Schema Therapy Explained

Everyone Needs. Everyone, including you and me, have basic needs. The need to connect, the need to feel loved, the need to feel cared for, the need to feel “normal”, and a sense of belonging with others.

Author: Trephina Gartley

These needs do not discriminate; they transcend gender and age. Developed at a young age, our needs and how well they are met by important adults in our lives form the foundations of our patterns of interacting and connecting with others. Underneath it all, as adults, we have the same set of needs we do as young children.

The fundamental needs that people have can be broken down into 5 categories:

  • Attachment Needs: Feeling seen and heard, feeling understood, feeling validated, feeling loved and wanted, feeling connected, safe and secure.
  • Freedom Needs: To express how we feel or think, to express what we like or dislike, to ask for what we need or want, and to make choices.
  • Autonomy Needs: Opportunities for independence to become our own person, opportunities for challenge and stimulation for growth, opportunities to develop competence in tasks, opportunities for self-development, and opportunities to receive constructive feedback.
  • Spontaneity and Play Needs: Opportunities for fun and silliness, opportunities for self-expression, opportunities for exploration and adventure and opportunities for imagination and creativity.
  • Boundary Needs: To practise self-control, to be self-disciplined, to take responsibility for your actions.

When Needs Aren’t Met

Sometimes, young people and even adults are unable to have their needs met. Left unchecked, this can lead the person to feel that they don’t deserve their needs to be met or that these needs are irrelevant now.

Having needs met is especially important during early childhood and adolescence, as unmet needs can sometimes lead to the development of ‘maladaptive schemas’ or ineffective templates of understanding the world.

Learning to get these needs met can take time and practice. Often, it can involve intentional practice, via therapy. Some people can start to heal their early childhood or adolescent difficulties by working closely with a schema therapist.

Schema Therapy: What Is It?

Schema Therapy involves working with a trained therapist to understand our patterns of thinking and behaving (our ‘schemas’). During therapy, people are supported to recognise schema patterns in the way they view themselves, behave towards others and how these interact to keep mental health issues going. Schema therapists work to support you to identify alternative, healthier ways of responding to triggers, more in line with your ideal self.

As schemas are formed from early experiences and memories in childhood and adolescence, a large component of schema therapy involves reprocessing these life events. Therapists trained in schema therapy are often interested in modifying and shaping the meaning associated with early experiences. Through schema therapy techniques (known as ‘experiential’, or experience-based techniques), people learn to care for their younger selves and stand up for needs that weren’t met. With a therapist’s support, people can alter their memories in a way that allows new memories to take shape, but with more nuanced meaning, leading to a healthier way of relating to themselves and others. Often the effect of this is that people feel less distressed or triggered by past events and have a more integrated relationship with memories and emotions from that time.

How Does It Work?

Schema therapy was developed to support people who have persistent symptoms or chronic mental health difficulties that other therapies haven’t been able to shift. Through using a range of therapy tools, schema therapists can support people who feel ‘stuck’ or as though they intellectually understand elements of therapy without “getting it” emotionally, to make significant improvements.

Schema therapists are usually engaged in supporting clients to develop their ideal self, the ‘healthy adult’, who interacts with them to ground and centre experiences within a new, more compassionate and encouraging schema, or way of relating. Ultimately, people are supported to consider who they were, make sense of who they are now, and act in ways to serve the person they would like to become.

People who choose to engage in schema therapy will be supported by their schema therapist in a way that models a healthy parental response, known as ‘limited reparenting’. In this way, your schema therapist will use the relationship they form with you to demonstrate healthy ways of thinking, feeling and responding. Schema therapists model healthy attachments, support people’s freedom and autonomy, engage in spontaneity and play in sessions and set healthy boundaries and limits where they are needed. Through doing this, schema therapists aim to meet people’s five primary needs in therapy and show them that their ideal self, the person’s ‘healthy adult’, can start to meet these needs outside of therapy. Through this process, people learn to adopt more healthy, positive schemas.

Although it is not a ‘one-stop shop’ for psychological therapy, many psychologists can see and understand the benefit of people engaging in schema therapy. Schema therapy can be used to treat a wide range of mental health diagnoses, including anxiety, depression, trauma, personality disorders and substance abuse behaviours.

Referrals to Better Self Psychology to work more closely with a schema-trained therapist are welcomed.

Better Self Psychology specialises in helping children, teenagers, and young adults.

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