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A Guide to Schema Coaching Concepts

Schema Coaching is a more recent off-shoot from Schema Therapy, which itself was developed by Dr. Jeffrey Young in the 1980s and 1990s.


Both Schema Therapy and Schema Coaching work with Young's model of human personality. It is rich with concepts, which can help us to understand the complexities of our inner experience and behaviours.


Schemas


A schema is a pattern of related thoughts, beliefs, emotions, body sensations, and associated memories of our lived experience.


Schemas are like shortcut circuits in the mind and body that become established through repeated experience. A lot of the time, they help to streamline our day-to-day actions.


Many aspects of music-making such as reading notation, playing rhythms, or moving at an instrument involve schemas of one kind or another. They make the playing process much simpler, less effortful - even ‘second nature’.


Schema Coaches and Therapists focus on schemas that relate to the way we see ourselves, each other, and our place in the wider world. Jeffrey Young suggested that these kinds of personal and interpersonal schemas are shaped in part by our early life experiences, and in particular whether or not our core emotional needs were met consistently in our development.


Core Emotional Needs


Young described five categories of core emotional needs that lay the foundation for our wellbeing:


  1. The need for secure attachment to others, which includes a sense of safety and connection with close relations; of being accepted and understood by them, and receiving their attention, care and consideration. It also encompasses a sense of being nurtured, guided and supported, and a sense of belonging to those around us.

  2. The need for autonomy is about having the freedom to determine our own identity, and develop a sense of competency in areas of life that we find interesting. As part of this, we need to feel that others allow us that freedom and encourage us on our own paths.

  3. We also need freedom to express our emotions, to share our thoughts, ideas, feelings and experiences, and to know that others will acknowledge and appreciate our perspective.

  4. We also have a need for spontaneity and play, to have fun in our lives and to be silly. Play helps us to relax and feel contented, absorbed in our creative thoughts and pursuits. It also facilitates discovery and self-experimentation, which in turn fosters personal growth.

  5. Finally, our need for realistic limits and reasonable self-control is about understanding personal and interpersonal boundaries. We need a sense of healthy ambition, structure and discipline to work towards our goals. Along the way we need consideration and respect for others, as well as a sense of responsibility for our actions. We also need realistic expectations as to what is possible in life, and we must learn to give and take in a system of healthy reciprocity.


Adaptive Schemas


According to Young's theory, if we grew up in consistently loving, supportive, nurturing environments - particularly familial environments but also educational - in which our core emotional needs were regularly met by care-givers and other influential figures, then our way of perceiving reality will be generally positive, healthy or constructive. In other words, we will have established positive or healthy schemas, also known as adaptive schemas.


Some examples of these adaptive schemas at work in our piano playing include: a general feeling of confidence about our musical abilities; being mostly optimistic about our capacity to learn and grow as musicians; feeling at ease when performing for other people; and having a sense of forgiveness for our mistakes and self-compassion when we feel insecure in our playing.


Maladaptive Schemas


If, on the other hand, we grew up or trained in an environment in which our emotional needs were consistently unmet, we tend to develop more negative, unhealthy or even self-defeating views and habits. That is, we will have established so-called maladaptive schemas.

In music, maladaptive schemas might lead us to: persistently lack feelings of confidence in our ability, especially in comparison with others; believe that, deep down, we are fundamentally ‘bad musicians’ or 'talentless' and try to hide our faults or avoid playing so that we are not 'exposed'; maintain a negative or pessimistic outlook on our musical potential and believe that we are 'bound to fall apart'; or see making mistakes as terrible or even unforgivable, even punishable.


These kinds of background beliefs and assumptions can really inhibit our sense of enjoyment in the music, and our ability to play well and be creative. The good news is that they are not necessarily permanent. With guidance and through positive experiences, we can - over time - soften our negative beliefs, lessen the impact of painful memories, better manage our unhelpful habits, and even replace them with those helpful, adaptive schemas.


Coping Styles


Alongside the theory of negative schemas, Jeffrey Young also suggested that we have different styles of coping with their associated difficult beliefs, thoughts, bodily sensations and memories.

Healthy coping styles may, for example, involve working through our problems in ways that get our needs met while also respecting the needs of others.


There are, however, three dysfunctional coping styles described by Young: surrender, avoidance, and overcompensation. Although they are intended to help us cope with our experience of difficulty, they unwittingly reinforce the underlying negative or limiting beliefs, and potentially lay the ground for further problems.

When we surrender to our negative schemas, we believe and act in accordance with those unhelpful or harmful thoughts about ourselves, other people, and the world around us. This is like believing wholeheartedly that we are terrible musicians, which might lead us to feel deflated or lethargic in our practice, or we might be constantly seeking reassurance from other people to prop up our self esteem.


If we try to avoid our schemas, we might make efforts not to be in situations where they could be triggered. The negative associations or beliefs are, however, reinforced in this very process. Believing that we are 'bad at the piano', for instance, we might avoid practising, listening to music or performance so that this feeling of 'shame' about our perceived ability doesn't get activated. But the feeling is still there in the background, unfortunately, not given a chance to be proven incorrect.

Alternatively, if we overcompensate for our schemas, we try to do the opposite of what that core belief says is true. In doing so, however, we again reinforce its power over us. Still feeling at our core that we are 'less than', we might try to force an impression - to ourselves and others - that we are worthy and acceptable, even brilliant or the best. We might, for example, only learn and play music that is technically very demanding, in the hopes that this 'once and for all' proves that we are good enough or better-than. However, it might be that we choose music that is in fact unrealistic for us at the moment. In playing it, we may struggle or make many mistakes, therefore 'proving' to ourselves that we are 'not good musicians'.


Modes


According to Young's model, when we combine our schema-related patterns of thoughts, memories, emotions and sensations, together with the behaviours of our coping style, we get our current mode, our current state of mind and body, if you like.


When different schemas are activated, our various and different modes come to the fore, while others fall back. Sometimes these different parts of ourselves can appear subtly or only briefly. At other times, they can be very obvious and long-lasting. They can also co-exist at different levels of awareness.


Jeffery Young suggested four categories of schema modes:


Most central to our work in Schema Coaching, we have our Healthy Adult Mode, sometimes described as our Wise Mode. It is the home of our adaptive schemas and healthy ways of coping, that is, all our beliefs, memories, body sensations and related behaviours that are helpful in meeting our core emotional needs and enhancing well-being in ourselves and others.


Our Child Modes include our inner Happy Child, Vulnerable Child, Angry Child, and Impulsive or Undisciplined Child. Even as adults, we still have these childlike parts of ourselves that might show up when we surrender to our schemas.


Our Dysfunctional Parent Modes, as Young described them, are divided into a Demanding Parent Mode and a Punitive Parent Mode. These modes house our maladaptive schemas in the form of negative beliefs about ourselves, which we have internalised from others. It's like the parts of us that are being 'bad parents' to ourselves. We might be overly demanding, pushy or harsh in our expectations of how we think, feel and behave, or what we achieve. We might shame or belittle ourselves for making mistakes, or feel chronically guilty for 'letting people down'. We might also punish ourselves for our faults, feeling this is the 'best' way to induce change. Unfortuntately, these approaches do not tend to bring about the desired effect because of the negativity that comes along with them. Our wellbeing is reduced, and so we don't have the capacity to 'be our best' after all.


We also have various Dysfunctional Coping Modes that relate to the coping styles of surrender, avoidance, and overcompensation of these and other schema-related beliefs about ourselevs. Over the years, an array of coping modes have been suggested by Schema researchers and practitioners. Some that might feel recognisable by name alone include: a Perfectionistic Overcompensator, an Overcontroller, or a Self-Pity/Victim mode. They are dysfunctional because they offer an illusion of aiding us, making us feel better in some ways, but are also self-limiting in other ways. For example, if we slip into that Perfectionistic mode, we might believe that we should meet the high expectations set by our inner Demanding Parent. We might then practise furiously and for an extended period, overworking in ways that ignore our need for rest and recovery, and for playfulness and spontaneity, and instead induces fatigue, anxiety, stress and even burnout.


Schema Concepts in Practice


In Schema Coaching we learn to attend to each of these parts of ourselves from the perspective of our Healthy Adult Mode. We can show empathy and compassion for the parts of us that are anxious, sad or lonely. We can look to understand the underlying unmet needs that may be causing us to feel frustrated, angry or undisciplined, and find ways of releasing tension or getting our needs met in constructive ways. We can also explore and cultivate the things that bring us more joy, happiness and wonder, and aid our wellbeing - that ingredient that is so vital to playing well and releasing our creativity.

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