The Building Blocks of Your Thoughts and Emotions–Schema Theory

Written by: Matthew Sabatine

The following article/post represents only the views of the author and not everyone at Common Issues.

How is knowledge obtained, managed and sorted out? What does it mean when I say that comprehension is what we know about the world? Schema theory tells us that knowledge is a web of interconnected mental units and structures called schema (pl. schemata). Schemata arrange our mental contents about reality in the long-term memory. Schemata, also called “the building blocks of cognition,” depend on experience and prior knowledge to make an understandable view of reality. They aid us in making recollections and behavioral adaptations, focusing attention on stuff relevant to us, and to foresee what lies ahead.  Schemata are foundational pieces to everything perceptual, experiential, and abstract–whether that involves our ideologies, our cultural truths, or our interpretations of a specific term or number. All our generic knowledge would collapse and be nonexistent without schemata [1].

To save time and energy when interpreting the vastitude of information around us, our brains must make shortcuts by only targeting the most relevant information. Unfortunately, this leads to a lot of unintended errors as our brains seek to uphold preexisting beliefs and ideas that would otherwise require skepticism [2]. Plenty of schemata are used when meeting new people. You recognize things from them like appearance, personality, preferences, and behavior. Are they respectful? Did they pay for your movie ticket on the first date? Does he/she eat garlic?

This goes back to the days of British psychologist named Frederic Bartlett who posited that our brains have a system of abstractions to guide our perceptions of the world. According to Jean Piaget, schemata are both categories and means of obtaining knowledge, which is an activity of the brain necessitating our perpetual adapting to the environment upon imbibing all the new information around us and learning new things. Old schemas die out and new ones are made with every new experience and stimuli that take place. It seems apparent to me that Piaget would advise us to understand the reality of children who have “various stages of intellectual growth,” a time during which their schemas are very suggestible but become stiff and inelastic as they get older [2].

Converting components of the physical world into constructs of living and agreeing with those environments is a form of human perception and adaptation that Jean Piaget called assimilation. We also have accommodation. We must tear holes in our already established cognitive schemas wherein we can fit new information, new experiences, and reinterpretations to make sense of it all [2] [3]. It was Piaget’s conviction that this was evolution’s doing to program us for having equilibrium.

Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget, known for his work on child development.

In my opinion, equilibrium or a comfortable state of balance and wholeness can’t be felt if we have what are called early maladaptive schemas. Such a thing is a thematic approach to oneself and relationships with others, developed throughout time since childhood, that is abnormal to a substantial extent. Such a schema stems from harmful experiences, webbing together certain memories, bodily sensations, emotions, and cognitions that stir up ferocity when those things are touched. This is based on the ideas of American psychologist and founder of the Schema Therapy Institute, Jeffery Young (1990, 1999) [4].

It is necessary to note that early maladaptive schemas are self-defeating patterns in the emotions and mind, meant to be conceptually distinguished from behavior. The development of maladaptive behaviors is the response to and propelled by a schema, according to Jeffery Young’s theory [4].

18 early maladaptive schemas have been identified and organized in connection with “need-thwarting parental experiences in childhood.” A 2018 US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health reported on “a large Danish sample of 658 clinical- and 391 nonclinical adults” who were empirically used to validate Young’s therapy approach to personality pathology and emotional disorders [5].

However, for this article I would like to focus on only 6 of them:

EMOTIONAL DEPRIVATION: “The expectation that one’s needs for nurturance, empathy, and protection will not be met by others,” [6]. This evokes a fear that can be directed at multiple things such as the shortage of others’ interest in you, and a shortage of their kindness, care, friendliness, warmth, and esprit de corps. The absence of understanding, self-disclosure, and mutual sharing of feelings with others is a constant concern along with fearing the absence of protection, strength, and advice, and assistance from others [7].

Abandonment/Instability: “The perceived instability or unreliability of significant others for emotional support and connection,” [6]. I see this overlapping with emotional deprivation. You often detect capriciousness and uncertainty in those within your reach. You anticipate support, connection, strength, and protection will be stripped from you during their angry outbursts and inconsistent behaviors. Perhaps this happened often during the infantile, vulnerable, and helpless stages of your life. The neglect, undue anger from those above you, the sudden death of a caregiver, or being abandoned for someone else better than you made your vulnerability and helplessness more apparent than necessary. If mommy and daddy this, what are the odds that everyone else will do the same throughout your life? As this exists as a prominent enemy in your mind, you fear experiences with others that will resurrect those old feelings you had during your infantile state [7].

MISTRUST: “The expectation that others will hurt, abuse, humiliate, manipulate, or take advantage intentionally,” [6]. You feel you are constantly at the mercy of the possibly being ruined, exploited, disgraced, or fooled. As you think that it can happen at any time, you can hardly resist suspecting that it is all intentional, or the outcome of inexcusable, callous disregard and unethical care from others. You can hardly resist wondering, “Have I gotten the short end of the stick?” [7]

SOCIAL ISOLATION/ ALIENATION: “The feeling that one is isolated from the world, different from others, and/or not part of any community,” [6]. This detachment from the world runs deep within you, as you usually feel uninvited and unwelcomed to anything that the world has to offer others. You have concluded that you are conspicuously discriminable from everyone else [7].

 DEFECTIVENESS / SHAME: “The belief that one is inwardly defective, flawed, and unlovable to significant others if exposed,” [6]. Your perceived flaws can hardly be touched without feeling your whole self is perhaps imperfect, undesirable, mediocre, or worthless. You wish they could be unmentionable or unnoticeable as any attention draw to them feels like intentional criticism, rejection, and blame from others, followed by self-conscious and insecure feelings that you can hardly withstand. These flaws could be private (e.g. the impulse to take offense, deplorable sexual desires, selfishness) or public (e.g. subpar physical appearance or taste in fashion) [7].

FAILURE: “The belief that one is fundamentally inadequate in areas of achievement compared to peers,” [6]. This is a prominent enemy in your mind. You may feel as though it is obvious you should expect failure after failure, as the signs and auguries are always written in the stars, on the walls, and on people’s faces. You often assume you have failed already, even though you don’t know for sure. You often assume that you will unpreventably and eventually fail because of your inability to have your small-scale victories measure up to your peers’ accolades, dexterity, choice of words, history, etc. You often feel ridiculous, like you’re bungling all your projects, because of your lack of talent, ignorance, low status, etc. [7].

I wanted to focus on these few early maladaptive schemas as they appear to be connected to symptoms of personality disorders. As we’re on the topic of receiving recurrent pushback from significant others, the Cleveland Clinic tells us that avoidant personality disorder can cause one to fear rejection so sharply that he/she prefers sequestering away from everyone else because rejection in a relationship is too perilous. Such a fear can differ in extremity from person to person. Other commonplace traits are said to exist alongside the fear of mortification and nonacceptance [8]. Symptoms quoted from the Cleveland Clinic:   

  • “They are oversensitive and easily hurt by criticism or disapproval.”
  • “They have few, if any, close friends and are reluctant to become involved with others unless certain of being liked.”
  • “They experience extreme anxiety (nervousness) and fear in social settings and in relationships, leading them to avoid activities or jobs that involve being with others.”
  • “They tend to be shy, awkward, and self-conscious in social situations due to a fear of doing something wrong or being embarrassed.”
  • “They tend to exaggerate potential problems.”
  • “They seldom try anything new or take chances.”
  • “They have a poor self-image, seeing themselves as inadequate and unappealing.”

A study was performed on schemas in three personality disorders: Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCPD), and Avoidant Personality Disorder (AvPD). The study included 48 clinical participants diagnosed with personality disorders. Defectiveness/ Shame and Abandonment scored high in the BPD group. Emotional Inhibition scored high in the AvPD group [9].

Allow me to define Emotional Inhibition very quickly: “The belief that one must inhibit spontaneous emotions and actions, often to avoid disapproval by others or feelings of shame,” [6]. Perhaps you feel constantly sensitive to the thought that even just a scintilla of anger and aggression is unacceptable and worthy of punishment. Perhaps you think your positive impulses (e.g. delight, fondness, endearment, sexual elation and temptations, play) are highly prohibited and worth scorning. Perhaps you guard your feelings, allowing for no vulnerability and freedom of communication about your desires and needs, while underscoring rationality and putting emotion on the back burner [7].

Avoidant PD is correlated with powerful doses of emotional abuse in childhood and evidence supports the notion that a dearth of parental affection and nurturing may be linked to avoidant PD’s onset [10].

Schema Therapy: A Practitioner’s Guide, by Jeffrey E. Young, Janet S. Klosko, and Marjorie E. Weishaar tells us that Abandonment/Instability, Mistrust/Abuse, Emotional Deprivation, and Defectiveness/Shame are the most insidious schemas, suffered by those who were abandoned, abused, neglected and rejected in their youth. Crucial events that occur in their lives trigger an unconscious perception that the event is like their traumatic experiences from childhood, concomitant with a negative emotion (e.g. grief, shame, fear or age). Though all toxic schemas are not rooted in childhood, they can often be traced to disadvantageous events that have recurrence in adulthood. So, a schema, being a building block of cognition, will develop because of the human impetus for consistency. And these enemies want to fight for survival. Though the scheme hurts you, it is what you know. It is a comfortable, familiar spot where you stay because you’re too afraid to explore other options. Processed as a priori truths, and influencing later experiences, the destructive schema feels “right,” causing you to think, feel, act, and relate to others through its lens and reproduce in your adulthood the bane of your childhood [4].

Is There Therapy For Maladaptive Schemas?

Yes. Absolutely. Schema therapy integrates several different approaches, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and emotion-focused therapy et al to address personality disorders and other issues that are sometimes unresponsive to other therapies. Talking to a therapist will help to exhume your emotional needs that were unmet as a child, and to fulfill those needs with healthy coping mechanisms instead of the other distressing methods you used before [11].

It will be important to learn about “coping styles” which form as a strategy to dodge the crushing and seemingly irresistible emotions faced because of a certain schema. Your coping style could have been learned from your parents or have its basis in your overall temperament. Your coping style will probably be subject to change, though you will likely remain dealing with the same schema [11].

As Healthline.com tells us, the fight-or-flight or freeze reaction correlates with three main coping styles:

  1. Surrender—Giving into a schema, resulting in the perpetuation of a behavior that strengthens the schema. It’s expectable for people to choose adult relationships of emotional negligence if they experienced emotional negligence in childhood.
  2. Avoidance—steering clear of activities and situations you think could trigger the schema or make you feel helpless. Such a coping style can lead to substance abuse and hazardous or irrational behaviors purposed for distraction.
  3. Overcompensation—you fight the schema by completely opposing it. While appearing to be a superficially plausible way to cope, it frequently leads to behaviors full of belligerence, tactlessness, and excess.

Schema therapy will aim to do the following:

  •  pinpoint and commence the healing of schemas
  • locate and discuss coping styles that hinder emotional needs
  • alter the configurations of your feelings and behaviors that stem from schemas
  • learn beneficial and adaptive methods for fulfilling your core emotional needs
  • learn how to healthily cope with dissatisfaction, anguish, and disappointment when specific needs are unmet

In the long run, all of this will accomplish a robust sense of feeling like a true adult with well-regulated modes of thinking and feeling. You will become balanced to no longer feel hindered by inner self-belittling, captious, and demanding parental voices, or an inner small child, or emotional distress that results in bad schema reinforcement [11].

About the author: Matthew is interested in discussing social psychology, neuroscience, anthropology, sociology, human biology and anatomy, mental health disorders, philosophy, the psychology of religion, and the history of religion. Matthew loves his friends, his family, and his dog named Sampson. You can contact Matthew at commonissues.contactus@gmail.com.

Disclosure statement: I am not a licensed therapist nor doctor. My intention is to not pretend to be either. The information contained in this article is not meant to be accepted instead of a doctor or licensed therapist’s advice. All information contained herein is based on my interpretation of the books and articles I read. My hope and desire is that any troubled person reading this would feel encouraged to get help from a licensed practitioner.


References:

[1] http://web.mit.edu/pankin/www/Schema_Theory_and_Concept_Formation.pdf

[2] https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-a-schema-2795873

[3] https://courses.lumenlearning.com/teachereducationx92x1/chapter/piagets-theory-of-cognitive-development/

[4] https://www.guilford.com/excerpts/young.pdf?t

[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29256336

[6] http://www.aftcc.org/sites/default/files/documents/personnalite_et_schemas_de_young.pdf

[7] https://www.schematherapysouthafrica.co.za/downloads/Schemas%20and%20schema%20modes%20for%20formulation%20and%20treatment%20planning.pdf

[8] https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/9761-avoidant-personality-disorder

[9] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15519957

[10] https://nationalsocialanxietycenter.com/2016/02/02/schema-therapy-avoidant-personality/

[11] https://www.healthline.com/health/schema-therapy-2#goals

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