If your emotional needs aren’t met as a child, you may develop early maladaptive schemas. You can work through these schemas in schema therapy.

Schemas are ways that you organize your thoughts and behaviors to interpret information. Sometimes, early maladaptive schemas can influence how you view the world and cause you to cope with stress in harmful ways.

Schema therapy integrates various psychotherapy modalities into one model and aims to help people deal with those early maladaptive schemas. Schema therapy can also help you change unhelpful behavior into more adaptive coping methods.

Schema therapy can be helpful for individuals diagnosed with personality disorders. It can also be helpful for those with depression, anxiety, or eating disorders who haven’t responded well to other forms of treatment.

Schema therapy is a newer form of therapy but can be effective for some people.

Psychologist Jeffrey Young developed schema therapy to help people address schemas or maladaptive ways of thinking and behaving.

In schema therapy, there are 18 identified early maladaptive schemas that your beliefs can fall into, and each of those schemas usually falls under five different domains.

There are several goals of schema therapy. One overarching goal of schema therapy could be defined as helping individuals meet their core unmet emotional needs. The founder believed unmet emotional needs could lead to potential mental health problems.

If you’re considering schema therapy, you may wonder what techniques the therapist will use.

Some standard techniques used in schema therapy include:

  • psychoeducation, which provides you with education on a particular condition
  • experiential techniques, such as chairwork dialogue and imagery rescripting
  • identifying unmet needs

It depends on what you’re in schema therapy for, which may determine the therapist’s techniques.

What conditions can schema therapy help treat?

Schema therapy can help treat many mental health conditions. Most commonly, schema therapy is used to treat personality disorders, such as borderline personality disorder (BPD).

In a 2018 research study, individuals with BPD reported increased self-awareness and better understanding and management of their emotions after receiving schema therapy.

Some limited research indicates that schema therapy has also been effective for mental health conditions such as:

Schema therapy is still an area where further research is needed.

The goals of schema therapy

There are a few main goals of schema therapy treatment according to 2019 research, which includes:

  • decreasing the impact of early maladaptive schemas
  • replace early maladaptive schemas with healthier ones
  • help the individual get their core emotional needs met

It’s important to note that early maladaptive schemas develop as the result of unmet emotional needs in childhood.

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Five domains in schema therapy represent the core needs of a child. The five domains, according to a 2023 study, are:

1. Disconnection and rejection

This domain concerns the idea that children’s need for safety and emotional security won’t be met and, therefore, can cause problems later in life.

An individual whose family of origin may have been distant, cold, or abusive may have some maladaptive schemas under this domain.

2. Impaired autonomy and performance

This domain concerns beliefs about oneself or the environment that interfere with the ability of a person to perform specific tasks on their own.

An individual with schemas from this domain may have an enmeshed family system.

3. Impaired limits

This domain concerns limits with others and self-directed goals.

An individual with maladaptive schemas in this domain may have been in a family of origin in which there was too much permissiveness or a lack of rules.

4. Other directedness

This domain concerns the idea that an individual would focus on other’s needs excessively to the extent that they would abandon their own needs.

An individual with schemas from this domain may have had a family of origin where a child’s needs weren’t considered, and instead, the parent’s needs or status was put first.

5. Overvigilance and inhibition

This domain concerns the suppression of an individual’s impulses and needs.

An individual with maladaptive schemas in this domain may have a family of origin that issues many punishments and is demanding.

Maladaptive schemas are a vital focus of schema therapy. Maladaptive schemas are developed in early childhood. According to 2023 research, early maladaptive schemas create a lens of how we view, interpret, and order our environment.

Your environment and negative early life experiences can create maladaptive schemas. Maladaptive schemas are also formed as a result of the temperament of your parents. You continue to develop maladaptive schemas throughout your life.

In schema therapy, there are 18 identified early maladaptive schemas. You can react to early maladaptive schemas with various coping skills. In schema therapy, you learn to recognize early maladaptive schemas, help heal them, and learn to replace maladaptive coping styles.

Schema modes are another central component of schema therapy. Schema modes are a pattern of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that can be triggered by early maladaptive schemas at any point in time.

Schema modes can shift from one mode to another very rapidly.

A 2021 study outlines the four categories of schema modes that include:

  • Healthy mode: This consists of the healthy adult schema mode.
  • Child modes: This category includes vulnerable child, happy child, angry child, impulsive child, enraged child, and undisciplined child schema modes.
  • Dysfunctional coping modes: This category includes the detached protector, the detacher self-soother, the compliant surrenderer, the self-aggrandizer, and the bully and attack schema modes.
  • Parent modes: This category includes the demanding parent and punitive parent schema modes.

Schema modes are thought to explain abrupt emotional and behavioral changes that individuals with personality disorders often have.

If you’ve been diagnosed with a personality disorder or have been through psychotherapy that isn’t effective, schema therapy could be helpful for you. You can learn to heal maladaptive schemas that could be causing you to cope in unhelpful ways.

Resources are available if you’re interested in finding a psychotherapist who uses schema therapy.

Consider visiting the International Society for Schema Therapy to find a Schema therapist near you.