Because dysfunctional schemas may never be eliminated entirely, realistic therapeutic goals are to: (i) increase awareness of schemas and the situations that trigger them; (ii) increase understanding of how schemas affect feelings and behaviours; (iii) decrease the distress and maladaptive coping that are caused by schemas, and (iv) substitute more adaptive coping strategies (Ball, 2007; p122).
Challenging schemas with evidence can weaken the schema. Learning how to do it for him or herself builds coping skills that the client can use to decrease distress and solve problems more effectively when schemas are triggered. As maladaptive schemas develop and become entrenched, information that contradicts the schema is generally not perceived or ignored. Using evidence to challenge schemas involves examining both kinds of evidence (Leahy, 2003; p8).
Seeking only disconfirming evidence may be experienced as invalidating and may actually cause the client to become more resolute in their convictions (Gray, Maguen, & Litz, 2007; p79-80).
Simply pointing out the flawed logic in negative thoughts or maladaptive beliefs is rarely sufficient in reducing the strength of these beliefs. Real experience is the best way to gather evidence with sufficient power to challenge dysfunctional schemas. This is why the concept of ‘exposure’ is so important in Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, especially in the treatment of anxiety disorders including post-traumatic anxiety. There are various methods for discovering and ‘exposing’ the client to real evidence that disconfirms maladaptive core beliefs. The best approach is to start with less threatening situations and build up to more threatening. This is called graded exposure.
‘Guided discovery’ used to uncover schemas can also be used as a low threat approach to challenging them. If the practitioner is alert to the targeted schema, in the course of wide ranging conversations, questions can be asked that help the client to recognise and consider past experiences that are consistent and those that are inconsistent with the core belief.
A powerful experiential technique is for the practitioner to create situations in which the dysfunctional schemas are activated, but which are actually safe, so that the client can experience a reduction in distress during exposure to the situation, and witness the fact that the predicted negative consequences do not arise. Generally, several exposures are necessary, so the practitioner needs to design increasingly challenging situations. This can begin with ‘guided practice’ in situations where the practitioner is present, and progress to ‘real life practice’ when the client engages with challenging situations on her own.
In addition to or alongside the experiential and exposure techniques, logical disputation can help raise awareness and pull various bits of evidence together in a way that builds a coherent argument against a dysfunctional schema.