The interaction of a child with a caregiver teaches the child about him/herself and the world. A positive interaction with the caretaker, in which the child’s needs are being met, shows the world to be a dependable, controllable, just and predictable. It also shapes the manner in which the child values him/herself (i.e. I am being well taken care of and loved, I must be worthy). Due to predictable interactions, the child starts to establish three fundamental assumptions that create relative invulnerability: The world is benevolent; the world is meaningful; the self is worthy (Janoff-Bulman, 1992).
The first assumption that the world is meaningful maintains that the events that occur in the world are meaningful. Everything that happens makes sense, follows the principle of justice and social laws. This schema gives a sense of controllability and predictability. There is a belief in personal deservability; good, careful, decent and moral people get positive outcomes. The idea that people get what they deserve leads to the underestimation of negative event occurrence and overestimation of occurrences of positive events. The benevolence of the world refers to the core belief that the world and people are good, positive, helpful, caring and well-intentioned. The remaining core schema upholds the belief that the self is worthy and positive. One sees oneself as a good, capable and decent person who deserves love, affection and good outcomes in life. These are hard -core components that provide us with a psychological homeostasis between the self and external events (Janoff-Bulman,2006).
Early cognitions thus still shape adult vision of other people, the world and the self (Everly & Lating, 1995). The schemata shield the individual from anxiety by giving a sense of security, invulnerability and protection. The schemata influence data selection, interpretation, appraisal, planning of action and the chosen behavior. Existing schemata focus our attention to particular stimuli that is consistent with our existing beliefs and attitudes. There is an innate tendency to strive and maintain this balance. Data that is not congruent with the schemata will create dissonance. One tries to maintain the balance between inner beliefs and external events by adjusting the experiences of the world to existing beliefs and by avoiding everything that contradicts these beliefs. Nevertheless, a change within the individual will be unavoidable when major and drastic events occur in the environment of the individual.
Any traumatic event, i.e. terror attack, rape, assault, abuse, car accident, even death of a dear person or severe bullying, can disturb the balance and cause distress. Trauma can shatter or undermine core schemata. As a result, the protective shield is destroyed. The individual can no longer see himself or herself and the world in the same way. Preconceived notions that the world is a meaningful place also vanish. Notions such as controllability, predictability, justice, morality and fairness are lost. The once familiar and trusted world is suddenly perceived as arbitrary. The trauma survivor is now confronted with the evil in the world and its randomness. The world is perceived as being ruled by coincidences and luck. Things happen to good people for no apparent reason. Other people seem to be hostile, evil and deceitful. There is also a decrease in self-worth and increase in a sense of estrangement, unworthiness and inadequacy. One can no longer trust the core assumptions and rely on them as they failed the person. The disintegration in the conceptual system leads to psychological crisis. The illusion of invulnerability that provided comfort and safety is gone and the world is perceived though other goggles. Insecurities, loss of faith and negative emotions start creeping in.
A traumatic event in which another person overpowered the survivor will result in feelings of helplessness and powerlessness. The self was violated and its worth is now questioned. One might feel loss of the self; the image of what one was before the trauma or whom one could have been. Dissolution of previous conceptual systems might lead to stress, distress, depression, low self-esteem, self-blame, anxiety and many other overwhelming emotions. It increases the vulnerability of the individual to developing various psychological disorders.
The purpose of therapy is to work together with the client and identify these changed core beliefs, which impact the psychological problems. Challenging and testing the accuracy of the core beliefs is the next step. In doing so, generating possible alternative, more balanced beliefs that will lead to more positive feelings and behavioral changes. The more these newly held beliefs will get reaffirmed and the individual will believe more in their accuracy, the more these beliefs will be integrated in the already held sets of beliefs that the individual holds. Coming to terms with the shattered schemata, reestablishing and restoring beliefs that are more reflective of the present, will help the individual cope, adjust, regain a sense of mastery and find meaning and/or understanding of the event.
Everley, G. S., & Lating, J. M. (1995). Psychotraumatology: key papers and core concepts in post traumatic stress. New York: Plenum press.
Janoff-Bulman, R. (1992). Shattered Assumptions: Towards a New Psychology of Trauma. NY: Free Press.
Janoff-Bulman, R. (2006). Schema-change perspectives on posttraumatic growth. In L. G. Calhoun & R. G. Tedeschi (Eds.), Handbook of Posttraumatic Growth: Research and Practice. Mahweh, NJ: Erlbaum