Internal Working Models, Core Schemas, and Storied Selves

In the clinical psycholog}' literature, there are a wide variety of ways to conceptualize the development and maintenance of the self. Attachment theory points to an internal working model of relationships, with a view of self and view of others forming a template of relationships, which leads to an attachment style (Bartholomew & Horowitz, 1991). More specifically, a negative view of self and positive view of others can lead to an anxious attachment style, whereas a negative view of self and negative view of others can result in an avoidant attachment style. Of course, secure attachments involve a positive view of both self and others, leading to the ability to form and maintain close, safe connections with others.

Traditional cognitive behavioral therapy suggests there are several layers of cognition, with automatic thoughts, intermediate beliefs, and core beliefs (Beck, 2011; Leahy, 2017). Foundationally, core beliefs—or core schemas— fuel intermediate beliefs (e.g., ingrained rules, unquestioned assumptions), which give rise to automatic thoughts. Common negative core schemas include themes of abject powerlessness and unlovability (Beck, 2011).

As one more example, acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)—a “third-wave” cognitive behavioral approach—suggests that we can overly rely on a distorted, storied, verbal self, which gets in the way of living out our values (Hayes et al., 2012). For example, we may become entangled with a story that suggests we are deeply flawed and unlovable because of experiences of verbal abuse in our family of origin. Rather than simply noticing this verbal content with openness and curiosity, we may

Biblical Anthropology, Axiology, Christian Psychotherapy 193 automatically assume our negative thoughts (e.g., “No one will love me because I am ugly”) are true, accurate, and best represent reality.

In each of these instances, our life experiences can shape our view of ourselves in the context of our most important relationships. In fact, we may struggle to question the accuracy of our deeply held views of ourselves, leading to the far-reaching struggle to follow Jesus on the roads of life. In the learning phase, we can work with Christian clients to identify the ways in which they rely on an arbitrarily generated view of the self, divorced from God’s view of them. As we do so, we are helping them to shift from their own understanding (that is, their own self-knowledge, which originally emanates from the fall and is reinforced in their family of origin) to a scriptural definition of who they are. In this process, they are returning to God at the center, rather than relying on their flawed notion of the self, inaccurately fashioned according to self-sufficiency and autonomy.

Questions to consider (adapted from Bartholomew & Horowitz, 1991; Beck, 2011; Hayes et al., 2012; Leahy, 2017), which come from attachment and cognitive-behavioral conceptualizations of the self (e.g., an internal working model, a core schema, the verbal self):

  • (a) Do you believe you are worthy of love from others (including God)? Why or why not? Where did this belief about yourself come from? How might God answer this question? What does the Bible say about this?
  • (b) Do you believe others (including God) are willing to love you and respond to your needs? Why or why not? Where did this belief about others come from? How might God answer this question? What does the Bible say about this?
  • (c) Do you believe you are able to exercise some personal agency in daily living? In other words, do you have at least some God-given control over your own life? Do you have the will-power and self-control to choose what is best for you? Why or why not? Where did this belief about yourself come from? How might God answer this question through your salvation in Christ? What does the Bible say about this?

Once you have explored these questions with your Christian clients, you can have them identify a possibly faulty, distorted view about themselves, then pivot towards a biblical understanding by having them meditate on God’s Word, the Bible. For example, a Christian client may originally state, “I’m unworthy of God’s love,” leading to symptoms of depression and anxiety. In turn, he or she can simply notice this thought, then gently pivot towards the central theme of John 3:16:

Although I’m having the thought that “I’m unworthy of God’s love,” which comes from my false self and tendency, due to the fall, todefine myself on my own, 1 know that God loves me so much that he sent his Son for me.

In placing “I’m having the thought that” before the thought, Christian clients are creating some space between their true self and their false self-generated thoughts, learning to turn to God, rather than their own understanding (Harris, 2009; Knabb, 2016; Proverbs 3:5).

“It Is Finished”: Jesus’ Experience on the Cross

On the cross, Jesus famously declared, “It is finished” (John 19:30). With this powerful expression, Jesus’ work was done—he offered himself as the perfect Lamb in response to humanity’s estrangement from God, displaying God’s enduring love (Kostenberger, 2009). In Jesus’ atoning work on the cross, those who believe in him are reconciled to God and are a new creation in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17-18). As a new creation, “those alive in Christ live for Christ by Christ’s principles and mandates,” reflecting Jesus’ infinite love (Guthrie, 2015, p. 308). In other words, “The individual’s whole being, value system, and behavior are changed... God has now delivered us from the bondage of sin and led us back from the exile of our estrangement from God to a new reconciled relationship” (Garland, 1999, p. 287).

To capture the contrast between the old, false self and new, true self, we can help Christian clients to imagine that they are literally walking with Christ, relying on him from moment to moment and step to step on the roads of life, just like a Ist-century disciple would follow a rabbi (Knabb, 2016). If this is the case, how might they think, feel, and act differently? If Jesus is their Source, what does a changed life look like? A visualization exercise can be helpful in this regard, allowing Christian clients to vividly imagine what daily life might be like in their town, work, home, and so on if Jesus was leading the way. How might their relationships be different? How about work life? What about family life? Finally, how might they relate differently to depression and anxiety if Jesus was their traveling companion?

Imagine that you have just gotten up in the morning. You begin your morning routine and notice that the doorbell rings. Answering the door, you notice that Jesus is patiently waiting for you to invite him in. He tells you that he is with you and will be empowering you today as you venture out into the world to accomplish your daily tasks. After getting ready, you head for the door with Jesus by your side, driving to your job, walking in to your office, and interacting with your co-work -ers. As you do so, you notice that you are thinking, feeling, and behaving differently because Jesus is with you, giving you all you need in your relationship with him from moment to moment. What, specifically, do you notice? How are your interactions different in considering

Biblical Anthropology, Axiology, Christian Psychotherapy 195 your thinking, feeling, and behaving? How are you a “new creation” in Christ as you go about the rest of your day? In what ways are you leaving behind the old, false self in order to make room for the new, true self found in Jesus as your traveling companion? How does his loving you and empowering you from moment to moment affect the way you live?

Thoughts and Feelings versus Virtues: Who’s the Captain of My Ship?

As a final example of an intervention in the learning phase, you can work with your Christian clients to better understand “who is the captain of the ship” when it comes to making life decisions and daily functioning. In acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), authors often point out that our default thoughts and feelings, derived from our earlier development, are notoriously unreliable as a guide for life, commonly leading us in the opposite direction of our values (Hayes et al., 2012). On the other hand, our God-given values—that is, principles for living that are expressed as behaviors, rather than mere abstract thoughts (Harris, 2009)—are more consistent and stable, helping us to press forward in spite of psychological pain. For example, to be a loving spouse and parent means we need to determine what being “loving” actually looks like (behaviorally speaking) in daily living and make a determination to continue to be loving in spite of fallen thoughts and feelings that tell us otherwise.

As a quick exercise, you can help your clients to identify who is steering their proverbial ship on the oceans of life. In other words, how are they determining the direction they should take? Are their fallen thoughts and feelings steering them on the stormy seas? Or, do they have a more stable, trustworthy navigation system to get them to shore? If the latter, who is guiding them? Is it themselves, reminiscent of placing themselves at the center of the proverbial garden? Or is Jesus the captain, helping them to live out a set of biblical virtues on the seas of life based on their union with him? Ultimately, to hand over the helm to Jesus means they must make room for some psychological pain, given he will be taking them into uncharted territory, asking them to go to places they have never been before (Matthew 4:19).

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