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Mental Schemas #1: Abandonment

States of mind

This is the first in a series of articles that draw on the field of schema therapy, a fairly new approach to addressing patterns of negative thinking that was devised by Dr. Jeffrey Young. There’s more information about schemas and schema therapy on a new page on The Willpower Engine here.

The Abandonment Schema
A person with the Abandonment Schema feels that people can’t be relied on to be around when you need them or to help. Such a person may feel on a gut level that important people in their lives, like significant others, are going to leave, drop them for someone better, or die, or that others in their lives aren’t dependable and won’t be there when they’re needed the most.

While this is not always the case, often an abandonment schema starts in childhood, when an important figure in a child’s life–usually a parent–leaves, whether literally or figuratively. For example, a parent might have run off, gotten divorced and moved away, left the child or child(ren) with a relative, sent the child(ren) away at a young age, or be physically present but undependable or unavailable, as with an alcoholic, workaholic, or exceptionally unemotional or uncommunicative parent.

A person with an abandonment schema might react by avoiding close relationships, being clingy, or repeatedly accusing people close to them of being–or even just intending to be–unavailable, unreliable, or unwilling to help. Other people with this schema may find ways to drive normally reliable people off, thereby forcing them to fulfill the schema’s predictions.

Overcoming an abandonment schema
Tackling an abandonment schema means coming to terms with two conflicting facts: that unless a person’s behavior encourages it, loved ones don’t generally abandon people who are important to them; and that despite this fact, sometimes people will not be there when we want or need them, but that this is not necessarily the end of the world. This addresses the two basic broken ideas about the abandonment schema: that important people will leave (fortune telling) and that when that happens, it will be awful (magnification, specifically the type called “catastrophizing”).

Greater awareness of our own thoughts (mindfulness or metacognition) tends to create opportunities to challenge the kinds of negative thinking that schemas inspire. Challenging those negative thoughts removes barriers to motivation and supports greater serenity and drive.

Photo by Skylinephoto



  1. diego gomez maurer  •  Feb 19, 2010 @11:07 am

    Hi Luc

    I found your web site very interesting, i ll keep exploring it.

    I am very interested on networking with other people that are using schema therapy and other tools alike.

    i live in mexico and taking a masters on cognitive behavioral psychoterapy. i just thought a workshop on schema therapy could be a great idea for people to take



  2. Luc  •  Feb 19, 2010 @11:21 am

    Hi Diego: glad you stopped by to comment. I think schema therapy is fascinating, but apart from Bennet-Goleman’s book, I haven’t come across any other resources for non-professionals on the subject. It’ll be very interesting to me to see what good it can do in the broader culture as it begins to get more widespread, and whether it’s something that can be used broadly for self-development, as it seems to me it is based on what I know so far.

  3. El  •  Jul 27, 2010 @9:48 pm

    Hi Luc, this schema therapy I am also interesting since one of my schemas is abandonment early child hood when I was eight, first by my father and then at almost 9 by my mother. I would also be interested in networking with people that are using your tools, like Diego who is also from Mexico, and I am also from Mexico but born in Veracruz, Mexico; And leaving in the U.S. for the last 30 years.
    I will certainly buy the book o Bennet Goleman to explore it. Thanks again Luc,


  4. Luc  •  Jul 28, 2010 @10:05 am

    Thanks for commenting, Eloina. My hope is to eventually have a working forum system on the site, and I’ve experimented with that in the past, but I’ll have to be able to ensure that a goodly number of people join at once for it to be viable. Any suggestions or ideas are always welcome!

  5. Arnold  •  Dec 6, 2012 @4:12 am

    Self-enquiry can also help you to let go of any attachments
    and expectations surrounding your goals which may hinder your progress.
    It is important to get some information about the education and experience of the therapist.
    They also get a chance to travel around the world while working on a per diem

  6. Fahad Shah  •  Aug 11, 2013 @1:29 pm

    Luc, your website has been showing up as one of the top results in google for schemas, congrats!

    There’s a certain feeling that arises in me that I can’t quite put a finger on- it’s a sort of deeply rooted inferiority complex. I feel ugly (facial dysmorphia), childish, lacking confidence/self-esteem, fake (putting on a front), exhibiting the abandonment schema, ego-defensive, and manipulative (an ego defense strategy). At times I come off as a complete stranger, even to my closest family members. I’ve had social anxiety as far back as I can remember (fear of making a complete fool of myself). My biggest clue is an overly-controlling father who psychologically beats my mother into submission for a sense of superiority/control. I identify very closely with my mother (and thus, her submissive personality) as she almost single-handedly raised my brother and myself. How can I address this feeling? Thanks!

  7. Luc  •  Aug 12, 2013 @9:55 am

    Hi Fahad,

    Thanks for commenting on this. I wouldn’t presume to try to suggest anything specific for you, but depending on your situation and the options in your area, one of the most constructive things you could do would be to find a skilled therapist who feels like a good fit to you. My feeling based on what I’ve learned would be that for long-term, persistent patterns of behavior that are a problem, schema therapy is an excellent bet. Unfortunately, many areas don’t have good therapists trained in this method, though some therapists do offer phone or Skype-based sessions. A good alternative to consider would be a therapist trained in RET, Rational Emotive-Based Therapy (also sometimes abbreviated REBT), which has proven very successful for a wide range of concerns. Schema therapy delves deeper and provides a broad view of major personal issues, while RET provides tools that are extremely useful for practically any troubling emotional situation, but tends to address the specific behaviors and thought patterns associated with them rather than any underlying sources. In some cases, it seems to me, the source of these things doesn’t matter nearly as much as changing the behavior, which is when RET is ideal; in other cases, the behaviors tend to be part of a larger pattern, so addressing them individually can feel a little like a game of Whack-a-Mole, and schema therapy may be preferable.

    Frankly, though, with a good therapist, either approach can be enormously helpful.

    If your situation or location make seeing a good therapist difficult or impossible, working through issues individually by reading books can help a lot. For an RET approach, there’s Feeling Good (link in the margin), or if you’re a more analytical person, A Guide to Rational Living. For a schema therapy approach, the available resources are more limited. I actually have a partly-completed book on the subject meant to be useful to the general reader in investigating some of these issues, but that probably won’t be out for another year or more. There is Reinventing Your Life: The Breakthough Program to End Negative Behavior…and Feel Great Again, co-authored by Dr. Jeffrey Young, who originated Schema Therapy, together with two other renowned psychologists. The book is somewhat dated and doesn’t impress me as much as some of the materials available for RET, but is still a good place to start.

    I hope this is at least somewhat useful. Please stop by again down the road to comment or let me know everything is going for you.


  8. shona  •  Oct 1, 2013 @6:45 pm

    Hi I have this Schema, when I was 5 my dad took my brother and sister to England with him (I’m Scottish) my mum lived with an alcoholic until I was 11(I lived with my gran and grampa he died when I was 8) then my mum met my step dad and I lived with them and my step brothers but they seperated when I was about 18. Last year I went on holiday with my big sister it was a big moment in my life but I developed anxiety and panic attacks months before. In a way I’m glad because I always knew there was something wrong with me I have always pushed people away in romantic relationships and for the first time ever I am not running away. It has been very hard at times but I went on holiday with my sister again this year and it was a lot easier than the first time as my therapist said it would be. she made me promise to stop running and even though that’s hard I’m so glad I did. Glad there is a name for this and people can get the help they need.

  9. maria  •  Mar 29, 2014 @5:30 pm

    My story is so long and sad it’s better not to make it public, but it includes suicide, bipolar, narcissism, more bipolar and abandonment schema from birth. Until I was 60 yrs old abandonment was a threat, a promise at times, a fear, horror lurking in the dark every night before sleeping. But I knew that I grew up and had earned a wonderful partner that protected me. Then my mother, who had always been a question mark emotionwise, decided to discard me, us, and left forever–she is still alive at 90–once she couldn’t get any material benefits from us. THEN I WAS ABANDONED FOR REAL. I’ve always done therapy, I am recovering OK from this loss, but I need to find a schema therapist in Houston, TX. Please let me know if anybody knows of one,. t/hank you and congrats for a great job.

  10. Luc  •  Apr 2, 2014 @10:25 am

    Hi Maria,

    I’m not sure there are any schema therapists working in Houston: in many areas, it’s hard to find one. I wasn’t able to find any, for instance, through the International Society of Schema Therapists Web site, which has a Schema Therapist Finder at . The list of US Schema Therapists is at .

    However, some therapists do offer sessions by phone, Skype, or other videoconferencing tools, so you could try looking at the ISST listing and contacting someone who sounds like a possible good fit to see if this is a possibility. Best of luck with this, and best wishes.

  11. anon  •  Feb 14, 2015 @1:33 pm

    I had schema therapy, but one thing I don’t understand is whether a schema is a schema if you occasionally feel it but most of the time you don’t.

    With the abandonment schema, I can see it in myself on a very occasional basis. There was one boyfriend a long time ago that from the start I assumed would leave – I just sort of assumed the heart was fickle, as I suppose I thought mine was. I had fallen out of love with tons of people for no good reason, but to be honest I don’t think any of my previous exes had meant that much to me. When I met someone I actually wanted to be with, the knowledge of my own behaviour (that I might just suddenly change my mind and leave) made me believe that he would react in the same way. I was just waiting for the moment when he would have a change of heart – like I tend to do.

    This didn’t really make me clingy, though. It made me feel afraid of him and to act very submissively and apologetically. I tried to prolong the time we would be together by being on my best behaviour, I guess. Although I did get clingy after we had split up and I was inconsolable. I haven’t been like that with anyone else, though, but again, I suppose I’ve never felt the same way about anyone else so there’s no one who I’ve really cared enough for other than him that it would matter really if we weren’t together.

    Sometimes if I feel I have not acted according to my own standards of behaviour – this does not just include being nice, it includes ensuring the other is supported etc., and that they have had a nice time in my company – I feel that my friends might lose interest in me, but again it doesn’t make me clingy. I just think ‘ok, well, we’ll see if they get in touch’. If anything it just makes me feel mildly depressed and like I’ve left myself down. It’s almost a kind of perfectionism, where I feel I must be a perfect friend for others to want to be around me. Again, though, this really comes and goes. It isn’t my modus operandi, and most of the time I feel comfortable in the knowledge that my friends are always there even when they are not physically or when we haven’t been in touch for a while – i.e. I know I can get in touch after a few months where we’ve both been busy and everything will be the same.

    When I did the questionnaire in schema therapy I scored low on abandonment because it had been so long since I’d actually felt any of those things I’d completely forgotten about it. I had a boyfriend at the time, but there was no question in my mind that he would always be there (although I wanted to leave). But since then my abandonment schema has been triggered and I’ve gone ‘oh yeah! I forgot about this!’ It had been years since I’d felt that way.

    So…does it still qualify, do you think, as one of your schemas if it is triggered very rarely?

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