Why do therapists obsess about childhood? Why would experiences from so long ago still impact us today? The answer is pretty simple. It rests on the fact that our ‘issues’ are not actually defects; they are modes of responding that we LEARNED. When does this learning happen? Well, mainly during childhood! After all, our brain can’t wait until we are adults to try to figure out how to respond to life! It starts on day one, and works on overdrive throughout our whole childhood to develop mental maps of reality about threats and how to manage them. This is how schemas are formed.
The problem is, once our brain has learned something over and over, it stops questioning it’s reality. In this way it can ‘automate’ its response and work more efficiently. Childhood matters so much because when we are younger we are more open to learning. After all, by the time we are adults, haven’t we learned everything we need to know? The brain sure thinks so! This is why changing as an adult is so difficult! Of course there are exceptions to this, for instance when a new experience is particularly intense (think of trauma, or for that matter a therapeutic breakthrough!). Or when we use therapy techniques to trigger memory reconsolidation (which we will talk about in the next video). But generally, our schemas – our conditioned (learned) emotions, behaviors, and perspectives tend to stick with us into adulthood. Hence why our childhood experiences (or more accurately, what those experiences teach us) are at the core of everything!
Video Transcript of How Schemas are Formed
How our Schemas are Formed
We all know that our experiences during childhood can have a huge impact on our later well-being. In the last video we talked about the fact that childhood leaves an imprint through teaching us both what to expect from reality but also what is the best way to respond to reality. It does so through creating these little like maps or templates about how the world works which are traditionally called schemas. Our schemas teach us two things: what is about to happen and how should I respond to that event. To give an example, let’s say every time a child shares an accomplishment they’re punished by an insecure, competitive mother. Well their brain’s little map of reality will be: “sharing accomplishments leads to punishment” and within that map will be the adaptation: “I won’t share my accomplishments then.”
That assumption works great in that original context but if it’s played forward and generalized to other people who aren’t mom, which the brain will do, then suddenly that person as an adult may be finding that they’re not sharing about their successes at work and are feeling held back professionally. That person may be very frustrated with himself for being so timid at work without realizing the deep learning that timidity is linked into: there was that first experience with mom when it really worked to protect an important relationship.
Now relationships are a huge part of this learning but really all aspects of a child’s experience, from culture, to medical issues, to experiences at school can have a deep impact in their understanding of how to adapt to their reality, which are our schemas. Recently I was working with a client who had an interesting response to stress and as we tracked it down it really came to some deep learnings she had around her experiences of having asthma. So really it could be any notable life experiences we have as children, it’s just that one of our most powerful experiences of the world is our relationships with our parents. It’s like our parents are our world in a way when we’re young. Why? Because, evolutionarily speaking, without mom and dad we would die. So it’s an innate sort of imperative to preserve that relationship so mom and dad will love us, so that they’ll take care of us.
Our Schemas Were Designed to Keep Us Safe
Of course there are some adaptations that happen around how to make mom and dad love us, like how to please mom and dad. I think that’s ones we typically are more aware of, but let me actually focus on something just as powerful which is the ways we learn to adapt to make mom and dad function well, to keep mom and dad intact. Why? Because we need mom and dad to be doing well in order to sufficiently take care of us. So the child in a way learns to behave to stabilize mom and dad or or at least try to bring out the best in them. So if the child does something and it causes mom and dad to falter they’re less likely to do that again. In some very general sense the child learns to become the child that the parent needs them to be.
Let me give an example, let’s say the child shows some very natural anger but the parent, perhaps because of their own abuse history, in response to seeing the child’s anger looks scared and freezes for a moment. The child is probably going to pick up on that: “uh oh, my anger just seemed to mess with mom” so that’s immediately kind of frightening for two reasons, One because mom’s not here now emotionally to support me and two, mom looks scared so there must be some real danger. Then if the mom recovers and she comes back and reengages that may not be such a deep learning for the child.
But if she doesn’t recover quickly, let’s say she pulls away and gets cold, or gets depressed the rest of the day, or punishes the child then the child is learning: “okay, I guess my anger is associated with danger.” That becomes a schema: “my anger scares mom and when mom is scared I feel ashamed and alone.” So then of course the child will try whatever they can figure out in order to not be angry. That might be cutting off from their emotions. It might be shutting down their vitality and getting depressed. The solution could be disinvesting in life so that they don’t have disappointments and don’t get angry. It may just be covering the anger with a sort of sickly sweet kind of response whenever they’re actually upset.
Schemas Can be Passed Down From Parent to Child
So the child has learned two things: “anger is associated with danger.” That’s the expectation and then the adaptation would be “I’ll do whatever I can figure out to not let myself feel my anger.” Now the reason I use an emotion like anger as an example is that experiences paired with emotion are the learnings that are most likely to be imprinted. Also emotional moments are the experiences most often mishandled by the parents because maybe they themselves often have defensive schemas regarding emotions from their childhood. It’s not just anger that parents often have trouble with. It could be sadness. That’s one that’s very often dropped or mishandled by parents, perhaps because they’re scared they won’t be competent to help or they don’t want to fall into their own despair.
For one reason or another, it is very common for parents to leave their child alone in the face of sadness. Perhaps even to punish or shame them for it. But even if they just neglect their child’s sadness and don’t sufficiently step in to help, then that leads the child alone with the emotion of sadness which is not how mother nature intended it. When a child is alone with strong negative emotions, it is by its nature overwhelming. If they’re in connection it can be manageable, but for a child’s system to be alone with an emotion like grief or rage is by it’s nature overwhelming. As a result of this experience, the schema will become: “sadness is linked to aloneness, which is linked to overwhelm” and the adaptation will be: maybe I won’t let myself have my sadness, or I’ll distract myself in any way possible. I’ll get into playing video games, or drinking, or just covering up the sadness with anxiety instead.
Honoring Our Schemas as Adaptations instead of Defenses
Now these adaptations I’m mentioning we would traditionally call our defenses. I just think the word “defenses” is slightly critical in it’s tone, whereas the word “adaptation” really honors the fact that we needed to shift our response in this way. It helped us to do so. It allowed us to survive our childhoods a bit more intact. So far we’ve been looking more at the adaptations to help mom and dad function well like: “mom and dad can’t handle me being angry so I’ll learn not to have anger,” or “they can’t handle my neediness so I’ll not have needs,” or “they can’t handle my independence so I’ll learn to not step into my own uniqueness and opinions and strength” or “they can’t even bear to look at their own faults” so the child might have to learn to be blind to those faults.
Then finally the child may have to adapt in order to just survive mom and dad. So if mom and dad are abusive or intrusive, what does the child need to do to mitigate the damage of that? You know put up walls, go numb, dissociate perhaps, be incredibly pleasing so as to not be a target. In either case, the child is learning schemas about how to bring out the best and avoid the worst for mom and dad. If I could put it another way: “how do I need to act in order to help mom and dad survive me and order in order to help me survive mom and dad.
I know that last statement was kind of general and I just meant to capture a lot of what tends to cause people suffering later. Often it comes down to experiences with mom and dad or siblings but that’s not the end of the story. Any significant life experience that we learned from and adapted to can have an impact on our later functioning or our later response to life. In fact, socioeconomic status has a huge impact in these schemas that we’re talking about because it’s a different world with different requirements that require us to adapt.
Our Schemas are Hard to Change, But it’s Possible!
However the learning happens, it’s likely most of it’s going to happen during childhood. Why? Our brain is in the most active learning phase during that time. It’s trying to develop mental maps of reality to figure out as quickly as it can how to survive in this world. Unfortunately once the schema has been ingrained through lots of experiences or through one big experience which we would call a trauma, it doesn’t as actively continue questioning that map of reality as we move into adulthood. However, it is possible to use a process called memory reconsolidation to go back to those early templates of reality, those original schemas and update them even once we’re adults. The theory and science behind memory reconsolidation is what we will explore in the next video: Memory Reconsolidation: How to Rewire your Brain.