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Mental Schemas #4: Defectiveness

Handling negative emotions

This is the fourth in a series of articles that draw on the field of schema therapy, an approach to addressing negative thinking patterns 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.

I don’t know about people in other part of the world, but we in America have a weird relationship with criticism. Some parents criticize their children constantly, while others are afraid to criticize them at all. While I think it goes a little too far to be supportive when a kid is merrily scribbling away on the brand new coffee table with permanent marker, the parents who are worried about criticism are worried for good reason: criticize a kid too much, and they may deal with it by developing a defectiveness schema. If you already know you’re defective, maybe it doesn’t hurt as much when people keep telling you that.

The defectiveness schema
Of course, feelings of defectiveness and inadequacy don’t translate very easily to a healthy life. Someone with a defectiveness schema might be overly defensive and never willing to hear themselves criticized–or they might go to the other extreme and always assume everything’s their own fault. Either way, there’s a basic broken idea here, namely “I’m inferior and defective.” This kind of broken idea is called “labeling” (is it weird that there’s a label for it?).

Another problem with the defectiveness schema is that people in its grip may feel that they are in danger of being “found out”–that people who get too close to them will discover that they are fundamentally flawed and leave, and that therefore no one must ever be allowed to get close.  (You might notice a trend of the schemas I’ve covered so far being ones where people are scared to let others get or stay close; that’s because we’re beginning with the set of schemas that deal with disconnection and rejection.)

Overcoming a defectiveness schema
As with any mental schema, the key to overcoming it is overturning, time and time again, the broken ideas it encourages. This means consciously replacing the thought “I don’t deserve this” with “I’m not perfect, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t have this thing that I want” or the thought “If I get close to this person, they’ll find out about all of my shortcomings and leave me” with “I can’t know for sure how someone will act in different situations; this person may or may not end up liking ‘the real me.'”

Repairing broken ideas often takes the form of acceptance, especially acceptance of the possibility of either good or bad things happening. People with defectiveness schemas will benefit from learning to accept even those things they dislike about themselves, and also from accepting that bad things may happen–or that good things can happen too, if those good things are given enough of a chance.

Photo by McBeth



  1. Fred  •  Mar 10, 2010 @3:05 am

    How can person with painful feelings of defectiveness possibly be helped by a community of professionals who are expert in labeling of people and who agree among themselves that the patient is seriously malformed, defective, and will remain defective at the level of the very essence of who they are generally for a lifetime?

    Belief that the “patient” is irrevocably defective seems to place some glaring logical absurdities directly in the path of “treatment.”

    One also can hardly picture that “administering a program of treatment” would be especially helpful to a person with normative abilities to discern interpersonal cues displayed by the clinician — cues which are repetitively suggestive of and confirming of ideations that the patient should properly be interpreted as a “member of the clinical population” (defective).

  2. Luc  •  Mar 10, 2010 @10:58 am

    Fred, I think you have a really good point, and I think there are two good answers to it, which go together: first, find a therapist who’s good enough to admit that everyone has their issues and therefore doesn’t have a separate mental category for “defective” people. Honestly, I have yet to meet a person I could confidently say has never had any mental or emotional issues. It’s normal to develop some less-than-ideal approaches; the thing is to work them out as well as possible.

    The second part is to be willing to look at therapy as not only something that helps people who are in dire straits but also as something that helps healthy people get healthier. When my son’s custody was in question, I was extremely worried about the situation and saw a therapist (fortunately a down-to-earth cognitive therapist) until I got through it. Later in my life I was having trouble in a relationship, but found we were able to solve it with just two visits to a good couples counselor. It’s true that our culture tends to think of therapists as repair experts, but both mental health and physical health can benefit enormously from even a small investment in encouraging health rather than just fixing problems.

  3. hamradio  •  Mar 23, 2011 @4:43 am


    hope you can share constructive advice on this note. Understood that you can’t counsel but general perspective would be appreciated.

    I have had sometimes annoying feelings of defectiveness nipping at me as unwanted “background noise”. I grew and changed and believed I could experience a pretty healthy and fulfilling normal adult life. There were some truly positive relationships friendships and romantic that were deeply helpful to me.

    Negative life experiences could still provide a nag of feeling defective. I eventually married a partner with explosive temper and very critical behavior. After several years of exposure I was shaking internally and even physically trembling “I’m no good, I’m no good.” This went into marriage counseling by my partner’s individual therapist and I got what seemed to be pretty ongoing continual psychological invalidation. Maybe the intent of that invalidation was to deliberately loosen up my rigid thinking. Yet reality-testable facts were wholesale ignored and sometimes denied by the counselor and negative emotions I felt about situations in the relationship were invalidated. The counselor worked to violate my boundaries on scope of what I was willing to do with the individual counselor working for my partner, did violate my boundaries with some deceit, and before being replaced worked very hard to break through my defenses and force me to label myself as irrevocably defective, evidently working really very hard to “score” a diagnosis (I suppose to try to force me to change by forcing me to view my own mind as “defective”). This counselor wept when replaced with a new marriage counselor and therefore ending relationship with my spouse. Before being replaced that person labeled many healthy behaviors as defective, regularly misinterpreted what I was saying, and relationship became noticeably and progressively more warped with that person making false assumptions about me and acting upon them to “fix” me to the point that I seriously doubted my own ability to interpret reality, people, or the world around me.

    I later discovered that apparently the DSM “diagnosis” was being used to decide and define who I was as a human being and was being used to engage in false “treatment”. Maybe the counselor would say I was too rigid in my cognitive style to cope with long-term invalidation of my ideations including reality-testables and my existing deficiency is why those good counseling efforts using valid techniques went wrong.

    Going way back as a kid I was injured at someone else’s hands and experienced severe physical and emotional pain and some lasting physical damage. I did shift to trusting people less openly and immediately, emotions took more prominence, also found that after the experience there was residual pain i.e. pain more deeply sensitized and resistant to shutting off. Neurologically makes me wonder if it was ACC potentiated by pain and trauma.

    By my early adult life I had changed very significantly to believe that I could enjoy a pretty fulfilling adult life as a normal and healthy person. I enjoyed a love relationship with someone who I found had a beautiful personality, learned from other loving relationships, and I experienced being changed for better by it all. Feelings of defectiveness could still recur but in terms of “self-reporting” when I married I felt confident I could give and receive love and I anticipated a mostly loving and fulfilling marriage that was generally more often undertaken with kindness, emotional connection and affection than not.

    Now… after the marriage and relationship with the marriage counselor… I am now experiencing utterly awful feelings of psychological invalidation, unbearable pain from self-labeling as a warped and irrevocably defective thing with my identify as a human being scientifically proven to be junk. My entire conscious being is a disease, my identify as irrevocably defective and destined for failure has become self-traumatizing, intimacy in the marriage is a nauseating thought because that’s disgusting to have intimacy in an asylum of subhuman minds. I have been taught by this counselor to believe that my invalid defective personality will last until I die and to expect to “manage” living as defective until my death. I need to change my entire identity so that surprise, my feelings of defectiveness are not false psychological baggage but are instead scientifically valid and true and in a single moment of diagnostic labeling this is the new way to live out the entire life ahead of me – as defective with a prognosis of failure.

    I highly doubt that the treatment technique of forcing me to label myself as incurably mentally defective was worth it to me. If I had been afforded self-determination through honest actions of the counselor and respect of my wishes I would have chosen to voluntarily pursue small and gradual changes that I viewed as positive. I would not have chosen psychological invalidation and false treatment to the point that I doubted reality and I would not have chosen the side-effects of being wiped out of existence as a valid human being which I now live with. Viewing myself as irrevocably warped and diagnosably only part-human — defective human waste with some human cells for my entire lifetime — never, ever, to be diagnostically validated as a psychologically healthy adult human being — is really not coming off as profitable to me. As it stands though I now live in incredible pain and I cannot help but wonder if it was actually necessary.

  4. Luc  •  Mar 23, 2011 @8:16 am

    Hamradio, that sounds tremendously painful and upsetting; I’m sad to hear that you’ve been facing so much trouble so far.

    It sounds as though one thing you are looking for in your life is some more validation of your value as a person, since what you’ve written describes a history with a lot of the opposite. It’s especially disturbing to hear about a therapy situation where the goal seems to be not to help someone grapple with issues, emotions, and decisions, but instead to force acceptance of a particular self-view, some kind of label that is itself a broken idea. Certainly it seems that there are therapists who are trained in this way, who think of counseling as a process of finding and treating a disease rather than of addressing specific problems that differ from one person to the next.

    By the way, in my layman’s opinion, I feel it is rarely a good idea to attend counseling with a partner’s individual therapist because there is a conflict of interest: a therapist needs (it seems to me) to be on the side of their individual client, so when a client comes in with a spouse, say, it becomes very difficult to treat both their perspectives equally after having been immersed in one person’s view of things and having become a partisan of that person. I’m sure that there are therapists who can and do strike that balance, but by and large it seems too much to hope for. Maybe you have the same point of view on this, after your experiences.

    Personally, I believe that every person is valuable and has the potential to do great good in the world, which means that I think you are valuable and have the potential to do great good in the world. I hope especially that you will find or reflect on things you are doing or can do in your own life that you feel confident are valuable, perhaps a kind of work you do well, volunteering, support for someone who needs your help, etc. It’s hard not to feel a little validated at least when you give time or donate blood or put a lot of effort into something that has no direct benefit to you, or else when you do something really well that other people point to with admiration–keeping a beautiful garden, giving clients a little more individual attention and consideration than is strictly necessary, making a niece or nephew happy, etc.

    Are you in individual or group therapy right now? It sounds as though you have a lot to process, and while I can imagine you’d hardly be excited about therapists after your experiences, a good cognitive therapist or group with a cognitive therapy approach might be a tremendous boost. I emphasize the “cognitive” part because I know there are a lot of schools of therapy, some of which have good track records, others of which have very poor records. Cognitive therapies like RET (also called REBT, Rational Emotive Therapy or Rational Emotive-Based Therapy) have a remarkable record of effectiveness, and any decent cognitive therapist will know better than to try to force a label on you (except insofar as, frustratingly, insurance companies often demand diagnoses before being willing to pay for sessions). Group therapy might be even better to begin with, because of the support of the larger group of people and the reduced pressure on any one person to get things worked through.

    Alternatively, or in addition, by chance have you read Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by David Burns? It’s a great introduction to handling broken ideas (officially known as “cognitive distortions”). And if you haven’t seen the material on this site about broken ideas yet, you might be interested in All About Broken Ideas, which introduces the subject and links to a lot of other pages here on the site.

    Thank you very much for sharing your experiences here, and I hope you find a good way forward to more happiness in your life. And for anyone reading I’d like to echo what you’ve said, that of course I’m a writer and not a mental health professional, and so my opinions are offered in that context.


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