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What Reality TV Can Teach us about Schemas (…or How to Justify Watching The Bachelor again)

With another season of The Bachelor upon us, some may be deciding whether to invest time in another iteration of this series. There are actually things to be learned from Reality TV (if you know where to look), so if you are seeking a rationale to justify tuning in again, allow me provide you with a psychological one…

No doubt you have noticed how whenever a reality TV contestant exits the series and watches their finished show (thus encountering the Internet backlash), they vehemently protest their portrayal, bemoaning producers and the editing process. They report an inaccurate chronology of events, the omission of much appropriate and also charming behaviour, meaningful connections that really, truly did exist, and how their comments were taken wildly out of context to fit a prescribed narrative (i.e. Stage 5 Clinger, Misogynist, Gaslighter, Mean Girl). It happens every time, and One cannot help but wonder:

  1. if they have ever actually watched reality TV before; and
  2. what did they think was going to happen when they cheated on someone in front of a TV crew?

But there is something else to take from this. Each of us has our own version of a Machiavellian Reality TV editor inside our minds. They’re called Schemas. Schemas are self-defeating lenses through which we interpret other’s motives and actions, our own worth and competence, the way the world works. Schemas are also wildly inaccurate, prone to bias, and uniquely able to inflict great suffering across many decades of One’s life. Consider this: a person with an Abandonment Schema may be convinced (based on repeated early experiences) that other people will inevitably leave them or in some other way be unavailable, resulting in psychological pain. Unsurprisingly, they would prefer not to experience this pain again. To try to prevent this they might:

  1. Overcompensate for the Schema by trying to keep people close to them (Stage 5 Clinger behaviour);
  2. Avoid the Schema by rejecting close relationships entirely, therefore never being vulnerable to another painful abandonment;
  3. Surrender to the Schema by repeatedly choosing partners who do leave them or cannot seem to make a commitment, thus proving the Schema to be true.

(Note: This is a simplified example for how one schema operates – Schema Therapy lists 18 maladaptive schemas. See schematherapy.com for further detail).

Schemas were designed to help us in the early environment in which they developed; a protective coping mechanism. The problem is that they outgrow their usefulness in adulthood and hurt more than they help (none of the 3 strategies above will lead to close, ongoing connections). Part of how they hang around is by distorting information. So, someone who overcompensates for Abandonment will be on the lookout for any sign that the other person has lost interest/ is about to leave. They will overlook or downplay all the innocuous moments, become jealous over trivial matters, be hurt at minor separations (the other person may really just be busy at work), blow things out of proportion, compare innocent actions to those of past partners who have left, etc.

Just like a Reality TV editor, Schemas will twist details from your life to support the narrative. If you have a Failure schema, it will reproduce in exquisite detail every disappointing mark, every mistake and every mis-step. It will replay the footage over and over in your mind. What ends up on the cutting room floor are all the good (or even average) marks, which might well outnumber the poor ones. It will conveniently downplay or omit the relevant contextual information (like how you were moving house at the time, lost your USB and your cat was sick) that might explain the mark.

So what should One do with this? Use the Reality TV metaphor to create distance. If you are aware of your own particular set of schemas (it is not uncommon to have more than one), and can identify when it is activated, you may like to ask yourself the following questions:

Which episode is my editor constructing today? What character does it cast me as? What is it overlooking or downplaying? What footage has been left out? Is it adding unnecessarily dramatic music? Just as we may well (and this is highly recommended) watch a Reality TV dating show with a critical eye (Are they dubbing this? Wasn’t that contestant wearing a different coloured top before? Hey, how is it nighttime all of a sudden?), we may do well to treat our own mind in the same way.