Schema Therapy: Basics and Beyond

LifeI just returned from a two-day Schema Therapy Workshop at the New Jersey Institute for Schema Therapy. The training was led by Wendy Behary, the Founder and Director of The Cognitive Therapy Center of New Jersey and The New Jersey Institute for Schema Therapy and President of the International Society of Schema Therapy. While I have been using Schema Therapy concepts with some clients already, I gained a new appreciation for the complexity, depth and effectiveness of this approach. Starting in March 2015, I am participating in the Advanced Intensive Schema Therapy Training Program. In this article, I will explain some of the basics of schema therapy. Stay tuned for a lot more to come as I work through the intensive training program and get certified!

What is Schema Therapy?

Schema Therapy is an evidence-based approach for long lasting change in the personality dynamics that impact chronic emotional and relationship problems. Schema Therapy was developed by Jeffrey Young while he was at the Beck Institute for Cognitive Behavior Therapy and he eventually branched out on his own. Schema Therapy is considered an integrative model because it draws on cognitive therapy, behaviorism, attachment theory, emotion-focused and relationship-based therapies and other schools of thought. Due to its strong roots in cognitive behavior therapy, I believe it is a natural extension to CBT for helping people who want or need a more depth-oriented approach.

Schema Therapy places emphasis on:

  • Identifying and resolving self-defeating life patterns and deeply rooted emotional themes,
  • Building resiliency and productive responses to life challenges,
  • Drawing out and enabling the strong part of your personality,
  • Employing a variety of cognitive, behavioral and emotional change techniques, and
  • Using the therapeutic relationship as a vehicle for change

What Is the Theory Behind Schema Therapy?

Schema ModelIn Schema Therapy, you will learn which of your schemas are triggered when you notice a strong reaction in yourself. The schema model has identified 18 schemas, typically developed when core emotional needs are not meet in childhood. Some common schemas include abandonment, defectiveness/shame, unrelenting standards, and vulnerability to harm/illness.

In order to cope with the pain when our schemas are triggered, we may develop certain coping styles including:

  • Surrender: giving in to our schemas and repeating them over and over,
  • Avoidance: finding ways to escape or block out our schemas, and/or
  • Overcompensation: doing the opposite of what our schemas make us feel.

When triggered, we may have a strong emotional reaction or mood shift, and we then enter a coping state called a “mode.” There are four categories of schema modes: the innate Child modes (vulnerability, anger, undisciplined/impulsive, contented), the Maladaptive Coping modes (detachment, compliance, overcompensating), the Maladaptive Parent modes (punitive, demanding/critical), and the Healthy Adult mode. The goal of schema therapy is to help you get your core needs met in an adaptive manner by enhancing the Healthy Adult coping mode so your schemas are triggered less frequently and intensely and you can recover more quickly.

Is Schema Therapy Evidence-Based?

I was impressed and pleasantly surprised by the large and growing research base, primarily led by therapists in Europe, where there is support and government funding for longer-term therapies that have been proven effective for deeper and longer-lasting change. In the U.S., most research grants and insurance funding are targeted toward shorter-term therapy approaches for symptom reduction. As a result, schema therapy is not well-known in the U.S. As of this writing, there are no Certified Schema Therapists in California. I hope to change this.

Who Does Schema Therapy Help?

PersonalitySchema Therapy is particularly well suited for adults who:

  • Have recurring depression, anxiety and relationship problems and don’t understand why they stay stuck in the same patterns year after year,
  • Want deeper, more long lasting personality change and relapse prevention after their anxiety, depression and other immediate crises have been resolved,
  • Have chronic anxiety, OCD and depression that does not respond fully to standard CBT, DBT and exposure therapy protocols, or
  • Have successfully completed evidence-based treatment for anxiety, depression, OCD and other problems and want to continue to work on underlying issues in order to improve the quality of their lives and relationships.

Schema Therapy is beginning to be tailored for many populations including children, teens and families. This is an exciting development in Schema Therapy because it will help children and teens develop into healthy adults and prevent them from having chronic anxiety, depression and other problems in adulthood.

What Does Schema Therapy Entail?

Phase 1: Assessment and Education

The assessment phase generally lasts for five to seven sessions and focuses on:

  • Education about the Schema Therapy model.
  • Assessing schemas and coping styles through interviews, inventories and emotional techniques.
  • Scoring and interpreting the results of various schema inventories.
  • Activating schemas using emotional techniques such as imagery.
  • Noticing how schemas show up in the therapy relationship.

Phase 2: Schema Therapy Treatment

As a longer-term, depth-oriented treatment approach for chronic emotional and relationship problems as well as personality change, you can expect the active treatment phase to be about one to two years of weekly therapy. As mentioned earlier, Schema Therapy uses a variety of strategies to contribute to change.

  • Cognitive Techniques: schema diaries, pros and cons of schemas and coping styles, schema dialogues and flashcards.
  • Emotion-Focused Techniques: emotional change through imagery, role plays and two-chair work.
  • Therapy Relationship: empathic confrontation and analyzing schemas when triggered in sessions.
  • Behavioral Techniques: behavioral assignments, skills training and exposure tasks to overcome avoidance of trigger situations.
How to Get Started with Schema Therapy

I hope this article has wet your appetite to learn more about Schema Therapy and perhaps even partake in Schema Therapy yourself. To learn more about Schema Therapy in a self-help format, you can read Reinventing Your Life. If you are interested in starting Schema Therapy, contact the Cognitive Behavior Therapy Center of Silicon Valley at (408) 384-8404 or the Cognitive Behavior Therapy Center of Sacramento Valley at (916) 778-0771 or send us an email.