Our negative schemas can sabotage us.

Let’s talk about how beliefs affect our coping strategies in life and, in turn, accidentally keep us stuck.

Take John for example. John is 45 years old. Growing up, he developed the idea (called a negative core belief or a schema) that he is “unlikeable”. Here are 3 coping strategies John might use for coping with this painful belief.

1. Avoid getting into situations that trigger his painful beliefFor example, John might avoid intimate relationships.

2. Surrender: When John has interpersonal conflict, his ‘unlikeableness’ schema gets triggered. When this happens, he “surrenders” or “gives in to” it. So, instead of balancing the interpersonal goals of 1) stating what he wants, 2) maintaining respect and self-respect, and 3) maintaining a relationship with the other person, he throws these goals out the window. He gives in or gives up.

3. Over-compensate: In some circumstances, John goes overboard trying to get other people to like him or to orchestrate the situation so he looks like a good (smart/caring/competent) guy.

In their own way, all 3 of these coping styles function to keep John thinking he’s unlikeable.

If he avoids intimate relationships, he never gets the chance to see that some people do actually like him.

When he surrenders, his unlikeableness becomes a self fulfilling prophecy.

When he overcompensates, sometimes other people find John’s behaviour annoying. Other times, people do like him but having used overcompensation behaviour leaves him with the implicit impression that they only like him because of the overcompensation behaviour. He never gets the opportunity to experience that if he didn’t do the overcompensation, nothing bad would happen and people would like him anyway.

How might these 3 coping styles relate to you?

Rather than “unlikeable,” you might have a different problematic schema. For example, you think you’ve failed more than you should, that you don’t belong anywhere, or that others aren’t to be trusted. Your schemas all depend on the messages you received growing up.

Do you tend to:

1. avoid situations that trigger this belief,
2. surrender, and/or
3. overcompensate?

Which of your behaviours could be classified in each of the 3 categories? Many people we see use a blend of all 3 coping styles.

The avoid/surrender/overcompensate model of coping modes comes from a therapy called Schema Therapy. A good therapist can help you overcome these coping modes and strengthen your healthy adult mode. You can take an online schema test for yourself. A self help book based on Schema Therapy is called Breaking Negative Thinking Patterns by Jacob and colleagues.

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