Early Maladaptive Schemas

Defectiveness/ Shame

Early Maladaptive Schemas

Defectiveness/ Shame

Do you ever worry that there might be something inherently wrong with you? Like maybe you’re not as good as other people? Or, that you’re deeply flawed and other people would likely reject you if they found out? If so, you might have the defectiveness/shame schema.

To answer any questions you may have regarding this schema, this article will cover the following topics:

  • What the defectiveness/shame schema is
  • An explanation of early maladaptive schemas (EMS)
  • The causes of the defectiveness/shame schema
  • Signs of the defectiveness/shame schema in childhood and adulthood
  • How the defectiveness/shame schema affects a person’s life
  • Treatment methods for the defectiveness/shame schema

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What Is the Defectiveness/Shame Schema?

The defectiveness/shame schema is one of 18 early maladaptive schemas (EMS). Having the defectiveness/shame schema means you feel there is something very wrong with you in some way. Your perceived defect can be anything – your appearance, personality, intelligence, morality, etc. However, believing you have such a significant flaw causes shame. So, it also leads to the belief that once others get to know you they will discover your defect and reject you. 

Maladaptive Schemas

Defectiveness/shame an early maladaptive schema (EMS). If you wish to learn more about this schema, as well as the 17 others, check out our article, “The Ultimate Guide to Early Maladaptive Schemas.” 

What Causes the Defectiveness/Shame Schema?

Early maladaptive schemas develop in childhood when primary caregivers are not attuned to the needs of their child. Typically, with the defectiveness/shame schema, the caregiver(s) may have been openly critical of their child through their words or actions. This behavior may be because these caregivers experienced this style of parenting themselves. So, they may be parenting in the same way because they do not have the internal resources to change their actions and satisfy their child’s needs – for reasons such as mental illness, past experiences, or maladaptive schemas of their own. 

Another way this schema develops is either through the caregiver unintentionally missing their child’s cues that they have a need, or misinterpreting it as a cue for something else. For example, a caregiver may feel that they have made their child feel loved and cherished by providing a stable homelife. But, in reality, the child may feel disconnected to them because they repeatedly miss or misinterpret their cues.

Signs of the Defectiveness/Shame Schema

The effects of the defectiveness/shame schema can be far-reaching, affecting every area of one’s life. The signs of the defectiveness/shame schema in childhood and adulthood are as follows:

Defectiveness/Shame Schema in Childhood

Defectiveness/Shame Schema in Childhood

Children with the defectiveness/shame schema are concerned that others will reject them because they are flawed. They believe that they would be more lovable or acceptable if they were different. These beliefs may lead them to become self-conscious and passive in their interactions with others. 

Such children may also seek reassurance and approval from others, particularly those in positions of authority. These actions may place them in a vulnerable position if the authority figures are untrustworthy. 

Due to their belief that they are flawed, children with the defectiveness/shame schema may be withdrawn and anxious of others and, for this reason, might have few friends, if any. Alternatively, they may act either verbally or physically aggressive towards others. This aggression may stem from a need to release strong emotions or an attempt to act out and understand what has happened to them at home.

Defectiveness/Shame Schema in Adults

Adults with the defectiveness/shame schema are hypersensitive to rejection, criticism, blame, and unfavorable comparison to others. They also tend to be unfairly critical of themselves and over-indulge in negative self-comparisons with other people. Moreover, these individuals tend to devalue their successes and positive qualities. Due to all these aspects, they may have low self-esteem and feel unworthy of love and respect. Adults with this schema also typically feel a strong sense of self-shame and embarrassment, and have an extreme fear of their flaws being exposed to other people. 

Due to their low self-worth, hypersensitivity to criticism, and fear of exposure, adults with the defectiveness/shame schema tend to withdraw from social contact. However while they typically prefer engaging in solitary activities or escapism, they may still experience loneliness. Furthermore, when these individuals do interact with others, they may allow others to take advantage of and mistreat them. 

Understandably, adults with the defectiveness/shame schema may feel a great deal of stress and develop unhealthy coping strategies. They may use substances to distract them from their worries or to self-soothe. Some examples of this are compulsive shopping, gambling, or excessive use of drugs, alcohol, or food.

Defectiveness/Shame Schema in Adults

Defectiveness/Shame Schema Test

If you wish to receive a rating of how highly you score on each of the maladaptive schemas, including defectiveness/shame, you can take our quiz on maladaptive schemas.

How Someone Copes With the
Defectiveness/Shame Schema

It can be difficult to navigate life if you believe that you are defective in some way and that when people find this out they will reject you. People with the defectiveness/shame schema often cope with their negative beliefs in one of three unhealthy ways – avoidance, overcompensation, or surrendering.


Typically, individuals with the defectiveness/shame schema avoid intimate relationships. As they think they are defective in some way, they feel shame and don’t want others to know what they’re really like. Additionally, they tend to be highly sensitive to rejection and criticism. Understandably, such individuals do not wish to risk other people to see their perceived defect, as they think the other person’s reaction to them would be negative. For the same reason, someone with this schema may jump from relationship to relationship or sabotage blossoming relationships so that no-one gets close enough to truly know them.


Alternatively, someone with the defectiveness/shame schema may overcompensate for their beliefs through their behavior. They may try to silence their fear and win the approval of others through achievements or status-seeking. Furthermore, such individuals may be confrontational – blaming and criticizing others for mistakes when they are, in fact, to blame. Additionally, they may appear to be submissive, but rebel through passive-aggression, procrastination, complaining, and sulking. All of these actions inadvertently push people away, ultimately reinforcing the individual’s belief that they are defective and others will reject them once they find out.


Some individuals may cope with the beliefs caused by the defectiveness/shame schema by surrendering to them. They believe they are inherently flawed and, therefore, unworthy. Thus, they may behave submissively and try to please others. If embarking on a relationship, they may choose individuals who do not respect them, as they do not deem themselves worthy of respect. For this reason, they may have a tendency to attract, and be attracted to, others who are likely to leave them. When this happens, their belief that others will reject them because they’re not good enough in some way is reinforced.

Treatment/Therapy for the Defectiveness/
Shame Schema

The defectiveness/shame schema is known to be one of the more difficult schemas to work with as it can affect every aspect of life. Additionally, as it makes people feel ashamed of their perceived defect, it can be difficult to seek help. These factors combined make the need for therapy even more pressing. 

Schema Therapy focuses on early childhood experiences and the therapeutic relationship itself in order to challenge maladaptive schemas. While maladaptive schemas are difficult to change, with commitment, consistency, and appropriate treatment, it is entirely possible to achieve positive change. 

Adaptive Strategies

Notice when your defectiveness/shame schema is triggered

The defectiveness/shame schema may not necessarily impact every domain of your life. Perhaps you only feel inadequate whenever you’re at work, or only feel flawed within personal relationships. It’s important to work out how much your schema influences you, and in which domains, in order to properly address it.

Stop comparing yourself to others

“Pobody’s nerfect.”

– Anon.

People rarely broadcast their faults and failings for everyone to hear, and this is especially true on social media. People on social media portray themselves the way they wish they were rather than how they actually are. If you find that you compare yourself with others more after using social media, try to limit your access to a set amount of time per day and unfollow accounts that make you feel bad about yourself.  

Instead, try practicing gratitude for the positive things in your life by listing something you are grateful for each day. These things don’t have to be monumental. For example, you could be grateful it didn’t rain on your walk to work, or that you got the last cookie in the pack. However, whenever you get into the habit of practicing gratitude you will begin noticing the good things in your life more often.

Practice self-compassion

Recognize that everyone is worthy of love and respect, regardless of how flawed they think they are. Understand that you came to the belief that you are defective because it made sense to you as a child. Acknowledge that you are no longer a child and you no longer have to think like this. When your defectiveness/shame schema is activated, try talking to yourself as you would a cherished friend. We are often far more generous with our love and compassion when we talk others through a problem. 

Allow yourself the same love and compassion. Recognize that you are more than any of your perceived failings and make a list of your positive attributes and qualities. Nothing is too small or insignificant to make the list. Refer to this list when your defectiveness/shame schema is triggered. The time has come to celebrate your achievements and wins in life.

Be mindful of the company you keep

Ask yourself if those closest to you are reinforcing your schema, and make changes if necessary. Try to surround yourself with people who respect and treat you well. If you have been socially isolating, try a group activity based on something you usually enjoy doing by yourself. For example, if you enjoy hiking, try joining a hiking group. It will be easier to make conversation if you’re engaging in an activity you already enjoy and that others share an interest in.

Seek therapy

If you have the defectiveness/shame schema, you may have a lot of unresolved anger, disappointment, and sadness from past relationships. You might also have a great deal of anxiety about your current relationships. Additionally, you may need to develop healthy expectations and boundaries. A therapeutic relationship is the ideal circumstance in which to explore all these factors.

McKay, M., Greenberg, M. J., & Fanning, P. (2020). Overcome Thoughts of Defectiveness and Increase Well-Being Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. New Harbinger Publications.

Padesky C. A. (1994) Schema change processes in cognitive therapy. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, 1(5), 267–278.

Schmidt, N. B., Joiner, Jr., T. E., Young, J. E., & Telch, M. J. (1995). The schema questionnaire: Investigation of psychometric properties and the hierarchical structure of a measure of maladaptive schemas. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 19(3), 295-321.

Young, J. E., Klosko, J. S., & Weishaar, M. E. (2003). Schema therapy. Guilford Press.

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