Defectiveness: the 'I'm not good enough' schema

How many times have your clients told you they were rubbish, useless, a failure or just not good enough in some fundamental way? If the people you work with are anything like the ones who visit my consulting room, I’m guessing the answer is very often. This kind of thinking is, clearly, extremely unhelpful for our clients – and can lead to low self-esteem, depression, eating disorders, anxiety disorders and many other psychological and life-limiting problems.

In schema therapy, we see one or more schemas at the root of these problems, particularly Defectiveness/Shame, which is perhaps the most common schema in our clients. This might form in early childhood, for example if we have parents who tell us we’re slow, or stupid, or a bit too chubby. We might get bullied by our siblings, or find it hard to measure up to them, especially if we’re the youngest. Or the schema might develop at school, if we have (especially undiagnosed) dyslexia, struggle with one or more subjects, or find it hard to make friends.

As children, we might start to think ‘Maybe I am a bit stupid,’ or ‘Why can’t I keep up with the other kids? Maybe it’s true - I am clumsy and useless at sports.’ These thoughts begin to coalesce into deeply held beliefs – the cognitive layer of a schema. We probably feel our confidence sinking through the floor, or a deep sense of shame at our perceived failings – this is the emotional part of the schema. And we feel those emotions in our bodies – shame can feel like a horrible prickling sensation in the skin, nausea or tightness in the throat. And this is the physiological part of the schema.

What then happens is that, as we get older, this psychological construct gets triggered by people, situations or events that remind us of the stressful events from our childhood. We fail our driving test and suddenly our Defectiveness schema gets triggered and we are gripped by intense feelings of worthlessness and shame, which are completely disproportionate to the situation (we could just take another test – it’s not such a big deal). This is how schemas operate, which is what makes them so painful and the root cause of every psychological problem your clients present with.

Schemas can be healed

The good news is that, although they are stubborn and hard to change, schemas can be healed. Using techniques like imagery and chair work, or the attachment-based relational approaches that make up ‘limited reparenting’, we can slowly but surely start to challenge and modify the schema. We might help to modify some of those unhelpful beliefs about being stupid or useless; work on the maladaptive modes that keep them behaving in self-destructive or self-limiting ways; help the client focus on and enjoy their successes, which they probably discount or ignore; keep pointing out their strengths and the things we especially like about them, to meet those parenting needs that were not met for them as children.

Using these techniques and ways of understanding a client’s problems, schema therapy offers a powerful, effective and deeply compassionate way of helping even the most hard-to-treat problems and presentations.

If you would like to know more come along to one of my upcoming Schema Therapy Skills workshops below. You can also call me on 07766 704210 or use the contact form to get in touch.

Warm wishes,


Upcoming Schema Therapy Skills workshops:


In schema therapy, there is a strong emphasis on using experiential techniques such as imagery rescripting and chair work, which are seen as more effective and transformative than just talking about problems from the client’s past and present. This one-day workshop will teach you how imagery techniques can help rescript even the most traumatic experiences from your client’s childhood, such as incidences of abuse or neglect.

Cost: £180 including refreshments, all training materials and certificate of attendance confirming 6 CPD hours

Next date: 31st May 2019


This one-day course will explain the concept of ‘modes’, which are different aspects of our personality that are activated in different situations and by particular triggers. In addition to a brief overview of the theory of schema therapy and schemas/modes, you will learn how to assess and formulate your clients’ modes, as well as specific techniques such as imagery and chair work for working with key modes.

Cost: £180 including refreshments, all training materials and certificate of attendance confirming 6 CPD hours

Next date: 21st June 2019