Limiting beliefs, emotions and change                    Edited

“If you can’t learn, you’re screwed. Sort of period, end of story. That is like one of the fundamental limiting beliefs – is anything that gets in the way of your ability to learn and grow over time…” Rick Hanson, PhD

“I always say that “half of who you are is other people,” meaning that the beliefs, attitudes, and biases of the people around you gradually become your own.”  Michael Taft

“Labyrinths that we build or that are imposed upon us that make us run from demons, obsessive ideas and people. Something eats away at us inside and we lose our integrity. And those who could not endure and who collapsed by the lies /the deception of the world, those seldomly seen, became tough, almost invisible, so that each one of us could remain themselves …… We seek peace, listen to me it’s a big word and then we run /move fast, having a pardon paper for everything. And if we found the courage to get rid of our burden and not to be afraid of what we dream ……” (Lyrics by Παυλίνα Βουλγάρικη)

In today’s post I am providing some notes on schemata, limiting beliefs and emotions to accompany the resources that I am sharing, which you might also like to engage with, specifically, two recent podcasts about How to overcome your limiting beliefs at: & How to Break your old patterns at:


In brief, schemata are mental structures that an individual uses to organize knowledge and guide cognitive processes and behaviour. Within psychology schemata are deeply rooted cognitive structures and beliefs that help define a person’s identity in relationship to others and the world; therefore, they influence interpersonal behavior and decisions. Schemata are determined by one’s early personal experiences and societal discourse and practices. People use schemata to categorize events based on common characteristics, to interpret and predict the world. Certain strategies of simplifying schemata might include or generate stereotypes and archetypes. New information is often processed according to how it fits into these old existing mental structures, which oftentimes becomes an obstacle to changing our ways of thinking and acting.

Maladaptive schemata

“I always say that “half of who you are is other people,” meaning that the beliefs, attitudes, and biases of the people around you gradually become your own.”  Michael Taft

Schemata contain core beliefs that are usually generated in early childhood as a result of an individual’s experiences with caregivers and other people. Our various secure and insecure forms of attachment give us a kind of script about the way in which our relationships are supposed to be and what we are allowed to do. Since they are often the outcome of early trauma, neglect, repeated negative messages about the self, limiting societal expectations and early meaning making about life experiences they form the core of one’s self-concept. Schemas help organize people’s knowledge about interactions between themselves and the world and colour their anticipations about the future for better or for worse, According to Young and Klosko the early maladaptive schemas we acquire are very impactful, firstly, because they include unconditional beliefs about who we are, what we can expect in relationships and how the world works. Secondly, because they developed in early childhood (they can be preverbal) and adolescence they can be very resistant to change. Thirdly, they are self-perpetuating, because they are repeatedly activated by events or things that resemble the original experiences for eternity, unless we disrupt the process.

As I mentioned, many maladaptive schemas are created when early childhood core needs aren’t adequately met. These basic needs are: safety, connection and love, autonomy and realistic limits, self expression and the chance to develop self esteem. Infants who aren’t provided with a relatively stable emotional environment or who don’t receive good enough care-giving can develop an abandonment schema, for instance. When children don’t receive enough love, guidance and attention they may develop an emotional deprivation or alienation schema. Autonomy allows healthy independence. If caregivers fail to teach self reliance and responsibility then they could develop an incompetence schema, for instance. Self esteem requires children to be loved, respected and accepted. When this is absent it can lead to the development of a defectiveness and shame schema. In a nurturing environment, children are encouraged to express needs and desires. When this natural self-expression is discouraged or punished, children are made to feel that their needs and feelings do not matter, and then they may develop a subjugation schema, perfectionism or an overdeveloped inner critic. Finally, when parents tend to be too permissive and overly indulgent, children may develop an entitlement schema, and so on.

Psychologist Jeffrey Young has identified eighteen early maladaptive schemas. Many of these have the capacity to disrupt and damage interpersonal interactions and hinder proactive decision making. Some schemata particularly relevant to interpersonal problems might be: a) unrelenting standards and intense self criticism. In this case one has high internalized standards to avoid criticism or punishment; b) abandonment and instability: a basic belief that significant people in one’s life tend to be unreliable and so the expectations of abandonment are high; c) mistrust and abuse: the expectation here is that one will be harmed through abuse or neglect; d) emotional deprivation: in this case there is the expectation that one’s needs for emotional support won’t be met; e) defectiveness and shame: the belief that one is defective, inferior or/& unlovable, which drives the expectation that one will be rejected; f) social isolation and alienation: the belief that one doesn’t belong or is different from others g) dependence and incompetence: the belief that one is incapable or helpless h) failure: the belief that one is inadequate or incompetent and will ultimately fail i) entitlement: the belief that one deserve privileges and is superior to others j) subjugation: voluntarily meeting the needs of others at the expense of one’s own needs, submitting to others to avoid consequences, or surrendering control to others due to real or perceived coercion.

The chained elephant

The drawing below was made for an older post (2016) as aprt of a practice I was experimenting with at the time – a;ltering books and visual journaling. The drawingreflects the theme in the story that writer and psychotherapist, Jorge Bucay tells in his book, The Chained Elephant, illustrated by Gusti Limpi. This story depicts the dynamics of early past learning and outdated beliefs that are frequently operating in the present. It demonstates beautifully how early experiences, childhood schemata and internalised messages from our social environment can keep us stuck in certain patterns and can influence ourr current experience and perception in unhelpful ways.

An extract from The Chained Elephant

“I remember when I closed my eyes, and imagined the small, newborn elephant, chained to a stake. I imagined the small elephant pushing, pulling and tugging with all its strength, trying to untie itself ….. I could almost see the little elephant falling asleep each night tuckered out by all this effort, with the thought of trying again the next morning……. Until one day, the saddest day in its short life, the little elephant just gave up and accepted its fate. It was now certain that it would never be able to escape…..

I understood why this huge and powerful elephant that I saw in the circus remained chained…. The poor animal had failure deeply etched in its elephant memory and it would never, ever again test its strength….. Sometimes I wake up with the thought that one day my elephant managed to uproot the stake….”

Change and growth

Psychological growth and behavioural change require among other things the change of our schemata or unhelpful set of beliefs. Cognitive change, and development, can be achieved through accommodation. Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget viewed cognitive adaptation in terms of two basic processes: assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation is the process of interpreting reality in terms of a person’s internal model of the world (based on previous knowledge and early experience). Accommodation represents the changes one makes to that model through the process of adjusting to new experience. Accommodation is the process of restructuring or modifying current schemata so that they match discrepant information.


Understandably, when a schema is activated, it produces emotions. Not surprisingly, maladaptive schemas are tied to high levels of distressing emotions. This is termed schema affect, and it can include shame, fear, anger, guilt, despair, loneliness, a sense of emotional hunger, apathy and boredom, etc. Once a schema is triggered, then the relevant schema affect begins influencing a person’s experience and behavior. Part of growing and creating change require we feel and explore the whole spectrum of our emotions, both pleasant and painful ones. In times of loss or trouble our emotions can offer us insight. Karla McLaren, M.Ed, who has researched emotions, claims that all emotions have value and “in times of upheaval, loss, and trouble, many emotions will step forward to offer their gifts and their unique forms of genius. If you don’t know this, you may mistakenly respond to multiple emotions as if they’re problems in and of themselves.” Even suicidal urges can alert us to things not going well and the dire need for change. McLaren says that if we dialogue with a suicidal urge below the despair we often discover conflict between who we truly are and what we have become and a deep desire for change.

In our contemporary societies we have been socialized to suppress the so called “negative emotions”, which results in our banishing and stigmatizing a huge part of our human experience with negative effects both for our health and wellbeing, but also, for our decision making. For instance, sadness can bring insight of what we don’t like or miss and help us let go of things; grief helps us mourn and release what we have lost; situational depression alerts us to something being wrong or off in our lives, apathy and boredom might hide depression or allow us some detachment in situations, where we need to just carry on, like in a job we don’t like, but need  to do for the money, guilt alerts us to our being out of line with our values,  and so on.  In the previous post I referred to how exploring our anger can bring about change or motivate us to act and how not exploring it can lead to aggression, suppression of other emotions like fear or shame, and more suffering.  Problem solving requires awareness of all our emotions. This hyper focus in contemporary societies on positivity and the dysfunctional idea of negative emotions, which McLaren refers to as toxic positivity bias does not serve us, but is an effective way to maintain social control and to prevent people from shaking up the status quo by not complaining or demanding social change.

Limiting beliefs

The Wellbeing podcasts hosted by Forrest and Rick Hanson that I referred to above focus on some of the common beliefs and thought patterns that tend to hold people back, and ways to shift out of old patterns and build more supportive and life enhancing beliefs. During their second discussion they highlighted important categories of limiting beliefs: The beliefs that prevents us from learning in important ways, beliefs about our self-identity, self-concept, and sense of self worth and our beliefs around deserving good things.

This week’s episode starts with Dr Rick Hanson using a powerful analogy from Gulliver’s Travels to describe the dire effects of our limiting beliefs. Being someone who makes art I immediately conjured an elaborate image, something I could draw or paint. I was also, surprised because even though I read the book as a child I didn’t recall the scene straightaway, instead The Minpins, a story by Roald Dahl, popped up immediately. That’s how our mind works to save energy, sometimes for better and other times for worse, and that’s why we often need to slow down and become mindful of our thoughts in order to move into a more integrated way of viewing our self, our experience and life in general.  We imagine and we also make quick associations, based on common characteristics. In this case the common elements of the two stories were the little people and the adventure theme. Anyway, to come back to the analogy, Gulliver falls asleep in the land of miniature people and wakes up tied to the ground by a million fine threads, which altogether bind him and keep him chained. Rick Hanson says: “I think about a lot of the limiting beliefs that sort of, some of them are like chain cables – really, really hold us in place – but a lot of them are these small, little niggling self doubts or reasons or assumptions or expectations, that murmur in the back of the mind, that constrain us like a web or net made of thousands of little threads.”

The process that Rick Hanson proposes in this episode about how to change our unhelpful beliefs and shift into more proactive ways of being, and pass beyond what is not good for us is PASS. In brief, P stands for pause and become aware that you are re-activated, notice emotions and sensations, like you might be feeling spacey or numb or constrained. Consider the possible functions that the particular belief serves, both the benefits and drawbacks, as well as, how the beliefs are helping you avoid painful experiences or truths. A stands for appreciation of what is already working, the fact that you are still here, alive and breathing, and that you do have internal capabilities and whatever external resources.  S is for shift your view or limiting belief. Be objective, question the validity of the belief and whether it is currently serving you. Finally, S stands for stepping into a new way of being after having shifted you limiting belief/s. Focus on the potential positive outcomes of this new way of being and thinking.

They provide examples to demonstrate how a limiting belief can often be reframed, for instance, anxious can be reframed as cautious – preventing harm in order to promote and support a desired outcome. They also, discuss rate limiting factors that tend to have the most powerful impact. So, beliefs and other factors that “limit learning” are very consequential because it’s incredibly important for us to keep learning in this life. I deeply agree with this for if life has taught me one thing, this is that processes that stifle learning in an individual and broader societal practices that limit or discourage learning and change for the majority of people has disastrous effects and definitely does not serve humanity at large.

What are the beliefs that make you rule out what you’re allowed to ask for and say?

In addition, to limiting beliefs about our nature and worthiness, and capacity to learn, they also, explore limiting beliefs related to vulnerability and gender socialization.  They suggest that it’s important to at least ask oneself if one truly wants to or if it’s worth being complicit with certain systems. They also discuss perfectionism and self critical thoughts and beliefs that supposedly ‘keep us safe.” Rick Hanson says that a huge block is related to beliefs that enable us to avoid risking the dreaded experience….. and that these beliefs may seem to make sense, but the real question is not whether they make sense, but the function they serve. They also discussed the broader assumptions and expectations about the way the world is and the way that relationships are supposed to be. As I referred to above a lot of our maladaptive learning takes place in childhood through interactions with parents, but also muddled by interactions with teachers, friends on the playground, or whatever, as Forrest Hanson notes. They further talked about self-censoring beliefs, which we could maybe dismantle by asking: What are the beliefs that make you rule out what you’re allowed to ask for and say? Another useful approach they suggest is “to regard oneself as someone, who is never fundamentally defeated, that in the core of your being, you reject the Kobayashi Maru [no win situation] scenario from Star Trek ……that if only inside your mind you can take action there…..” and claim more agency and the identity of being a learner and someone who can cope.

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