Schemas

How schemas distort the way we see the world

I recently watched a report on the Guardian website about ‘flat Earth theory’, on the growing number of people who believe that the Earth is not in fact a sphere, but a flat disc. It’s intriguing and well worth watching, but I think it also tells us a great deal about the way schemas can distort the way we see the world (whatever shape we think it is).

Here is a photograph of the Earth, taken from space by an astronaut on the Apollo 17 mission. I would say that looks very much like a sphere (to be nerdily precise, it’s actually an ‘oblate spheroid’, but that’s still basically a sphere) a view backed by every serious scientist in the world. There is no doubt or debate about this, it’s just a simple scientific fact – as is the way that all large objects in space form spheres because of the shaping and smoothing effect of gravity.

So how do the Flat Earthers manage to ignore the overwhelming evidence against their passionately held position? We could ask the same question about climate-change deniers, or anti-vaxxers – both groups fiercely defend their views despite clear scientific evidence to the contrary.

How schemas work

One way to explain this is to think about schemas and how they affect our thinking. If you have a Defectiveness schema, say, you might strongly believe that you are stupid, even if you do well on your GCSEs, or get a 2:1 in your degree. You may believe you are ugly, even if your partner, friends and family tell you again and again that you are in fact very pretty. That’s because the schema affects the information-processing systems in your brain, distorting the way you think. Schemas affect our memories, belief systems, our imagined view of the future and the way we interpret sensory information such as what we see or hear. When triggered, they distort the way we think about ourselves, our actions, what people say to us and what we read or see on the internet.

So if you have a Flat Earth schema, it tells you that all the supposed scientific evidence is part of a grand conspiracy to fool and control you. It tells you that Newton’s theory of gravity is nonsense, that you should believe spurious theories on YouTube or in your Facebook feed more than genuine, evidence-based facts and information. Sadly, we are currently seeing this sort of thinking more and more, which also explains Trump and the rise of populism around the world.

As a (fairly) rational person and evidence-based practitioner, this worries me deeply, as it is doing great harm to our world – for example, denying climate change at the very moment humanity needs to take drastic action to keep the planet inhabitable for humans and other species. But if you understand the way that schemas work, it’s not surprising that people hold bizarre or impossible-to-prove beliefs. After all, because everyone has schemas everybody does have distorted or unhelpful beliefs, even if we don’t think the Earth is in fact a big, blue Frisbee suspended in space…

If you would like to understand more about schemas and how they might be causing your psychological problems, call me on 07766 704210, email dan@danroberts.com or use the Contact form to get in touch.

Warm wishes,

Dan

Do you have trouble managing your anger?

Anger is a tricky emotion. In pure evolutionary terms, anger is our signal to fight a threat, as part of the fight, flight or freeze response (anxiety is the emotion that tells us to freeze or flee). This is all well and good if you are facing a hungry lion, but not so helpful if your boss has just criticised you, or another driver cuts you off in traffic. But this primitive, self-protective threat response explains why we can react so strongly, violently even, if we feel threatened – in a very crude way, that's what anger is for.

Most of my clients have some kind of problem with anger, roughly falling into two camps. The first group is scared of or uncomfortable with anger – theirs and other people's. If this describes you, it may be because one of your parents was given to angry outbursts, which as a child were very frightening. That vulnerable child inside you learns to be scared of anger, even when you are – on the outside at least – now an adult. It's also possible that your family were rather buttoned-up, viewing any expression of anger as rude and uncivilised (a very British way to deal with anger!), so you learned to keep your angry feelings stuffed deep down inside you. As an adult, it's now hard to access and express them, even when it's appropriate to do so.

The other problematic form of anger is expressing it too often and too volcanically. This is the cause of domestic violence, bar brawls, violent crime, road/air/trolley rage and aggressive bullying. It's just as harmful as repressed anger, both to those around you and ultimately yourself – you will probably end up in serious trouble, perhaps even prison, if you cannot contain your anger and explode at the smallest provocation. People with this 'anger style' may come from very angry, combustible families in which everyone was always shouting at/being aggressive to each other. They may also have been hurt, neglected or abused as children, so that child inside is absolutely furious at the world and can't help but express it, even when it's dangerous or destructive to do so.

The angry modes

In schema therapy, when people are expressing anger in a problematic way, we see this showing up as one of three angry modes. If you find yourself blowing up all the time, perhaps shouting or swearing at other people, being threatening or even physically violent, you are in Bully/Attack mode. This is the most problematic angry mode, so a major part of your therapy would involve learning how to respond to triggering situations in a calmer, more rational manner. Anger-management strategies can be helpful here, as well as longer-term healing of schemas such as Abandonment, Mistrust/Abuse or Vulnerability that can trigger this attack-is-the-best-form-of-defence style of responding to threats or challenges.

The second mode, Angry Protector, is less destructive but still problematic. This is when you express anger in more subtle ways, perhaps non-verbally by scowling or with a closed-off body posture; with sarcasm or cutting humour; angrily complaining about or being harshly critical of other people. This mode is all about keeping a distance between yourself and others, perhaps because deep down your vulnerable child is scared of attack or rejection. You may also be uncomfortable with any kind of criticism or challenge, so respond with subtle but unmistakeable shows of anger to shut that down.

Anybody can become angry – that is easy. But to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.
— Aristotle

The third mode is the most helpful, even if it doesn't at first appear that way! This is the Angry Child mode, and is evident in the way a person expresses their anger – often disproportionately to the perceived insult or infraction. You may have a tantrum, smashing or throwing objects (not to hurt others, just to release your anger). You might also get very tearful or upset. And beneath the anger is always hurt, fear or sadness, so if we were working together I would help you express your anger in a non-attacking, non-destructive way, so we could contact and soothe the hurt, upset or fearful vulnerable child lying just beneath the angry surface. 

When we get people into Angry Child mode, teach them how to express their anger verbally or by doing something safe but physical, like twisting a towel or punching a cushion, they experience a tremendous sense of relief – all the anger literally drains out of their bodies. It can then be deeply healing and soothing to deal with the hurt that lies beneath – over time, your anger subsides as you feel happier, safer, stronger and calmer.

If you have a problem with anger and would like my help, email dan@danroberts.com

Warm wishes,

Dan

 

Do you struggle with romantic relationships?

Many people have difficulties with relationships, for all sorts of reasons. Finding a suitable person to be with and then maintaining a reasonably happy, stable relationship is not easy, for any of us. But if you avoid romantic relationships altogether; if you find yourself repeating the same pattern over and over again in every relationship you have; or if you are in a long-term relationship but feel consistently unhappy, perhaps feeling disproportionately angry with or jealous of your partner, it's possible that unhelpful schemas are the root of your problems. As I explain in this article about schemas, they are unconscious, deeply-rooted ways of thinking and feeling that get triggered by certain situations – and romantic relationships are among the most common triggers.

If you avoid relationships, perhaps for fear of getting hurt or rejected, you may have an Abandonment schema. This is often linked to the death of a parent, or a significant member of the family leaving in a sudden and upsetting way. The love and care you received as a child may also have been unstable and unpredictable, perhaps because one of your parents had mental-health problems, or was just not cut out to for the complex business of parenting. So avoiding relationships altogether is one way to make sure that this painful schema never gets triggered – sadly though, that means your life will be lonely and unfulfilling (if you actually want a relationship, which most of us do), so this is clearly not the most helpful strategy. 

Watch out for schema chemistry

If you find yourself playing out similar patterns in relationships again and again, or perhaps choosing a certain type of man or woman in one relationship after the next, 'schema chemistry' may be to blame. This describes the unconscious, schema-driven forces that make a certain kind of person irresistibly attractive. When you feel very strong physical chemistry with someone, as if you can't get enough of them and feel like they are perfect for you in every way, tread with caution. It may just be healthy sexual attraction, of course, in which case there is nothing to worry about. But if you have a history of falling in love with unsuitable people, that lightning bolt of chemistry – though exciting and seductive – is not to be trusted.

If you are in a relationship but it's not a happy one, again that is not unusual – long-term relationships are hard work, requiring commitment, sacrifices and a huge amount of love and patience on both sides. But if you have the same kind of argument over and over – volcanically losing your temper about fairly minor domestic incidents, becoming very anxious or consumed with jealousy every time your partner speaks to a member of the opposite sex – then your schemas may be to blame again.

The good news is that the schemas which cause all of these problems can be healed. Although that's not easy, it's far from impossible. There are now a number of therapeutic approaches designed to help people with these deep-rooted, life-disturbing problems, such as schema therapy or compassion-focused therapy. When I am working with people who have these kinds of problems, one of our long-term goals is for them to find a happy, healthy, stable relationship – after all, what is life for but to love and be loved? And a healthy relationship as an adult is one of the best ways to heal the wounds of childhood, so a little work in this area goes a long way.  

If you would like some help from me in finding and maintaining a healthy relationship, email dan@danroberts.com

Warm wishes,

Dan