What is a schema?

In psychology and psychotherapy, a schema is a way of organizing and interpreting information about one’s life experiences. These schemas can be developed early in life and may continue to influence how we interpret and make sense of new experiences, even if they are no longer relevant. This concept is important in psychotherapy because it can help understand how past experiences and beliefs can continue to shape an individual’s thoughts and behaviors. 1

You can think of schemas as mental glasses. Depending on thru which glasses you are looking into the world, it can be “a safe place” or “an unsafe place”. In Schema Therapy, we work with early maladaptive schemas – “distorted glasses” so to say. They show an unrealistic view of the world. In this page we will use schema and early maladaptive schema interchangeably. 

What is Schema Therapy and how can it help you?

Schema therapy is an integrative treatment method. It helps you become aware of your feelings and thoughts and helps you overcome stubborn patterns of behavior.

Children have to find ways to cope when they are unable to meet their needs. However, the way you learn to cope with difficult situations as a child can later lead to other problems. The way you perceive and interpret situations is called a schema. Your schemas lead you to think and feel in unrealistic ways. When you add coping, you get a mode. A mode is how you think, feel, and act at a particular moment.

Schema therapy helps you know your schemas and modes and helps you approach situations differently. You can break old patterns and reinvent your life. 

What are the features of schemas?

An Early Maladaptive Schema is:

  • a broad, pervasive theme or pattern
  • comprised of memories, emotions, cognitions, and bodily sensa-tions
  • regarding oneself and one’s relationships with others
  • developed during childhood or adolescence
  • elaborated throughout one’s lifetime and
  • dysfunctional to a significant degree 1

How are schemas developed?

According to the Schema Therapy model, schemas are developed when the basic emotional needs are not satisfactorily met in the childhood.

Basic Emotional Needs: 

  1. Secure attachments to others (includes safety, stability, nurturance, and acceptance)
  2. Autonomy, competence, and sense of identity
  3. Freedom to express valid needs and emotions
  4. Spontaneity and play
  5. Realistic limits and self-control

Toxic experiences in childhood, emotional temperament, and early environment (parents, caregivers, siblings, relatives, teachers, etc.) combine to hinder the satisfaction of these basic needs, resulting in the development of schemas.

What schema domains and schemas are there?

There are 18 schemas that are grouped into five broad categories of unmet emotional needs that called “schema domains.” Adapted from Schema Therapy: A Practitioner’s Guide by Young et al., 2007: 

Disconnection and Rejection

The expectation that one’s emotional needs for security, safety, stability, caring, understanding, emotional expression, acceptance, and respect will not be consistently met. Often arises from a family background that is emotionally distant, cold, rejecting, withholding, lonely, prone to outbursts, unpredictable, or abusive.

1. Abandonment
The perceived instability or unreliability of those available for support and connection.
Involves the sense that significant others will not be able to continue providing emotional support, connection, strength, or practical protection because they are emotionally unstable and unpredictable (e.g., have angry outbursts), unreliable, or present only erratically; because they will die imminently; or because they will abandon the individual in favor of someone better.

2. Mistrust
The expectation that others will hurt, abuse, humiliate, cheat, lie, manipulate, or take advantage. Usually involves the perception that the harm is intentional or the result of unjustified and extreme negligence. May include the sense that one always ends up being cheated relative to others or “getting the short end of the stick.”

3. Emotional Deprivation
The expectation that one’s desire for a normal degree of emotional support will not be adequately met by others. 
The three major forms of deprivation are:
a) Deprivation of Nurturance: Absence of attention, affection, warmth, or com- panionship.
b) Deprivation of Empathy: Absence of understanding, listening, self-disclosure, or mutual sharing of feelings from others.
c) Deprivation of Protection: Absence of strength, direction, or guidance from others.

4. Defectiveness
The feeling that one is defective, bad, unwanted, inferior, or invalid in important respects or that one would be unlovable to significant others if exposed. May involve hypersensitivity to criticism, rejection, and blame; self-consciousness, comparisons, and insecurity around others; or a sense of shame regarding one’s perceived flaws. These flaws may be private (e.g., selfishness, angry impulses, unacceptable sexual desires) or public (e.g., undesirable physical appearance, social awkwardness).

5. Social Isolation
The feeling that one is isolated from the rest of the world, different from other people, and/or not part of any group or community.

Impaired Autonomy and Performance

Beliefs about oneself and the environment that hinder one’s perceived ability to be independent, self-sufficient, or successful. Often arises from a family background that is overly involved in the child’s life, undermines their confidence, is overly protective, or fails to support their development of competence outside the family.

6. Incompetence
Belief that one is unable to handle one’s everyday responsibilities in a competent manner, without considerable help from others (e.g., take care of oneself, solve daily problems, exercise good judgment, tackle new tasks, make good decisions). Often presents as helplessness.

7. Vulnerability to Harm or Illness
Exaggerated fear that imminent catastrophe will strike at any time and that one will be unable to prevent it. Fears focus on one or more of the following: 
a) Medical catastrophes (e.g., heart attacks, AIDS); 
b) Emotional catastrophes (e.g., going crazy);
c) External catastrophes (e.g., elevators collapsing, victimisation by criminals, airplane crashes, earthquakes).

8. Enmeshment
Excessive emotional involvement and closeness with one or more significant others (often parents) at the expense of full individuation or normal social development. Often involves the belief that at least one of the enmeshed individuals cannot survive or be happy without the constant support of the other. May also include feelings of being smothered by or fused with others or insufficient individual identity. Often experienced as a feeling of emptiness and foundering, having no direction, or in extreme cases questioning one’s existence.

9. Failure
The belief that one has failed, will inevitably fail, or is fundamentally inadequate relative to one’s peers in areas of achievement (school, career, sports, etc.). Often involves beliefs that one is stupid, inept, untalented, lower in status, less successful than others, and so forth.

Impaired Limits

Deficiency in internal limits, responsibility to others, or long-term goal orientation. Leads to difficulty respecting the rights of others, cooperating with others, making commitments, or setting and meeting realistic personal goals. Typical family origin is characterized by permissiveness, overindulgence, lack of direction, or a sense of superiority rather than appropriate confrontation, discipline, and limits in relation to taking responsibility, cooperating in a reciprocal manner, and setting goals. In some cases, the child may not have been pushed to tolerate normal levels of discomfort or may not have been given adequate supervision, direction, or guidance.

10. Entitlement
The belief that one is superior to other people; entitled to special rights and privileges; or not bound by the rules of reciprocity that guide normal social interaction. Often involves insistence that one should be able to do or have whatever one wants, regardless of what is realistic, what others consider reasonable, or the cost to others; or an exaggerated focus on superiority (e.g., being among the most successful, famous, wealthy) in order to achieve power or control (not primarily for attention or approval). Sometimes includes excessive competitiveness toward or domination of others: asserting one’s power, forcing one’s point of view, or controlling the behavior of others in line with one’s own desires without empathy or concern for others’ needs or feelings.

11. Insufficient Self-Control
Pervasive difficulty or refusal to exercise sufficient self-control and frustration tolerance to achieve one’s personal goals or to restrain the excessive expression of one’s emotions and impulses. In its milder form, the patient presents with an exaggerated emphasis on discomfort avoidance: avoiding pain, conflict, confrontation, responsibility, or overexertion at the expense of personal fulfillment, commitment, or integrity.


An excessive focus on the desires, feelings, and responses of others, at the expense of one’s own needs in order to gain love and approval, maintain one’s sense of connection, or avoid retaliation. Usually involves suppression and lack of awareness regarding one’s own anger and natural inclinations. Typical family origin is based on conditional acceptance: Children must suppress important aspects of themselves in order to gain love, attention, and approval. In many such families, the parents’ emotional needs and desires—or social acceptance and status—are valued more than the unique needs and feelings of each child.

12. Subjugation
Excessive surrendering of control to others because one feels coerced—submitting in order to avoid anger, retaliation, or abandonment. 
The two major forms of subjugation are:
a) Subjugation of needs: Suppression of one’s preferences, decisions, and desires. 
b) Subjugation of emotions: Suppression of emotions, especially anger.

Usually involves the perception that one’s own desires, opinions, and feelings are not valid or important to others. Frequently presents as excessive compliance, combined with hypersensitivity to feeling trapped. Generally leads to a buildup of anger, manifested in maladaptive symptoms (e.g., passive–aggressive behavior, uncontrolled outbursts of temper, psychosomatic symptoms, withdrawal of affection, “acting out,” substance abuse).

13. Self-Sacrifice
Excessive focus on voluntarily meeting the needs of others in daily situations at the expense of one’s own gratification. The most common reasons are: to prevent causing pain to others; to avoid guilt from feeling selfish; or to maintain the connection with others perceived as needy. Often results from an acute sensitivity to the pain of others. Sometimes leads to a sense that one’s own needs are not being adequately met and to resentment of those who are taken care of. (Overlaps with concept of codependency.)

14. Approval-Seeking
Excessive emphasis on gaining approval, recognition, or attention from other people or on fitting in at the expense of developing a secure and true sense of self. One’s sense of esteem is dependent primarily on the reactions of others rather than on one’s own natural inclinations. Sometimes includes an overemphasis on status, appearance, social acceptance, money, or achievement as means of gaining approval, admiration, or attention (not primarily for power or control). Frequently results in major life decisions that are inauthentic or unsatisfying or in hypersensitivity to rejection.

Overvigilance and Inhibition

Excessive emphasis on suppressing one’s spontaneous feelings, impulses, and choices or on meeting rigid, internalized rules and expectations about performance and ethical behavior, often at the expense of happiness, self-expression, relaxation, close relationships, or health. Typical family origin is grim, demanding, and sometimes punitive: performance, duty, perfectionism, following rules, hiding emotions, and avoiding mistakes predominate over pleasure, joy, and relaxation. There is usually an undercurrent of pessimism and worry that things could fall apart if one fails to be vigilant and careful at all times.

15. Pessimism
A pervasive, lifelong focus on the negative aspects of life (pain, death, loss, disappointment, conflict, guilt, resentment, unsolved problems, potential mistakes, betrayal, things that could go wrong, etc.) while minimizing or neglecting the positive or optimistic aspects. Usually includes an exaggerated expectation—in a wide range of work, financial, or interpersonal situations—that things will eventually go seriously wrong or that aspects of one’s life that seem to be going well will ultimately fall apart. Usually involves an inordinate fear of making mistakes that might lead to financial collapse, loss, humiliation, or being trapped in a bad situation. Because they exaggerate potential negative outcomes, these individuals are frequently characterized by chronic worry, vigilance, complaining, or indecision.

16. Emotional Inhibition
The excessive inhibition of spontaneous action, feeling, or communication, usually to avoid disapproval by others, feelings of shame, or losing control of one’s impulses. 
The most common areas of inhibition involve: 
a) inhibition of anger and aggression; 
b) inhibition of positive impulses (e.g., joy, affection, sexual excitement, play); 
c) difficulty expressing vulnerability or communicating freely about one’s feelings, needs, and so forth; or d) excessive emphasis on rationality while disregarding emotions.

17. Unrelenting Standards
The underlying belief that one must strive to meet very high internalized standards of behavior and performance, usually to avoid criticism. Typically results in feelings of pressure or difficulty slowing down and in hypercriticalness toward oneself and others. Must involve significant impairment in pleasure, relaxation, health, self-esteem, sense of accomplishment, or satisfying relationships.
Unrelenting standards typically present as 
a) perfectionism, inordinate attention to detail, or an underestimate of how good one’s own performance is relative to the norm; 
b) rigid rules and “shoulds” in many areas of life, including unrealistically high moral, ethical, cultural, or religious precepts; or 
c) preoccupation with time and efficiency, the need to accomplish more.

18. Punitiveness
The belief that people should be harshly punished for making mistakes. Involves the tendency to be angry, intolerant, punitive, and impatient with those people (including oneself) who do not meet one’s expectations or standards. Usually includes difficulty forgiving mistakes in oneself or others because of a reluctance to consider extenuating circumstances, allow for human imperfection, or empathize with feelings.

1 Young, J. E., Klosko, J. S., & Weishaar, M. E. (2007). Schema therapy: A practitioner’s guide. Guilford Press.