Our vision of the world, of ourselves and of others is biased by cognitive representations that we are not aware of. These mental structures that impact our daily lives are more commonly known as “patterns”. The purpose of this article is to explain what we mean by “patterns”, where they come from and how they are maladaptive. At the end of your reading, you will also know what their mode of action is and their impact. The next article will be dedicated to schema therapy, an approach to target and treat schemas.Schemas are mental structures that contain our most deeply held beliefs. These patterns can remain latent, which means that they remain at the level of thoughts and are not activated. They are present in all human beings. This notion of universality is nevertheless to be nuanced, we will see later why. On the adapted side, they help us to react in complex situations that we are confronted with in our daily lives. Nevertheless, there are also maladaptive patterns, the notion of pattern gathers both. However, we are interested here in the notion of maladaptive early schemas (IPS) which was conceptualized by Young in the 1990s.
Where do schemas come from ?
- Cognition: Schemas are part of the brain’s functioning and play the role of automatic filters, they modify our thoughts and act mostly unconsciously. During the cognitive evaluation of a situation, the information that we receive from our environment is processed and attached to the similar schema. This action on the cognitive system will then have an impact on our interpretations and our experience. We can take a concrete situation where the cognition would be “I am not good enough for others, I am worthless”.
- Emotions: The situations that created the early schemas coincide with a specific set of emotions. Indeed, each event generated an emotional evaluation of the event which, associated with the cognitive evaluation, created the schema. In adulthood, we may be confronted with events that provoke the same emotions. The evaluation of the event will then remind us of our childhood evaluation, which will lead to the activation of the schema. In the example above, this cognition would be associated with strong emotions of sadness and loneliness.
- Behavior: These patterns influence the way we react, adapt to situations and behave. Moreover, their activation is generalized to many situations. At the behavioral level, the subject of our example would withdraw into himself and isolate himself from others.
How do the patterns act ?
We can explain the action of schemas through three main dimensions: the cognitive sphere, the affective sphere and the behavioral sphere.
Patterns come from our own life history, they are created during childhood or adolescence. To be more precise, the events we lived through during these two periods led to the appearance of patterns. Thus, they are the result of childhood experiences that have marked our lives and that continue to impact them. This childhood origin is the reason why we call them early patterns. To give you an example of a significant childhood event, we can cite the abandonment of a loved one during childhood. However, the patterns continue to develop throughout the rest of our lives and especially into adulthood. Indeed, our interactions and experiences during this period will reinforce the patterns. Each situation that activates a pattern allows it to gain space and makes it stronger, which is why we can say that they are acquired by learning. These numerous reinforcements lead to a bigger impact at this time of life.
How do they impact our lives?
Patterns affect our lives and become embedded in our daily lives without us realizing it, guiding our choices and affecting the way we think. Moreover, we can find benefits to patterns in the short term. Indeed, some situations that are difficult to manage for the psyche will be facilitated by the activation of one or more patterns. Nevertheless, their action becomes harmful in the long term.Although we all have patterns, there are differences between individuals. Since they correspond to our life history, they are unique to each individual and are not identical. Moreover, they do not alter the functioning of each person in the same way, they are expressed to different degrees in individuals and do not induce the same suffering. They are also more or less rigid and more or less numerous. These characteristics bring me to my next point: pathological schemas.
Patterns can be maladaptive, which means that they are too costly in energy and too present in the person’s life, they become invasive. The omnipresence of the patterns pushes the person to constantly repeat the same mistakes, to relive the same problems and to recreate the same circumstances in which they lived. The person can then become trapped in the patterns. The maladaptive patterns can lead to an alteration in work, personal and family life. Because of the significant suffering they produce, they are defined as pathological, the person becomes maladjusted to their environment and faces many difficulties. Pathological patterns have the power to become integrated into the personality, which makes them even more difficult to detect. The individual acts as if the patterns are reality. Individuals who are overwhelmed by pathological schemas need to receive therapeutic treatment that focuses on the patterns.
I am going to give you a concrete example of a pathological schema found in Young’s classification of schemas. If we go back to the example given in the origin of the schemas, a child who has been abandoned by a close relative may develop one or more schemas related to attachment to others and to the need for security that is not satisfied. In this example, we focus on the “abandonment, instability” pattern. Following the significant event, the child will assimilate that his attachment figures, the people who were supposed to take care of him, did not love him enough to stay with him and that he was not good enough for them. He will then think that the others will want to abandon him as well. A cognitive evaluation that will be associated with an emotion of fear, a fear of abandonment. He will thus develop a behavior of flight or ambivalence towards those close to him, in order to protect himself from a possible abandonment.
As previously mentioned, in the next article we will focus on the therapy that directly targets IPS, schema therapy.