Early Maladaptive Schemas

Undeveloped Self

Do you sometimes feel like your life is not entirely your own? Perhaps you have trouble describing yourself without mentioning another person? Or maybe you find it difficult to keep personal information from another without feeling guilty? If so, you might have the undeveloped self/enmeshment schema.

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

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

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What Causes the Undeveloped Self 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 misinterpreting it as a cue for something else. 

However, the undeveloped self schema can also arise because caregivers did not allow their child to express their own individual needs, thoughts, and feelings. This may be due to mental illness, past experiences, or maladaptive schemas of the caregivers’ own. The child may have been made to think that they were wrong to have different needs, thoughts, or feelings, and to feel guilty about experiencing them. This would lead the child to the conclusion that they would only be accepted if they experienced the same emotions and beliefs as their caregiver.

In addition to this, the child may have been made to feel responsible for the needs and emotions of the caregiver. For example, if the caregiver was upset, they may have blamed their feelings on the child’s behavior, making the child feel guilty or selfish as a result. They may have also stressed that their needs and feelings were more important than the child’s own.

Signs of the Undeveloped Self/Enmeshment Schema

People with the undeveloped self/enmeshment schema feel a close emotional bond with another person. However, it is important to note that this is not the same as having empathy. Those with an empathic connection to someone close to them do not also feel like they have lost their self-identity or that they are not whole without the other person, unlike those with the enmeshment/undeveloped self schema.

The signs of the enmeshment/undeveloped self schema in childhood and adulthood are as follows:

Undeveloped Self Schema/Enmeshment in Childhood

Children with the enmeshment/undeveloped self schema see themselves as an extension of their caregivers. Going for longer periods of time without their caregiver present may cause a great deal of anxiety. For this reason, they may find it difficult to go to school and concentrate on learning. 

As their identity is wrapped up in another person, such children may find it hard to socialize as themselves with other children. As a result, they may either avoid social interactions with others altogether or try to emulate their enmeshed caregiver or other children who are popular. Doing so may make them a target for bullying from their peers. 

If by chance, children with this schema enjoy time away from their caregiver, they may experience guilt and feel they are being selfish. Feeling this way reinforces the beliefs that they should not be apart from their caregiver and having an identity away from them is wrong.

Enmeshment/ Undeveloped Self Schema in Adults

Adults with the enmeshment/undeveloped self schema feel extreme emotional connection and intimacy with another person to the detriment of their own self-identity. Due to their intense enmeshment, they may find it difficult to socialize with others. They may talk about the other person a lot and stay in constant contact with them. Moreover, someone with this schema may also have difficulty being themselves and, instead, may copy the behavior and mannerisms of the person they are enmeshed with. In addition to this, they may suppress any incongruent thoughts or behaviors. 

When the enmeshment/undeveloped self schema is triggered it may result in clinginess, hyper-sensitivity to rejection, and mirroring another person’s emotions, rather than experiencing their own. What’s more, people with this schema may have no sense of who they are outside of the other person. Due to this they may feel directionless and empty, and, in extreme cases, might even question their own existence. Such feelings can lead to poor decision-making, as they are more focused on another person over themselves, and, thus, allow this person’s goals and needs to guide their direction and drive. 

On the other hand, someone with the enmeshment/undeveloped self schema may also feel smothered and trapped. They may have a lot of repressed anger towards their enmeshed other. However, they may also feel guilty for wanting to impose boundaries, even basic ones.

Understandably, someone with the enmeshment/undeveloped self schema may feel a great deal of stress in their everyday lives. Due to this, they may develop unhealthy coping strategies to cope with their feelings of anxiety, guilt, and/or being smothered.

Enmeshment/ Undeveloped Self Schema Test

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

How People Cope With the Enmeshment/ Undeveloped Self Schema

People with the enmeshment/undeveloped self schema may be triggered when faced with the possibility of their enmeshed other being displeased with them or leaving. When triggered they tend to react in one of three ways – avoidance, overcompensation, or surrendering.


One of the ways people may try to deal with their enmeshment/undeveloped self schema is to avoid anything that triggers it. Therefore, intimate relationships may be particularly intimidating for someone attempting to avoid the beliefs of this schema, as they are so afraid of compromising their independence. For this reason, they may attempt to stay away from relationships altogether to avoid losing themselves in them.


Sometimes, a person with the enmeshment/undeveloped self schema may overcompensate for their beliefs through their behavior. They might act in ways contrary to their belief that their identity is strongly linked to someone else out of feelings of resentment, anger, and being smothered. Doing so may take the form of acting in opposition to how the other person does. For example, if the other person likes classical music and hates motorcycles, someone who overcompensates for this schema will choose to listen to heavy metal and ride a motorcycle. 

However, this new identity is not one built on actual preferences, and is still very much influenced by the other person. Furthermore, it may feel very uncomfortable to do act in this way, initially because it goes against their schema, but also because it may go against their own preferences. This discomfort reinforces the belief that they are an extension of the other person and not whole in themselves.

Additionally, someone with this schema may overcompensate by avoiding close relationships with other people out of fear that they may become enmeshed with them. However, this may result in loneliness and deciding it is better to have an enmeshed relationship over no relationship.


Some may deal with their enmeshment/undeveloped self schema by surrendering to it. These people believe that they are not whole by themselves. So, they are unlikely to try and sever the connection between themselves and their enmeshed other, and if they attempt to, it will feel wrong and result in guilt. This reinforces the belief that they are not whole without the other person. 

If this connection is severed, such people are likely to seek a similar relationship to replace it. However, this new relationship will likely reap the same outcomes – feeling smothered and frustrated, and putting another’s needs and emotions ahead of one’s own. 

Enmeshment/ Undeveloped Self Treatment / Therapy

Schema Therapy focuses on the therapeutic relationship and the experiences of early childhood in order to challenge maladaptive schemas. Those with the enmeshment/undeveloped self schema may need help severing the connection with their enmeshed other. However, the most pertinent problem with therapy in this situation is the potential for replacing the enmeshed other in their lives with the therapist. Be reassured that schema therapists will be aware of this issue and will focus on developing individuality alongside severing the enmeshed relationship. You can learn more about Schema Therapy here. It is important to note that while maladaptive schemas are difficult to change, with hard work, consistency, and appropriate treatment, it is entirely possible to achieve improvement. 

Adaptive Strategies

Work out who you are

“Can you remember who you were, before the world told you who you should be?”

-Charles Bukowski

The first step in separating yourself from another is to make a list of why it would be advantageous to have a separate identity from another person. Keep this list with you at all times. You may need to refer to it when you feel triggered and want to surrender to your schema.

Next, it’s time to see how different you are to the person you are enmeshed with. This may initially seem quite scary and overwhelming. First start by making a list of how you and the other person are similar. Then make another list of how you are different. No item is too small for the list. For example, you may both prefer tea, but one of you might prefer more milk. Each small difference is proof that you are your own person with separate preferences.

You can work on this further by thinking about your innate preferences without reference to the other person. Start easy by choosing one of two options. These don’t have to be life-altering options. They can be as simple as choosing tea or coffee? Red or blue? Forests or beaches? If you struggle to think of questions like these, you can find lots of them online. However, it is important to remember that even if you want to separate from your enmeshed other you may still enjoy some of the same things as them. This is perfectly normal. 

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. You may be able to think about who you are without them in your life and what you would like to do going forward. Examples of these types of questions are as follows: What is important to you? What do you need in order to be content? If you were able to do anything without fear or guilt, what would you do?

Feel OK with being by yourself

It is important to foster positive feelings towards being yourself and being by yourself. Try to imagine doing activities without the other person present and enjoying them without guilt or discomfort. The more you practice this, the more natural it will feel whenever you try to do these things in reality. 

If you find yourself struggling with anxiety over separating from the other person, try mediation and mindfulness. These practices train your brain to focus your attention on the present and let other thoughts and feelings go. They also help you to feel grounded in yourself so that you are not swayed by other people as easily.

Set boundaries

“No is a complete sentence.”

-Anne Lamont

With the enmeshment/undeveloped self schema, boundaries are extremely important. Boundaries can differ from person to person, but they are always respected within a healthy relationship. For example, you may set the boundary that you do not respond to messages after 9pm. If someone does send you a message after 9pm, you can hold your boundary by not replying. If that person asks why you didn’t reply, you can simply say “I don’t reply to messages after 9pm.” While you may feel some guilt and discomfort holding boundaries at first, it will get easier with practice.  

Be clear on what your boundaries are, so you can act on them easily when tricky situations arise. Holding your boundaries is the way to ensure that you do not fall into another enmeshed relationship. This is important to note if you have been avoiding close relationships out of fear. Try to surround yourself with people who respect you and treat you well. We all want to feel connected to each other, but that should never be at the expense of our own identity.

Seek therapy

If you have the enmeshment/undeveloped self schema, you may have a great deal of anxiety about separating from your enmeshed other. You may also need to develop healthy expectations and boundaries. Additionally, you may need help in discovering who you are by yourself. 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 necessary 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.

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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