A schema or life trap is a persistent pattern of thought and behaviour that is self-defeating and dysfunctional. The schema develops during childhood or adolescence and can impact an individual throughout his or her life . For example, clients suffering from the unrelenting standards schema have a very strong belief that they must constantly strive to meet very high internalised performance standards in order to avoid criticism. This schema frequently results in feelings of being pressured and unable to slow down, combined with exaggerated criticism of themselves and others.
Brian (not his real name) is a 38 year-old, well built, immaculately dressed, partner in a major law firm. He had been a very successful student at law school and after serving as a summer clerk he was recruited by a leading firm immediately after graduation and so began his stellar career. He was one of the youngest members of the firm to be made partner, built himself an enviable reputation in the marketplace as a top litigator and was rewarded in the top remuneration range by the firm. Despite all his obvious success he had started to become deeply troubled over the last two years. This had been triggered by two very able senior associates who worked for him resigning at the same time and complaining to the People and Culture Department in their exit interviews about being unable to work with Brian who they described as hypercritical and completely unsupportive. About a year later it was compounded by an important client complaining to the firm’s CEO that Brian was very difficult to work with and that his relentless attention to detail was unhelpful and unwanted. The final straw that drove Brian to seek executive coaching was when he had an argument with his wife about his over-critical and unsupportive interaction with his eldest son. Brian was horrified to come to the conclusion that he was perpetuating the perfectionist style that he had learned from his own father and was now inflicting on his son.
In the first few sessions of coaching, it became clear that this pattern of perfectionism was both long standing and deeply engrained for Brian. At this point the coach introduced the concept of schema coaching and specifically the unrelenting standards schema. It was a turning point for Brian who could relate to the concept and was immediately impatient to make progress. The coach discussed a range of options with Brian and it was decided that they would hold an extended all day one-on-one coaching session together and see how much progress they could make.
The day began with a discussion about schemas and how they develop. A detailed family history was made and the case conceptualisation was undertaken with a central focus on the unrelenting standards schema. After a morning tea break, Brian and the coach began on a period of experiential work. Brian was able to vividly recall his father’s angry impatience when he was a child and described how, after a period of feeling deeply intimidated, he found that gaining top grades at school, doing all his household chores before being asked and being very tidy in his appearance, seemed to keep his father’s criticism at bay, at least in the short term. Brian was able to recall and recount in the first person an important incident of paternal criticism. This incident was used in a limited reparenting phase in which the coach modelled the healthy adult and sternly talked back to Brian’s father and told him to “lay off and just let Brian grow up”. This had a powerful effect on Brian who was close to tears at the end of this work. After a lunch break the coach assisted Brian to once again recall the same emotional event, but this time, talk back to his father himself. Despite Brian’s initial reluctance to do so, he overcame his concerns and found the experience very helpful. Towards the end of the session, the coach introduced the schema flash cards and Brian was rapidly able to use these to challenge the schema and foster more healthy coping strategies. The session ended with Brian developing a clear action plan to talk over the coaching day with his wife, gain her support for his efforts to change, have regular one-on-one catch ups with each of his staff and to focus on listening to them and being supportive - rather than being critical. He would regularly use the schema flash cards when he found himself exacerbated by his son, his team or his clients.
Brian and the coach met on a regular fortnightly basis for the next two months and despite a number of times when he reverted back to his old style, he made steady progress. His relationship with his wife and son improved a great deal and he had no further staff resignations. He recognised that he would need to continue to work at change and that vigilance was essential if he was to maintain the improvements.
Iain McCormick PhD, Executive Coach, 021 575449, firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo credit: The Levee Studios, Albany, USA.