Q: What is a self-schema?
Let's begin by defining how we are using the word "schema?"
In cognitive psychology, the word schema is used to describe a mental process for efficiently processing and organizing incoming information. Consider the following example of schematic processing:
You are driving along the highway. You see flashing lights in your rear-view mirror. You immediately take your foot off the accelerator in readiness to brake.
Q: So what has responding automatically to flashing lights got to do with the "Self" or Spirituality?
This automatic response is the result of a cognitive schema that most drivers have for what it means to see flashing lights in their rearview mirrors. Because of this schema, the driver doesn't have to stop and think "I wonder what those lights mean;" or recognize the vehicle, or see who is driving it. The driver's knowledge, beliefs, and past experiences with flashing lights on a highway are stored in long-term memory and are linked to emotional and behavioral response sequences. It is as if the flashing lights themselves caused the driver's foot to ease off the accelerator without any intervening conscious thought. It all happens seemingly automatically and in a split second.
Well, we also process information about ourselves schematically. This means that our brains store in memory feedback concerning our attributes and capacities that we get from various sources throughout our lifetime (e.g., from others, from our senses, our bodies), and it links this information to our emotions and physiology in a complex interconnecting self-system that triggers automated scripts and behavioral action sequences that help us respond rapidly across situations. We don't have to stop and think "what kind of person am I" and "how would such a person respond?" Rather, cues in the environment trigger a schema that sets into motion an automated sequence of cognitive, emotional, and physiological responses. Let's look at an example:
If Pat believes himself to be an attractive and popular person based on prior 'knowledge' or experience, he is likely to perceive a stranger's stare as one of admiration. However, if Pat believes himself to be unattractive and unpopular, he is likely to perceive a stranger's stare as critical. Feeling admired rather than feeling criticized, of course, will elicit quite different thoughts and emotions, as well as potentially different behavioral responses. Furthermore, Pat will encode this stare and his response to it in his memory as further evidence of the accuracy of his beliefs about himself, thus further strengthening his self-schema for being attractive and popular (or unattractive and unpopular), which in turn will influence if and how he attends to and interprets future stares from strangers.
So in this simple example we can see how the same stimulus (a stare -- which, in fact, might have had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with Pat) would be processed quite differently depending upon the self-schema that was activated. We can also see how a self-schema could perpetuate itself and could grow stronger and more elaborate with each activation.
Q: Do people have just one self-schema?
No, not only do we create and activate multiple self-schemas across our lifetime, any one of a number of self-schemas may be activated at any given time. For example, when we are in the company of our parents, our child self-schema may well become activated no matter whether we are 6 years old or 60; however, in the company of our own children, our parent self-schema takes over. Furthermore, the self-schema that is active at our place of work may be quite different from the self-schema that is active at home, and the one that is active when dating might be quite unlike the self-schema that is most active when we marry.
Q: What determines which one of our many self-schemas is activated at any given moment?
The self-schema that is activated is the one that is most accessible and easily triggered. The most accessible self-schema is the one that is most detailed and well-rehearsed in that particular context. Using our earlier example, if Pat has had many prior experiences in different situations that supported his belief that (a) he is attractive and popular (or unattractive and unpopular) and (b) that a stranger's stare is to be perceived as confirmation of his belief about himself, then over time his accompanying thoughts, feelings, and behavioral responses to a stranger's stare will have become quite detailed, finely tuned, and well-rehearsed, such that a stranger's stare now, seemingly automatically, triggers Pat's response. However, a stare from his own child or from his own parents or his boss or wife or girlfriend might activate quite different self-schemas, and might result in quite different thoughts, feelings, and behavioral responses. Clearly some self-schemas readily co-exist while others may temporarily dominate at the expense of another.
Q: Does this mean that each of us has multiple personalities?
No, not in the pathological sense. Indeed, for the most part, multiple self-schemas are extremely useful to us in our daily lives. Without our conscious awareness, they help us make rapid decisions and to behave efficiently and appropriately in different situations and with different people. They guide what we attend to, and how we interpret and use incoming information and they activate specific cognitive, verbal, and behavioral action sequences -- which in cognitive psychology are called scripts and action plans -- that help us meet our goals more efficiently.
Q: If schemas are so useful, what's the problem?
There are several ways that schemas can become problematic. We are all familiar with the harm caused by using schemas to process information about other people (e.g., stereotypes, prejudice, discrimination); however, we usually don't see them as harmful to ourselves. Yet the schemas we have about ourselves can cause us suffering when we lose sight of the fact that they are no more and no less than cognitive constructs. In 3-S, we liken self-schemas to a high speed transportation system that can be very useful for transporting us rapidly towards our goals, but, unless we are mindful what road we are traveling we could find that we are thinking, feeling, and behaving in ways that are at odds with our highest ideals. Let's look at a few examples:
Pat has been smoking a pack of cigarettes each day for many years and now wants to quit having come to believe that addiction to any mind altering substance is harmful to himself and ultimately to his family and society. However, he is likely to have a very elaborate and well-rehearsed 'I am a smoker' or 'I am an addict' self-schema. This self-schema will include complex cognitive scripts and behavioral action sequences that lead to highly automated cigarette smoking. Even with the help of nicotine-replacement therapy, he may find that he still craves cigarettes and is unable to stop smoking. His inability to stop is not because he is weak-willed. On the contrary, his 'I am a smoker' self-schema has become connected to so many cognitive, emotional, and physiological links in his schematic self-system that almost anything can trigger the automated smoking behavior. Desperately wanting to stop smoking, Pat reaches for a cigarette, wondering why he is lighting it, and telling himself "I'm a smoker, that's just who I am, no use fighting it." We will examine the smoker's self-schema and what the smoker can do about it in detail in a separate section.
Let's look at other examples of self-schemas that cause people to suffer and that may lead to behaviors that are harmful to self and others.
Q: If my self-schema is not my true self, what is?
Self-schemas that usually develop in childhood, like "I'm bad, worthless, or unlovable" or "I'm stupid or incompetent" set into motion extremely negative emotions and harmful behaviors throughout the individual's life, and no amount of reassurance from others seems to have any lasting impact. Such individuals may attempt to hide what they believe to be the fact of their 'badness' or 'stupidity' with additional self-schemas, some of which may be extremely destructive to self and/or others. They may even attempt to hide it from themselves, perhaps by creating self-schemas for perfectionism. However, this self-schema will inevitably become activated, perhaps in some contexts more than others, and it will trigger a chain reaction of thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and actions that are likely to cause further suffering.
Many people equate their true self with their Spiritual self or Spiritual nature. How people describe their Spiritual nature differs from person to person, culture to culture, and will probably be influenced by an individual's religious beliefs. Some people may describe their Spiritual nature as the divinely inspired life force that not only flows through each of us, but ultimately defines us. Others may describe it as that which transcends ordinary human experience and connects all living beings. In the 3-S program, we do not presume to define it for other people, but we do begin with the proposition that our Spiritual nature is, at the very least, a source of compassion and insight that can provide each of us with a comfort, strength, and peace in our daily lives. It is often the case, however, that our multiple self-schemas, which create endless cycles of desire, craving, and suffering, are not only incompatible with experiencing and expressing compassion and insight, they also cause us to lose sight of our true nature.
Q: How can I experience and express my spirituality when faced with problems of daily life?
In the 3-S program, we view Spirituality as a precious, but often untapped, resource for coping with the problems of daily life. In the absence of a well-constructed Spiritual self-schema, our habitual self-schemas can obstruct our access to this resource. The goal of the 3-S program is therefore to construct a personal Spiritual path -- a Spiritual self-schema -- that will rapidly and efficiently provide access to our true Spiritual nature throughout daily life. Creating and maintaining this self-schema takes effort and practice. Vigilance is also required in order to prevent habitually activated self-schemas from intruding and transporting us away from our true nature. Care will also need to be taken not to confuse the self-schema that we will construct, as an expedient means of access, with our true Spiritual nature. As with any self-schema, it is simply a means to an end -- a process -- one that utilizes both contemporary cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques and religious practices that have been in use for over 2,500 years.
Readers interested in research on cognitive schematic information processing and on self-schema and self-regulation theories and therapies may wish to refer to the books and articles listed in the references.