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What are Schemas?

Schemas are the basic structures we use to make sense of our experiences – our internal model of what to expect in the outside world. Schemas guide our understanding of ourselves and the situation we are in, helping us to work out how best to respond. Whilst they an essential component making sense of things, schemas can become problematic if we develop an overly negative template for ourselves, other people or the world as we are growing up. Negative schemas formed during childhood or adolescence can lead to repetitive negative life patterns in the adults. These negative expectations can become self-fulfilling. 

Our schemas govern our perceptions and reactions – whether we recognise that they are operating or not. One analogy for our schemas is that they are a lens through which we see things. Just as when we are wearing glasses, we become so used to seeing things this way that we do not even realise that our view is being distorted. The lenses determine what we notice, and may colour and distort our impression of things. 

For example, if we have a mistrust schema, we may constantly be on the lookout for signs that other people are going to try to take advantage of us. When we are on the look out, we are more likely to spot the signs. Thus, our mistrust schema may then affect how we respond to people, thus potentially sowing the seeds for mutual suspicion to arise.


Perhaps the simplest way to describe schemas is as our ’emotional buttons’. When circumstances ‘press’ one of our emotional buttons we can have a big reaction that might be out of proportion to the situation. Our reaction is – at least in part – being amplified by our schema. The stronger our schema, the more likely it is that it will get pressed, and the bigger our reaction is likely to be.


Many recurring emotional, psychological and even some physical health problems may relate to negative schemas. They can be pretty difficult to shift, because they seem to ring true to us and feel so familiar to us. Also, we often lack awareness of our schemas since they can be ‘buried’ under lots of different strategies we have developed to try to cope with them. These coping strategies, or Schema Modes are often part of the problem rather than the solution. Click here to read more about Schema Modes.