CNM 032: Schema Therapy and Codependency – with Christine Askew BA, MA, MSc

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In today’s episode, I’m bringing back Christine Askew whom I interviewed in Episode 12.

Today, she’s elaborating on schema therapy, and how it helps quickly identify your patterns and then begin rewiring the brain.

Christine is an experienced therapist specializing in schema therapy, cognitive behavior therapy, anger, anxiety, depression, codependency, addiction, relationship conflict and emotion regulation.

So let’s get right to the good stuff.

Here’s my interview with Christine…

Interview on Schema Therapy with Christine Askew

Brian: Christine welcome to the show today. It’s so great to have you back.

Christine: Thank you. It’s great to be back. Can’t believe it’s been a couple of years already flown by.

Brian: I know, and there have been so many downloads of your original podcasts and all the other shows that we did. It’s partly due to the big response we’ve gotten from episodes like yours that I wanted to come back, get the show back in gear and keep pushing forward for the long term. So it is great to have you back again.

Question: We want to elaborate on some of the things we talked about in your first episode which was all about schema therapy. For starters, I wonder if you could provide a brief review of what schemas are so we can all get on the same page, and then we’re going to go into some new territory that you’ve been treading into more recently.

Right. That podcast was about the parallels of co-dependency and addiction, and we were focusing on the cycle and how it’s very similar. You have the trigger, the craving, the reaction and then the after-effect.

But we talked a lot about schemas as well, which are basically patterns of thinking, feeling and action that get wired into a habit loop in our subconscious, or emotional brain as I call it, when we were children. And they basically play out throughout our lives. They develop in response to unmet childhood needs and they are quite adaptive, and that protects us from pain.

But as we get older into adulthood they continue playing that course, causing all sorts of problems. I know we talked about a few specific ones that directly play into codependency, so maybe just a quick example to illustrate.

There’s a schema called Self-Sacrifice which is one of the main drivers of co-dependency. Self-Sacrifice usually starts in a family of origin where a child had to take on a kind of parental role at an early age. Maybe they had a parent with addiction problems or mental health issues, and they became a parent-ified child. And they developed the beliefs such as, ‘I must help other people. Other people’s needs are more important than mine. I’m selfish if I say “no”.’

They develop these patterns, and these patterns become so deeply wired. With these thoughts come also certain feeling. With self-sacrifice, if we think about saying “no” to somebody or we don’t help somebody, we get overwhelming feelings of guilt. This is the kind of feeling that drives guilt.

The behaviors that come in this cycle of self-sacrifice are wanting to fix people and wanting to help. People find it very difficult to tolerate other people’s discomfort. So you end up advising people, trying to fix them all the time, trying to rescue them, helping them in all sorts of ways at the expense of your own needs. That’s Self-Sacrifice.

We also talked about the Approval Seeking schema, the Unrelenting Standards schema and Subjugation schema, all of which play into and drive codependency.

To quickly recap, schemas are ingrained, entrenched patterns; habit loops that play almost out of conscious control. They just play out automatically in our lives and cause all sorts of problems. Does that make sense?

Brian: Yes. It makes perfect sense. We focused a lot on those four codependency related schemas in episode 12, and we got great response from that. I think it’s new information people aren’t really aware of, and I think it’s helping people to understand their problems and identify with them so they can get motivation to move forward. And that’s what we want to talk more about today. You’ve really established your practice strongly in helping people to overcome their schemas.

Question: So what’s the latest greatest information and techniques that you’re teaching people and working with people to help with these issues?

Christine: Well, first of all I think it’s really important – and I know that you use this in your work as well – it’s vital that you realize that it’s not enough to just understand it. We might intellectually understand exactly what we do and why we do that, but if we don’t actually stop making the changes, affecting change in some behavioral areas, then we’re not going to change because these patterns are deeply ingrained in the subconscious brain.

I don’t think many people realize it, but about 90-95 percent of our behaviors are driven by our subconscious brain. We’ve only got a small percent which is consciously controlled, so it takes time to change. There isn’t a quick fix to this, it takes some people longer than others, but essentially you do need patience.

One thing on which I work with my clients is building the brain’s capacity to change. Again, a lot of people don’t realize all this is scientific fact; it’s not disputable, there’s hard evidence for all of this. One thing about having a difficult childhood with a stressful family life is that there can be a lot of tension, and key emotional needs are not met within the first few years.

For example, we may not get emotional treatment from our caregivers which means that our need to feel special, safe, and really seen and accepted by a healthy adult is not met. If we don’t get this, the logical, rational part of the brain which is called the prefrontal cortex doesn’t develop well. It’s dependent on this emotional and social input as a child.

To give your listeners an idea of what this prefrontal cortex does – it’s primarily responsible for emotional regulation. It calms down anxiety, and has something called GABA, a juice that it squirts down into the emotional brain where anxiety is generated, to calm it down. It’s responsible for emotional regulation, focus, clarity, future orientation, goal setting and following through on goals. It’s a real human part of our brain.

If we don’t have a good enough childhood, we develop these schemas on the one hand, which generate lots of difficult emotions and unhelpful thoughts, but our brain doesn’t develop well enough so we can actually overcome a lot of these difficult emotions.

So, with my clients I start practices that actually build up the prefrontal cortex because we know now for a fact the brain is plastic and the prefrontal cortex is one of the most plastic parts of the brain. It’s very susceptible to going in either direction; becoming stronger and more robust, or  flimsy and less effective. So, for a few weeks we build up this capacity

We do this primarily with a couple of techniques. Mindfulness – because when you change your focus from outside to inside, it activates the prefrontal cortex and calms down the emotional brain. Mindfulness builds up the prefrontal cortex. Meditation does this also. So that’s one of the things I start off with. I know I’ve been talking while, and just wanted to pause and make sure you didn’t want to interject.

Brian: That’s fine. Right now I’m reading a book by Rick Hanson all about the neuroplasticity of the brain and how what you’re describing activates the parasympathetic nervous system which helps to regulate exactly what you’re saying. I think it’s very useful. There’s another podcast episode I did, Episode 8, about a particular kind of meditation called Vipassana. The listeners might want to check it out after this episode, you’re more than welcome to do so. But yes, I think that mindfulness is certainly something we should talk more about, so feel free to go ahead in that direction if you want.

Christine: I think some people are confused about what mindfulness is. Mindfulness is purely paying attention to what is happening in the present moment. So, with brain change, we’re starting to focus on the thoughts we’re having. You can read about schemas or limiting thoughts, but until you actually experience your own, you don’t even know what you think.

A lot of my clients haven’t got a clue of where their thoughts go at the beginning of the therapy because we’re so mindless in many ways. We’re externally focused rather than internally focused. So the first practice we do is mindfulness, to learn where your thoughts are going, especially around the behaviors you want to change. It depends on kind of what behaviors your listeners are struggling to change, but it’s really slowing down and looking at, ‘What thoughts am I thinking here? And when these thoughts come, what’s triggering them? What is causing these thoughts that are causing me problems. How am I reacting to this?’

Here’s a prime example. When clients with codependency talk about seeing someone in distress (someone’s got a problem and they immediately rush to give them advice, fix or help them), I say, “As soon as you feel the urge, what are you actually feeling? If you don’t act immediately, how uncomfortable is that for you?” People start to realize that with codependency it’s not really about the other person – it’s about themselves. It’s their own discomfort with other people’s pain that they can’t tolerate. It’s their own anxieties, guilt or whatever comes up.

The mindfulness practices we do initially serve a couple of functions. One – every time we turn our focus inwards onto thoughts, onto our feelings or sensations, we’re making new connections in the brain. We’re building up its capacity to stop before we react. And the second function of mindfulness is it to starts to bring out what’s in the subconscious into the conscious so that we can actually change it. Often it’s quite deeply hidden in there. So that’s what mindfulness does. It’s a fantastic practice.

But, I do want to just make one point very quickly, Brian, if that’s okay. If you’ve had a trauma history or severe abuse, you have to be careful initially with mindfulness meditation because you can become very overwhelmed with feelings and sensations. If you find it really difficult to stay with your thoughts or feelings for more than a minute or two then just take it very slowly, just do thirty seconds then build it up that way. So yeah, that’s mindfulness.

Brian: Great elaboration on that. I think training myself to be more mindful has been a game changer for me and my life, not just with respect to cutting off bad behavior patterns, but also  getting clarity on what I want in life – my goals, where I’m headed, and even just to stay focused on one thing and accomplish that task, and to regulate my emotions as well. When I feel a lot of turbulence going on, it’s a great way to train yourself ahead of time to be able to take control of those situations. I could talk about that all day, I really could. I’ve gone through periods of my life where I have practiced daily for extended periods, and I look back on those periods very fondly, probably for that reason.

Christine: Everything you just described – focus, clarity – these are all the functions of the prefrontal cortex. Those have developed because of strengthening your prefrontal cortex which builds up from your mindfulness practice.

Brian: So the big takeaway is “build up your prefrontal cortex”, “strengthen your prefrontal cortex”.

Christine: Absolutely. People get put off thinking they have to sit cross-legged and meditate for half an hour and that’s hard to do. You can do it on the bus, you can do it on a toilet, when you’re standing in a queue. Instead of standing in a queue thinking, ‘My God, I wish this queue would hurry up!’, instead you can think, ‘What am I feeling right now? What am I thinking right now?’

You can do it anywhere and that’s the beauty of it. Like you were saying about mindfulness, it does help break unhelpful patterns, but also, when we start to slow down we increase our capacity to feel joy, excitement, curiosity and all the wonderful feelings that make life worth living. So yeah, I’ll shut up about mindfulness because I can go on and on about it as well (laughs). It really is probably the most profound thing that you can do to change, really.

Well I hope we’ve convinced the audience of that squarely by now. And with that in mind, pun intended, I would love to get into more about when you start to work with somebody.

Question: Let’s say someone comes to you and says, “My life’s falling apart. I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t know how to make it better. I’m overwhelmed I’m stressed.” Where do you start? What are the techniques that you use when you work with someone from square one to help them identify what’s going on and then move them in a better direction?

The first thing I do before I do anything is a schema assessment to find out what peoples’ schemas are. But the very first thing I do (and this is vital for any change in anything) is I get them to spend some time and write down a vision of the life that they want to be living.

Let’s say someone’s coming in, and they’re stressed on the relationship problems or whatever. I get them to realize that, ‘If you’re not happy with your life now then it must be that you’ve got an expectation of how it could be.’ So let let’s go there. And the reason we do this is because if you don’t know where you want to be, it’s very difficult to get the motivation to change when we’re trying to change these very difficult patterns. So, we establish a vision, and I get people to reread this vision daily.

I’m going to sound like a broken record with the prefrontal cortex, but visualizing is also the realm of the prefrontal cortex; it’s the part of the brain that can see the bigger picture. We do this visualization so that we can build up that part of the brain, and also have a clear direction of where someone’s going.

Once they’ve got that clear vision I give them a schema inventory, so they work out their schemas and we decide which schema (because people often have 2 or 3 schemas) is actively in the way of getting to the life that they want to live. For the first couple of weeks they get to really know the thoughts, triggers and behaviors that are part of that schema.

Do you give advice to people you know constantly? Are you unable to say no? Are you a people pleaser? Are you not expressing your own feelings?

We basically identify their key behaviors. I’m just thinking about one client who had difficulty with conflict and saying “no”. If someone asked her to do something, she would just do it even if she didn’t want to do it. So, we identified a couple of these patterns. And at work, she actually then implemented a boundary with someone. Somebody was asking her to do too much, and she actually said, “No I’m not comfortable doing that.” It was incredible how difficult that was for her.

For someone who doesn’t have people pleasing tendencies it might seem like, ‘Well why don’t you just say “no”.’ But the fear and discomfort that comes with this pattern is hard. To change it, you’ve got to push through a lot of fear. Then afterwards you might feel like, ‘Oh my God, I shouldn’t have done that. I’m going to get into trouble.’ Or, ‘I feel really guilty.’ Or, ‘If I say “no” they’re going to be really angry with me.’

So, we systematically start with a small pattern and we start changing it. In order to get the motivation to change we take those limited thoughts with the schema and we come to them with healthy thoughts.

For example with self-sacrifice, it could be that this person won’t be able to do this without my help. So we process that thought, look at it and say, ‘Well actually, when you jumping help somebody. You’re actually preventing them growing. You are stunting their growth. In a way, you think you’re helping them but you’re damaging them.’ And people start to see a different side of their behavior. We get the different thoughts to help them push through change. That’s where I start. We get to know the schema pattern very clearly and then we systematically start changing it. That’s the second step.

But the third area we go into (and you mentioned this in one of your workshops on your site, and it’s vital), is to get in touch with the childhood origins of your schema. There are a lot of emotions that have been suppressed and repressed from childhood because we had to for whatever reason.

Emotions don’t go anywhere. They actually stay in our bodies as energy and they get locked in memories in our brain.

You find when you start changing your schemas, you can get a lot of feelings coming up. For subjugation especially, people get really angry because if they’re not allowed anger they might struggle with resentment, but actual anger starts to come up and they’re not used to handling it. So, we go through this emotional stage where we’re clearing out a lot of emotions from the past, connecting our behavior in the present to past experiences, and also getting in touch with the child. Some people will think, ‘Oh my God, here we go with the Inner Child again,’ but we have to connect with that child and the emotions that they felt at that time in order to heal in the present; it’s vital work. And when we don’t do this we still get driven by suppressed emotions still, so we have to excavate all these emotions from the past. So that’s basically part of the process.

Once people have a handle on their schema patterns they can start trying to change them. In my program I call this taking it inside. We work on our internals first and then we need to take it outside into our life because if you’ve subjugated or self-sacrificed, you have certain dynamics in your relationships. You might be in relationships with people who are emotionally abusive, emotionally unavailable, or with people who have become very dependent on you.

When we start pushing boundaries and change our patterns, the people around us get shaken up and they might protest. It shakes up all our relationships, but it has to happen. We can’t continue living the life we lived. If we want to get rid of some of our emotional pain things have to change. So, we then start working on relationships and really looking at what a healthy relationship is.

Many people are in relationships, especially partnerships and they don’t realize how unhealthy they are. They’re not seen. They’re not heard. They don’t emotionally have connection with other people. They don’t know why they feel so lonely. They think, ‘I got lots of friends, got a partner got children,’ but if you’re not emotionally attuned to other people or emotionally connected, biologically you will get the emotions of loneliness, maybe shame. Also, even though the shame is unwarranted it’s kind of a byproduct of not having emotional needs met.

So that’s the system. We work first on the thoughts; on building up the capacity through mindfulness practice. Then we start changing the thoughts because these thoughts actually have neural pathways in the brain. You can’t just think, ‘Oh okay, I’ll think that thought. I’m going to change it’. It doesn’t happen. You have to systematically wire in through repetition new healthy thoughts, and not keep thinking the old one. Then the pathways of the old ones actually die away. But this takes time.

I read somewhere that it actually takes 21 days (it’s an arbitrary number) of repetitive practice for new patterns to start to become established. So we work on our thoughts, we start to really get in touch with our feelings, clear out some of the old feelings and connect with the past. Then we start to change the schemas, and then we start to look at our relationships and start heading towards the kind of life that we want.

And by the time people get to kind of this stage of working on outside situations like relationships, all the mindfulness work and looking at the thoughts has actually built up the brain. A client said this to me the other day, “Oh my god I feel so different. I can feel my emotions but they’re not getting to my brain.” And I know what she means – you can feel that and contain them but they’re not driving you anymore. That’s the kind of system that we go through.

Brian: From A to Z, that’s really what it takes to go from lost and overwhelmed to getting where you want to be. You just described a lot of the things I think it takes.

We’re getting close to time, so I want to ask you a couple more questions.

Question: You just described how you work with people which, and some people are hearing you probably thinking, ‘Wow I’d love that exact kind of help.’ If they did want help like this where could they find out more about you?

Christine: My website is www.schematherapyonline.com. There are eighteen schemas in total on the website, and I’ve got videos of each schema explaining them. People can go there first of all and see if anything resonates with them.

I also do a personal kind of schema therapy, but I’m also launching a program which should be launched around April 5th. This is a 12 Module program, a systematic process of the kind of system I describe; building up the brain and identifying schemas. You get lifetime access to it so you can take your time. There’s a “live” call every week so people can ask questions. There’s a resource library, so if someone’s got problems with this emotional or that emotion they can go to the resource library. That will be launched soon, but in the meantime just looking at the site can give you a lot of information on schemas and how to start changing them as well.

Question: Okay great. And then my very last question (and I ask everybody this, and I actually asked you this last time too but I’ll ask again because maybe your advice is new or different) is, “What’s your biggest piece of advice for somebody who’s identified that they’re codependent and they want to get better right now?”

Definitely. Well, start by getting a journal. Journaling actually builds up the wiring between the emotional brain and the logical brain. Get a journal and just start writing down your thoughts and feelings around certain events. Just some clarity over a couple of weeks can make profound changes, so I’d definitely start doing that.

One other thing is (and I know you talk about this a lot)  boundaries are essential; just learning to say “no”. It is difficult at first, but visualizing actually changes our brain as if we were actually doing it, that’s a fact. So, when you visualize putting a boundary in with someone over and over again, you’re actually creating pathways in the brain as if you’d already done that, so that’s a really good tip that my clients find really helpful. Read as much as you can, intellectually become aware, and then just systematically start changing small little behaviors.

If you get the edge to give someone advice – stop, just feel those feelings. Feel the urge and do the opposite action. With schemas, look at the behavior that’s causing the problem and then do the opposite. That’s probably the best advice I could give but it does take time. Having patience with the process is probably the best advice I can give.

Brian: That’s great. Thank you so much for coming on the show again to keep educating us. I firmly believe people are going to get some good value out of what you’ve described here, and I wish you well as you continue your practice and with your new course.

Christine: Thank you. And again, thank you for having me back on. Hopefully we’ll speak again soon.

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What did you think? Did you learn anything new, or do you have experience with schema therapy? Comment below and let us know 🙂

Keep Moving Forward,

Brian

4 Comments
  1. I will read this podcast A few more times within the next week or so. But, I have to say after reading it for the first time is WOW! I’m so grateful to have found this! Guess what? I not only see that light at the end of the tunnel, I’m getting so close I can feel the warmth from it! Thank you both so much!

  2. Brian, Would gladly fill out the survey mentioned in the podcast, but I do not see it in the show notes. Please send me the link and I will fill it out. Good stuff on your podcast! Keep up the good work!

    • Thanks Anne!

      The orange button right near the top of the post will take you to the survey. Thanks so much for being willing to fill it out 🙂

      Brian