Understanding schemas – Mental structures that support deep negative beliefs

16 minutes reading time

If you suffer from strong negative beliefs about yourself, others or life, constant relationship troubles, and durable self-defeating patterns, this article will help you understand why and how these things happen.

Besides learning how you form such negative beliefs, you will also learn how they automatically lead to negative thoughts, devastating feelings and toxic behavior.

Such deep negative beliefs about yourself and self-defeating patterns most often lead to self‑sabotage, low self-esteem, underachievement, depression, or even more serious psychological issues and illnesses.

Examples of such negative core beliefs are:

  • I’m unlovable
  • I’m such a big failure
  • People are cruel
  • Nobody cares about me
  • Everybody leaves me in the end
  • My needs are never met etc.

And it all starts with (maladaptive) schemas …

Schemas and schema therapy

Schemas – the way you interpret yourself, others and the world

You view yourself, others, different situations and the world through schemas. Schemas are mental structures providing a framework for representing some aspect of the world.

They not only help you organize the vast majority of information in a manageable way, they also provide lenses for interpreting reality. Schemas are cognitive structures for screening, coding, and evaluating every stimulus from the environment.

You use schemas to organize your current knowledge, but they also provide a framework for further understanding – predicting what will or should happen in the future. They influence your attention and absorption of knowledge. They also represent your core beliefs and values.

Schemas are like lines of code that run in your brain, giving you instructions for how to interpret things, feel about different events, react and, in the end, also predict the future.

They create feelings, thoughts and lead you to certain decisions and actions. That’s why schemas are extremely powerful structures.

The main characteristics of schemas are:

  • They are mainly formed in early childhood, youth or adolescence
  • Majority of schemas run on the unconscious level, you are not even aware of them
  • They are beliefs and feelings you accept without question, about yourself, others and future
  • The maladaptive schema beliefs are expressed in absolutes (e.g. I’m not lovable)
  • They are constantly present and very hard to change (especially without therapy)
  • They fight for their own survival – in other words, a negative belief about yourself formed in childhood will persist through adulthood even if you invest a lot of effort into changing it

Schemas are valid representations of early childhood experiences, and later serve as templates for processing and defining reactions to different situations.

When schemas are triggered in interaction with the environment, they generate automatic thoughts, intense feelings, strong effects and behavioral tendencies. When schemas are toxic or when they lead us in a negative direction, they are called maladaptive schemas.

Repetition compulsion: Once a thinking, feeling or behavioral pattern is established in childhood (a schema), you tend to repeat it over and over. In your adult age, you try to create conditions very similar to those that were the most destructive in your childhood.

Most people have difficulty in at least one or more schema areas, even if they don’t have psychological issues.

Maladaptive schemas cause us all quite a lot of problems. They negatively distort reality, lead to negative thinking, devastating feelings and ill acting, and they are also the foundation of stereotypes, prejudices and cognitive biases.

That’s why understanding maladaptive schemas and how they function can help a person a lot in developing a healthier approach to life.

Schema domains and the 18 maladaptive schemas that are ruining your life

Maladaptive schemas are developed through schema domains. Schema domains relate to the emotional needs that a child has and are not being met. Maladaptive schemas can also be developed later in adulthood through traumatic situations.

Once a schema is formed, it is hard to change, because schemas are stored as experiences in the emotional part of the brain called the amygdala.

If we go into a little bit more detail, there are usually four main ways how maladaptive schemas are formed:

  1. A child’s needs are not met. There are several groups of needs that need to be met during upbringing for a person to form healthy psychological foundations.
  2. The child is traumatized or victimized, usually by a very abusive, highly critical and domineering caretaker.
  3. By internalizing the caretakers’ voice. Every caretakes serves as a role-model with whom a child identifies. Toxic parents’ behaviors or punishing voice can be internalized in maladaptive schemas, for example.
  4. Receiving too much of a good thing. It might sound counterintuitive, but too much protection, excessive freedom, no limits or overindulgence can also lead to maladaptive schemas.

The formula of how maladaptive schemas work is the following: A healthy environment is not provided or a need is not met during childhood, which creates a certain schema.

The job of the newly created schema is to prevent similar needs from being met for the rest of the person’s life or to relive the same experience over and over again with the goal of developing better coping capabilities.

Consequently, a schema becomes a lousy and destructive pattern that repeats itself throughout the lifetime and makes everyday life really hard. There are many obvious examples of such schema behavior:

  • Without a safe attachment experience as a child, you have no idea how to have healthy relationships in adulthood.
  • A child who was abused in youth will later seek abusive relationships. S/he basically goes from one toxic relationship into another.

Schema therapy knows 18 maladaptive schemas that have origins in early relationships and cause all kinds of psychological problems on the thinking, emotional and behavioral level.

The 18 maladaptive schemas are categorized in five sections:

1. Disconnection or Rejection 1. Abandonment/Instability

2. Mistrust/Abuse

3. Emotional Deprivation

4. Defectiveness/Shame

5. Social Isolation/Alienation

2. Impaired Autonomy or Performance

6. Dependence/Incompetence

7. Vulnerability to Harm or Illness

8. Enmeshment/Undeveloped Self

9. Failure

3. Impaired Limits

10. Entitlement/Grandiosity

11. Insufficient Self-Control and/or Self-Discipline

4. Other-Directedness

12. Subjugation

13. Self-Sacrifice

14. Approval-Seeking/Recognition-Seeking

5. Over vigilance and inhibition

15. Negativity/Pessimism

16. Emotional Inhibition

17. Unrelenting Standards/Hypercriticalness

18. Punitiveness

As we said, maladaptive schemas cause instability, disconnection, rejection, impaired autonomy or performance, poor limit setting, fawning, over vigilance or inhibition.

The more entrenched the schema is in one’s personality, the greater number of situations activate it, and the more intense the negative effects are.

Now let’s look at the most common underlying beliefs and probable causes of formation for all the 18 maladaptive schemas:

Maladaptive schema Underlying belief Probable cause
1. Emotional Deprivation / Disconnection / Rejection (nurturance, protection, empathy) Nobody will ever love me. Nobody understands me. Nobody cares how I feel. Cold or removed parents.
2. Abandonment / Instability Every close relationship I form will sooner or later end in some way or another. People are so unreliable and unavailable to me. Divorce or death of parents or a parent who left home early or was consistently unavailable.
3. Mistrust / Abuse Other people will take advantage of me in some way (lying, cheating etc.). People can be so abusive and like to hurt others. Physical, emotional, sexual, verbal or intellectual child abuse.
4. Social Isolation / Alienation I am very different from other people and I don’t belong to any community. Perceiving oneself or family as completely different from other people. Or a child who was different in some way, but didn’t receive support from their parents.
5. Defectiveness / Shame I’m internally flawed, inadequate, a mistake. If I let people close they will realize how flawed I am. I will never have a loving spouse. Very critical parents making a child feel unworthy of being loved.
6. Failure I’m incapable of performing as well as my peers. I feel stupid and untalented. Whatever I try, I will fail. Lack of support, discipline and encouragement in youth. Constant criticism, repeated situations where the child could not compete.
7. Dependence / Incompetence I’m not able to deal with life and take care of myself properly. The day-to-day responsibilities are just too hard. Life is so demanding. Lack of encouragement to develop into an autonomous person and take care of oneself. A parent who implies that a child makes constant bad decisions.
8. Vulnerability to Harm or Illness There’s a big catastrophe waiting for me around the corner (financial, natural, criminal etc.). I need to heavily protect myself. Fearful parents who see the world as a dangerous place. Also, overprotective and phobic parents.
9. Enmeshment / Undeveloped Self If the other person is not always in a good mood, I must have done something wrong. I feel empty. I would rather spend all my time with my spouse, thus I don’t have my own hobbies and friends. Controlling, abusive and overprotective parents that don’t let a child develop a separate sense of self.
10. Subjugation of needs or emotions I can’t stand up for myself. If I don’t submit to other people there will be negative consequences – they will get angry, reject me and show me no love. Very controlling and domineering parents who did not care about the needs of the child.
11. Self-Sacrifice My own needs are not important, the world is suffering too much. When I make a sacrifice, I feel good about myself. A child who must have been overly responsible for one or both parents. Usually parents who are narcissistic or depressed.
12. Emotional Inhibition I shouldn’t show any emotions, because I’ll be perceived as weak, I will get embarrassed or harm others. Parents who discourage the expression of feelings. Controlling parents who made a child think every mistake will lead to terrible consequences.
13. Unrelenting Standard / Hypercriticalness in six potential areas:

  • Achievement, competition
  • Self-control, discipline
  • Moral, ethics, religion
  • Control of environment
  • Social status
  • Perfectionism
I must always strive harder, and meet all my high standards. There is a right way to do everything. Parents who were never satisfied with their child and showed love to them only after bigger achievements. It’s about overcompensation for a core issue of defectiveness.
14. Entitlement / Grandiosity / Domination I’m allowed to do, say or have whatever I want and whenever I want it, regardless of what others think or feel. Parents who don’t know how to set limits and who overindulge their children. Parents who also make children feel like they are more special than others.
15. Insufficient Self-Control / Self-Discipline It’s kind of an addiction, I just can’t help myself, I have to do it. I have a big problem setting limits for myself. Parents who lacked self‑control or didn’t discipline their children.
16. Approval-Seeking / Recognition Seeking What will other people think of me … I simply must fit-in. Children who were not unconditionally loved and accepted by their parents. Parents who emphasize status, appearances and how things should look in other people’s eyes.
17. Vulnerability to Negativity / Pessimism Things are going quite well, but …


Everything in my life goes seriously wrong.

A parent who was excessively worried or overreacted to every child’s mistake. Also, a child who did suffer some kind of a catastrophic event.
18. Punitiveness He should absolutely be harshly punished for making such a mistake. I’m very intolerant and easily lose my temper. Punitive upbringing with emphasis on performance. Unforgiving and punishing parents.

Identifying the maladaptive schemas

Many times, just reading about the 18 maladaptive schemas leads to the “aha” moment, where you become aware of the main maladaptive schemas that cause problems in your life.

To further explore the underlying maladaptive schemas, you can additionally seek answers for the following “should” questions:

  • What should or shouldn’t you do in a specific situation?
  • How should the world function?
  • How should you behave in a particular situation?
  • What should happen in a particular situation?
  • How should other people behave towards you?
  • What kind of food should you eat?

Let me give you an example of a schema I was recently exploring in my life. Sometime I am overconcerned with what I eat. An unhealthy bite causes a disproportional emotional reaction.

The point I’m trying to make is not that you shouldn’t eat healthy, but if you feel enormous guilt after one unhealthy meal after a long time, something is wrong. So, I analyzed the should statements in depth.

Why should I eat only the healthiest food? If I don’t, I will get ill. Why shouldn’t I get ill? If I’m ill, I can’t work, if I can’t work, something is wrong with me. If I can’t work, I’m not valuable, if something is wrong with me, nobody will love me. That’s a combination of shame, approval‑seeking and unrelenting standard schemas.

When a specific event happens and triggers a certain schema, you can also understand schemas better by asking yourself the following questions:

  • What does the [internal or external] event say about you? e.g. I’m … a failure.
  • What does the event say about other people? e.g. People are … so critical.
  • What does the event say about your life or how the world operates? e.g. The world is … cruel.

In Schema Therapy (ST), there are also many other techniques to identify and explore maladaptive schemas. For example, you can use the Young Schema Questionnaire or Schema Mode Inventory to identify the maladaptive schemas you are suffering from.

Another very popular technique in ST is to imagine yourself as a child with your parents. The image that appears to you often helps to identify the main toxic schemas.

Schema Test Results

An example of my results of the schema mode inventory test on a certain date.

Schema Coping Styles – Surrender, avoid, overcompensate or heal

A schema can be healed through hard work. When that is achieved, usually through therapy, it’s called schema healing. If a schema is not healed, it runs its course and dictates your automatic negative thoughts, feelings and behaviors. That’s called schema perpetuation.

A schema is trying to protect you by driving you to something familiar, something you already experienced and know how to handle. But at the same time, a schema is very toxic and painful.

That’s why we have developed three major schema coping mechanisms, which are:

1. Schema surrender

In the schema surrender coping mechanism, you simply just give in to the schema and let it run its course. You accept the schema as reality and truth, and then you act in a way and seek situations that confirm the schema.

You look for the smallest signs in the environment as proof for your toxic belief. An unanswered call is already a sign of abandonment.

2. Schema avoidance

Maladaptive schemas lead to automatic negative thoughts and painful feelings. Logically, avoiding any situation that would trigger the schema seems like a good way of coping with potential pain.

Schema avoidance is usually expressed in words that something is not important to you. We know cognitive, emotional and behavioral schema avoidance.

  • Cognitive schema avoidance: It means that you simply shut out the information that would be too upsetting to confront. You avoid thinking about the situation, person or event that would lead to negative feelings. You can simply forget a painful event.
  • Emotional schema avoidance: You become kind of numb in order not to minimize the pain and not let the negative feelings out. You can minimize the feelings (shame -> guilt or anger, anger -> annoyance). Feelings can also be numbed with alcohol, drugs, and other addictions.
  • Behavioral schema avoidance: You avoid situations that would trigger maladaptive schemas you are suffering from. In other words, you avoid facing your fears. You stay in the comfort zone, without any growth and progress, stifling yourself in procrastination, lack of ambition, hopelessness, and so on.

3. Schema overcompensation

Sometimes you try to do the opposite of what a maladaptive schema suggests, with the goal of completely avoiding the triggering schema in any way possible. That kind of thinking, behavior or feeling is called overcompensation.

Perfectionism is an example of overcompensation for the defectiveness schema.

Logically, schema perpetuation is not the goal, but schema healing is. You want to free yourself from toxic thinking, feeling and behavior, with which maladaptive schemas imprison you.

That can be achieved only by weakening the maladaptive schemas and coping styles, and building up the healthy part of a personality.

The modes – temporary states where schemas and coping mechanisms are triggered

A mode is called a temporary state, where a set of schemas and coping mechanisms become active. When you are in “a mode” you act out of several schemas and coping mechanisms. It’s about a temporary mindset you act out of.

A certain mode is always connected to a specific problem you encounter that serves as a trigger.

The most common triggers of modes are disturbing situations that bring back memories from early childhood. Sometimes these modes are also called emotional flashbacks.

In such states, severe rigid mind states are present, triggering very specific thoughts and emotions. A mode many times seems like it’s split off from the rest of the personality.

We know 10 schema modes, grouped into four categories:

  1. Child modes
  2. Dysfunctional coping modes
  3. Dysfunctional parent mode
  4. Healthy adult mode and healthy child mode

For example, if the Vulnerable child mode is triggered, the maladaptive schemas of abandonment, shame, abuse, and the coping mechanism of surrender might be triggered. The 10 schema modes are:

1. Vulnerable Child

Overwhelmed by painful feelings like depression, grief, shame, humiliation

Feels unloved, unsupported, incompetent, powerless, helpless and hopeless

Often also fragile, needy, frightened, anxious, worried and pessimistic

2. Angry Child

Feels enraged, anxious, frustrated, self-doubting, unsupported and vulnerable

Victimization, Bitterness

Negativity, Pessimism, Jealousy, Rage

Yelling, screaming, throwing things

Harming self and others

3. Impulsive Child

Rebellious and careless schema mode

Reckless driving, substance abuse, suicidal thoughts, gambling, rage, running away

4. Abandoned child

Feeling of “me against the world”

Perception of being abandoned by everyone

Depression, pessimism, unworthiness

Often created narcissistic alter-ego

10a. Happy Child

Feels loved, content and connected

Satisfied, fulfilled, protected, safe

Praised, worthwhile, nurtured

Guided, understood, supported

Validated, self-confident and accepted

Competent, autonomous, self-reliant

Strong, in control, resilient

Optimistic, spontaneous

5. Compliant Surrender

Acts in a passive and submissive way

Always seeks approval

Great fear of conflict or rejection

Tolerates abuse and bad treatment

Does not express his/her desires

Engages in abusive relationships

6. Detached Protector

Based in escape and numbness

Rejects help from other people

Feels overwhelmed

Withdrawal, dissociation, alienation, hiding

Cynical, aloof or pessimistic stance

7. Over-compensator

  • Self-aggrandizer (feels superior)
  • Bully / Attacker (intimidated)
  • Con man / Manipulator
  • Predator (coldly eliminates threats)
  • Over-Controller (extreme control)

Aggressive, dominant, competitive

Arrogant, haughty, devaluating

Controlling, rebellious, manipulative

Attention- and status-seeking

8. Punitive Parent

Feeling that one should be punished for every small mistake

Finds it hard to forgive himself/herself and others

Sadness, anger, impatience, judgment

9. Demanding Parent

Unrealistic high standards and perfection

Strict rules that need to be followed

Tries to keep everything in order

Avoids wasting time

Doesn’t act spontaneously

10b. Healthy Adult

Nurtures, validates and affirms the vulnerable child mode

Sets limits for the angry and impulsive child mode

Promotes and supports the healthy child mode

Neutralizes or moderates the maladaptive parent modes

Combats the maladaptive coping modes

Appropriate adult functions such as:

  • Comfortable making decisions
  • Problem-solver
  • Thinks before acting
  • Appropriately ambitious
  • Sets limits and boundaries
  • Nurtures self and others
  • Forms healthy relationships
  • Takes on responsibilities
  • Sees things through and finishes tasks
  • Takes care of health
  • Does enjoyable activities (sex, hobbies etc.)
  • Values himself / herself
  • Expresses emotions in a healthy way
  • Forgives the past
  • No longer seems himself / herself as a victim, but rather as survivor


Schema-focused Therapy: The best way to schema healing

Schema Therapy (ST) was developed out of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which is one of the most popular psychological therapies nowadays.

Dr. Jeff Young worked closely with Dr. Aaron Beck, the founding father of CBT, and soon found out that a small segment of people had long-standing patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving that couldn’t be solved with standard CBT techniques. The Schema Therapy roots are firmly embedded in psychoanalytical and attachment theory.

In Schema Therapy, emotive, interpersonal, cognitive and behavioral techniques of healing are used. Emotive techniques relate to encouraging the emotional expression in imaginary dialogues, connecting different modes with specific feelings or performing emotional expression with role playing.

Interpersonal techniques are focused on schemas in relations, especially on the relationship with one’s spouse or the relationship between the therapist and a client (based on transference and counter-transference).

Cognitive techniques consist of many different approaches with the goal of identifying dysfunctional thoughts, examining the accuracy of thoughts, and finding new alternative ways to view situations.

Emotional accounting and cognitive reframing are two examples of such exercises. And behavioral techniques consist of things like building up skills, exposure therapy etc.

Let’s look at some of the most popular techniques in Schema Therapy:

1. Identifying alternative schemas

The major goal of schema therapy is to identify alternative, more adaptive schemas as early on in the process as possible.

Focusing on more desirable schemas should be the focus of one’s work or, to be more precise, a schema change usually involves weakening the old schemas and strengthening the new ones.

The best way to identify alternative schemas is to think of how you would like things to be. These so‑called alternative schemas are most often the direct opposites of maladaptive schemas.

  • How would you like things to be?
  • How would you like yourself, others or the world to be?
  • If people weren’t [ ], how would you like them to be?

2. Limited Reparenting

Maladaptive schemas are formed when the needs of a child are not being met. The goal of limited reparenting is to provide experiences through therapy that were missed in early childhood. Such an experience serves as an antidote for maladaptive schemas and modes.

Limited reparenting starts by forming a secure attachment through the therapist, where needs of connection, joy, adequate limits and autonomy are being met.

The basis for the therapy is the so‑called empathic confrontation, which simultaneously takes tenderness and firmness. Through that approach, maladaptive child and adult schemas are addressed with the goal of forming healthier ones.

3. Guided Imagery

Guided Imagery is a technique that helps you understand schemas and modes more accurately. The idea of guided imagery is to bring up upsetting childhood memories in the form of images portraying significant people and dialogues with these people.

When these images are brought to the conscious level, emotional expression and grieving for losses are often encouraged.

In the next step, you try to identify which needs weren’t met in these situations and how maladaptive schemas were formed. The last step is to find a connection with a current situation that is triggering the maladaptive schema.

Guided Imagery can also help you revise the painful memories in a way that needs are met, with the therapist entering into the image.

4. Positive Data Log and Schema Diary

The Positive Data Log basically means that you keep a daily log of observations that are consistent with the new adaptive schema. Because the new schema is not formed yet, it’s very logical to expect that the log will be quite short in the beginning.

You discount, distort, see it as an exception, or even not notice the events that support a new, healthier schema. That’s why you must look hard for even the smallest experience that supports new schemas.

A Schema Diary is a log of what a person learns during therapy and how they apply it on the days until the next therapy. In such a dairy, thoughts, feelings, behaviors, underlying schemas, overreactions, realistic concerns, healthy perspectives and healthy behavior are noted.

5. Flash cards

Flash cards in schema therapy are written statements that help you access your healthy side. The idea of statements on the flash cards is to internalize and enforce healthy schema formation.

They are often developed for different challenging life situations, when each situation has a certain phase of treatment. Flash cards can be quotes, notes, poems or any other form of encouragement that disarms a maladaptive schema.

6. Continuum Methods

Continuum methods are very often used to evaluate negative schemas. Since the schemas represent absolute thinking, where maladaptive and alternative schemas are opposites, it’s easy to illustrate the thinking on a continuum (or a scale between 0% and 100%).

0% I’m a complete failure —————- 100% I win every time

After drawing such a scale, the goal is to examine the reality and see that all-or-nothing thinking or thinking in absolutes is a distorted view of reality.

By examining the accuracy of your own thoughts (or with the help of a therapist), you should get yourself a few precentages away from 0% to reduce absolute thinking and then move on from there.

Another good exercise is to place people you know on the continuum – those who you perceive in a better position than you are, and those who you perceive in a worse position. Besides the basic scales, advanced scales are also used in schema therapy:

  • Adaptive Continuum: A scale from 0% to 100% as we have discussed.
  • Criteria Continua: One personality characteristic (e.g. being normal) is broken down into several sub‑criteria (like having a job, friends etc.) and then you place yourself on the scale for each sub‑criteria.
  • Two-Dimensional Charting of Continua: It’s sometimes used when a schema consists of two interrelated concepts (getting a promotion is really tough, being close to people is painful, connection between perfection and worth). On such a two-dimensional chart, a prediction graph can be drawn and then exceptions are sought that do not fit the semantic equation.

7. Psychodrama, role‑playing and chair work

Psychodrama is a technique where you try to remember an early childhood scene that caused the schema to form and activate. It’s used to activate the entire schema experience. That usually causes a strong emotional reaction.

One very commonly used psychodramatic technique is role-playing.

While role-playing, the focus is on emotions experienced, beliefs activated and behaviors suppressed, and then similarities and differences with current life events can be explored. Often re-experiencing the event with role‑playing where you protect yourself with the adult voice is good practice.

Chair work is a technique where one chair represents the “schema side” of you, and the other chair the “healthy side” of you. Then you play a dialogue between these two sides, by switching chairs when a particular side takes over the internal dialogue. The dialogue can also be between you and some other person to practice assertiveness.

8. Historical test of schema

The historical test of schema is an exercise where you make two separate lists, one for confirming and the other for disconfirming evidence for the schema for different age periods. For each time period, a summary is then written that relates to the schema.

The historical test of schema starts with infancy or toddler time period and then for all major life transitions (early youth, adolescence, school and job transitions etc.). If there is amnesia for a certain period in the past, blank pages can be used.

Schema therapy knows several other therapeutic techniques, but the mentioned ones are the main ones.

Resources and additional reading:

  • Schema Therapy: A Practitioner’s Guide, by Jefferey E Young, Janet Klosko, & Marjorie E. Weishaar (2003)
  • Reinventing Your Life: The Breakthrough Program to End Negative Behavior and Feel Great Again, by Jeffery E Young & Janet Klosko (1994)
  • Breaking Negative Thinking Patterns: A Schema Therapy Self-Help and Support Book, by Gitta Jacob, Hannie van Genderen, & Laura Seebauer (2014)

About the author

Consulting and management coaching

Blaž Kos has managed venture capital investments over the past 12 years and participated in the development of the start-up ecosystem in the region. Today, he advises companies on growth strategies, process optimization, the introduction of lean agile methods and the digitalization of business. In addition to the Slovenian blog, he also writes an English blog, which was selected among the 50 best bloggers in the world in the category of personal and business growth.
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