Early Maladaptive Schemas


Do you often worry that if things were to go wrong you wouldn’t be able to cope? Perhaps you repeatedly ask others for advice before making a personal decision? Or maybe you frequently put tasks off because you feel they would be too difficult for you to manage? If so, you might have the dependence/incompetence schema.

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

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

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What Is the Dependence/ Incompetence Schema?

In general, early maladaptive schemas develop in childhood when a primary caregiver is not attuned to their child’s needs. This may occur unintentionally by the caregiver missing the child’s cues that they need something or by interpreting it as a cue for something else. 

Typically, with the dependence/incompetence schema, a child’s caregivers are overly protective. This over-protectiveness is likely to occur if a child suffered a major injury or was born with or developed a serious illness. As a result, such children may be very sheltered from the hardships of life and are often warned of danger. This may lead to a child developing difficulties and fears around navigating everyday situations.   

This schema may also arise if caregivers are more involved in their child’s life than necessary. They may perform tasks for the child long after they are able to do them independently. The caregivers may provide too much guidance and assistance, leading the child to believe they are not capable of performing such tasks by themself.

However, other circumstances may also give rise to the dependence/incompetence schema. For example, the child may have grown up with caregivers who undermined their confidence whenever they tried new skills. Such caregivers may have pointed out flaws in the child’s ability or redone the task for them if they didn’t feel it was done well enough.

The role of neglection and fear

Furthermore, this schema may also arise if a child was neglected and left to their own devices. Their caregivers may not have had the time or inclination to teach them the skills they needed and so they would have had to rely on their caregivers to do it for them. On the other hand, such children may have had to attempt these skills for themselves before they were able to do so adequately – leading to failure. This may have led them to believe they are incapable of tackling tasks without the help of others.

It is also important to note that caregivers’ own fear has a role to play within the development of this schema. Caregivers such as those mentioned may have been unable to satisfy their child’s needs for autonomy for reasons such as mental illness, past experiences, or maladaptive schemas of their own. 

Finally, this schema could develop more readily if the child was naturally sensitive and fearful. Such individuals are more likely to be overly dependent on their caregiver.

Signs of the Dependence/ Incompetence Schema

We all want to feel like we are capable. However, those with the dependence/incompetence schema typically feel incapable of navigating everyday life without assistance. The signs of the dependence/incompetence schema in childhood and adulthood are as follows.

Dependence/ Incompetence Schema in Childhood

Children with the dependence/incompetence schema feel helpless and fearful. They may experience a great deal of worry over being left without help. If possible, they will allow others to do tasks for and look after them. 

Due to their dependence on others, children with the dependence/incompetence schema tend to gravitate toward and make friends with others who are more confident. Likely because they feel these children will be able to support them. Unfortunately, both allowing others to do tasks for them and relying on more confident individuals for support reinforces the belief that they are not independently capable. 

Dependence/ Incompetence Schema in Adults

Adults with the dependence/incompetence schema tend to doubt their own judgment and ability to perform jobs competently. Due to this they may ask other people for advice and guidance repeatedly before making decisions. If someone offers to solve a problem for them, they may be inclined to allow them to do so instead of handling it themselves. For this reason, adults with this schema may be reluctant to live independently. This has alternatively been known as Peter Pan Syndrome or “failure to launch.”

People with the dependence/incompetence schema may feel helpless and unable to cope with everyday life. They may refer to themselves as being more like a child than an adult, promoting feelings of self-resentment, anger and shame. Adults with this schema may be highly critical of themselves, feeling that they are a failure. Additionally, they may worry that they are a burden to their loved ones and dismiss previous successful attempts at independence.

Adults with the dependence/incompetence schema may also refuse opportunities for increased responsibilities and growth, e.g. within a workplace. This may be because they tend to place lower value on their achievements and focus on their limitations. 

Understandably, someone with the dependence/incompetence schema may feel a great deal of stress in their everyday lives. Due to this, they may develop unhealthy coping strategies. Most commonly, they may use substances, such as alcohol or drugs, in order to cope with feelings of incompetence and anxiety. 

Dependence/ Incompetence Schema Test

If you would like to receive a rating of how highly you score on each of the maladaptive schemas, including dependence/incompetence, you can take the quiz on maladaptive schemas here.

How People Cope With the Dependence/
Incompetence Schema

People with the dependence/incompetence schema may be triggered when faced with the possibility of doing difficult tasks unaided. When triggered they tend to react in one of three ways – avoidance, overcompensation or surrendering.


It’s common for people with the dependence/incompetence schema to avoid anything that may trigger their feelings of incompetence. One such trigger is activities that don’t involve a person to fall back on for support and/or guidance. For example, someone with this schema may avoid driving or traveling to unknown destinations alone. 

Additionally, having the dependence/incompetence schema may mean you are more likely to procrastinate on making decisions or acting on important information. Leaving such matters unattended usually means they become more serious and stressful to deal with. In turn this increases the want to avoid these matters, starting a vicious cycle.

While not facing fears and procrastinating may be temporarily comforting, unfortunately it only reinforces the belief of being unable to look after themselves. So, increasing feelings of incompetence and dependence.


While less common, a person with the dependence/incompetence schema may overcompensate for their beliefs through their behavior. They will act in ways contrary to their belief that they are incompetent and need to be dependent on others. They may hold themselves to high standards and work hard in order to appear competent. If things don’t go to plan, they may blame others instead of attributing any blame to themselves. They may also reject the help of others, even when it is needed, to their own detriment. Despite all of these efforts, the feeling that they will not succeed will persist.


Some may deal with their dependence/incompetence schema by surrendering to it. These people believe that they cannot trust their own judgment and thus need to depend on others. This can lead to attracting, and being attracted to, others who are likely to take control within their relationship. A relationship with an uneven power balance can lead to many issues, especially if financial control has been relinquished. Such relationships may lead to someone with this schema being taken advantage of. 

Within relationships where the power balance is more equal, someone with the dependence/incompetence schema may still ask for a lot of help from their partner and defer important decisions to them. In a bid to be helpful and supportive, their partner may provide increased help and guidance; however, this then reinforces the individual’s belief that they are incompetent and need help from others.

Dependence/ Incompetence
Treatment / Therapy

In general, it’s uncommon for people with the dependence/incompetence schema to seek treatment in order to become more independent. Typically if they seek treatment, it is to deal with anxiety regarding their loved ones leaving them unaided. In such cases, these individuals may expect to be told what they need to do in order to fix their problem. However, this approach would only exacerbate their schema that they are dependent on others. Therefore, someone with this schema may need to take a more active role within their therapy than they were expecting. 

Schema Therapy focuses on the therapeutic relationship and the experiences of early childhood in order to challenge maladaptive schemas. It is important to note that while maladaptive schemas are difficult to change, with dedication, consistency, and appropriate treatment, it is entirely possible to achieve positive change. 

Adaptive Strategies

Let go of your self-doubt

It is natural to doubt your own judgment from time to time, especially when worried or faced with an important decision. However, it’s essential to notice if you have a tendency to assume you will consistently make the wrong choices. Sit with these feelings and thoughts and accept them for what they are – inaccurate representations of the present situation. Meditation and mindfulness are useful tools for training your attention on the present and letting other thoughts and feelings go. These practices are also known to lessen anxiety.

Be objective

Recognize that you are more than any of your perceived failings. Make a list of times you have achieved the outcome you wanted through your own actions. Nothing is too small or insignificant to make the list. Refer to this list when your dependence/incompetence schema is triggered.

Be mindful of how much you allow others to do

Be objective about the treatment you have been receiving from other people. Are you allowing them to perform tasks that should be done by you? Have you been deferring your decisions to other people? Or have you been asking people repeatedly for advice so you don’t need to make a decision by yourself? 

Ask yourself if those closest to you are reinforcing your schema, even if it is at your request, and make changes if necessary. Try to surround yourself with people who respect you and treat you well. You could also let the people in your life know you would like to take steps towards becoming more independent. People with a healthy mindset toward relationships will be happy to support your decision and allow you space to grow as a person

Take small steps in building your confidence

“When eating an elephant, take one bite at a time.”

– Creighton W. Abrams, Jr

Make a list of things you would like to accomplish without help from others. Sort them from the easiest to the hardest to accomplish. Pick the easiest one and further break it down into even smaller tasks. Then start with the first task and complete it. 

Try not to look too far ahead. Focus on one task at a time in order to prevent becoming overwhelmed. With each small task you have accomplished you will be closer to finishing a big task and your confidence in yourself will grow. Remember to add each task to your list in “Be Objective”.

Recognise that making mistakes is not the same as incompetence

“You make mistakes. Mistakes don’t make you.”

– Maxwell Maltz

When we take more responsibility, we are bound to make a few mistakes. But this may trigger feelings of incompetence. However, incompetence is not the same as making mistakes. Incompetence is repeatedly making mistakes and not being aware of them. If you’re aware that you have made a mistake, then you’re not incompetent.

Remember that if you make a mistake, you don’t need to be rescued. Accept the negative consequences of making mistakes with grace. You are capable of dealing with it by yourself and you can grow from the experience.

Seek therapy

If you have the dependence/incompetence schema, you may have a great deal of anxiety about being unable to cope alone. You may also need to develop healthy expectations and boundaries. Additionally, you may want help in achieving behavioral goals and building confidence. A therapeutic relationship is the best condition 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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