Early Maladaptive Schemas


The failure schema is one of 18 early maladaptive schemas (EMS). It is a belief about ourselves and the world that some of us develop when we experience repetitive ridicule, embarrassment, or criticism early in life. 

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

  • What the failure schema is
  • An explanation of maladaptive schemas
  • The causes of the failure schema
  • Signs of the failure schema in childhood and adulthood
  • How the failure schema affect a person’s life
  • Treatment methods for the failure schema

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What Is the Failure Schema?

Anyone with a failure (or “failure to achieve”) schema typically believes that they:

  • Have failed
  • Will fail
  • Are inadequate in comparison to others

Moreover, people with this early maladaptive schema may have a very harsh, negative self-perception, such as considering themselves “stupid,” “unsuccessful,” “inept,” and “lacking talent.”   

Maladaptive Schemas

Early maladaptive schemas are broad, pervasive themes or patterns we develop about ourselves and our relationships with others. They are based on the memories, cognitions, bodily sensations, and emotions we experience throughout childhood and adolescence. These schemas grow and evolve as we progress through life.

What Causes the Failure Schema?

Various childhood situations can lead to the development of the failure schema, including:

  • Receiving ridicule, mocking, or constant criticism from caregiver(s).
  • Caregivers placing impossible demands on the child, so the child inevitably repeatedly fails.
  • Not getting enough discipline or support from caregiver/s.  
  • Experiencing repeated bullying, scorn, or embarrassment in school or other social circles.

This continual negative feedback typically results in the child internalizing the message, “I’m a failure,” in their subconscious.

Alternatively, this schema can develop if caregivers don’t let their child do anything by themselves or don’t pay attention to the child’s efforts – but either way, the child doesn’t develop a strong sense of mastery and self-esteem.

Signs of the Failure Schema

Some of the most common general symptoms of the failure schema are:

  • Feeling incapable of succeeding 
  • Heightened sense of inferiority in comparison to others
  • Lacking self-worth or feeling like you don’t deserve something
  • Procrastinating when you need to complete an important task
  • General lack of self-confidence
  • Feeling a sense of shame about your progress

Failure Schema in Childhood

Children with the failure schema may give up on a task quickly, avoid an activity they perceive themselves to be bad at, or get frustrated or upset when they do something wrong. 

Furthermore, children might display the failure schema by procrastinating when required to start an unfamiliar task or showing anxiety or physical symptoms when faced with a novel activity.

Failure Schema in Adults

Adults with the failure schema tend to quit while they’re ahead – so they may complete a task up to a point but quit when it becomes too challenging. They might also choose a career they are over-qualified for or show little progression within their workplace because they fear going for a promotion and being unsuccessful.

Adults with a failure schema often feel stupid and incompetent. They’re also prone to responding extremely sensitively when given feedback, ignoring the positives, and focusing on the negatives. Moreover, adults with this schema may also compare themselves to others and consistently perceive that they pale in comparison due to their beliefs that they are “not good enough.”

How the Failure Schema Is Triggered

When a person with a failure schema feels like they have done something wrong or potentially could do something wrong, their early maladaptive failure schema may become triggered. 

This trigger could come in the form of receiving feedback from a relative, romantic partner, or manager, accidentally doing something embarrassing in public, and so on. 

As a result, such situations send the person straight back to the beliefs of their schema, such as: of “I’m a failure,” “I’m useless,” and “I can’t get anything right.”

How Do People Cope With the Failure Schema

People with the self-sacrifice schema typically fall into one of three main ways of coping when triggered – avoidance, overcompensation, or surrendering.

People typically cope with the beliefs associated with their failure schema in a number of maladaptive ways. For example, in a relationship, someone with the failure schema may choose unsuitable romantic partners, stay in toxic partnerships, self-sacrifice to keep a partner happy, and experience frequent feelings of inadequacy. In the workplace, someone with this schema may withdraw from social situations, experience extreme sensitivity to feedback, avoid tasks, and feel like a failure. 

Overall, the failure schema may result in someone attempting to cope with their difficult beliefs in one of three maladaptive ways: avoidance, overcompensating, or surrendering. 


One unhealthy way of coping with this schema is avoiding any situation that could potentially lead to failure. This might look like skirting away from responsibilities, refusing to take on challenges, or complete certain tasks. When someone with the failure schema absolutely has to take on a task, they would likely procrastinate to avoid failure.


Another maladaptive way of coping with the failure schema is acting in the opposite way of its associated beliefs. This may look like someone going out of their way to overachieve to prove to themselves and others that they are not a failure. However, doing so may mean setting impossibly high standards for themselves, and even if they do achieve success, they still probably innately feel like they don’t deserve it. Understandably, this can take a toll on someone’s mental health. 


Finally, someone may cope with the failure schema by surrendering to its associated beliefs. This means accepting that others are better than them, and potentially even acting in a way that reinforces their feelings of failure. So someone who surrenders to this schema may complete a task sloppily or half-heartedly – confirming their belief they would fail.

Failure Schema Test

If you wish to find out if you have the failure schema, take the free quiz on our website. It will provide you with a rating of how highly you score on each of the 18 maladaptive schemas – including failure.

Failure Schema Treatment

You may ask, “is there a cure for failure schema disorder?” And while there perhaps is no direct “cure,” many EMS treatment options are available.

Schema Therapy is one of the newest (and most effective) treatment methods. This therapy combines many therapeutic approaches, including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), psychoanalysis, emotion-focused therapy, and attachment theory, to help people understand the maladaptive patterns in their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. 

Other treatment options include:

Reducing stress

through deep breathing, visualization, meditation, and progressive muscle relaxation.


writing down patterns in your failure schema, including the situations, people, and places that trigger your fear of failure.


to manage the symptoms of mental health disorders like anxiety and depression associated with the failure schema. 

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Calvete, E., Orue, I., & Hankin, B. L. (2014, June 14). A Longitudinal Test of the Vulnerability-Stress Model with Early Maladaptive Schemas for Depressive and Social Anxiety Symptoms in Adolescents. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 37(1), 85–99.

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