Early Maladaptive Schemas


Early Maladaptive Schemas


Do you often feel like your thoughts, feelings, and wants aren’t important? Maybe you have trouble speaking up for yourself? Or perhaps you let others have their way to avoid conflict and, as a result, feel angry and resentful? If so, you might have the subjugation schema.

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

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

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What Is the Subjugation Schema?

The subjugation schema is one of 18 early maladaptive schemas (EMS). We all occasionally do and say things that we don’t want to in order to please others. However, people with the subjugation schema do this to an excessive amount. They feel like their needs and emotions are less important than others. They also feel that if their needs and emotions are not suppressed, they will experience negative consequences, e.g. they may be abandoned, confronted, or even physically hurt. This belief may lead to feelings of helplessness, resentment, and anger. 

There are two forms of subjugation – subjugation of needs and subjugation of emotions. With subjugation of needs, the individual will suppress their own desires and preferences. For example, they may go see a film they don’t want to rather than challenge another person’s choice. In contrast, with subjugation of emotions, the individual will suppress their feelings, especially anger. For example, they may not confront another person when angry with them, but instead pretend they are fine.

What Causes the Subjugation 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 subjugation schema for two reasons – out of fear and out of guilt. 

Children who developed the schema through fear may have been raised in an environment where sharing their needs or emotions was perceived as dangerous. Therefore, doing so could have resulted in negative consequences. Such children may have associated advocating for themselves with punishment, humiliation, retaliation and/or abandonment. 

Children who developed the subjugation schema through guilt felt responsible for the needs and emotions of their caregiver. They may have taken this role voluntarily in order to help a more vulnerable caregiver, e.g. a chronically ill parent. Alternatively, they have been made to take on the role of caregiver through coercion. The child may have grown up thinking it was wrong and selfish to have their own, differing needs and emotions, and felt guilty when experiencing them. They may also have worried that their caregiver would be disappointed and hurt if they said no, and so repressed their own needs and emotions in order to gain the caregiver’s approval.

On a note, some children with the subjugation schema may have experienced physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. However, this by no means suggests that all children with the subjugation schema went through this ordeal. 

Signs of the Subjugation Schema

There are times when being passive is of benefit to us, e.g. when undergoing a medical procedure. However, for individuals with the subjugation schema their passiveness extends far beyond benefit to themselves. It is also important to note that being laid-back is not the same as having the subjugation schema. Laid-back people are still able to advocate for their needs and emotions when required.   

The signs of the subjugation schema in childhood and adulthood are as follows:

Subjugation Schema in Childhood

In general, children are naturally self-centered and have not developed their sense of fairness as much as adults. However, children with the subjugation schema feel that the needs and emotions of others are more important than their own. Therefore, they may be taken advantage of within school, even by those who do not mean to be unfair. For example, children with this schema may reluctantly give away their snack if another child asks for it. Such actions may result in these children being accepted easily within social groups as they are passive and accommodating. However, it may also mean they become the target of bullying. 

Furthermore, children with the subjugation schema might tend to gravitate toward peers who are more sure of themselves and can provide them with a sense of direction by telling them what to do. However, consistently putting the needs and emotions of others above one’s own may result in feelings of anger and resentment. These suppressed emotions may leak out from time-to-time in explosive bursts or as passive-aggressiveness.

Subjugation Schema in Adults

Adults with the subjugation schema typically believe that if they voice their needs or emotions they will either disappoint someone or be retaliated against. They may also fear they will be unable to deal with the consequences of speaking up. As a result, they feel that they must prioritize the needs and emotions of others over their own. This prioritization may trigger feelings of frustration and anger toward others. However, any attempt to prioritize themselves may trigger feelings of guilt and thoughts that they are selfish.  

It is not uncommon for those with the subjugation 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 take on more than their share of responsibility and work, and feel uncomfortable asking for help when needed. Out of mistaken obligation to accommodate others, they may feel that they are unable to say no when asked to do things that cross their boundaries. This inability to protect their boundaries can result in such individuals being taken advantage of by others. 

Consequences of the Subjugation Schema

Over time, resentment and anger combined with the need to repress emotions may result in passive-aggressiveness, e.g. being sarcastic, making excuses to avoid doing what has been asked of them, or doing what has been asked of them – but badly. Alternatively, it may result in bursts of explosive rage for unexpected and disproportionate reasons. 

As a result of trying to please others while also suppressing themselves, individuals with the subjugation schema tend to feel lonely and that no-one really understands who they are. They may feel like they are playing a role. Consequently, they may even feel that they do not truly know what they want for themselves, as they always defer to other people. This can lead to low self-confidence and self-esteem, as well as feeling trapped and disempowered. 

Understandably, someone with the subjugation schema may feel a great deal of stress in their everyday lives and end up developing unhealthy coping strategies. Most commonly, they may have problems with drug misuse. Additionally, repressing emotions, particularly anger, has been shown to have a negative impact upon physical health. 

Subjugation Schema Test

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

How People Cope With the Subjugation Schema

People with the subjugation schema 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 their subjugation 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 – such as relationships and friendships. However, if they are unable to avoid others, they will ensure that the needs and emotions of others are taken care of before their own. 

If the person with the subjugation schema feels that they have prioritized themselves first, they may feel guilty or fearful about the consequences and return immediately to people-pleasing. This behavior occurs to offset the negative emotions that come with deviating from their schema. However, it inadvertently sets up a new, lower standard for how someone with this schema is willing to be treated, damaging their self-esteem. Unaware that they have transgressed boundaries, others will continually ask for more until the person with the subjugation schema likely breaks down from frustration and anger.


Occasionally people with the subjugation schema overcompensate for their beliefs through their behavior. This means acting in ways contrary to their belief that the needs and emotions of others should come first. Overcompensation typically comes after a period of mounting anger from avoidance or surrendering to their beliefs until they reach breaking point. From this point on, if others ask for help, they say “no” before giving the request any consideration. What’s more, they may become aggressive and domineering in order to avoid being subjugated again.


Some may deal with their subjugation schema by surrendering to it. These people believe firmly that their needs and emotions should be a secondary concern to the needs and emotions of others. Resultingly, they tend to gravitate towards jobs which are self-sacrificing and are often taken advantage of within the workplace. 

People who surrender to this schema also gravitate to, and attract, either people who are self-involved, narcissistic and/or controlling, or those who are vulnerable and need a lot of help. An attraction to those who are self-involved, narcissistic and/or controlling may be because those individuals are very certain of who they are and are determined to get what they want – traits those with the subjugation schema often lack and admire. However, such people tend to take advantage of those with the subjugation schema. On the other hand, an attraction to people who are vulnerable and in need of a lot of help may be because the individual with the subjugation schema feels a sense of mistaken obligation and cannot leave due to feelings of guilt.

Subjugation Treatment/Therapy

Those with the subjugation schema may need help managing feelings of guilt, fear, and low self-confidence and self-esteem. Schema Therapy focuses on the therapeutic relationship and the experiences of early childhood in order to challenge maladaptive schemas, like the subjugation schema. 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 improvement. 

Adaptive Strategies

Learn about yourself

“Learn to know yourself … search realistically and regularly the processes of your own mind and feelings.”

-Nelson Mandela

How we feel about ourselves now is often more to do with the past than the current situation we are in. Therefore, it’s important to understand where your schema came from and how it currently affects you so that you can make significant changes to your life. Keep a list of the times when you feel that you are suppressing your own wants and feelings to please others. Doing so will open your eyes to the times when your schema is most often triggered. Once you are aware of this, notice your behavior and keep a record of the ways you react when triggered. 

Next, it’s time to work out what your wants are. This may initially seem quite scary and overwhelming, but we all have innate preferences. Start easy by choosing one of two options. Milk or water? Purple or pink? Swimming or hiking? After doing this consistently for a while, you may find you are able to think about deeper issues, such as your own needs and desires, e.g. what would you do if you had no fear or guilt? If you find that you tend to overcompensate for your schema, have a hard think about whether you are just choosing things that are in opposition to what others have told us we would like. It is important to be honest with ourselves.

If you struggle with repressed emotions, 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.


Learn to be assertive

It took me a long time to develop a voice, and now that I have it, I am not going to be silent.”

-Madeleine Albright

It can be hard to stand up for ourselves, especially if we have been raised to feel afraid or guilty for doing so. It may lead you to believe that being assertive means being pushy or aggressive against someone more powerful. But being assertive isn’t being pushy or aggressive – it is simply communicating what you want or feel honestly and clearly. 

Within step 1, you made a list of times you suppressed your wants and feelings to please others. Refer to that list and see if there are any times when you could have acted more assertively. Pick the situation you feel would have been the easiest to address. For example, maybe it is picking which takeaway you have with your partner. Practice how you would act differently. When this situation arises again, put your practice into effect. Over time, extend this practice into being assertive in more difficult situations. You will likely find that the reactions of others are not as extreme as you had expected and the association between expressing yourself and fear and/or guilt will lessen. 

However, if you find that the reactions of others are as bad as expected, it is important to review those relationships. Your wants and feelings are just as important as everyone else’s. It may be the case that you have taken on a one-sided relationship voluntarily out of mistaken obligation, e.g. with a chronically ill friend. Recognise that while this person has done nothing wrong to you, it is important to distance yourself, at least temporarily, until you have a healthier and more boundaried state of mind.

Learn to tolerate uncomfortable feelings

Being assertive and expressing your wants and feelings may have resulted in guilt and fear in the past. It is likely these same feelings that make you want to avoid being assertive in the present. Recognise that emotions are not facts and that being assertive doesn’t mean that you will become targeted or that you have been selfish. In order to lessen the impact of these emotions, it is important to build your tolerance to them. Meditation and mindfulness practices help you to sit with your feelings and thoughts and accept them for what they are. Another way to manage and express emotions is to externalize them through writing, music, or art.   

Reframe how you think of yourself

People with the subjugation schema are often agreeable, eager to please, self-sacrificing, empathetic, and extremely loyal. Within the context of this schema, it is easy to think of these qualities as negative. However, these qualities are, in fact, very positive. They mean that you understand others deeply and are willing to help them, even if you receive no reward. Moreover, they also mean that you are a team player and a valued employee and friend. Don’t play down your skills and attributes. Reframe them so that you think of them as positive. The key to having these qualities is to use them alongside active boundaries. 

Likewise, you must reframe how you interact with others. If you act in ways you believe to be most “acceptable” to others, you are not giving other people the chance to fully get to know and connect with you. Open up and allow yourself to be fully seen. It may feel difficult at first, but it will get easier with time. This will give you the opportunity to meet and find others you can truly connect with.   

Seek therapy

If you have the subjugation schema, you may have a lot of unresolved anger, disappointment, and sadness about how past relationships have gone. 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. But keep in mind that a schema develops over many years. While treatment cannot necessarily “cure” you, it can give you the requisite tools to manage your thoughts and feelings, and lead you to a better 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.

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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. https://doi.org?10.3389/fpsyt.2021.637029

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

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