Processing the constant onslaught of new information requires more resources than we possess. A survival adaptation to speed up processing is internalized models of reality. Our self schema is one of those models.
Beginning in early childhood, we begin to form a concept of self. We see not only the world but our self as an object in that world. In a complex mix of biological givens, experienced emotions, and surrounding environments, construct a detailed picture of ourselves. New experiences our then seen against the context of the detailed picture we hold unconsciously of ourselves.
What is a Self-Schema?
John Bowlby referred to these schema’s as internal working models, although he primarily used this concept in regards to models of relationships, he also recognized that relationships are only one of many working models we integrate into our cognitive processing of experience.
Aaron Beck included self schema’s as one of the three members of his cognitive triad (self, world, future), and those schemas have a significant impact on emotional wellness.
Daniel Siegel explains the importance of schemas in processing experience. He wrote, “our minds use mental models of the world in order to assess a situation more rapidly and to determine what the next moment in time is most likely to offer.” These schemas are “generalizations,” which help us “to interpret present experiences as well as to anticipate future ones” (2020, Kindle location 1,380).
We Give Our Life a Label and Meaning
Whether we see ourselves as smart, funny, stupid or ugly, colors our interpretation of experience. Aaron T. Beck explains that “a schema constitutes the basis for screening out, differentiating, and coding the stimuli that confronts the individual.” Beck continues to write that an individual “categorizes and evaluates his experiences through a matrix of schemas” (1987, p. 13).
Ronnie Janoff-Bulman defines schema as “a mental structure that represents organized knowledge about a given concept or type of stimulus” (2010). Basically, our schemas take the hulking flow of unmanageable data, filter it and produce a simplified reality that we can grasp. Which is great, unless, or schema is severely misguided, motivating a maladaptive response to present demands.
Janoff-Bulman adds, “schemas are the ghost in the machine, the intelligence that guides information as it flows through the mind… we maintain organized knowledge structures about people, including ourselves, and categorize ourself and others along a number of descriptive dimensions” (p. 27-8).
Stable Core Beliefs About the Self
Aaron beck considered self schemas to be “relatively stable core beliefs about the self, and they are largely developed from past experiences in the context of central relationships with parents and peers” (O’Byrne, et al., 2021).
Self-schemas are stable for a number of reasons. Foremost is because they are formed from repeated experience and are self-sustaining. Diana Fosha explains “these models of self and other, distilled out of a thousand interactions, are not one-dimensional cognitive schemas: rather, they are saturated with emotion and translate into procedural scripts for how to create relatedness” (Fosha, 2011. Kindle location 5,543).
Self Confirmation Bias
Because we act on scrips that support our schemas, the results force situations to conform to our beliefs. Our tainted realties are supported by experience, even when the data would suggest otherwise. Over and over again life supports our self schemas, whether we believe ourselves to be smart or stupid, socially adept or awkward.
In junior high, I held the belief I was stupid. The reality was I was just a poor student, not dedicating sufficient time to succeed in school. In preparation for high school placement in math, we took a math aptitude test. Surprisingly, I outscored the best student in the class. My old school teacher, also surprised by my performance, reminded me that these scores mean very little and suggested I sign-up for what she referred to as “bone-head” math.
My history of poor grades, perhaps strongly influenced by my self schema (I’m stupid), also impacted my teachers schema of me. When evidence arose that conflicted with the schemas, everybody, including myself, was quick to explain away the oddity, and keep self limiting schemas alive. It took several more years before I discovered that the junior high math aptitude test did what it was suppose to do. Identified a personal strength.
Schemas Resistant to Change
Janoff-Bulman wrote that “as with other schemas, stereotype change is difficult. Cognitively, we are conservative. We tend to maintain our theories rather than change them; we interpret information so as to be schema-consistent, we behave in ways that serve to confirm our preexisting beliefs, and we discount or isolate contradictory evidence so that our preexisting schemas remain intact” (p. 37).
So we behave according to our self schema, we unknowingly self sabotage by signing up for the “bone head” math class and find ourselves further behind in our development, creating a life that matches our ill constructed schema. We live to fulfill our schemas whether they lift or destroy, following the trajectories without resistance.
Positive and Negative Self Schemas
While self schema’s can take on a flavor, they are typically viewed on the positive or negative continuum. Some self schemas lift, motivating healthy behaviors, while other schemas inhibit, leading to maladaptive behaviors.
Both positive and negative schemas have the power to harm, depending on their relationship with reality and behaviors. For example, we may hold the self schema we are so smart that we don’t need to learn anything new. Our core held beliefs, even when positive, may interfere with corrective or adaptive action.
Research suggests that negative self schemas are associated with depression, and Positive self schemas may contribute to resilience.
Beck’s cognitive theory of depression is based on this concept, suggesting that depression arises from negative views of self, world, and future (cognitive triad). O’Byrne, et al. wrote that “the negative self schema that one is worthless may promote ostensibly negative emotions such as sadness and subsequent behaviors such as social withdrawal” (2021).
An interesting side comment is the psychological concept of depressive realism. According to depressive realism, when we are more realistic in our thoughts (self schema), we may be prone to depression. Perhaps, this is because reality is not always that cheery.
Changing Self Schemas
While schemas, particularly self schemas, are stubborn and amazingly stable, they can change. “Decades of research suggest that self schemas are amendable to change by way of employing cognitive behavior therapy techniques” (2021). Cognitive behavior therapy “assists clients improve maladaptive thought patterns that interfere with healthy behaviors and spark unsettling emotions” (Murphy, 2021). Cognitive behavior therapy teaches clients to challenge and replace negative thoughts, altering negative core self schemas such as self schemas such as worthlessness.
In the book Explanatory Style, the authors explain that “The schema-change hypothesis suggests that, during cognitive therapy, fundamental, deep changes occur in the way the patient sees the world, especially his or her role in the world” (1995).
Another factor leading to change in self schemas is trauma. Trauma shatters core assumptions about our abilities. Trauma may disrupt positive self schemata. Where we once felt in control, we may now feel vulnerable. A major impact of trauma is loss of self trust. Melanie A. Greenburg and Stephen J. Lepore wrote that “disruption of self-trust schemata means that people no longer trust their own perceptions, reactions, and judgments” (2016).
Sometimes life collides with schemas with such force that we have no choice but to adapt our core beliefs and rehaul our self schemas to fit life as we now know it.
Self Schemas Are Largely Unconscious
These powerful self schemas operate beneath the veil of awareness. Without a keen eye, we may unknowingly hate our every existence. Schemas gain their power from their hidden operations. This is fine and dandy if those schemas are doing the work they should be doing—propelling us forward.
A key emphasis in cognitive behavior therapy is bringing the damaging schemas to the surface where we can acknowledge their presence and challenge their accuracy.
A Few Final Thoughts
The true self is often cited as an actual state hiding somewhere inside. I’m not sure if there is such a place. We are so dynamic and complex, even if we were to discover the true self, it would be difficult to maintain such knowledge, as we are always changing, both in time and in our different roles.
We are better off working with our autobiographical memories, creating a narrative vision of ourselves and our past that lifts and encourages growth. We can establish important virtues, develop characteristics that we value, and create the person we envision our self to be. This is how we become a person of character, building a beautiful life to match our wonderful self schemas.
Beck, Aaron T. (1987). Cognitive Therapy of Depression (The Guilford Clinical Psychology and Psychopathology Series). The Guilford Press; 1st edition
Buchanan, Gregory McClell; Seligman, Martin E.P. (1995). Explanatory Style. Routledge; 1st edition
Fosha, Diana. (2011) Emotion and Recognition at Work Energy, Vitality, Pleasure, Truth, Desire & The Emergent Phenomenology of Transformational Experience. In The Healing Power of Emotion: Affective Neuroscience, Development & Clinical Practice, Norton.
Greenburg, Melanie A.; Lepore, Stephen J. (2016) Theoretical Mechanisms involved in Disclosure: From Inhibition to Self Regulation. In Emotion Expression and Health: Advances in Theory, Assessment and Clinical Applications. Editors Ivan Nykliek, Lydia Temoshok, and Ad Vingerhoets. Brunner-Routledge.
Janoff-Bulman, Ronnie (2010). Shattered Assumptions: Towards a New Psychology of Trauma. Free Press; Completely Updated edition.
O’Byrne, R., Cherry, K., Collaton, J., & Lumley, M. (2021). The Contribution of Positive Self-Schemas to University Students’ Distress and Well-being. International Journal of Cognitive Therapy, 14(3), 436-454.
Siegel, Daniel J. (2020). The Developing Mind, Third Edition: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. The Guilford Press; 3rd edition.