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Childhood Trauma Leading to Development of Negative Schema – Childhood Trauma Recovery

Childhood Trauma Leading to Development of Negative Schema

What Are Schema?

The term ‘schema‘ refers to the fundamental beliefs and feelings we have about ourselves, others, and the world in general – together with how these interact. They are very deep-rooted and enduring.

We develop our schemas during childhood and if our childhood is traumatic these schemas can become extremely negative, dysfunctional and maladaptive.

This is especially likely to occur if :

– our parent is abusive/cruel/constantly highly critical

– our parent is highly punitive, leading us to internalize this negative voice

– our parent abandoned/rejected us

– our parent failed to meet our basic needs, such as to be loved, to be shown affection, to be made to feel safe

– we experienced neglect/deprivation

– our parent ignored us/constantly derided us/treated us with contempt

Once negative schemas are formed, they become deeply embedded in our personality structure and very hard to change.


When situations occur in our adult life which remind us (usually unconsciously) of a traumatic experience in our early life, the specific schema which formed due to that traumatic experience can be TRIGGERED (see diagram above), which, in turn, will :

– negatively distort our thinking

– negatively disrupt our emotions

– negatively disrupt our behaviour

– negatively affect how we feel


1) If we were betrayed by our parents as children, we are likely to develop a schema of general mistrust of others

2) If we were constantly criticized/disapproved of/punished as children, we may develop a schema of self- inadequacy


Sometimes, in order to try to deal with negative schema, a person may employ dysfunctional coping strategies. For example, an individual who possesses a schema that causes him to view himself as essentially inadequate may attempt to over-compensate by becoming an obsessive workaholic.


Our interpersonal schemas are largely dictated by the relationship we had with our parent/s as we grew up. If these relationships were bad, the negative schema we develop as a consequence (eg. that others cannot be relied upon) can sabotage our adult relationships.

One reason for this is that, as was originally pointed out by Sigmund Freud, very often we are UNCONSCIOUSLY COMPELLED to form adult relationships which MIRROR our childhood relationships. For example, a person who was physically abused as a child may be drawn into forming relationships in her adult life with partners who are also likely to physically abuse her. This occurs as a subconscious attempt to gain mastery over the original, traumatic, childhood relationship with the abusive parent.


The reason for this is that schemas are stored in the EMOTIONAL centre of the brain, called the AMYGDALA.  It follows, therefore, that they are not susceptible to being easily corrected by rational and logical means – in other words, through no fault of the person who holds them, negative schema caused by childhood trauma tend to be irrational in so far as they lead to dysfunction in adult life.

What Are Maladaptive Schemas?

If our childhood involves significant and chronic trauma, abuse or neglect, resulting in our core emotional needs going unmet, these schemas can become extremely negative, maladaptive and dysfunctional, leading to myriad severe problems in adult life.

Research conducted by Young et al., (2003) provides empirical evidence for the existence of eighteen maladaptive schemas that may be displayed by individuals who, as a result of their disturbed and emotionally turbulent childhoods, have gone on to develop borderline personality disorder (BPD) or other personality disorders.

Schema Domains :

Young and his colleagues also proposed that these eighteen maladaptive schemas fit into five categories which they called SCHEMA DOMAINS. These five schema domains reflect the basic emotional needs of the individual which went unmet during his/her childhood; I list each of the five below :



The Eighteen Schemas Grouped Within Their Corresponding Schema Domains :

  • DISCONNECTION AND REJECTION (First schema domain) :

Abandonment: The belief that significant others cannot be depended upon to provide support and will, sooner or later, abandon one.

Shame: The belief that one is a bad person, inadequate, deeply flawed in character and inferior to others.

Alienation: The belief one does not fit into society and that one is doomed to be a permanent outcast and social pariah

Emotional deprivation: The belief that one will never receive the emotional support that one requires.

Mistrust: The belief that others will always manipulate, use, take advantage of, mistreat and betray one

  • IMPAIRED AUTONOMY AND PERFORMANCE (Second schema domain) :

Dependence: The belief that one is incompetent and incapable of functioning adequately in life without substantial help and support from others

Vulnerability: The excessive and abiding fear that some disaster or catastrophe is imminent and that one is utterly powerless to prevent it

Undeveloped sense of self: The belief one must be deeply emotionally close (sometimes referred to as ‘enmeshment’) to others at the expense of one’s own sense of an independent identity.

Failure: The belief that one is an utterly inept and ineffectual person who will never be able to achieve any significant goals

  • IMPAIRED LIMITS (Third schema domain) :

Self-control: The belief that one cannot control one’s impulses or tolerate frustration.

Grandiosity and sense of entitlement: The belief that others are inferior to oneself and that one’s own behaviour is exempt from being dictated to by societal norms, rules and conventions.

  • OTHER-DIRECTEDNESS (Fourth schema domain) :

Approval Seeking: The belief that one always needs to be approved of, and accepted by, others, at the expense of developing one’s own sense of an independent identity.

Self-sacrifice: The belief that one must meet the needs of others at the expense of meeting one’s own needs.

Subjugation: The belief one must subjugate (suppress) one’s own needs, desires and feelings to avoid the disapproval of others.

  • OVERVIGILANCE AND INHIBITION (Fifth schema domain) :

Extreme self-criticism: The belief that one must achieve exceptionally high (and unrealistic) standards in everything one undertakes (perfectionism) fueled by a fear of criticism or of not being accepted.

Punitiveness: The belief that others should be severely punished for their mistakes.

Emotional inhibition:  The belief one needs to inhibit spontaneous action to an excessive degree in order to avoid negative repercussions such as bringing shame upon oneself, being disapproved of by others or losing control over one’s impulses.

Negativity: Excessive pessimism involving obsessively focusing on the negative aspects of life whilst ignoring, or greatly minimizing, its positive aspects.


SCHEMA THERAPY aims to help the individual suffering from maladaptive schemas such as those described above by :

  • identifying the individual’s maladaptive schemas (caused by his/her unmet emotional needs)
  • to change these maladaptive schemas into more helpful ones
  • to change the individual’s maladaptive life patterns into more helpful ones
  • to improve the individual’s coping styles/coping strategies/life skills

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE). is reader-supported. When you buy through links on this site, I may earn an affiliate commission.