Early Maladaptive Schemas


Early Maladaptive Schemas


Do you find it difficult to say no to people? Maybe you often agree to help others, even when you don’t have the time to? Or perhaps you feel frustrated when people don’t acknowledge your help? If so, you might have the self-sacrifice schema.

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

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

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What Is the Self-sacrifice Schema?

The self-sacrifice schema is one of 18 early maladaptive schemas (EMS). We all put the needs of others before our own occasionally. However, people with the self-sacrifice schema do this to an excessive amount while simultaneously neglecting their own needs. They do this because they feel it is the right thing to do. In order to continue being selfless, such individuals suppress their own needs and emotions. This suppression may lead to anger and frustration toward others, particularly when they feel underappreciated for their efforts.

What Causes the Self-Sacrifice Schema?

In general, early maladaptive schemas develop in childhood when a primary caregiver is not attuned to their child’s needs. Typically, children develop the self-sacrifice schema because they felt their caregivers needed their help. Their caregivers may have had issues with their mental or physical health, or might have just struggled to do everything that needed to be done. For example, the child may have been the eldest of their siblings and needed to help manage the younger children. 

Often, such children are told they are “good” when they are self-sacrificing, giving them a pleasurable feeling. As a consequence, they may have associated their self-worth with putting other people’s needs and feelings before their own. As such, they may have identified with the role of carer, even developing an exaggerated perception of how helpless others are. However, this may have led the child to feeling selfish and guilty if they advocated for their own needs and feelings. They may have also felt fear at displeasing their caregiver and worry over how those who needed them would cope without them. 

Signs of the Self-Sacrifice Schema

At first glance the self-sacrifice schema seems very similar to the subjugation schema; people with these schemas typically put the needs and feelings of others ahead of their own. However, those with the subjugation schema do this out of fear of negative consequences. In contrast, those with the self-sacrifice schema put the needs and feelings of others first out of the belief that it is the right thing to do. 

The signs of the self-sacrifice schema in childhood and adulthood are as follows:

Self-Sacrifice Schema in Childhood

Children with the self-sacrifice schema may have been praised a lot for putting the needs and emotions of others first, reinforcing their belief. As children are naturally self-centered, children with the self-sacrifice schema may be taken advantage of within school, even by those that do not mean to. For example, they may allow other children to always have their way. As such, these children tend to be accepted into social groups easily, as they are helpful and accommodating. What’s more, children with this schema may have a tendency to gravitate to peers who are more vulnerable and need help. 

Having the self-sacrifice schema as a child tends not to create many issues. It is usually within late adolescence and adulthood that the individual starts to feel the strain of continually putting the needs and emotions of others first, leading to feelings of anger and resentment. 

Self-Sacrifice Schema in Adults

Adults with the self-sacrifice schema are usually extremely helpful in practical or supportive ways. For example, they may offer to help someone move house, even though they are already busy. Or they may become absorbed in listening to a friend’s problems despite having issues of their own. By being readily available and eager to help, friends and family tend to turn to them for help and advice often. However, as adults with the self-sacrifice schema often help beyond what is normally expected, others tend not to reciprocate with offers of help to the same level. Due to their inability to say “no” to others, they may often end up being taken advantage of. This may trigger feelings of frustration, anger, and resentment. Additionally by focusing on others and being constantly available, these individuals are not catering to their own needs, leading to experiences of overwhelm, tiredness, and eventually burnout, also in relationships.  

It is not uncommon for those with the self-sacrifice schema to work in areas that require serving other people, particularly if they are self-sacrificing, e.g. medicine, teaching, therapy, hospitality, etc. They may also take on more than their share of work, and feel uncomfortable asking for help when necessary. Furthermore, such individuals also may have the tendency to over-exaggerate the helplessness of others and help out even when it is not necessary. They see it as their responsibility to help people when they are struggling. 

Consequences of the Self-Sacrifice Schema in Adults

Individuals with the self-sacrifice schema may feel that no-one understands them, leading to feelings of loneliness and emptiness. This is because they often have to suppress themselves in order to accommodate others. In fact, as they often defer their attention to others, they may not feel like they know what they want themselves. 

Understandably, someone with the self-sacrifice schema may feel a great deal of stress in their everyday lives. In order to feel better, they may develop unhealthy coping strategies, such as drug or food misuse. Additionally, continuous high levels of stress and repression of emotions, particularly anger, has been shown to have a negative impact upon physical health. 

Ironically, it is not unusual for individuals with the self-sacrifice schema to have a sense of pride about how they act. They may feel that by putting others ahead of themselves, they are demonstrating that they are kind, generous, and helpful. The real issue, however, is that they also ignore their own needs and feelings and that any attempt to prioritize themselves triggers feelings of guilt and thoughts that they are selfish and bad. 

Self-Sacrifice Schema Test

If you would like to know how highly you would score on each of the maladaptive schemas, including self-sacrifice, you can take the quiz on maladaptive schemas.

How People Cope With the Self-Sacrifice Schema

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


One of the ways people may try to deal with the self-sacrifice schema is to avoid anything that triggers it. Primarily, this means avoiding situations where they feel moved to put the needs and emotions of others first. For example, if they’re usually asked to help people out on their lunch break, they may avoid interacting with others by taking their break in their office. They may also avoid situations which may involve them accepting help or flattery of any kind, e.g. presents, compliments, etc.


Occasionally people with the self-sacrifice schema will overcompensate for their beliefs through their behavior. Meaning that they will act in ways contrary to their belief that the needs and emotions of others should come first. This might look like enforcing strict boundaries to ensure they don’t need to give or receive help. Overcompensation may come after a period of mounting frustration or burnout. After which, they deny any requests made of them without consideration. 


Some may deal with their self-sacrifice schema by surrendering to it. These people believe firmly that their needs and emotions should be of secondary concern to those of others. They also gravitate to, and attract, those who are likely to take advantage of their willingness to put others first, particularly those with the entitlement schema. It is easy to see how a person with the self-sacrifice schema may want to help such individuals, but, ultimately, they will be taken advantage of and feel unable to address the power imbalance. People with the self-sacrifice schema may also have an attraction to those needing a lot of help out of a sense of mistaken obligation, but then may be unable to extract themselves from the situation due to feelings of guilt.

Self-sacrifice Treatment / Therapy

Those with the self-sacrifice schema may need help being assertive and managing feelings of frustration. Schema Therapy focuses on the therapeutic relationship and the experiences of early childhood in order to challenge maladaptive schemas, such as the self-sacrifice schema. It is important to note that while maladaptive schemas are resistant to change, with dedication, consistency, and appropriate treatment, it is completely possible to improve.

Adaptive Strategies

Learn about yourself

Knowing when you are triggered will help enormously in changing your behavior. Make a list of the situations in which you’re most likely to put the needs or feelings of others ahead of your own. Many individuals with the self-sacrifice schema have an exaggerated perception of how helpless others are and rationalize their want to help them. By making this list you will become aware of when you are most likely to succumb to your schema.

Next, work out what your wants and needs are. While no-one can get what they want all the time, your needs should be non-negotiable. What do you need to do in order to feel fulfilled and content? Start with smaller needs that are within your control. Maybe it is an hour’s painting time once a week, or perhaps it is a cup of coffee undisturbed first thing every morning. Over time, you can begin to think about what your needs are on a larger scale. What are the non-negotiables within your relationships and what are you willing to work on with others? Examples of non-negotiables are respect, fidelity, honesty, etc. 

Learn to be assertive

People with the self-sacrifice schema often rationalize their behavior as helpful and necessary. They feel they are being kind and generous. Of course, this is true. However, the issue is that there are no boundaries on your giving and your own needs and feelings end up neglected. It can be hard to stand up for ourselves, especially if we have been raised to believe it is a desirable quality to put others ahead of ourselves. Yet, it is important to be honest with ourselves and others about our needs and feelings if we want things to change.

Set some limits on what you’re happy to help with and how often. For example, maybe you are happy to help your elderly neighbor with their computer, but only on the weekends. Practice saying “no” to requests that you do not want to do. Start small and work up to bigger requests. If it is too difficult to say no at first, put some distance between when you are asked and when you give your definitive reply. This might look like saying, “maybe. I need to check my calendar.” Doing so gives you time to properly assess whether you can actually help the person without it being an inconvenience to you. In a similar vein, ask for help when you need it. Start small and work up to larger requests. 

Furthermore, assertiveness requires selecting friends and partners that are capable and independent, and distancing yourself from relationships which are one-sided. Healthy relationships have an equal balance of give and take over time. 

Express yourself

You may have strong feelings of anger and frustration with how you have been treated in the past. Likewise, you may have feelings of guilt for wanting to put your own needs and feelings first. In order to lessen the impact of these emotions, find ways to express them externally. Try keeping a journal and writing down anything that comes to mind. Although you may be self-conscious at first, with practice it will get easier. One exercise you can do is to write a letter expressing how you really feel to a person who has angered you by taking advantage of you – you don’t have to send it, it’s just a healthy outlet for your feelings. You can also use music and/or art in a similar way.  

Seek therapy

If you have the self-sacrifice schema, you may have a lot of unresolved anger about previous relationships. Additionally, you may want help in being more assertive and achieving behavioral goals. A therapeutic relationship is the best condition in which to explore all these factors. While treatment cannot necessarily “cure” you, it can ultimately give you the essential tools to manage your thoughts and emotions, and lead you to a healthier way of life. 

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.

Suh, H. W., Lee, K. B., Chung, S. Y., Park, M., Jang, B. H. & Kim, J. W. (2021). How suppressed anger can become an illness: A qualitative systematic review of the experience and perspectives of Hwabyang patients in Korea. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 12.

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

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