Schemas and Coping Mechanisms

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again
and expecting different results.”

Albert Einstein

Isn’t it frustrating when you get that sense of deja vu in a conversation or argument, where it just seems to go the same way each time. Eric Berne describes this in his book ‘What Do You Say After Hello’. Dr Jeffery Young took another perspective of looking at these patterns or schemas and called it, unsurprisingly ‘schema therapy’.(see also p312)

Four main theoretical concepts in schema therapy are early maladaptive schemas (or simply schemas), coping styles, modes, and basic emotional needs:

  1. In cognitive psychology, a schema is an organized pattern of thought and behaviour. It can also be described as a mental structure of preconceived ideas, a framework representing some aspect of the world, or a system of organizing and perceiving new information. In schema therapy, schemas specifically refer to early maladaptive schemas, defined as “self-defeating life patterns of perception, emotion, and physical sensation”. For instance, a person with an Abandonment schema could be hypersensitive (have an “emotional button” or “trigger”) about his/her perceived value to others, which in turn could make him/her feel sad and panicky in his/her interpersonal relationships.
  2. Coping styles are a person’s behavioural responses to schemas. Maladaptive coping styles (such as overcompensation, avoidance, or surrender) very often wind up reinforcing the schemas. Continuing the Abandonment example: having imagined a threat of abandonment in a relationship and feeling sad and panicky, a person using an avoidance coping style might then behave in ways to limit the closeness in the relationship to try to protect himself/herself from being abandoned. The resulting loneliness or even actual loss of the relationship could easily reinforce the person’s Abandonment schema.
  3. Modes are mind states that cluster schemas and coping styles into a temporary “way of being” that a person can shift into occasionally or more frequently. For example, a Vulnerable Child mode might be a state of mind encompassing schemas of Abandonment, Defectiveness, Mistrust/Abuse and a coping style of surrendering (to the schemas).
  4. If a patient’s basic emotional needs are not met in childhood, then schemas, coping styles, and modes can develop. Some basic needs that have been identified are: connection, mutuality, reciprocity, flow, and autonomy. For example, a child with unmet needs around connection—perhaps due to parental loss to death, divorce, or addiction—might develop an Abandonment schema.

The goal of schema therapy is to help patients meet their basic emotional needs by helping the patient learn how to:

  1. heal schemas by diminishing the intensity of emotional memories comprising the schema and the intensity of bodily sensations, and by changing the cognitive patterns connected to the schema;
  2. replace maladaptive coping styles and responses with adaptive patterns of behaviour.

Techniques used in schema therapy including limited reparenting and Gestalt therapy psychodrama techniques such as imagery re-scripting and empty chair dialogues.

Overview of modes

More information

Connecting with yourself and others (Attachment)