What is a Schema and What Happens if it’s Maladaptive?

What is a Schema?

A schema is a pattern. It is activated during childhood and adolescence and is activated again and again in your life. Since a schema gets more rigid over time, the reactions become less flexible. One result of this is that our schema based reactions don’t really fit the requirements of many present situations.

Adaptive and Maladaptive Schemas

A maladaptive schema:

  • Is self-injurious;
  • Is rooted in something that has been done to us (e.g., criticism, neglect, invalidation, abuse, overdone protection);
  • Dominates our life so that we experience repetitions of these harmful situations (e.g., we might stay in an unhealthy relationship);
  • Makes us react in a manner that is self-defeating and usually inflexible in situations that are similar to those that harmed us in our childhood development;
  • Makes it difficult for us to successfully meet the demands of some important situations in our adult life.

(Referred to as Early Maladaptive Schemas or EMS)

How Schemas Develop

Schemas (EMS) develop from the interaction of temperament and unmet childhood needs:

  • Temperament is inherited. It is our own specific way of reacting to the world. It is a “hard-wired” neurobiological aspect of us that we are born with. As children we cannot control our temperament. Some people have more reactive temperaments than others.
  • Unmet needs refers to how well our early caretakers and environment met our basic, normal, childhood needs.

Normal Childhood Needs

Research on child development is in agreement that there are five core needs all children have:

  1. Secure attachment (safety, stability, nurturance, acceptance; includes the sense of belonging);
  2. Autonomy, competence, and a sense of identity (being allowed to do age appropriate tasks on our own, and being given accurate feedback about ourselves);
  3. Freedom (to express our own feelings and needs);
  4. Spontaneity and play (self-expression and the ability to enjoy life)
  5. Realistic limits (to learn age appropriate self-control)

Too little or too much fulfillment of needs leads to the development of maladaptive schemas.

How Maladaptive Schemas Affect Us as Adults

01. Abandonment
As a child you did not get the need for safety, security, or predictability met by your early caretakers…as an adult when this schema is triggered you can have the feeling you are unsafe, all alone, with no one to give you the safety, emotional support, connection, strength, or protection you desperately need and you have minimal skills to provide it for yourself.

02. Defectiveness
You have the feeling you are flawed, worthless, bad, incapable, or useless in important aspects of your life.

03. Mistrust/Abuse
You have the expectation that others will lie to you, cheat, hurt or abuse you, manipulate, shame, or use you.

04. Emotional Deprivation
You have the expectation that your need for emotional support, attention, understanding, empathy, and help will never be fulfilled sufficiently by other people.

05. Lack of Discipline
You have difficulty with self-control; for example expressing feelings and emotions in an extreme manner…or having a low frustration tolerance in trying to reach your own goals; e.g., not liking sustained effort.

06. Isolation
You have the feeling of being isolated from the rest of the world or that you are different from other people or that you are not part of the group, that you don’t belong

07. Dependency/Incompetence
You are convinced that without a large amount of support from others you won’t be able to manage daily life

08. Vulnerability to Illness/Harm
You may constantly fear catastrophes that you cannot prevent from happening

09. Enmeshment
You attach too strongly to one or more people in your life and try to be close to them to the point that you have no social life or interests of your own

10. Failure
You may be convinced that you have failed or are going to fail in areas where performance counts, such as sports, school, or a job.

11. Grandiosity
You may think you are better than others or special or that you have more rights than others.

12. Subjugation
You may easily give control to others because you feel that you must (e.g., out of fear for consequences etc.).

13. Self-Sacrifice
You may excessively in daily situations work to fulfill the needs of others at the cost of your own happiness.

14. Attention-Seeking
Try excessively to achieve the approval, praise, or attention of others or you try to fit in at the cost of developing your own feelings.

15. Negativity
You may focus on the negative aspects of everything throughout your life (e.g., glass is half empty).

16. Emotional Inhibition
You may excessively inhibit your spontaneous feelings, actions, or communication usually to avoid feelings of dislike or shame, or to avoid losing control of your impulses.

17. Unrelenting Standards
You may be convinced you have to work constantly to try to meet you own very high standards for behavior and achievement, to avoid criticism from yourself or others.

18. Punishment
You may be convinced that people should be punished harshly if they make mistakes.

Schema Modes

Schemas are somewhat like the “issues” or problem areas a person struggles with.

Schemas are not active all of the time. They have to be activated or set off by something – usually a situation you are in or an interaction with someone.

When our schemas are activated, intense states are triggered that include feelings, physical sensations, thoughts, actions, and sometimes memories. These states are called modes.

A schema mode is triggered when schemas are activated. These are usually by life situations that we are overly sensitive to (our “hot buttons”). Schema modes are made up of strong emotions and/or rigid coping styles that take over and control an individual’s functioning.

The mode we are in can change rapidly and modes can overlap with each other. We call this mode-flipping. Mode flipping can feel scary or overwhelming and it’s exhausting.

Some categories of schema modes:

01. Maladaptive Coping Modes (MCM)
MCM are the survival strategies we used in childhood to protect ourselves from the emotions that go along with hurt, pain, neglect and abuse:

  • Avoidant Modes
  • Overcompensation Modes
  • Surrender Modes

02. Child Modes

  • Vulnerable Child Mode (VCM
  • Angry/Impulsive Child Mode (ACM)

03. Dysfunctional Parent Modes
Dysfunctional parent modes are the internalization of the negative aspects of our childhood caretakers and the feelings that went along with our childhood experience of them.

  • Punitive Parent Mode
  • Demanding Parent Mode

04. Healthy Modes
Healthy modes are adaptive responses to our adult environment and the ability to access creative, joyful aspects of childhood:

  • Healthy Adult Mode
  • Happy Child Mode

If your family is in need of additional support, I am here to help.

This information is not a substitute for professional advice from a Medical Doctor, Psychiatrist, or Licensed Counselor. The information provided by www.coachlisabond.com does not constitute legal or professional advice nor is it intended to be.
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Hi, I'm Lisa!

My mission is to provide high quality, evidence-based tools to meet the unique needs of individuals and families who want to create a life worth living, and coaches who want to help others do the same.

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