Repairing Early Maladaptive Schemas

Trauma, abuse, neglect or other difficult circumstances in childhood can lead us to develop early maladaptive schemas.

early maladaptive schemas

While these may have helped us cope at the time, they may now be holding us back.

Signs of Early Maladaptive Schemas

Perhaps you have been puzzled by certain feelings or challenges you face, such as:

  • Feelings of being unfulfilled or underserving, no matter how successful you are?
  • Being paralysed by the belief that you will never be able to make good decisions and reach your personal goals?
  • Constantly putting the needs of others before your own, and regularly second guessing the motives of others, perhaps even panicking when you suspect that someone you love will leave you?
  • An irrational lack of self-esteem, or a sense of impending doom?
  • Fear about natural disasters, getting ill, being in an accident, or losing everything you have?

Problems like these might be due to the internal messages we tell ourselves and self-defeating patterns called Schemas, which developed in our earliest years: hence the name, ‘early maladaptive schemas’.

For many of us, childhood was not always easy. Perhaps you had:

  • A parent with very high expectations of you, or one that was emotionally distant.
  • An abusive parent, while the other was helpless.
  • A parent unable to provide you with a feeling of safety at home.
  • Parents that fought regularly, with you stuck in the middle.
  • A sick or depressed parent, meaning you had to care for an support them instead of the other way around.
  • An overprotective parent, or one that overindulged you.
  • A critical parent, making you feel that nothing was ever good enough.
  • Painful experiences of being excluded, bullied and rejected by your peers.

Our experiences in childhood shape the way we view the world, ourselves, and others. Even after we have grown up and our lives have moved on, they can still affect us, causing us to repeat destructive behaviour patterns due to our early maladaptive schemas. These schemas encompass our thoughts, feelings, behaviours, memories, and physical sensations, and determine how we relate to ourselves and others.

Eighteen Early Maladaptive Schemas have been identified that fall into the following five categories:

  1. Disconnection and Rejection – Feeling insecure in relationships, and difficulty trusting and connecting with others.
  2. Impaired Autonomy and Performance – Feelings of inadequacy and problems behaving independently and confidently.
  3. Impaired Limits – Difficulties with self-control and setting appropriate limits on your behaviour.
  4. Other-Directedness – Focusing on other’s needs over your own, and regularly seeking external approval and validation.
  5. Overvigilance and Inhibition – Often on the lookout for potential problems and dangers in your life, or a difficulty accepting yourself and expressing emotions.

Due to the human drive for consistency and familiarity, we feel a strong push to maintain these Schemas and so have a tendency to distort information to fit them. For example, if we have an early maladaptive schema which tells us to expect rejection, then we can take it personally when a friend does not return our phone call straight away. We quickly assume that they don’t care about us, or that they are unreliable, and feel upset and angry at ourselves or them.

This push to maintain our Schemas also means that we might be attracted to people and situations that reinforce them – for example, falling in love with somebody who treats us in the same way that a parent did.

Usually, our Schemas cause us to react in one of three ways: surrender, avoidance, or overcompensation. Below are examples of how someone might manage the Schema of ‘Failure to Achieve’:

  • Surrender: By accepting that ‘I will fail’ I might do tasks in a half-hearted or haphazard manner.
  • Avoidance: To avoid any painful reminders of my schema I might completely avoid work that challenges me, or procrastinate on tasks.
  • Overcompensation: To hide and fight my schema, I might ceaselessly and tirelessly drive myself and become an ‘overachiever’.

Repairing Early Maladaptive Schemas

If you have realised that your life is being impacted by early maladaptive schemas, then Schema Therapy might be useful.

Schema Therapy is based on the view that we all have core childhood needs:

  • To feel safe, have stability, nurture, and acceptance from others.
  • A chance to develop autonomy, competence, and a sense of identity.
  • The freedom to express our needs and emotions.
  • To have the opportunity for spontaneity and play.
  • To be provided with realistic limits and boundaries.

If there is a poor fit between the temperament a child is born with (eg their level of sensitivity, adaptability, emotional intensity) and their environment due to being abandoned, criticised, deprived, excluded, abused or overprotected, a child may develop Early Maladaptive Schemas.

Schema Therapy expands on some cognitive-behavioural treatments, and aims to help you make sense of your behaviour patterns, and how and why they are repeatedly triggered, so that ultimately you are able to break free of them.

Unlike Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), Schema Therapy may involve more discussions about childhood origins, more emphasis on core themes and coping styles (eg avoidance and overcompensation), and more emphasis on accessing different emotions in the therapy room in both creative and supportive ways.

Schema Therapy acknowledges that just understanding the past is often not enough to create real change in someone’s life. Therefore there are very practical elements in the therapy to assist in creating change in the here and now. Your therapist may employ cognitive, behavioural, and other experiential techniques to support you in this.

Given the longstanding nature of early maladaptive schemas, treatment can often be delivered over a period of years; however aspects of the approach can also be useful when people are accessing short-term therapy.

Dr Anna Woodall psychologistAuthor: Dr Anna Woodall, B Psych (Hons), D Psych (Clinical), MAPS.

Dr Anna Woodall has a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology from the University of East London, and over 10 years of experience delivering psychological support and mental health research in Australia and the United Kingdom. Anna has recently returned to Brisbane from England.

To make an appointment with Brisbane Psychologist Dr Anna Woodall, try Online Booking – Mt Gravatt. Alternatively, you can call Vision Psychology (Mt Gravatt) on (07) 3088 5422.


  • Young, Klosko and Weishaar (2003). Schema Therapy. New York: Guildford Press.
  • Young and Klosko (1993) Reinventing Your Life. New York: Plume.