A schema is simply a belief, a way of understanding the world. For example, a belief that most people have good intentions or that no one ever appreciates me. Schemas come from somewhere.
We form beliefs based on our experiences—what we hear, what we see, and what’s been done to us—and from what we have been told. The schemas we form during very emotionally charged events, or that are presented to us in especially graphic ways, tend to have a greater impact. We hold beliefs that come to us in that way more quickly and more intensely. They are, consequently, more difficult to get rid of even when it’s clear they are not true.
Schemas are important because they shape how we interpret events and also how we feel. Our schemas also affect how we behave, and our behavior affects what happens to us. If I believe no one ever appreciates me, I’m likely to feel resentful a lot of the time. My resentment will leak, pushing people away from me. If I believe most people have good intentions, I may find it easier to engage in supportive relationships, and that’s going to help me manage stress and improve my overall happiness index.
Our schemas don’t need to be completely accurate so much as they need to help us be successful and to lead contented, fulfilling lives. A slightly more too-positive idea of the world than is really warranted can do that. But a history of trauma usually leads to schemas that are skewed in the other direction.
In thinking about how to change schemas, it can help to know a bit more about how the mind works—which may not be what you’ve told.
We have essentially two different ways of taking in and analyzing information. One way is automatic and non-conscious. We don’t think about it too much or even notice that we are doing it.
That sounds bad, but it’s surprising how efficient and accurate that way of thinking can be. In one study that Malcolm Gladwell describes in his book Blink, participants were asked to place bets on cards from two decks: one deck stacked to win, one deck stacked to lose. Before study participants were able to consciously and verbally explain the favorability of one deck over the other, they began to have physiological symptoms of anxiety (notably sweaty palms).
Psychologists call this automatic processing. It works very well for some kinds of thinking, especially the kind of thinking known as inductive reasoning that requires looking at a large number of examples and discerning patterns. If you had trouble with geometry in school, weaknesses in this kind of thinking may have been a part of the reason.
I don’t know about whether or not this is true, but it also seems to be the kind of thinking that other mammals are quite capable of doing. My cat knows the sound of my feet in the hallway. She knows I will feed her when I get home. And she is always at the door acting hungry when I unlock the door. Experience, observation, pattern, action–all nicely knit into one cat weaving around my ankles.
The other kind of thinking, the kind that is more conscious and linguistically driven, is sometimes called effortful processing. When my therapist tells me some of my problems are caused by low self-worth, and we then have a conversation in which we point out together all of the ways in which I really am a valuable person, then I am using effortful processing.
We form schemas using both systems, which means we can use both systems to change them. In the example above, I am using effortful processing to attempt to change a schema. I can also accomplish the same thing, and I would argue I am doing so more efficiently, by giving myself experiences in which I have the experience of being valued.
There is a catch to that, of course. (As there so often is.) To understand the catch, you need to know something about reinforcement theory and cognitive dissonance theory. Reinforcement theory postulates that we seek out and remember information that supports the beliefs we already have. Conflicting information, we tend to forget.
So, unless I am making a deliberate effort to notice the fact that I am being valued, giving myself more experiences where that is the case is unlikely to change what I think. We forget information that contradicts our beliefs, because we don’t like cognitive dissonance. We don’t like incongruencies between beliefs and actions, or between beliefs and observations, or between our different beliefs.
Cognitive dissonance makes us anxious. It suggests that we don’t, in fact, know what there real deal is and we don’t know what to expect from love. So we insulate ourselves from that in various ways, including not exposing ourselves to information that suggests we are wrong, not noticing it when we see it, and not remembering it when we can’t avoid seeing it.
For automatic processing to help us change our schemas, we need to be able to take in those experiences. And that requires some conscious attention—and some effortful processing. The good news is that “priming” generally helps. In other words, if you know the purpose of a task, you are more likely to do it. If you know that you need to pay attention to those times when you are being valued, you’ll do it, at least a larger percent of the time than if you hadn’t given yourself that instruction.
And that’s why I wrote 837 words telling you about it. Because now you know that paying attention to the information that supports the belief you would rather have, instead of the one that is already there, makes a difference.
I do it all the time, perhaps to excess. A lot of my work is very discouraging. It has been for many years. The district where I teach is a high-poverty school. There are all of the challenges that that involves. We also have an administration that is constantly in turmoil and a schoolboard that can’t seem to get along—not with each other, not with the public, not with the superintendents they hire. As a staff, we are constantly working like dogs and never getting our rabbits. And I teach the kids who struggle the most. I am in the dust of dogs who are not getting their rabbits.
As I said, it’s discouraging. Most things go wrong. If I really noticed it the way any reasonable person might, I would throw my hands up and call the whole thing a lost cause. And I don’t want to do that. So, I relentlessly focus on what is going right. At the end of the period or the end of the day, I mentally review my successes and the successes of my students, even if they are infinitesimally small. Even if it is only that the kid who rarely does anything except get out of his seat to annoy someone got out paper and did 2 problems today. That isn’t to say I don’t notice all the things that go wrong, but I try not to notice them anymore than I notice what went well.
In fact, I try to notice the failures in the day a good deal less. Because the belief I want to hold is that there is hope and I can be successful at this. If I can’t believe that, then it’s time to find another school or another line of work. In other words, what needs to change is my reality. Not my belief.
But there are other beliefs I do need to change. Beliefs that land me in situations I would rather not be in, or beliefs that hold me back from my full potential. I can change them the same way I would keep them: mainly, through what I pay attention to in my life, where I put my focus.
And, I should add, by managing the distress of cognitive dissonance.