Cognitive Consistency and Schema

by Jennifer Newton Martin, LPC

Have you ever known someone who adamantly believed something regardless of being presented with contradictory evidence? This is likely due to the Psychological concept of cognitive consistency. Cognitive Consistency asserts that people are most comfortable when their beliefs, thoughts, attitudes, feelings, etc. are congruent, or in line with one another. If I think that all black dogs are aggressive and undesirable then I am going to be seeking experiences that confirm my belief. I am going to be more likely to interpret every black dog’s behavior as aggressive regardless of whether it is or not. If I start to feel love for a black dog then I might feel uncomfortable because now my feelings and my beliefs don’t line up. At this point, according to cognitive consistency theory, I will likely try to change something in order to relieve the discomfort I feel. I might try to ignore or repress my feelings or I might look for some other evidence that proves the undesirability of black dogs.

This concept is at the core of Schema Therapy. Schemas are thought to be pervasive and enduring beliefs about oneself and others, particularly in the realm of relationships. Often these schemas or beliefs were formed early in life as a result of things that occurred in ones family of origin. For example, if you are a person who grew up in a home where your parents were busy and unconcerned with your feelings then perhaps you came to believe that the right way to be in relationship with others is to not need anything. If this happened regularly and that belief became one of your core schemas then as an adult you are likely to expect that this is the truth of all relationships. You might find yourself consistently in relationships where your feelings are devalued or minimized. Perhaps you never even reveal your real feelings because you believe that nobody is interested in them, or worse, that people are universally bothered by them. In fact, you might identify with certain characteristics of codependency such as putting other people’s needs first or having poor boundaries because you still believe that to express your feelings or need something from others is inherently bad or undesirable. You may even pride yourself on being independent and being the “helper” to others because this seemed to be the behavior that was most supported in your family of origin. This might have become a significant aspect of your identity.

The idea behind Schema Therapy is to discover the core schemas that may be at the root of some of the problems that you are experiencing. Because schemas form early in life, and individuals aren’t even typically aware that they are there, it can take some time to uncover just what belief is really underneath their struggles. Someone may come into therapy because they feel lonely even when they are in relationships. They may come to therapy for anger management treatment because they feel a great deal of anger but cannot pinpoint why. Sometimes it takes really dissecting a series of relationships to see that at the core of the problem is a schema that they have unknowingly been dragging around since childhood.

“Sometimes it takes really dissecting a series of relationships to see that at the core of the problem is a schema that they have unknowingly been dragging around since childhood.”

If an individual can uncover what belief is really perpetuating the behaviors that land them in such unsatisfying circumstances or relationships then they can begin to develop a plan for change. Understanding your schemas and bringing them to the forefront of your focus could be the key to gaining the life and relationships that you desire.

Published by thinkagainjenn

Jennifer Newton Martin is a Licensed Professional Counselor and writer in Libertyville, Illinois.

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