high scores in these schemas tend to have poor boundaries and a distorted sense of responsibility. Overly focusing on others and being overly accountable for another person’s feelings, needs, behaviors, and attitudes, creates an unhealthy style of being in relationship with others. Focusing on what one cannot control removes an individual’s sense of power and prevents investing emotional energy where the person does have power.
The schema of Subjugation has to do with feelings of inferiority regarding ones own needs and desires and a strong belief that it isn’t safe to express emotions. It makes sense that if someone grew up in an environment where it truly wasn’t safe to express emotions, because they had an angry or volatile parent or would be punished for doing so, that over time a child would begin suppressing and silencing their thoughts and feelings in order to feel safe or to prevent harm. However, this sort of chronic suppression often results in inner turmoil and anger, as an individual can’t articulate what they are truly feeling and thinking and subsequently can’t get their needs met. With this schema comes a lot of inner turmoil and frustration over what is okay to say and do and want and what isn’t.
Self-Sacrifice schema is another very common harmful schema that often results from growing up in environment where the message they received from caregivers was that there was no room for their emotions due to the parent’s own limited emotional capacity or a parent being self-absorbed. When a parent reacts negatively to their child’s emotions it unfortunately sends the message that the child’s emotions are problematic and that if the child wants to be well-liked they shouldn’t need anything from others. The child takes away the message that they should be mature, independent, and self-sufficient. Unfortunately, adults with this schema often wind up with emotionally unhealthy partners and friends due to the fact that they don’t require empathy or understanding or accommodations from others. These individuals often become increasingly depressed and/or anxious because they spend all of their time focusing on the needs and feelings of others and suppressing their own. They often feel extremely guilty for holding others accountable due to the fact that they believe their job is to be of comfort to others and that there is no room for their emotions and needs.
Approval Seeking Schema
Approval Seeking is the third of the Other-Directedness schemas, and is pretty self-explanatory. Individuals who have high Approval Seeking schemas often wind up living inauthentic lives based on the preferences and desires of those around them. These individuals experience a lot of anxiety as they attempt to get the things they want only if they can garner the full support and affirmation of those close to them. It becomes very hard then for these individuals to make choices or make changes to their lives that would make them happy, because they can rarely get everyone on board with their ideas.
Regardless of which of the Other-Directedness schemas you have (or perhaps you even have all three), the research is clear that these belief systems, regardless of how “nice and considerate” they seem, are often what underpin the mental health struggles of many individuals. It is important work for individuals who struggle with these schemas to practice being self-validating and to really acknowledge the fact that having a healthy life and healthy relationships means being true to oneself. No amount of looking to others, whether it’s to avoid anger, care give or serve, or garner approval, will ever result in healthy, congruent decisions or healthy relationships. In fact, too often these schemas are the reason that relationships are unsatisfying and individuals feel unseen or lonely.
Healing Other-Directedness Schemas
If you struggle with any of the Other-Directedness schemas, your work is to become more self-focused and to only operate within your own boundary of responsibility. I often encourage my clients to constantly remind themselves to “stay in [their] lane”. The more somebody swerves into another’s lane and takes ownership for another’s issues, preferences, desires, and the more that someone attempts to manage other’s feelings, the more stressed and helpless they feel. Being self-focused and accountable increases a person’s internal locus of control, or their sense of having the power needed to effectively make changes to their life. Someone who is self-aware and practices being accountable for themselves, and not others, is able to put their energy to good use and create changes and make choices that support their identity and wellbeing and that improve their mental health.