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Finding Your Best Life

Updated: Jan 14

Unraveling Early Maladaptive Schemas

- Teresa Jacobson, DBH, LPCC-S, NCC

September 17, 2020

Many years of suffering tend to transpire before counseling clients unravel toxic childhood experiences which may have manifested in early maladaptive schemas or unhealthy core beliefs. Schemas tend to originate from a nuclear family and can have long-lasting and pervasive consequences.

“Briefly, Early Maladaptive Schemas are self-defeating emotional and cognitive patterns that begin early in our development and repeat throughout life” (Young, Klosko & Weishaar, 2003). They are comprised of themes, memories, emotions, thoughts, physiological sensations, that develop during childhood or adolescents, that include relationships with others and self, are a theme or pattern throughout one’s lifetime, and are “dysfunctional to a significant degree.”

There are experiences that tend to lead to an acquisition of schemas, “the first is toxic frustration of needs” (Young, Klosko & Weishaar, 2003). This occurs when a child misses out on healthy experiences and acquires schemas or beliefs that result from emotional deprivation or abandonment.

Another early life experience that can develop in schemas is traumatization or victimization. If a child is victimized or harmed, schemas could develop such as mistrust/abuse, defectiveness/shame, or vulnerability to harm.

On the flip side, if a child experiences “too much of a good thing” schemas like entitlement/grandiosity, dependence/incompetence schemas can develop (Young, Klosko & Weishaar, 2003). In this situation, “the child’s core emotional needs for autonomy or realistic limits are not met.”

“Negative or depressive schemas develop as a result of an individual’s early life interactions with others. These schemas remain in a dormant state until triggered by stressful life experiences, at which time they lead to the selective extraction and transformation of information to fit one’s pre-existing belief system” (Dozois, Bieling, Evraire, Patelis-Siotis, Hoar, Chudzik, McCabe, Westra, 2014).

Young (2003) described 18 different Early Maladaptive Schemas which include:

  1. Emotional deprivation (the belief that no one will be able to satisfy our basic emotional needs)

  2. Abandonment/instability (the belief that others will abandon us or won’t be reliable to provide emotional support)

  3. Mistrust/abuse (believing that others will hurt, abuse, humiliate, cheat, lie, manipulate, or take advantage)

  4. Defectiveness/shame (belief that we are unloveable, defective, bad, or inferior, or feel a sense of shame regarding flaws perceived)

  5. Social isolation/alienation (believing one is isolated from the world, or too different to be accepted)

  6. Failure to achieve (the belief that one has failed, or is incapable of achieving similar to others)

  7. Dependence/incompetence (belief that one is unable to be competent or responsible without help from others)

  8. Vulnerability to harm or illness (a fear that something bad will happen without being able to prevent it, focusing on medical, emotional, or external catastrophes

  9. Enmeshment/undeveloped self (includes excessive emotional involvement or others that impacts one’s social development, feelings of being smothered by others)

  10. Subjugation (believing that one must obey others to avoid punishment, anger, or abandonment)

  11. Self-sacrifice (belief that one has to relinquish their own needs to meet the needs of others, often motivated by guilt)

  12. Approval-seeking/recognition-seeking (excessive emphasis on gaining approval, an overemphasis on status, appearance, money, social acceptance, or achievement to gain approval, attention, or admiration)

  13. Negativity/pessimism (lifelong focus on negative aspects of life while neglecting or ignoring the positive or optimistic aspects)

  14. Emotional inhibition (belief that one’s own emotions, action, or communication has to be thwarted to avoid disapproval)

  15. Unrelenting standards/hyper-criticalness (belief that one should meet irrationally high standards, which could develop into hyper-criticalness towards self and others, which could lead to impairment in pleasure, relaxation, health, self-esteem, sense of accomplishment, or satisfying relationships)

  16. Punitiveness (believing people should be harshly punished for making mistakes without forgiveness of human imperfection or extenuating circumstances)

  17. Entitlement/grandiosity (believing one is superior to others, entitled to special rights and privileges)

  18. Insufficient self-control/self-discipline (poor emotional control and inability to withstand frustrations while attempting to achieve personal goals)

These schemas, or distorted beliefs about oneself and others can result in serious psychological impairments. “For example, it has been shown that chronically depressed patient exhibits statistically significantly higher scores on all schema domains as compared to non-chronically depressed patients” (Renner, Lobbestael, Peeters, Arntz & Huibers, 2012). Given that Emotional Maladaptive Schemas (EMSs) are likely to represent a “core vulnerability factor to psychopathology, depressed patients with highly dysfunctional EMSs” can benefit from treatment specifically designed to help unravel these beliefs.

Research suggests that people with Early Maladaptive Schemas can benefit from schema-focused therapy (Pinto-Gouveia, Castilho, Galhardo, & Cunha, 2006). The development of core beliefs can be traced to early childhood and healing can begin by restructuring the cognitions through a person-centered, strength-based approach to therapy.

Hopefully, it becomes obvious to the reader that toxicity in childhood and adolescence can certainly cause a lifetime of emotional pain, as well as pervasive symptomatology. But it doesn’t have to be a life sentence. If your child(ren) has been subjected to a toxic environment and may have unhealthy patterns of core beliefs, please get them help to prevent life-long suffering. If you are noticing repeated difficulties and unhealthy core beliefs of your own, we are here to help you.

It’s never too late begin a journey to help you feel better, or to remove any barriers to you living your best life.


Teresa Jacobson is a Doctor of Behavioral Health and Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor Supervisor who is counseling Ohio and Kentucky adults of all ages and life experiences via secure Telehealth/Video visits. A strength-based, person-centered multi-cultural counselor, with an existential philosophy, Teresa can be reached by emailing, calling (513) 206-3026, or visiting



Dozois, D. J. A., Bieling, P.J., Evraire, L. E., Patelis-Siotis, I., and Westra, H.A. (2014). Changes in

core beliefs (early maladaptive schemas) and self-representation in cognitive therapy

and pharmacotherapy for depression. International Journal of Cognitive Therapy, 8(3):221-234.

Pinto-Gouveia, J., Castilho, P., Galhardo, A., and Cunha, M. (2006). Early maladaptive schemas

and social phobia. Cogn Ther Res. 30:571-584.

Renner, F., Lobbestael, J., Peeters, F., Arntz, A., and Huibers, M. (2012). Early maladaptive

schemas in depressed patients: Stability and relation with depressive symptoms over

the course of treatment. Journal of Affective Disorders 126:581-590.

Young, J.E., Klosko, J.S., and Weishaar, M.E. (2003). Schema Therapy: A Practitioner’s Guide.


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