Emotional Schemas

6. A: What is an emotional schema, how does it get formed? B: How does it affect
a person’s current life? C: How is the emotional schema worked with in Bonding Psychotherapy? D: Describe the parts of a schema, the steps for exploring a schema and the difficulties encountered.

A: An emotional schema is an internal template from which current emotional experiences are processed. Emotional schemas are formed in the brain in early life and develop as a result of the degree to which the child’s basic biopsychosocial needs are met by the attachment figure. A child who has experienced adequate fulfillment of its basic needs, develops functional emotional schemas based on those positive emotional experiences. On the other hand, should the child’s basic needs be frequently or constantly neglected, a cumulative relationship trauma can result with an internalized and uncertain sense of self and other, represented in a dysfunctional emotional schema.

B: Emotional schemas determine and regulate interpersonal relationships when activated. An adult who has internalized functional emotional schemas may have more positive sense of self and others, have a greater capacity to appropriately fulfill their basic needs and an ability to establish and sustain interpersonal relationships. When someone has internalized a dysfunctional emotional schema, it can result in the development of dysfunctional relationship patterns that make it difficult or impossible to fulfill the basic needs. For example, a client with alcoholic and raging parents may react to the stress of conflict with her husband with extreme anxiety, dissociation, self loathing or overly accommodating behaviors as a result of the activation of her dysfunctional emotional schema which results in perpetuation of her unmet basic needs and insecure attachment.

C: In Bonding Psychotherapy a dysfunctional emotional schema is used as the starting point in therapy with a client. It can serve as a foundation for therapeutic work involving structural deficits, values conflicts, unconscious intrapsychic conflicts, unresolved relationships with emotionally important others or to deepen awareness and understanding of persistent relationship problems or situations that result in distressing emotional states.

D:An emotional schema consists of the following parts:

Interpersonal Situation and Context

Triggering Situation “Sore Point”, an emotional signal

Defense and Avoidance


Cognitive Attitudes about Self and Others

Spiritual or meaningfulness

Motivation or needs

Physical Sensations


Relationship Pattern

Attachment Style

The Steps for Exploring a Schema consist of:

  1. Interpersonal Situation: A current situation involving the client and someone emotionally important to them that did not go well or one in which the client was emotionally triggered. The situation also includes evaluation of the Context in which the event occurred and the System of the relationship of the parties involved.

  2. Sore Point: Determination of the point in the event which resulted in the greatest emotional response in the client or activation of cumulative relationship trauma.

  3. Physical Perception: Identification of the body sensations at the point of the sore point activation ie muscle tension, pain, difficulty breathing, described in physical, kinesthetic terms.

  4. Emotions: Identification of the emotions associated with the experience of the Sore Point, including Primary Emotions or emotions most directly associated with the activation of the cumulative relationship trauma and its accompanying violated or unmet basic biopsychosocial needs. Secondary Emotions which are emotions the client may feel instead of the Primary Emotions as a result of them feeling overwhelming or the client being sufficiently entitled to experience the Primary Emotion. Instrumental Emotions are also identified which are emotions which are used by the client to elicit a desired behavior from the other person and also serves as a means to avoid the deeper emotions associated with the Primary Emotions.

  5. Dysfunctional Cognitions: The cognitions that arise from the Sore Point, Physical Perceptions and the Primary Emotion. These cognitions involve the Self and Other(s) and are negative, harsh, often simple and primitive in nature. They result in negative consequences for the client.

  6. Violated Basic Needs: The basic biopsychosocial needs for Bonding, Attachment, Autonomy, Self Esteem, Identity, Physical Well Being and Pleasure, Spirituality which were not met as a result of the cumulative relationship trauma which was activated in the Sore Point.

  7. Behavior Intention and Consequences: Identification of the behavior that the client does after experiencing the Dysfunctional Cognitions; determination of its Short Term Positive Consequences, often naively protective of self or relationship, Negative Short Term Consequences, and most importantly, Long Term Negative Consequences of the behavior if the client continued to use it over the next 10 or more years and its impact on the client’s life, health, relationships, lack of needs fulfillment, life meaning, spirituality, etc.

  8. Meaning of Long Term Negative Consequences: Exploration of if the Long Term Negative Consequences happened, what meaning about Self, life, relationships and the larger world would the client make? “Is this how I want to spend the rest of my life?”

  9. Assessment of Consistency: Does the client’s understanding of the Long Term Negative Consequences of their behavior result in subjective experience of Inconsistency or feelings of disturbance or unhappiness over the direction one’s life would continue on or Consistency or a subjective experience that that’s “just the way I am” and “it’s not a big deal”. Rating the score of the Consistency Assessment from -10 to +10.

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