Schema-Focused Therapy (SFT) was developed by Jeffrey E. Young, Ph.D. While working with Dr. Aaron Beck at the Center For Cognitive Therapy, Dr. Young noticed there was a group of clients that did not respond as quickly or strongly to traditional cognitive therapy as one would hope. These clients, who tend to have long-standing problems and entrenched, dysfunctional beliefs, what Dr. Young calls schemas, seem to respond better to a different set of treatment strategies.
What are Schemas?
Schemas can be thought of as central and enduring themes in a person’s life. Schemas reflect deep, difficult to change views of ourselves, others, and the world. Schemas also refer to a broad organizing structure that significantly influences our moment-to-moment experiences. Schemas develop early in life. The building blocks of schemas often are the important experiences of childhood, particularly how our caretakers responded to us. Schemas typically consist of thematically connected feeling states, thinking patterns, expectations, predispositions to believe and emotionally significant memories.
Schemas have a purpose: to rapidly inform us of what is important to our well-being and how we might meet our deepest needs. Maladaptive schemas, as you might guess, don’t assist is getting our needs met and typically result in painful patterns in thinking and feeling. For example, John, a 24 year old graduate, is told by a friend that a fellow female graduate student likes John and wishes he would ask her out. Upon hearing this, John experiences the following:
- An anxious, jittery feeling that has the quality of vulnerability rather than excitement
- Specific thoughts, such as “this can’t be true”, “she won’t like me if she gets to know me”, “I’d be a fool to ask her out”
- Specific memories of other unrequited longings, instances where he perceived he was rejected, memories of his parents criticizing him for being socially awkward and “too quiet
- An inclination to withdraw and forget what his friend told him
We would say that John has a Defectiveness or Unlovability Schema that was triggered by his friend’s comment.
List of Maladaptive Schemas
Perhaps the key contribution of Schema-Focused Therapy is the identification of the major maladaptive schemas that can afflict us. Dr Jeffrey Young has identified the following schemas:
- Emotional Deprivation – The belief and expectation that your primary needs will never be met. The sense that no one will nurture, care for, guide, protect or empathize with you.
- Abandonment – The belief and expectation that others will leave, that others are unreliable, that relationships are fragile, that loss is inevitable, and that you will ultimately wind up alone.
- Mistrust/Abuse – The belief that others are abusive, manipulative, selfish, or looking to hurt or use you. Others are not to be trusted.
- Defectiveness – The belief that you are flawed, damaged, or unlovable, and you will thereby be rejected.
- Social Isolation – The pervasive sense of aloneness, coupled with a feeling of alienation.
- Vulnerability – The sense that the world is a dangerous place, that disaster can happen at any time, and that you will be overwhelmed by the challenges that lie ahead.
- Dependence/Incompetence – The belief that you are unable to effectively make your own decisions, that your judgment is questionable, and that you need to rely on others to help get you through day-to-day responsibilities.
- Enmeshment/Undeveloped Self – The sense that you do not have an identify or “individuated self” that is separate from one or more significant others.
- Failure – The expectation that you will fail, or belief that you cannot perform well enough.
- Subjugation – The belief that you must submit to the control of others, or else punishment or rejection will be forthcoming.
- Approval-Seeking/Recognition-Seeking – The sense that approval, attention an recognition are far more important than genuine self-expression and being true to oneself.
- Emotional Inhibition – The belief that you must control your self-expression or others will reject or criticize you.
- Negativity/Pessimism – The pervasive belief that the negative aspects of life outweigh the positive, along with negative expectations for the future.
- Unrelenting Standards – The belief that you need to be the best, always striving for perfection or to avoid mistakes.
- Punitiveness – The belief that people should be harshly punished for their mistakes or shortcomings.
- Entitlement/Grandiosity – The sense that you are special or more important than others, and that you do not have to follow the rules like other people even though it may have a negative effect on others. Also can manifest in an exaggerated focus on superiority for the purpose of having power or control.
- Insufficient Self-Control/Self-Discipline – The sense that you cannot accomplish your goals, especially if the process contains boring, repetitive, or frustrating aspects. Also, that you cannot resist acting upon impulses that lead to detrimental results.
What Can Schema-Focused Therapy Add to Cognitive Therapy?
- The assessment process in SFT is more comprehensive. The therapist wants to develop a good understanding of the origin of the maladaptive schema (early interactions with significant others) and how the schema has expressed itself throughout the patient’s life (the pattern of painful feelings, self-defeating choices and unmet needs).
- There is a greater emphasis on understanding the origins of the maladaptive schemas. This enables the client to see his life, especially his struggles and self-defeating behavior, and how they are influenced him to avoid certain situations or tasks that fulfill his basic desires. This kind of understanding can promote not only self-compassion, but also increase motivation to change by appreciating the “price one has paid”.
- Schema-Focused-Therapy spells out powerful change techniques to “heal”maladaptive schemas. These techniques include working with painful memories and images that are an intregral part of the schema. Evoking such memories can be emotional for the client. However, it appears to be crucial to restructuring the memory and help “heal” the schema.
For What Types of Clients or Problems Would Schema-Focused-Therapy be Indicated?
For clients who do not respond well to traditional cognitive therapy or who seem to suffer frequent relapses of their problems. Clients who feel they have been entrenched in self-defeating patterns and whose thinking is rigid and harsh (e.g. “this is the way I am – I just am defective – no matter what I do, I’ll always be unloveable”). Clients who seem to fall into the same relationship traps throughout their life. Here there is almost always a maladaptive schema that needs to be identified and changed.
How to Learn More About Schema-Focused Therapy
There is a schema therapy website (www.schematherapy.com) that has a user-friendly slide show explaining the therapy model. Reinventing Your Life by Jeff Young and Janet Klosko is an excellent self-help book which identifies eleven of the most common schemas (called lifetraps in this book) and accompanying self-help strategies to understand and counteract the schema. Schema Therapy, A Practitioner’s Guide by Young, Klasko,and Weishaar is the first major ttext written for clinicians. This text describes the background and development of SFT and spells out the innovative assessment and change strategies of the mode. However, since the SFT model is straightforward and the writing is lucid, non-clinicians can easily absorb the material in the book.