Schema Therapy is an evidence-based therapy that has been found to be effective for working with people with personality disorders and other complex or chronic mental health problems such as depression. Schema Therapy has also been used successfully to treat trauma presentations, and can be utilized in a complementary way with Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) for trauma.
Schemas are sometimes referred to as “Early Maladaptive Schemas” (EMS) and are self-defeating emotional and cognitive (thinking) patterns which drive behaviour, including ways of coping. These schemas usually result from unmet core emotional needs during childhood, perpetuating throughout life. They present as a broad, long-standing pattern, and are comprised of memories, emotions, thoughts, and somatic (physical/bodily) experiences. Schemas present as entrenched beliefs and feelings related to one’s self-concept, other people, or the world. Schemas develop during childhood or adolescence, relate to the self and one’s relationship with others, and are problematic to a significant degree. When schemas repeatedly influence our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours they can lead to repetition of unhelpful patterns in our lives that cause distress or lead to painful situations, such as entering into abusive or unstable relationships.
Three broad coping styles have been identified in relation to schemas – schema surrender, schema avoidance, and schema overcompensation. Schema surrender is when the schema is perpetuated, and an individual stays in the unhelpful pattern or situation. Schema avoidance leads an individual to avoid situations or feelings associated with the schema, in order not to experience the discomfort or pain of the schema. Schema overcompensation involves excessive efforts to avoid what the schema would drive you to do, usually by doing the opposite.
Schema therapy assists the individual to develop more adaptive coping styles through cognitive, behavioural, and affective interventions, thereby decreasing activation of schemas and the associated distress and improving the client’s responses. This is done through identifying schemas that maintain a person’s problems, how they manifest in daily life, and changing dysfunctional beliefs. It also includes breaking unhelpful patterns of coping, increasing skills and experiences that lead to more helpful and adaptive patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviour, and empowering clients to have their emotional needs more adequately met.