Mistrust/Abuse Schema

Mistrust/Abuse Schema

Mistrust/Abuse Schema

Do you find it difficult to maintain friendships and acquaintances, to relate to coworkers, and to keep stable and satisfying romantic relationships because you have an unconscious attitude of distrust toward others or the world in general?

Are you cynical of the intentions of others?

Do you feel like the world is out to get you, rip you off, or intentionally annoy you?

Do you turn inward and fear getting too close to people?

In romantic relationships, do you feel fearful or worried that your partners will take advantage of you or cheat on you?

Are there times when you even feel like you can’t trust yourself because you’re human and no one can be trusted?

If this sounds familiar, you may have developed the schema of Mistrust/Abuse. This schema refers to the expectation that others will intentionally take advantage in some way. People with this schema expect others to hurt, cheat, or put them down.

How does this schema develop? Often adults who have developed this schema were physically, emotionally, or sexually abused as children. A child who is mistreated will learn to expect maltreatment from others and develop behaviors to protect themselves from vulnerability to further abuse. While these protective behaviors may help the child from experiencing more emotional or physical harm, they are carried on into adulthood creating obstacles to close and healthy relationships because of fear and isolation.

How may this schema manifest? There are three ways in which you may react when your Mistrust / Abuse schema is activated or triggered.

  1. Surrender:You will let people in your life who are not good for you, and they will harm you. In that way the abuse you were used too will continue in adult life.
  2. Avoidance:You will avoid intimate relationships. To cope with intense feelings, you may engage in behavior that is not good for you, like drinking too much alcohol, abusing substances, or eating a lot of unhealthy food.
  3. Overcompensation:You may become clingy to your partner, to make sure he or she cannot leave you. Any separation will give rise to intense feelings of anger. In this way the risk of your partner actually leaving will increase.

So, what can you do to change the schema and learn to trust again?

  1. Reduce over-vigilance to abuse
  2. Learn to recognize a spectrum of trustworthiness
  3. Alter your view of worthlessness/self-blame—stop making excuses for the abuser; place blame where it belongs
  4. Venting anger appropriately is important
  5. Gradually learn to trust honest people – experiment with sharing secrets and memories with a partner or friend
  6. Choose non-abusive partners – stop mistreating others and set limits with abusive people
  7. Be less punitive when other people make mistakes
  8. Stop gathering evidence and keeping score about the things people have done to hurt you
  9. Resist constantly testing others to see if they can be trusted
  10. Don’t take advantage of other people, thus prompting others to respond in kind.


Participating in therapy can help change schemas. The therapeutic relationship provides the antidote to helplessness, fear, and isolation as the experience provides feelings of safety, empowerment, and reconnection.