The 18 Early Maladaptive Schemas Part I

Early Maladaptive Schemas - Little Girl Holding Teddy Bear On a Road

There are 18 Early Maladaptive Schemas – divided into five domains – in Schema Therapy. In this article, we’ll discuss the first nine schemas – schema domains one and two. If you’re new to Schema Therapy, we’d advise you to get a quick introduction into the topic before you dive into the specifics of each Early Maladaptive Schema

In Part II of this series, we continue with an overview of the rest of the Early Maladaptive Schemas – schema domains III, IV, and V.
18 early maladaptive schemas

What You Need to Know About Early Maladaptive Schemas

Schemas (in general) incorporate our beliefs about ourselves, the world around us, and the world of others. These beliefs operate in the background of our awareness, yet they have great influence over our sense of self, our expectations about life, and the quality of our relationships. 

You can think of schemas as frameworks, or structures, through the lens of which we organize and make sense of our life experiences. Schemas are not always negative, or maladaptive. Still, Young places the focus of his model on EMS. From here on, we are going to use the schema and EMS interchangeably.

Let’s start with the original definition from the book “Schema Therapy: A Practitioner’s Guide.”  According to Young, Klosko, and Weishaar (2003):

An Early Maladaptive Schema is:

  • “a broad, pervasive theme or pattern
  • comprised of memories, emotions, cognitions, and bodily sensations
  • regarding oneself and one’s relationships with others
  • developed during childhood or adolescence
  • elaborated throughout one’s lifetime and
  • dysfunctional to a significant degree” (p. 7).

It’s important to note that, according to Young, schemas do not include specific behaviors. Behaviors are thought of as a response to and not as a part of schemas.

How Do We Develop Specific Early Maladaptive Schema?

It might seem like maladaptive beliefs are created through traumatic experiences. Indeed, this is often the case. Still, it’s not always true. Schemas are believed to form when one (or more) of our core human needs are not met. Young differentiates five core emotional needs (Young, Klosko, Weishaar, 2003; p. 10).

The 5 Core Emotional Needs

  1. Secure attachments to others (includes safety, stability, nurturance, and acceptance)
  2. Autonomy, competence, and sense of identity
  3. Freedom to express valid needs and emotions
  4. Spontaneity and play
  5. Realistic limits and self-control

As a child grows up, they are largely dependent on their caregivers to meet these emotional needs. Toxic relationships with the caregivers can thus have a strong impact on the way children develop as individuals.

It’s important to note, however, that schemas form as a result of repeated toxic experiences in childhood or adolescence. If parents fail to meet their child’s needs in a certain situation, this is not an indicator that the child will develop a corresponding maladaptive schema. 

Besides, the child’s temperament also plays an important role in his or her development. On the one hand, every child perceives and reacts to the environment in a unique way. On the other hand, the child’s personality traits could make him or her more susceptible to triggering specific behaviors (of others) in social contexts.

Early Maladaptive Schema Domain I: Disconnection and Rejection

Disconnection & Rejection is the first of the five schema domains in Dr. Jeffrey Young’s Schema Therapy model.

This domain is closely related to the concept of insecure attachment, mostly because people who have this type of schema lack the ability to form secure bonds with others. For such individuals, the needs of love, support, guidance, and belonging were not met by the attachment figures (the caregivers) in early childhood. Throughout their lives, they continue to believe that these needs will not be adequately met by others.

The schemas in this domain are associated with traumatic childhood experiences. People who develop these schemas usually come from unpredictable, cold, rejecting, isolated, or abusive families. They tend to recreate their past family environments as adults: they usually choose relationships that resemble their early childhood relationships (within their families).

There are FIVE maladaptive schemas in this domain.

1.   Abandonment

Early Maladaptive Schemas - Little Girl Holding Teddy Bear On a Road

This schema is defined by perceived unpredictability and instability of close relationships. People who have developed the abandonment/instability schema exhibit chronic anxiety about losing their loved ones. They have exaggerated expectations that their significant others will eventually leave them (i.e. for someone better or because they will die).

Besides the fear of abandonment, people with this schema might exhibit strong negative reactions – such as anger or depression – to actual or perceived loss.

In order to prevent any possible rejection, instability, and disconnection, individuals who have this schema tend to act clingy, needy, jealous, and controlling in relationships. They might have a hard time tolerating being alone. Alternatively, others with this schema might try to avoid intimate relationships in general – in order to avoid the possibility of being hurt by the ending of these relationships.  

Despite the strong attempts to avoid being left by their loved ones, people with the abandonment schema often choose to enter relationships with someone who cannot provide them with security, commitment, and availability. Paradoxically, they fear abandonment but choose partners that are likely to leave them.  

The abandonment schema is typically seen in people with Borderline Personality Disorder, and it’s often combined with the Subjugation schema, Dependence/Incompetence schema, or Defectiveness schema (see below).

2.   Mistrust / Abuse

Early Maladaptive Schemas - photo of young adult male in black hoodie looking down

This schema is characterized by the persistent belief that one will be, in some way, mistreated by others. A person with the mistrust schema tends to see others as untrustworthy and expect the worst from them – that others will lie, take advantage of, cheat, manipulate, and in more extreme cases, abuse them.

Such individuals often come across as suspicious or even paranoid. They are hypervigilant to abuse and believe that others will hurt them, intentionally or unintentionally – due to selfishness or carelessness. For this reason, they tend to avoid intimacy altogether or remain distant in relationships. People with the mistrust schema typically don’t share their inner world with others.

Consistent with their early experiences with an abusive family, these individuals often continue the cycle of abuse in their adult relationships: they either enter relationships with abusers (victim behavior) or mistreat and abuse their partners (abuser behavior).

3.   Emotional Deprivation

People who have developed the emotional deprivation schema tend to disregard their emotional needs. They believe that these are not important, or that strong and independent people do not have such needs. They typically exhibit psychological symptoms – such as depression, sadness, and loneliness – and even physical symptoms. Yet, they often do not realize that there is an issue behind these symptoms, or they cannot figure out why they feel that way.

The emotional deprivation schema develops when one’s needs of love, understanding, and guidance are not met by significant others.

Dr. Young differentiates three types of emotional deprivation:

1. Missing love, affection, and nurturance: one lacks care, physical proximity, and attention

2. Missing empathy: one does not feel understood and listened to by others

3. Missing guidance and protection: one doesn’t feel like they have someone to rely on for advice and support

People with this schema often feel alone or empty. They expect that no one can meet their emotional needs – that they will not be supported or understood in relationships. It feels natural to them to not get these needs met. Therefore, they might often act as if they don’t have such emotional needs.

A characteristic behavior of people with this schema is to not communicate their needs, emotions, and desires. They avoid talking about themselves or act as tougher than they actually are. Paradoxically, they often choose partners who are distant and aloof and who have other characteristics that recreate the early childhood environment.

4.   Defectiveness / Shame

The defectiveness schema correlates with the perception that something is seriously wrong with/defective about the self. The perceived defects could be in the personality, physical appearance, or social behavior of the individual.

People with this schema feel deep shame about their perceived flaws. They typically feel unworthy of love and respect and exhibit strong fear that their defects could be exposed.

Such individuals are self-conscious, lack self-esteem, and feel ashamed of who they are and how they are. They feel insecure and often compare themselves to other people.

As a result of the persistent feelings of shame and anxiety related to one’s defectiveness, social and intimate relationships might be perceived as a threat. Individuals with this schema expect that, if they get close to someone, their flaws will be uncovered, which will lead to extreme feelings of embarrassment. For this reason, such individuals might avoid close intimate relationships or social contacts in general.

People who have developed this schema have typically suffered from rejection and strong criticism, which they have become extremely sensitive to. They tend to allow others to devalue them. If they have intimate relationships, they often choose partners who do not respect and treat them well.

Psychologists consider the defectiveness schema very difficult to heal.

5.   Social Isolation

People who have the social isolation schema feel like they don’t belong anywhere. They feel different. This typically happens when a child grows up in a socially isolated family or is, in one way or another, different from the mainstream – because of extraordinary intelligence or appearance, family background (ethnic minorities, orphans, etc.), sexual orientation, or other factors.

Even though some individuals who have developed this schema have intimate relationships, many end up alone in their lives. People with this schema typically avoid social contacts and social situations. They feel disconnected and alienated from the rest of the world.

The social isolation schema is difficult to change, as the goal of therapy would be to focus on the patient’s social connections. This might require the patient to go through strong discomfort.


Early Maladaptive Schema Domain II: Impaired Autonomy and Performance

Impaired autonomy and performance is the second of the five schema domains in Dr. Jeffrey Young’s Schema Therapy model.

The maladaptive schemas in this domain relate with a lack of sense of self and self-agency. People who develop this type of schema have not formed a stable perception of who they are and how they are as independent individuals. This typically happens when one grows up in a family where the parents were overprotective, too involved in the child’s life, or careless about the child’s development. Such parents might have undermined the child’s confidence and not facilitated the child’s ability to function independently or perform successfully.

There are FOUR maladaptive schemas in this domain.

6. Dependence / Incompetence

The dependence/incompetence schema incorporates the belief that one is not able to form adequate judgments, make decisions, and handle everyday situations on their own. Individuals with this schema feel like they need to consult with others before they act. They need someone to assist them and tell them what to do.

People who have this schema perceive that they need others to survive and are therefore highly dependent on them. Such individuals usually seek someone who will take care of them or do everything for them. Sometimes, they are incapable of organizing their lives and performing basic tasks without the help of their caregivers. 

People who have this schema tend to avoid change and responsibility. They don’t feel like they have an individual voice and intuition.

A child typically develops this schema when the parents – even if they had good intentions – did all the decisions or tasks for him or her. Consequently, the child never learns how to exercise judgment and develop the necessary skills to function independently in the world.   

7. Vulnerability to Harm or Illness

People who have the vulnerability schema live in constant fear that something awful will happen to them at any moment. Their anxiety could be related to events like becoming diseased or mentally ill, or becoming a victim of a crime or an environmental catastrophe. People with this schema have an exaggerated perception of the likelihood of such terrible things happening to them.

This schema is also associated with the perception that one is unable to protect oneself from anticipated disasters: one will not be able to prevent bad things from happening, and once the catastrophe occurs, one will not be able to handle it.

8. Enmeshment / Undeveloped Self

This schema typically develops when children grow up “merged with” their parents: the parents are way too close (emotionally) to the child and way too involved in everything the child does.

People who have this schema don’t have a strong and stable sense of who they are. Rather, they feel like they are not whole without the “enmeshed figure” – that could be a friend, sibling, a parental figure, or someone else.

Individuals with this schema are so strongly connected to the “enmeshed figure” that it’s as if their world revolves around this person. They typically think a lot about, talk about, and depend on the “enmeshed figure” and feel guilty when they don’t do so.

Such enmeshment often causes deficiencies in one’s social development as well as strong feelings of emptiness.

9. Failure

People with this schema feel like they are failing in life – like they are not as smart, efficient, skilled, or talented as the people around them. Failure is usually related to academic, athletic, or professional performance.

These individuals believe that they will continue to fail in whatever it is that they’d like to achieve. As a form of self-fulfilling prophecy, they often engage in self-sabotaging behaviors. Alternatively, some people who have this schema might try to put extra effort into their education, jobs, or other activities to overcome the perceived lack of skills, intelligence, or talents. 

Oftentimes, people with this schema do exhibit lower achievement (compared to their peers). In some cases, this is due to lack of discipline, focus, or dedication. In other cases, the failure schema might reflect real deficiencies that prevent one from being as successful as their peers.

The 18 Early Maladaptive Schemas

1. Abandonment
2. Mistrust / Abuse
3. Emotional Deprivation
4. Defectiveness/ Shame
5. Social Isolation
6. Dependence / Incompetence
7. Vulnerability to Harm / Illness
8. Enmeshment / Undeveloped Self
9. Failure
10. Entitlement / Grandiosity
11. Insufficient Self-Control / Self-Discipline
12. Subjugation
13. Self-Sacrifice
14. Approval / Recognition-Seeking
15. Negativity / Pessimism
16. Emotional Inhibition
17. Unrelenting Standards
18. Punitiveness

Curious to learn about the other 9 Early Maladaptive Schemas? Jump to The 18 Early Maladaptive Schemas Part II.

***This blog post series is based on the work of Dr. Jeffrey Young (and his colleagues).***Source: Young, J. E., Klosko, J. S., & Weishaar, M. E. (2003) Schema therapy. New York: Guilford Press.

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