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Lee Payton

Autumn 2019

What are your Blueprints saying about you?


Psychology as a discipline has attended much to research around how and why we think, feel and behave as we do. An example can be found in the concept of ‘schemas’. Put simply, schemas are like blueprints: patterns of information which our mind forms to organise and categorise thoughts as a ‘shortcut’ to simplify differing information structures and relationships between them. Simpler still: if I say ‘describe a restaurant’, you may have an idea which may be typical of many restaurants. Tables, chairs, perhaps a till, undoubtedly some loos beside a smaller table for two and people in some uniforms coming ‘to and fro’ with food. There might be a bar area. There might not. What else do you see?

What colour are the tablecloths?

This is where things get interesting. You may not have tablecloths in your restaurant. However, I do in mine. Mine are dark blue, heavy satin and fall to around knee height. The staff wear black trousers and shirts, and there is dark wood panelling around the walls in the ‘French Café’ style. And music? Well, the music is… And here things take another turn.

From the basic description, to which many people may agree represents the basic schema of a restaurant, we now go into specifics, into colour, music, and design clues. And I may be losing you, as this is becoming about ‘my’ restaurant, and not about yours. Take a moment, and think and describe what your restaurant looks, sounds and feels like. What food does it cook? What do the staff wear? Does it feel good to be there?

Experience it, to understand it

You may now have been able to describe your restaurant, which may be totally different from mine. And that’s a good thing. Our experiences are what make us who we are and therefore unique. Yet, pick out the parts which you recognise, and I wonder how much of your ‘mind restaurant’ reminded you of one specific place, or a mixture of several from over the years? How much of this culinary blueprint is formed from collections from your experience? I can share with you that the heavy blue satin of my tablecloths, was a one-off thing. A family dinner out for a special occasion, some thirty-five years ago, yet the tablecloth aspect is what my mind remembers, and decides to include in my version of a restaurant. What can you recognise from yours? Specifically, what is it which makes it yours?

Life is a cabaret

It sounds simple, doesn’t it? Yet, this small example can be an indicator of how we run our challenges and problems. Psychologist Jean Piaget, through his extensive work with children, saw intellectual growth as an ongoing process of adjusting and adapting to the world. This occurred, he felt, through assimilation, or using existing schema to attend to a new situation, accommodation, which means adapting existing schematic information which is not working: and equilibration, or the balancing of newer information with older knowledge.

This balance requires an adaption of thinking, yet corrects any experienced ‘disequilibration’, or imbalance in thinking, the potential cause of anxiety and mental unease.

Any feelings arising?

Schemas apply to pretty much everything. If something exists, it has a schema. One can have a schema of a chair (four legs, a back, can be used to sit at a table with) or of a fish (two eyes, fins, swims, tastes good with chips). In more complex schemas, we may have scenarios for atomic structures such as electrons, hierarchies such as organisational or family structures, and anything in between which represents the learning of information. Looking at this from a therapy perspective, schemas can massively affect clients as they seem so intrinsically integrated into their sense of identity, having become learned over time, often in childhood. There is a specific model of schema therapy, originally developed by Dr Jeff Young, which uses ‘integrative’ methods of working with clients, through employing aspects of different styles of therapy. Much in the same way Cognitive Hypnotherapy employs techniques aimed at the individuality of the client and their issue, to use the most helpful technique for their situation.

To dig deeper

Yet, inevitably, people can often feel as though ‘that’s just the way I am’. That change cannot be possible. Which in, and of itself, is its own schema: of, and towards, change. These thoughts might arise from a previous desire to change, without success, therefore becoming a prophecy which keeps becoming fulfilled. I would challenge anyone who absolutely firmly believes change isn’t possible to answer one question: have you ever read a horoscope, tossed a coin, thought about tarot or pondered ‘what if?’

If ‘yes’ there may be something directing you to how things may be different. These methods offer hope that change can take place. All you may need is the right therapist who can help you make sense of what you’ve chosen to believe about yourself. And conversely, what it might be helpful to adapt. Now, that’s something worth having a schema about.

To be, or not to be?

Shakespeare was more than a playwright. He was, in many respects, a social psychologist. He wrote about the human condition in its many varied forms. Jealousy, betrayal, love, hate, right and wrong. And a quote from one of his most famous creations, Hamlet- Prince of Denmark, seems aptly welcome of inclusion here: ‘there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’ And he has a point. Thinking is processing. It’s how we make sense of the multitude of different information inputs, whether visually (seeing), auditory (hearing), kinaesthetic (feeling), olfactory (smelling), or gustatory (tasting). And this is where a therapist can help: in helping clients work out which of these inputs of information over the timeline is helpful, and which isn’t. Yet, rather than thoughts being the mental events which they are, we attach meaning to them. Then they become alive. They become real.

What do you make of all this?

The schemas we create from the influx of information often informs how we live our lives from thereon. If we allow these schemas to go unchallenged and they are causing us to live our lives inauthentically, are we doing the best for ourselves and living life as fully as we could? Would this be something you would recommend if it was the person you care most in the world about? And if you don’t care most about you, couldn’t this be the moment you decide to change that schema?

But as Piaget’s theory of Cognitive Development can show us: the way we think is often the way we think ‘for now.’ By assimilating or adapting, we can discover equilibration. Balance, reintegration, change. The difference which makes the difference. Call it what you will: change is out there, and it’s waiting for you. Irrespective of what the blueprint says.

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” ― Heraclitus