schema focused therapy

Schema-Focused Therapy: Paradigm Shifts & Revolutions

Schemas, Life Recovery, And More…

I recently stumbled upon the topic of psychological schemas, it was completely incidental yet yielded extraordinary relevance to life recovery and beyond. Before I begin I’d like to provide a brief definition of schemas and then transition into precisely how I arrived upon this subject.  

Schema: a cognitive framework or concept that helps organize and interpret information. Schemas can be useful because they allow us to take shortcuts in interpreting the vast amount of information that is available in our environment.” 

It Started With Abductive Reasoning

I’ve always been interested in the scientific concept (depends on who you ask!) of Intelligent Design, which is an alternative creation narrative as opposed to Darwinism, and have done a cursory survey on it but never did a deep dive into the subject. I guess this is due to my skepticism of science to provide any worthy fruit on origin stories. 

Moreover, whenever I think of theistic apologetics I tend to think in philosophical terms i.e. worldviews, logic analysis, etc. I always had a sneaking suspicion that science tended to yield results that validated the theory and/or belief of the scientist, particularly in the abductive sense. I know, surprising I’d brandish such views particularly with the rise of the formidable Lee Strobel and his “cases for” everything Christian, but here we are. 

Before I confuse you more, Let me explain what I mean by differentiating various lines of reasoning…

  • Deductive reasoning moves from a general rule to a specific conclusion which is always true. 
  • Inductive reasoning moves from a specific observation to a general conclusion, which may be true.
  • Abductive reasoning moves from incomplete observations to the best prediction, which may also be true. 

Deductive reasoning has for the most part been abandoned because all it really does is provide us with definitions and propositional statements which are only true if the conclusions logically follow the premises. This is not science, it’s a language game. 

Inductive reasoning captures most of what we think of when we use the term science, namely chemistry, biology, and physics – these sciences operate in the present moment (less likely to be influenced by the speculations of the scientist, however, nothing is infallible).  

Abductive reasoning, which I’m really referring to, encompasses sciences that are more historical in nature i.e. cosmology, archeology, historical geography, and evolutionary biology. 

All of these scientific disciplines begin with incomplete observations because they are situated in past events. 

Due to the nature of the abductive reasoning, any suggestion of God will be seen as a “God of the gaps” maneuver and as bad science. Rather than continuing to investigate for materialistic causes,  if we posit God as the cause, which to the public is meant by Intelligent Design, then we are merely sacrificing science for an easy way out. 

Why? 

Because if your ontological theory (what the universe is composed of) is materialism than it will be validated (neo-Darwinism). Or, if your belief is in theism, then this too will be validated (intelligent design). Ironically, we tend to validate what we already believe and this is hardly scientific but invariable. 

What Does This Have To Do With Anything?!?

I bring this up because I see this theory-validation schema play out in my daily experience, for example:

  • The woman that thinks she’s worthless and not good enough to deserve a healthy genuine relationship (theory) ends up in one abusive relationship after another (validating the theory). 
  • The man that thinks the world is hostile and all people are judgment charlatans (theory) end up in constant conflicts and war of words with others which always appear to be initiated by the other party (validation).
  • The teenager that finds life meaningless and with no purpose (theory), who struggles with depression and social adaptability and finds himself on a myriad of medications, all of which make life dull (validation). 

I believe this is a profound limitation in human inquiry and it’s why I argue for a hermeneutic of suspicion (which just means I’m skeptical of interpretations, at least initial perspectives). However, the suspicion shouldn’t be directed at language or words but on our ability to avoid injecting our core beliefs into everything. Sure, we can circumvent this, but only through consummate self-reflection and self-understanding.  

We want to ensure that we scrutinize not merely the evidence but also deconstruct, in a sense, the lens through which we evaluate said evidence. 

How The Theory-Validation Schema Informs Life Recovery

In philosophical language, this initial theory that informs how the data is read is often called basic beliefs, presuppositions, first principles, etc. All of these terms differ in degree but ultimately refer to that which dictates interpretation, the sum of which can be referred to as a worldview.

In counseling, we refer to these basic beliefs as “core beliefs.” 

“Core beliefs are basic beliefs about ourselves, other people, and the world we live in. They are things we hold to be absolute truths deep down, underneath all our “surface” thoughts. Essentially, core beliefs determine how you perceive and interpret the world.”

If we are to change our lives we need to first have a profound paradigm shift. A paradigm is another word that fits the mold of a basic belief, it refers to a standard or pattern of viewing things, usually consisting of multiple beliefs and similar to a worldview.

For example, prior to the Copernican revolution, all science was informed by a terrestrial-centric model or paradigm, this obviously determined results that lacked a specific coherence. 

Due to this lack, a paradigm shift eventually emerged (after enough white-knuckling and pain I suppose) wherein science began to operate from an helio-centric plane. What did this result in? Further advancement and progress. 

We, too, need a personal Copernican revolution, a paradigm shift that resounds like an earthquake on the fault lines of our basic core beliefs. 

However, this only begins after multiple mini-shifts, that demonstrate just how fragile our interpretations can be. This should naturally lead to skepticism and doubt of these core beliefs, even one’s we seemingly hold as indubitable. 

Stephen Covey captures this type of experience, in his 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People.

The Man On The Subway

I remember a mini-paradigm shift I experienced one Sunday morning on a subway in New York. People were sitting quietly – some reading newspapers, some lost in thought, some resting with their eyes closed. It was a calm, peaceful scene.

Then suddenly, a man and his children entered the subway car. The children were so loud and rambunctious that instantly the whole climate changed.

The man sat down next to me and closed his eyes, apparently oblivious to the situation. The children were yelling back and forth, throwing things, even grabbing people’s papers. It was very disturbing. And yet, the man sitting next to me did nothing.

It was difficult not to feel irritated. I could not believe that he could be so insensitive as to let his children run wild like that and do nothing about it, taking no responsibility at all. It was easy to see that everyone else on the subway felt irritated, too. So finally, with what I felt like was unusual patience and restraint, I turned to him and said, “Sir, your children are really disturbing a lot of people. I wonder if you couldn’t control them a little more?”

The man lifted his gaze as if to come to a consciousness of the situation for the first time and said softly, “Oh, you’re right. I guess I should do something about it. We just came from the hospital where their mother died about an hour ago. I don’t know what do think, and I guess they don’t know who to handle it either.”

Can you imagine what I felt at that moment? My paradigm shifted. Suddenly I saw things differently, and because I saw differently, I thought differently, I felt differently, I behaved differently. My irritation vanished. I didn’t have to worry about controlling my attitude or my behavior; my heart was filled with the man’s pain. Feelings of sympathy and compassion flowed freely. “Your wife just died? Oh I’m so sorry! Can you tell me about it? What can I do to help?” Everything changed in an instant.”

These mini-paradigm shifts, what I refer to as superficial interpretative tweaks, give us the wherewithal necessary to plumb the depths and cultivate revolutionary paradigm shifts, or what I’ve termed radical interpretative tweaks. 

Experience The Radical Interpretative Tweak

The necessary ingredient: doubt. 

We all have a story, a theory of sorts that we have about ourselves, others, and the world. We begin by taking our discomfort and dissatisfaction and rather than looking for indicators in our experience which are causing these states of mind, we begin to challenge our lens. 

To illustrate using the above examples:

  • The woman who thinks she’s worthless needs to not ask why the abusive relationships but why the low self-worth. If she answers, “because every relationship I’m in I get treated worthlessly,” then the question must be posed, “do the relationships determine your self-worth or does your self-worth determine your relationships?”
  • The man who thinks the world is hostile needs to ask he is unable to meet people that don’t fit this model. If he answers, “because the world is full of mean people,” then the question must be posed, “is the world full of mean people or are mean people all you pay attention to, conveniently excusing yourself from authentic and genuine relationships with healthy and nice people?”
  • The teenager who thinks life is meaningless and with no purpose needs to be asked whether his depression and nihilism are due to his inability to find fulfillment in relationships? If he responds, “life is just negative and pointless, nobody cares about anyone but themselves,” then the question must be posed, “can you even see a positive with that perspective? Surely, as night has day and up has down, negative has a positive. Why is your view so unbalanced? Moreover, is not social acceptability an inside job? For instance, is confidence saying ‘will they accept me?’ or is it ‘will I accept them?’ Real confidence and self-esteem having nothing to do with anyone else, it’s entirely perspectival. Additionally, are you not judging yourself as relationally incompetent and thus erasing societal contribution, the one thing that brings purpose and fulfillment in life?”

I’m sure you can conceive of many examples, I’m not denying that some folks sincerely struggling with crippling depression, or that the world is not truly hostile at times, nor am I attempting to minimize nor be dismissive of abuse and trauma. These are all serious matters which gravely deserve the utmost attention. 

However, what I am affirming is that our interpretative lens is going to play a huge role in our personal healing. This doesn’t imply we become naive and enter a world of pretend and make-believe. Instead, it assumes rational thought and minimization of perpetual self-deconstruction and emotional scab-peeling. 

Challenge yourself.
Revolutionize. 

Timmy G (2019)

Works Cited

Core Beliefs & Self-Acceptance

The Man On The Subway

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