Schemas — What They Are
A schema is an extremely stable, enduring negative pattern that develops during childhood or adolescence and is elaborated throughout an individual’s life. We view the world through our schemas. When one does not learn a healthy theology and understanding of who they are in Christ, these schemas take root where theology should live.
Schemas are important beliefs and feelings about oneself and the environment which the individual accepts without question. They are self-perpetuating, and are very resistant to change. For instance, children who develop a schema that they are incompetent rarely challenge this belief, even as adults. The schema usually does not go away without therapy. Overwhelming success in people’s lives is often still not enough to change the schema. The schema fights for its own survival, and, usually, quite successfully.
It’s also important to mention the importance of needs in schema formation and perpetuation. Schemas are formed when needs are not met during childhood and then the schema prevents similar needs from being fulfilled in adulthood. For instance a child whose need for secure attachments is not fulfilled by his parents may go for many years in later life without secure relationships while seeking maladaptive ways (often sinful but functional) to satisfy his or her longings.
Even though schemas persist once they are formed, they are not always in our awareness. Usually they operate in subtle ways, out of our awareness. However, when a schema erupts or is triggered by events, our thoughts and feelings are dominated by these schemas. It is at these moments that people tend to experience extreme negative emotions and have dysfunctional thoughts.
There are eighteen specific schemas. Most individuals have at least two or three of these schemas, and often more. A brief description of each of these schemas is provided below.
This schema refers to the belief that one’s primary emotional needs will never be met by others. These needs can be described in three categories: Nurturance—needs for affection, closeness and love; Empathy—needs to be listened to and understood; Protection—needs for advice, guidance and direction. Generally parents are cold or removed and don’t adequately care for the child in ways that would adequately meet the above needs.
This schema refers to the expectation that one will soon lose anyone with whom an emotional attachment is formed. The person believes that, one way or another, close relationships will end eminently. As children, these individuals may have experienced the divorce or death of parents. This schema can also arise when parents have been inconsistent in attending to the child’s needs; for instance, there may have been frequent occasions on which the child was left alone or unattended to for extended periods.
This schema refers to the expectation that others will intentionally take advantage in some way. People with this schema expect others to hurt, cheat, or put them down. They often think in terms of attacking first or getting revenge afterwards. In childhood, these individuals were often abused or treated unfairly by parents, siblings, or peers.
This schema refers to the belief that one is isolated from the world, different from other people, and/or not part of any community. This belief is usually caused by early experiences in which children see that either they, or their families, are different from other people.
This schema refers to the belief that one is internally flawed, and that, if others get close, they will realize this and withdraw from the relationship. This feeling of being flawed and inadequate often leads to a strong sense of shame. Generally parents were very critical of their children and made them feel as if they were not worthy of being loved.
This schema refers to the belief that one is incapable of performing as well as one’s peers in areas such as career, school or sports. These individuals may feel stupid, inept or untalented. People with this schema often do not try to achieve because they believe that they will fail. This schema may develop if children are put down and treated as if they are a failure in school and other spheres of accomplishment. Usually the parents did not give enough support, discipline, and encouragement for the child to persist and succeed in areas of achievement, such as schoolwork or sport.
This schema refers to the belief that one is not capable of handling day-to-day responsibilities competently and independently. People with this schema often rely on others excessively for help in areas such as decision-making and initiating new tasks. Generally, parents did not encourage these children to act independently and develop confidence in their ability to take care of themselves.
Vulnerability to Harm and Illness
This schema refers to the belief that one is always on the verge of experiencing a major catastrophe (financial, natural, medical, criminal, etc.). It may lead to taking excessive precautions to protect oneself. Usually there was an extremely fearful parent who passed on the idea that the world is a dangerous place.
This schema refers to a pattern in which you experience too much emotional involvement with others – usually parents or romantic partners. It may also include the sense that one has too little individual identity or inner direction, causing a feeling of emptiness or of floundering. This schema is often brought on by parents who are so controlling, abusive, or so overprotective that the child is discouraged from developing a separate sense of self.
This schema refers to the belief that one must submit to the control of others in order to avoid negative consequences. Often these individuals fear that, unless they submit, others will get angry or reject them. Individuals who subjugate ignore their own desires and feelings. In childhood there was generally a very controlling parent.
This schema refers to the excessive sacrifice of one’s own needs in order to help others. When these individuals pay attention to their own needs, they often feel guilty. To avoid this guilt, they put others’ needs ahead of their own. Often individuals who self-sacrifice gain a feeling of increased self-esteem or a sense of meaning from helping others. In childhood the person may have been made to feel overly responsible for the well being of one or both parents.
This schema refers to the belief that you must suppress spontaneous emotions and impulses, especially anger, because any expression of feelings would harm others or lead to loss of self-esteem, embarrassment, retaliation or abandonment. You may lack spontaneity, or be viewed as uptight. This schema is often brought on by parents who discourage the expression of feelings.
This schema refers to the belief that whatever you do is not good enough, that you must always strive harder. The motivation for this belief is the desire to meet extremely high internal demands for competence, usually to avoid internal criticism. People with this schema show impairments in important life areas, such as health, pleasure or self-esteem. Usually these individuals’ parents were never satisfied and gave their children love that was conditional on outstanding achievement.
This schema refers to the belief that you should be able to do, say, or have whatever you want immediately regardless of whether that hurts others or seems reasonable to them. You are not interested in what other people need, nor are you aware of the long-term costs to you of alienating others. Parents who overindulge their children and who do not set limits about what is socially appropriate may foster the development of this schema. Alternatively, some children develop this schema to compensate for feelings of emotional deprivation or defectiveness.
This schema refers to the inability to tolerate any frustration in reaching one’s goals, as well as an inability to restrain expression of one’s impulses or feelings. When lack of self-control is extreme, criminal or addictive behavior rule your life. Parents who did not model self-control, or who did not adequately discipline their children, may predispose them to have this schema as adults.
This schema refers to the placing of too much emphasis on gaining the approval and recognition of others at the expense of one’s genuine needs and sense of self. It can also include excessive emphasis on status and appearance as a means of gaining recognition and approval. individuals with this schema are generally extremely sensitive to rejections by others and try hard to fit in. Usually they did not have their needs for unconditional love and acceptance met by their parents in their early years.
This schema refers to a pervasive pattern of focusing on the negative aspects of life while minimizing the positive aspects. Individuals with this schema are unable to enjoy things that are going well in their lives because they are so concerned with negative details or potential future problems. They worry about possible failures no matter how well things are going for them. Usually these individuals had a parent who worried excessively.
This schema refers to the belief that people deserve to be harshly punished for making mistakes. People with this schema are critical and unforgiving of both themselves and others. They tend to be angry about imperfect behaviors much of the time. In childhood these individuals usually had at least one parent who put too much emphasis on performance and had a punitive style of controlling behavior.
There are two primary schema operations: Schema healing and schema perpetuation. All thoughts, behaviors and feelings may be seen as being part of one of these operations. Either they perpetuate the schema or they heal the schema. We will explore both in part 2.
As a youthworker you may be struggling with how to talk with your students about a shooting rampage. It may be difficult to talk to your students about the devastation of an F4 tornado that wipes out a small town. It is important to remember that children look to the adults in their life to make them feel safe. This is true no matter what age the children are, be they toddlers, adolescents, or even young adults.
Consider the following tips for helping your students manage their distress.
Talk with your students. Talking to your students about their worries and concerns is the first step to help them feel safe and begin to cope with the events occurring around them. What you talk about and how you say it does depend on their age, but all students need to be able to know you are there listening to them.
- Find times when they are most likely to talk: such as when riding in the car, while dinner, with peers, or at coffee shop.
- Start the conversation; let them know you are interested in them and how they are coping with the information they are getting.
- Listen to their thoughts and point of view; don’t interrupt–allow them to express their ideas and understanding before you respond.
- Express your own opinions and ideas without putting down theirs; acknowledge that it is okay to disagree.
- Remind them you are there for them to provide safety, comfort and support. Give them a hug.
Keep your ministry settings a safe place. Youth, regardless of age, often find home to be a safe haven when the world around them becomes overwhelming. But sometimes home is the environment in which the crisis lives. During times of crisis, it is important to remember that your students may come to youth group seeking the safe feeling they denied at home. Help make it a place where your students find the solitude or comfort they need.
Watch for signs of stress, fear or anxiety. After a traumatic event, it is typical for teens (and adults) to experience a wide range of emotions, including fearfulness, shock, anger, grief and anxiety. Your student’s behaviors may change because of their response to the event. They may experience trouble sleeping, difficulty with concentrating on school work, or changes in appetite. This is normal for everyone and should begin to disappear in a few months. Encourage your students and their parents to create space where they can convert feelings into words by talking about them or journaling. Some youth may find it helpful to express their feelings through art. Make concession for artistic expression during your gatherings. Many student lack a broad emotional vocabulary to accurately reflect what’s going on inside their head.
Take “news breaks”. Your students may want to keep informed by gathering information about the event from the internet, television, or newspapers. It is important to limit the amount of time spent watching the news because constant exposure may actually heighten their anxiety and fears. Also, scheduling some breaks for yourself is important; allow yourself time to engage in activities you enjoy.
Take care of yourself. Take care of yourself so you can take care of your students and their families. Be a model for others on how to manage traumatic events. Keep regular schedules for activities such as family meals and exercise to help restore a sense of security and normalcy.
These tips and strategies can help you guide you’re your students and their families through the current crisis. If you are feeling stuck or overwhelmed, you may want to consider talking to someone who could help. A licensed mental health professional or counselor can assist you in developing an appropriate strategy for moving forward. It is important to get professional help if you feel like you are unable to function or perform basic activities of daily living.
“When we block our awareness of feelings, they continue to affect us anyway. Research has shown repeatedly that even without conscious awareness, neural input from the internal world of the body and emotion influences our reasoning and our decision making. Even facial expressions we’re not aware of, even changes in heart rhythm we may not notice, directly affect how we feel and so how we perceive the world. In other words, you can run but you can’t hide.”
excerpt from Mindsight by Daniel J. Siegel, M.D.
If what Dr. Siegel suggests is true then this holds implications for how we interact with young people in our ministries. For example, a 14 year old girl in your youth group asks to talk to you privately. She reveals that she is a victim of sexual abuse and to cope with it she cuts herself. How we respond to her, including our tone, facial expressions, and body posture will all communicate something to her.
What are we communicating to our young people beyond our words?
How does this help or hinder their ability to trust us?
How can we grow in our own emotional management?
For more information on and help for eating disorders please visit the following:
In Mark Twain’s novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck wrestles through a moral dilemma about demonstrating true friendship to a stigmatized person of his day – a man who bore a dual stigma of being black in a racist society and slavery in an exploitative one. To help his friend Jim escape meant violating not only human law but also divine law as it had been interpreted in that society, because to help a slave escape meant stealing property from his or her owner. Not only did Huck worry about God and about going to hell for obeying the impulse of his heart, but he also worried about what people would think of him. “It would get all around that Huck Finn helped a negro to et his freedom; and if I was eer to see anybody from that town again I’d be ready to get down and lick his boots for shame.” But such worries did not prevent him from doing what he knew to be right.
Jesus knew all about stigma. He never hesitated to move among the oppressed people of his day, including the most despised social outcasts. He went about his ministry without worrying about what others would say about his character, his motives, his righteousness. “If this man were a prophet,” said some, “he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him – that she is a sinner” (Luke 7:39). He also ignored the insinuations and seemed unconcerned about his reputation among the townspeople. “Look,” said those who criticized Jesus and passed judgment on him, “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (Luke 7:34).
Jesus was not afraid of being called names, nor was he afraid to be identified with the most hated, discredited people in the society in which he lived. He cared about them. He felt their pain, knew their hunger and thirst, recognized their humanity, saw the image of God in them. In short, he loved them. And he longed to minister to them – even if others misunderstood and vilified him. Name calling was as common then as it is now, and to label someone with a scornful term identified with a stigmatized group has always been considered an extreme insult. Today, terms of insult are frequently associated with homosexuality – “queer,” “fag,” “dyke,” “lezbo.”
During the time that Jesus walked the earth, the stigmatized people were the Samaritans, and the term of insult was “You Samaritan!” Samaritans were half-breed leftovers from previous generations when God’s people were enslaved, raped, and plundered by the Assyrians. Not only were they bi-racial and therefore not clean, they were reminders of the horrible atrocities committed against the Israelites during that time. That’s what is so powerful about the story of the Good Samaritan. The hero in the story was one of the most despised people in all of the New Testament yet Jesus refused to dissociate himself from this disdained group of people that he loved.
Have our youth ministries become sanctified segregation machines? Why is it that most of the churches in the suburbs are all white? Why don’t diverse inner-city churches adopt-a-block in affluent neighborhoods? Why do LGBTQ students still avoid the church like the plague?
We should long for the day when people call us “faggots,” and “cutters,” and accuse us of having AIDS because of the company we keep and we aren’t compelled to defend ourselves because we don’t care what man has to say about us. I think if Jesus came back today you might find him hanging out at a Gay-Straight Alliance meeting or with kids who were at a skittles party the night before or out on the corner with all the smokers. You would probably be able to smell cigarette smoke on his robe so he’d be accused of being a smoker too…
One of the ironies of surviving abuse is that victims might further harm themselves. Self-mutilation includes; burning, hitting, cutting, excessive scratching, using harsh abrasives on skin or scalp, poking sharp objects into flesh, head banging, pulling out hair or eyebrows for noncosmetic purposes, inserting objects into body orifices, excessive fasting, self-surgery, excessive tattooing or piercing, or refusing needed medication. This seems like such a paradox. Why in the world would those who are already in intense pain further injure themselves? It seems to make no sense, yet it does. Most often, it follows a history of protracted childhood trauma (such as physical and/or sexual abuse), not a single exposure. The person harms himself/herself in response to overwhelming, dissociated pain. At least sixteen reasons account for this complex behavior. Self-mutilation:
- Expresses pain that can’t be verbalized. It can be expected when the abused child was told to keep the offense a secret, or when the abuse happened before the child learned to talk. The nonverbal outcry says, “Something terrible has happened.” It may be a plea for help.
- Attempts to convert emotional pain to physical pain. Physical pain can be localized, displaced, and released, providing temporary distraction from psychic pain.
- Paradoxically relieves pain. Stress triggers natural pain killers in the brain, temporarily easing psychic and physical pain. This so-called stress-induced analgesia might also help explain victims become addicted to trauma-related stimuli.
- Is a way to feel alive. Numbing and dissociation feel dead. Perhaps feeling pain is better than feeling nothing. Physical pain grounds one in reality and counters dissociation. It returns focus to the present, providing relief from intrusion. Some people report that blood provides a soothing, warm sensation that relieves stress and reminds them they are still alive.
- Provides an illusory sense of power, a sense of mastery and control of pain. Reversing roles and assuming the role of offender, the person might think, “This time when I am hurt, I am on the controlling end. I can determine when the pain begins and ends.”
- attempts to complete the incompleted. The idea of repetition compulsion states that we repeat what we’ve experienced until we’ve completed old business – processing it and learning it and learning a better way. Unfortunately, simply reenacting the abuse doesn’t change the trauma material. Complete processing of the material does.
- Is a way to contain aggressive tendencies and pain. The person thinks, “If I discharge my anger and hurt on myself, then I won’t hurt anybody else.” Maybe it is the only way to stop anger, at least for a time. Learning constructive ways to express emotions is the antidote for this approach.
- Vents powerful emotions that cannot be venter directly. (e.g., I can’t rage at the powerful perpetrator, so I vent on myself instead).
- Makes the body unattractive to spare further abuse. This harmful defense makes sense to a child who was powerless to stop sexual abuse. Excessive thinness or weight might accomplish a similar purpose.
- Might become associated with pleasant moments. Following abuse, some abusers become remorseful, attentive, and loving for a time. Thus, the victims might be conditioned to think that pain signals the beginning of good times.
- Imitates what the child has seen. Children naturally imitate behavior that is modeled by adults. They learn to abuse if their parents are abusing, just as they will learn kindness if the parents model that.
- Can be an attempt to attach to parents. Children have a deep need to attach to parents, even if they are rejecting. In order to gain the abusive parent’s approval, the child might internalize his or her punishing attitudes. The child’s thinking might be, “I’ll show I’m good and devoted to Mom by doing what she does to me.” This makes more sense when we realize that abusers often isolate the victims, making them more dependent on them for approval. Need for approval causes the victim to identify with the aggressor. A child might confuse abuse with emotional closeness, especially if abuse was the only form of attention the parent showed. The child might think, “If I keep hurting myself, eventually they will love me.”
- Can mark a return to the familiar, understandable past. The child thinks, “I don’t understand loving, soothing behavior, but I do understand pain. It doe not always feel good, but at least it is predictable.”
- Is consistent with one’s view of self. People treat themselves consistent with their self image. Abuse teaches the victim, “I’m worthless, bad, no good, an object – so it makes sense to treat myself like an object.” Self-punishment consistently follows from feeling blameworthy, bad, or inadequate.
- Is consistent with one’s view of a maimed world and a nonexistent future.
- May ensure safety if it results in hospitalization.
The fact that a young person hurts themself does not mean they are insane. They are simply repeating what they learned to cope with intolerable pain. As they learn productive ways to meet their needs they will no longer need to do this.