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Schema Therapy

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Sherman Oaks Therapy & Wellness offers schema therapy– a research-based, compassionate model of healing that is effective for a range of presenting problems including depression, anxiety, relational conflict, codependency, addiction, and more. ST is particularly helpful for clients who have insight into their issues but still can’t seem to move past them. First introduced in the 1990s by Dr. Jeffrey Young, schema therapy integrates several schools of therapy. ST helps clients understand why they think, feel, and behave in the ways that they do (Psychodynamic/Attachment), recognize their feelings and attain emotional relief (Gestalt), and challenge destructive narratives that are rooted in early experiences (Cognitive-Behavioral).

What Is a Schema?

At the core of schema therapy is the idea that we all have certain “life themes” which appear as dysfunctional patterns we live out that tend to develop in our early years then repeat themselves throughout our lives unless we become conscious of them and work to change them. These are known as “schemas” or “life traps.”

Growing up, we need emotional connection (empathy, nurturance, affection), protection, safety, stability, guidance, independence, and appropriate outlets for self-expression. When these core needs are not met, we develop a “schema” – a pattern of thoughts, feelings, memories and/or bodily sensations that get triggered throughout our adult lives.

There are 18 “life traps” to date that schema therapy has identified and helps clients recognize in their lives. Instead of labeling clients with a diagnosis, schema therapy suggests you are simply caught in a self-defeating pattern of perceiving the world, yourself and others and recreating the outcomes you fear.

When we are triggered by certain situations or people, the schemas tend to lead us to respond in non-helpful ways. These are referred to as “coping responses” and fall into three categories:

Surrender: You believe that the thoughts and feelings associated with the schema are inevitable, so you surrender to the schema. For example, if you believe people will inevitably abandon you, you may select partners who cannot make a commitment, but you remain in the relationship.

Avoidance: You attempt to ignore or suppress the emotional pain caused by the schema. You may avoid people, places, or situations that trigger the emotions associated with the schema, or you may become entirely numb to block out the pain. For example, if you fear abandonment, you avoid relationships all together to avoid being abandoned.

Overcompensation: You behave in the opposite way of how the schema makes you feel. For example, if you fear abandonment, you may become clingy and smother others to the point of pushing them away or you may leave others before they can abandon you.

Discover Your Schema Modes

One of the goals of schema therapy is to identify and explore your personality modes. One or more schemas may dance together to form a stable mode that functions like a kind of sub-personality. Some people may live in one default mode, and others switch frequently between modes as they grapple with an activated schema.

Some examples of modes:

Damaged child modes: These reflect the experiences of your childhood self whose needs went unmet, so they may involve severe emotional turmoil.

Dysfunctional parent modes: These cause you to treat yourself like you’re your own demanding or critical parent. You might put unrealistic expectations on yourself or criticize or belittle yourself.

Coping modes: These are your attempts to manage the difficult feelings caused by your schema.

Healthy adult mode: This mode is what we aim to strengthen because it is compassionate, kind, can balance work and play, and can get his/her needs met in a healthy way.

How We Work

We work together to develop a schema-focused understanding of the problems in your life by reviewing your characteristic behaviors in everyday situations, reviewing the areas in which you experience significant problems, and examining your life history through self-report inventories and imagery.

Schema therapy is process-oriented, incorporating techniques from 4 main areas: interpersonal, cognitive, behavioral, as well as powerful experiential techniques (such as imagery rescripting and chair-work) designed to provide corrective emotional experiences that facilitate deeper level “core” change.

The therapeutic relationship is one of the most important components of the work given the therapist provides “limited reparenting” – an antidote to clients’ unmet needs from childhood (within the boundaries of the therapeutic relationship). Warmth, compassion, and authenticity are hallmarks of a schema therapist.

Goals of Schema Therapy

  • Move beyond logic to a state where you can process emotions that are buried in the unconscious
  • General self-awareness
  • Understand why you act or think the way you do
  • Let go of repressed emotions that have been holding you back
  • Break self-defeating patterns
  • Become less reactive and more responsive
  • Improve your relationships with others and/or learn to become attracted to people who a better fit for you 
  • Understand your personal needs and learn ways to meet those needs
  • Develop more compassion for yourself and others
  • Learn to trust others and yourself
  • Improve confidence
  • Notice and eradicate inner critic

Schema Therapy is a long- term approach that often lasts a minimum of a year despite experiencing results initially. You have “practiced” living in your schemas for much of your life so it will take some time to create new, healthier patterns from a grounded, healthy adult part of the self.

Cultivate Change

Working with a schema therapist to recognize the dysfunctional ways of seeing the world and others that are running your life means you can finally change longstanding patterns that have gotten in the way of your happiness. You can get back in touch with your true feelings and needs, learn healthier ways of responding instead of reacting to your schemas, and learn to get your emotional needs met in healthier, present-focused ways.

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