Schemas in Counseling

By Sofia De La Garza, M.S., NCC, LPC-Intern

First, let’s discuss what a schema is:

sche·ma • /ˈskēmə/ • (noun)
In social science, mental structures that an individual uses to organize knowledge and guide cognitive processes and behavior. (Britannica.com, 2018)

Schemas provide a means for us to navigate the world around us. They allow us to expect the unexpected, plan, and react in the moment. Essentially, schemas are the roadmaps to our lives. As we acquire more life experience, our schemas develop into stronger ideas which allow us to better deal with life situations. Schemas can be viewed as the compartmentalizing of learned experience and our interpretation of learned experience in our minds. They allow us to be better informed should a particular situation arise.

The mind is a powerful tool in this manner. If schemas are our own personal way of interpreting the world then the mind is most definitely always at work. To this point, schemas are hard to break. As a counselor, I see schemas at work in session. I have a particular way of interpreting the world and so do my clients. It is my job to accommodate my schemas to my clients. A solution-focused approach is not always the best.

Person-centered counseling is the most common theoretical orientation used in session. As the name suggests, the person knows best. Person-centered counseling recognizes the importance of schemas as it aims to give the client space as they are processing their problems. The time it takes for the minutiae of mental clutter and emotionality to dissipate is time that needs to be respected.  In this manner, schemas are exactly this. Mental clutter and the emotionality surrounding a particular issue are learned schemas and survival mechanisms that keep us insured. They provide a sense of control over our problems. This is exactly what schemas are supposed to do. Once these schemas are reshaped, healing can take place.

Content and process are essential in counseling. They are the vehicles that provide clients the space they deserve. As content is processed, schemas are gradually reshaped. It is difficult to let go of what we know to be true based on experience.

Through understanding and listening, we can achieve so much. After all, each of us operates on different schemas.

Image of gears in brain referring to psychology