Early Maladaptive Schemas


Early Maladaptive Schemas


“Trust takes years to build, seconds to break, and forever to repair.” 


Trust is a fragile construct for us all. However, some people find it more difficult to trust than others. They may feel constantly suspicious of other people’s intentions and even suspect that others will intentionally cause them harm if given the chance. Do these thoughts and beliefs sound familiar? If so, you might have the mistrust/abuse schema.

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

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

What Is the Mistrust/Abuse Schema?

The mistrust/abuse schema is one of 18 early maladaptive schemas (EMS). Having the mistrust/abuse schema means you expect others will mistreat you. You likely view others as untrustworthy and expect them – if given the chance – to lie, take advantage, humiliate, manipulate, or even harm you. 

Do you know your attachment style?
Take our attachment quiz and find out now – fast, easy, free.

What Causes the Mistrust/Abuse Schema?

Early maladaptive schemas develop in childhood when the primary caregiver is not attuned to the needs of their child. With some of the other maladaptive schemas, it can be assumed that caregivers have unintentionally missed or unfulfilled their child’s cues. However, with the mistrust/abuse schema it can be generally assumed that these cues were ignored intentionally or through extreme negligence. This may be because these caregivers have experienced abuse themselves in the past and are continuing the cycle  with their own children. Alternatively, they may act in this way because they do not have the internal resources to satisfy their child’s needs – for reasons such as mental illness or maladaptive schemas of their own. 

Causes of Mistrust/Abuse Schema

Signs of the Mistrust/Abuse Schema

The mistrust/abuse schema is generally the result of early experiences in an abusive family. For this reason, the effects of the mistrust/abuse schema can be severe and varied, depending on the type of abuse the person has experienced. It is also difficult to disentangle the signs of the mistrust/abuse schema from the signs of abuse itself. For this reason, the general signs of the mistrust/abuse schema in childhood and adulthood are as follows:

Mistrust/Abuse Schema in Childhood

Mistrust/Abuse Schema in Childhood

Children with the mistrust/abuse schema are concerned that others will mistreat them. They may be withdrawn and anxious of others and, for this reason, might have few friends, if any. Alternatively, they may act either physically or verbally aggressive towards others. This may be to assert some control within their lives or an attempt to act out and understand what has happened to them at home.

Children with the mistrust/abuse schema may also be suspicious of those in positions of authority. This suspicion may arise because their experiences of people with power over them often include mistreatment. However, it might also be due to the child’s fear that these people could be aware of the child’s home life and try to intervene. Children with this schema often try to hide signs of abuse from others because they continue to love their caregivers and do not want to separate from them.

Mistrust/Abuse Schema in Adults

Adults with the mistrust/abuse schema have difficulty trusting others, including those closest to them. They tend to feel that they are taken advantage of more often than other people. Such individuals are hypervigilant to mistreatment and can appear to others as paranoid or suspicious. 

Furthermore, people with the mistrust/abuse schema believe that others will either mistreat them intentionally or that they are selfish or careless and will mistreat them accidentally. Due to this belief, they tend to avoid romantic relationships or remain distant within them. 

Understandably, individuals with the mistrust/abuse schema may feel a great deal of stress. Constantly feeling mistreated and being suspicious of other people’s intentions would make it difficult for anyone to relax. This level of stress may lead to using unhealthy coping strategies, such as avoidance of issues, negative self-talk, addictions or eating disorders.

Signs of the Mistrust/Abuse Schema in Adults

Mistrust/Abuse Schema Test

If you wish to find out if you have the mistrust/abuse schema, you can take our quiz on maladaptive schemas.
You will receive a rating of how highly you score on each of the 18 maladaptive schemas, including mistrust/abuse.

How Mistrust/Abuse Affects Someone

Due to their mistrust of others, individuals with the mistrust/abuse schema tend to avoid romantic relationships. However, if they decide to be in a relationship, they tend to behave in one of two ways, by displaying either victim behavior or abuser behavior.

Victim Behavior

If an individual believes everyone is untrustworthy, their barometer for what is actually reliable and dependable is off.. Therefore, any harmful behavior from a partner would be viewed as expected and in line with their life experiences so far.

This expectation of mistreatment and tolerance to it may mean individuals with the mistrust/abuse schema will have a tendency to attract, and be attracted to, others who will mistreat them. This relationship then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, reinforcing the idea that others will mistreat you if given the chance and that to be in a relationship, you must submit to your partner. 

Abuser Behavior

Alternatively, individuals with the mistrust/abuse schema may continue the cycle of abuse by mistreating or abusing their partner or children. Feelings of control are central to this pattern of behavior. Early in childhood, individuals with the mistrust/abuse schema were mistreated by their caregivers and made to feel powerless. So, as an adult, any signs that they are being mistreated may trigger feelings of powerlessness. In order to re-establish their feelings of control, the individual may mistreat their partner or children in ways similar to what they experienced as a child. 

Mistrust / Abuse Treatment / Therapy

As the genesis of the mistrust/abuse schema is rooted in an abusive childhood, it is important to seek therapy. Schema Therapy addresses maladaptive schemas by focusing on early childhood experiences and the therapeutic relationship itself. You can learn more about Schema Therapy here. While maladaptive schemas are difficult to change, with commitment, consistency, and appropriate treatment, it is entirely possible to achieve positive change. 

Adaptive Strategies

Strengthen your connection with the present

You are no longer a child in the care of adults. You are in control of your life. The behavior you needed in order to survive as a child does not have to be the behavior you choose to have as an adult. While these statements are true, they can be difficult to remember when your mistrust/abuse schema is triggered. In order to strengthen your connection with the present, try meditation and mindfulness. Meditation and mindfulness train your brain to focus your attention on the present and let other thoughts and feelings let go.

Be mindful of the company you keep

Ask yourself if the people closest to you are reinforcing your schema, and make changes if necessary. Try to surround yourself with people who treat you well.

Take small steps in trusting others

Using your judgment, take a risk in trusting someone with something small. Maybe you ask your partner to make dinner or ask a work colleague you are sharing a project with to write up the meeting notes. When your trust is rewarded, make sure to take note and build upon these small wins. 

Seek therapy

Therapy works best when you can trust your therapist. Due to the nature of the mistrust/abuse schema, this may be more difficult. However, fully expressing and dealing with your feelings about your past could be the key to overcoming the mistrust/abuse schema. A good therapist will take into account your feelings of mistrust and dedicate the time and care towards gradually building your confidence in them. 

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.

Get mental health tips straight to your inbox