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Constructing Emotions and Accommodating Emotional Schemas

Constructing Emotions and

Accommodating Schemas:
A model of self-exploration,
symbolization, and development
Michael Behr
Pdagogische Hochschule Schwbisch Gmnd, Germany

Abstract. Based on the schema concept and on basic findings of neuroscience, a five-step model of selfexploration is proposed. A cue is followed by Assimilation, Affect, Processing, Emotion, and Action
Motivation. This process can be understood as an ongoing activation of schemas. A persons congruent,
incongruent, or not-congruent experiences correspond to the alternative ways that schema and subschema networks fit or fail to fit with one another. The process of symbolization occurs as new schema
networks emerge and neuronal pathways extend, so that the higher order schemas accommodate new
experiences. The process is fostered when the person takes an observer position, maintaining some
distance from the immediate experiences and when the therapist offers direct and challenging interactional
experiences. Examples from everyday life and from play therapy are given.
Keywords: emotion, schema, client-centered therapy, neuroscience, play, interaction, development
Emotionen konstruieren und Schemas akkommodieren: Ein Modell der Selbst-Exploration,
Symbolisierung und Entwicklung
Basierend auf dem Schemakonzept und neurowissenschaftlichen Erkenntnissen wird ein 5-stufiges Modell
der Selbstexploration vorgeschlagen. Auf einen Reiz folgt die Assimilation, der Affekt, die Verarbeitung,
die Emotion und die Handlungsmotivation. Dieser Prozess kann als eine fortlaufende Aktivierung von
Schemas verstanden werden. Kongruente, inkongruente oder nicht-kongruente Erlebnisse einer Person
korrespondieren mit den verschiedenen Arten in denen die Schema und Subschema Netzwerke zueinander
passen oder eben nicht. Der Symbolisierungsprozess findet statt, indem neue Schema-Netzwerke entstehen
und neuronale Verknpfungen sich ausweiten, so dass Schemas hherer Ordnung neue Erfahrungen
ermglichen. Der Prozess wird gefrdert, wenn die Person eine Beobachterposition einnimmt mit einiger
Distanz von ihrer unmittelbaren Erfahrung, und wenn die Therapeutenperson eine direkte und
herausfordernde Interaktion anbietet. Es werden Beispiele aus dem Alltagsleben und der Spieltherapie
Author Note. Thanks to Germain Lietaer, Sandra Pedevilla, Veronica Hansmann, Jrgen Kriz and three anonymous reviewers for helpful comments on an earlier version of this paper. Thanks to Ramona Minder for designing
the figures. Address for correspondence: Michael Behr, Pdagogische Hochschule Schwbisch Gmnd,
Oberbettringerstr. 200, D-73539 Schwbisch Gmnd, Germany. E-mail:
Behr 1477-9757/09/01044-19
44 Person-Centered and Experiential Psychotherapies, Volume 8, Number

Construyendo emociones y esquemas de acomodacin/adaptacin: Un modelo de exploracin del
self, simbolizacin y desarrollo
Basado en el concepto de esquema y en descubrimientos bsicos de la neuro-ciencia, se propone un
modelo de cinco pasos de exploracin del self. Una seal es seguida por asimilacin, afecto, proceso,
emocin, y motivacin para la accin. Se puede entender este proceso como una activacin continua de
esquemas. Las experiencias congruentes, incongruentes, o no-congruentes de una persona corresponden
a las maneras alternativas en que las redes del esquema y del subesquema encajan o no unas con otras. El
proceso del simbolizacin ocurre mientras emergen nuevas redes del esquema y las vas neuronales se
extienden, de modo que los esquemas de orden ms alta acomoden/asimilen nuevas experiencias. El
proceso se fomenta/promueve cuando la persona toma una posicin de observador, manteniendo una
cierta distancia de las experiencias inmediatas y el terapeuta ofrece experiencias de interaccin directas y
desafiantes. Se dan ejemplos de la vida diaria y de terapia de juego.
La construction de schmes dmotions et dajustements : Un modle de lexploration de soi, de la
symbolisation et du dveloppement
Modle de lexploration de soi en cinq tapes, fond sur le concept du schme et sur les dcouvertes
fondamentales de la neuroscience. Un signal dclencheur est suivi par : lassimilation, laffecte, le processing,
lmotion, et laction-motivation. Ce processus peut tre compris en tant quactivation continue de
schmes. Les expriences congruentes ou non congruentes correspondent aux manires diffrentes dont
les rseaux de schmes et de sous schmes senclenchent ou ne senclenchent pas. Le processus de
symbolisation arrive au fur et mesure que de nouveaux rseaux de schmes mergent et que les chemins
neuronaux stendent, permettant ainsi des schmes plus volus de sajuster des expriences nouvelles.
Le processus est facilit quand la personne se met en position dobservateur, conservant du recul par
rapport aux expriences immdiates et quand le thrapeute offre des expriences directes et confrontantes
dinteractions. Des exemples sont tirs de la vie quotidienne et de la thrapie par le jeu.
A construo de emoes e esquemas de acomodao: Um modelo de auto-explorao, simbolizao
e desenvolvimento
Tendo como base o conceito de esquema e descobertas bsicas das neurocincias, prope-se um modelo
de auto-explorao em 5 etapas. Segue-se uma sugesto de Assimilao, Afecto, Processamento, Emoo
e Aco-Motivao. Este processo pode ser encarado como uma activao contnua de esquemas. As
experincias congruentes, incongruentes ou no-congruentes da pessoa correspondem a formas alternativas
em que as redes de esquemas ou sub-esquemas se ajustam ou no umas s outras. O processo de simbolizao
ocorre medida que emergem novas redes de esquemas e que as vias neuronais se alargam, de modo a que
os esquemas de ordem superior acomodem as novas experincias. O processo forjado quando a pessoa
assume a posio de observador, mantendo alguma distncia da experincia imediata, e quando o terapeuta
oferece experincias interaccionais directas e desafiadoras. So dados exemplos provenientes da vida
quotidiana e da ludoterapia.

Person-Centered and Experiential Psychotherapies, Volume 8, Number 1 45

Constructing Emotions and Accommodating Emotional Schemas


For decades major models of psychotherapy, especially psychodynamic and person-centered
therapy, viewed the discovering of feelings, which the person previously had been unaware
of, as a major principle of their work (Freud, 1986; Rogers 1951, 1959). More recent concepts
emphasize that therapy means facilitating an experiential process during which emotions can
be differentiated, adapted and emotional conflicts within the person can be resolved (Elliott,
Watson, Goldman, & Greenberg, 2004). For those concepts, a significant moment in therapy
means that an emotional split is resolved or that a new emotional status emerges. Therapists
do not focus on a search for unconscious manifestations of drives or for feelings, of which the
person is unaware. These would be strategies, as Ellingham (2001, p. 109) pointed out, that
are couched in Cartesian-Newtonian terms derived from Freud. In contrast these experiential
concepts are in line with a social constructivist paradigm, which means that the persons
feelings depend on how they interpret their surrounding social life and the meaning of other
peoples behavior for the persons self (Sullivan, 1953).
In this article I will pursue the question of why and how psychotherapy facilitates change.
Especially the schema construct and interactional concepts of the self will be used. I thus
attempt to refine the person-centered understanding of the symbolization process and suggest
a model of the self-exploration process, which integrates experiential and person-centered
ideas, and which is grounded in major theories of developmental psychology.
Non-aware emotions?
The experience of a sudden emergence of a new feeling or aspect of the persons self is so
powerful that metaphors, which are based in orthodox viewpoints, are still very much alive in
the everyday language of therapists and clients. Examples: to get in contact with feelings; to
be in search of the self; to discover the persons true self; to discover a feeling; you might find
what prevents you from . These metaphors represent an understanding within which
significant experiences seem to be hidden under some surface and therapist and client take
on the challenge to dive below that surface and find something, an allegory certainly influenced
by Freud and Rogers. On the other hand, Rogers didnt focus on a person setting out to find
a true self. His complex theory always emphasized the dynamic character of the self, the
ever-changing configurations in which emotions come into awareness. He describes the fully
functioning person (Rogers, 1963) not as a person who has found a true self but as a person
whose self changes from moment to moment (Bohart, 2007).
Rogers theory is inconsistent at an interesting point: In his famous dialogue with Buber,
Rogers stated that the experiences of client and therapist are equally valid. Both experiential
worlds exist with equal value and the therapist has no legitimate right to judge the clients inner
world and to assume there are feelings which the client does not experience. Rogers suggests an
ever-changing self but at the same time a model of incongruence which claims existent but
non-aware experiences. Rogers 19 propositions and his two-circle drawing (Figure 1) from
46 Person-Centered and Experiential Psychotherapies, Volume 8, Number 1


1951 (Rogers, 1951, p. 452) refer to three zones of the persons experience. The experiences
that occur in zone 3 are supposed to exist, but have in the past been denied to awareness or
distorted in awareness (Rogers, 1959, 1990, p. 240). This inconsistency between assigning
the client as the only authority for his experiences and assuming experiences which have been
denied has been addressed earlier by some very notable person-centered scholars: Margaret
Warner (2006); Campbell Purton (2004); Ivan Ellingham (2001); Gerd Speierer (1998) and
others. Also Gendlins theory of the experiential process (1962) contributed to the modification
the Rogerian model. All this has greatly facilitated and stimulated the development of the
following thread of argument.
Incongruence between Self
and Experience

More congruence




Figure 1. Visualization of the Rogerian Model of Incongruence

Being overwhelmed by emotions

An interesting challenge for this paper is raised by empirical research. According to Rogerian
(and Freudian) theory, a person whose experiences are not accepted into awareness would
not be able to get in touch with feelings. The person would be incongruent. The rationale for
the disorder is that the person would not be in contact with feelings, would not be able to
name feelings; he or she would feel somehow neutral or empty. There are certainly clients
whose experience is like this. However some empirical data challenge this rationale. In a
study with more than 400 participants (Behr & Becker, 2002, 2004) we found that, in line
with person-centered theory, the persons experience of having too few emotions correlates
with basic measures of mental disorders and life stress. This provides some support for the
idea that bringing emotions into awareness increases congruence. But the correlations are
quite low and much lower than correlations of mental disorders with an emotional mode of
experiencing too many emotions, of being flooded and overwhelmed by all sorts of emotions.
A much more powerful correlation with the measures of mental disorders and life stress
Person-Centered and Experiential Psychotherapies, Volume 8, Number 1 47

Constructing Emotions and Accommodating Emotional Schemas

emerges. These results are in line with Margaret Warners exciting work on fragile processes:
the overly emotional person would experience high intensity fragile process. However this
experiential mode has not been addressed as explicitly as the lack of emotions mode in
Rogers work.
Table 1
Intercorrelations of the Scales for Experiencing Emotions (SEE) with Disorder Specific
Personality and
disorder scales

NEO-FFI Neuroticisma
Life Satisfaction b
Stress b
Psychosomatic Problems b
ADS Depression c
STAI Trait-Anxiety d

lack of

being flooded
by emotions


.61 **

-.20 **
.17 **
.22 **
.17 *

-.53 **
.34 **
.35 **
.46 **
.54 **

Note. NEO-FFI = Five Factor Inventory; FPI = Freiburg Personality Inventory; ADS = General Depression Scale; STAI = State-Trait Anxiety Inventory
a: n = 216; b: n = 442; c: n = 228; d: n = 226
* p < .05; ** p < .01 (two-tailed)

Now these data do not necessarily reject ideas about existing emotions that are out of awareness
and that this causes incongruence and thus disorders. But the Rogerian model does not
completely explain the dramatic role which overwhelming emotions play. It isnt bringing
into awareness that seems to be the pivotal point, but more a bringing together, a managing,
a controlling, the getting of a coherent feeling, a consistent sense of what is happening inside.
It seems that the experiencing person is challenged to construct a coherent meaning of cues,
affects, thoughts, emotions, and action tendencies.
Constructing emotions
Thus this papers first proposal is:
Proposal 1: It makes a great deal of sense to regard the process of symbolization as a process of
construction. An emotion, of which the person is not aware, does not exist. When talking about
episodes, thoughts, feelings, or self, the emerging emotion is a construction taking place in this very

48 Person-Centered and Experiential Psychotherapies, Volume 8, Number 1


One first general example may convey the constructive nature of an experience:
Example 1: Suppose the cue which you became aware of was a frog. Which emotion
would emerge? This would depend on various factors like mood, past episodes, the
actual context, the meaning it has for you. Even if every other factor were equal,
different contexts would produce completely different emotions. Imagine encountering
the frog in open country near a lake, or in the bathroom of a second-class city hotel, or
finding its legs on your plate in a French gourmet restaurant! The emotion is constructed
some moments after the cue comes into awareness. It was not there before.
There are two major tracks of general psychological theory building on which a person-centered
understanding of these processes can be grounded. One is the astonishing progress that has
been made in neuroscience. The other is the concept of the schema, which has its roots in the
cognitive theory of Barlett (1932) and in the developmental theory of Piaget (1976, 1981).
The use of this term has a long history. Condensing the various definitions, a schema may be
called a pattern that organizes experiences. It is a structure within the brain that invites certain
actions, cognitions, or emotions more than others. It is based on a set of experiences and
knowledge that has been gained through personal experiences. The term was first coined by
Barlett (1932) who used it to describe an active organization of past reactions or experiences:
in an act of recall a process of construction is set off which uses already developed schemas to
construct compatible details (Kriz, 2004, 2008). Piaget adapted this and described processes
within childrens development with the term schema (Piaget 1976, 1981). He originally
used it to describe the development of infants sensorimotor actions, e.g., when they learn to
grasp an object, an invariable structure of what to do emerges. In his later work the term was
also used to refer to operational thoughts that lead to schematic representations based on
reflection. Thus Piagets concepts comprise both operative and abstract thinking.
On this basis a differentiated view of client processes has been developed by the British
person-centered child psychotherapists Wilson and Ryan (2005), and within an experiential,
emotion-focused perspective (Elliott, 1999; Elliott, Watson, Goldman, & Greenberg, 2004;
Greenberg, 2004; Greenberg & Paivio, 1997; Leijssen, 1998). This view centers on changeable
schemes. Their term schemes, rather than the usual term schemas, is intended to convey
the fluid, process-like nature of the experiences. They include the components of cognition,
affect, motivation, and behavior in relationship. Stiles, Osatuke, Glick, and Mackay (2004)
therefore provide a differentiated assimilation model to describe the change process of schemes.
These schemes are complex structures that organize experience whilst remaining outside of
awareness. They are activated by cues and thus can be regarded as potential emotions. Based
on a dialectical-constructivist viewpoint (Pascual-Leone, 1991), the emotion is seen as a
construction that is rooted in the scheme, is triggered by a perception, and constituted by the
aforementioned components.
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Constructing Emotions and Accommodating Emotional Schemas

As experiential, emotion-focused psychotherapy explicitly refers to the schema concept

and is most thoroughly rooted in Piagets paradigms, this has led to major recognition by
independent general psychotherapy research and conceptualization (Grawe, 1998, 2004).
Young, Klosko, and Weishaar (2003), who position their concept of Schema Therapy among
cognitive therapy approaches, draw from these experiential concepts as well. The change
process is understood as a change of emotional schemes within the person. In therapeutic
work, schemes are activated, client and therapist go through the emotions and motivations
that are evoked and clarify the underlying meanings; thus maladaptive schemes are reorganized
and new meanings may be found.

It is interesting to note briefly that neuroscience has arrived at findings and at models that
parallel the schema concept. As in the human brain neurons are interconnected within complex
networks, most of them emerging within the first three years of life, it is an obvious hypothesis
that the ways in which these networks are constructed attune the organism to the environment.
This includes the conditions of interpersonal relationships which the infant experiences.
Research has found that functional units for the different tasks of life can be located physically:
distinct areas of the brain are active while distinct tasks are being performed. This has suggested
hypotheses about neuronal networks that are manifested during all sorts of experiences and
functions within the person. A broad consensus exists for some basic assumptions about the
nature of these networks:

Figure 2. Networks located and organized on different hierarchical levels

50 Person-Centered and Experiential Psychotherapies, Volume 8, Number 1


The information processing networks are located on different hierarchical levels,

apparently a large number of them (Figure 2).
Networks are built out of networks from lower levels. Very different networks are all
interconnected and build functional units in multiple ways within and across
hierarchical levels.
Habitual ways of functioning within the organism mean, on a neurobiological level,
that within the structure of the networks the electro-biochemical flow of neuronal
information goes via preferred pathways. Neurons and systems of neurons that are
responsible for a certain function have especially trained connections and thus exchange
related information in more intense, rapid and dominating ways.
Connections, networks, and pathways can also emerge and change through experience
after infancy and childhood.


The schema construct from developmental psychology and the network model from
neurobiological research now allow the proposal of a person-centered theory of what congruent
or incongruent experiences are on the level of these models. Both claim that the mind is
organized in functional units even on a micro level, that these are hierarchically organized,
complex, interconnected, and changeable. Neuroscience can in part already prove this
on a physical level. I will continue to name these functional units schemas. This is because
schemas can be understood as being neuronal networks, but on a detailed level much of
neuroscience is also just a theoretical model, and the schema construct is widely used and
much better differentiated in psychology. Both models suggest that there is a hierarchical
structure of schemas, but also a complex, somewhat chaotic multiple interconnection; perhaps
each schema can connect to each of the other schema via a different pathway. Figure 3
provides a visualized model of this.

Figure 3. Model of a complex network structure

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Constructing Emotions and Accommodating Emotional Schemas

What happens if the person experiences something that we would call a congruent experience?
I propose to divide a schema-based model of this into five steps. This five-step process might
be called an exploration unit in which a cue is assimilated and an affect is launched; some
processing starts resulting in emotion and action motivation. An example will clarify:
Example 2: I am watching my wife have a tennis lesson at a holiday club. The attractive
and creative trainer makes my wife laugh heartily and be energized throughout.
What is happening inside me? I will divide what is happening into the above five
1. Assimilation: There are a number of cues provided by the trainer as just described.
Perceptive schemas are activated which allow me to categorize and give words to this.
2. Affect: Some affective schemas of mine are activated: especially boredom and some
disgust while looking at him. My breathing is flat, and I become aware of a slight
contraction in the stomach area.
3. Processing: Some cognitive schemas of mine get activated: the trainer quickly goes
into higher order schemas that I assume to be narcissistic and sex-seeking. And I
believe that he is supposed to offer nothing else but training. And I am giving meaning
to the situation: my wife is involved in a relationship which is a tennis lesson and a
flirtation at the same time and her mood is euphoric. A self-reference arises; I tell
myself that my skin is pale, my face looks strained, and that I am too distressed to
crack jokes all the time.
4. Emotion: I suddenly see that I am comparing myself to another person. The meaning
I am suddenly able to put on the whole situation is: I am jealous!
5. Action Motivation: Some first impulses to do something awaken in me.
My becoming aware of the meaning that I am putting on the experience and of my emotion
and motivation is now a new cue for me. Again five steps:
1. Assimilation: I perceive myself to be a jealous person.
2. Affect: My affect is astonishment.
3. Processing: My processing consists of cognitions that I often smile at jealousy and
find it a superfluous emotion. I recall that I dont want to manipulate the feelings of
4. Emotion: My emotion is of some shame: I had thought I would surely not be a
victim of jealous feelings and that thus I would be better than others!
5. Action Motivation: My action motivation now is to distract myself from what is
happening on the court.
This example stands for a schema-based model of the self-exploration process. At this stage
we may call it an exploration unit. It is located on a relatively general and high hierarchical
level within the network of schemas. It is mainly a serial process, developing over time. It
52 Person-Centered and Experiential Psychotherapies, Volume 8, Number 1


basically consists of five steps, each of which is defined by a schema and is based on numerous
sub-schema levels and sub-schemas.
The five steps are:
1. Assimilation: The person perceives a cue entering his field of awareness. The process
of perceiving includes that an existing schema assimilates the cue to known content.
The schemas do not accommodate at this point, thus the person does not perceive the
cue itself but what his or her schemas propose. Thus it may be possible not to see a
person as he is but instead as a narcissistic, sex-seeking tennis trainer.
2. Affect: An affect arises. This reaction is innate or classically conditioned. No cognitive
elements are necessarily involved such as fear, surprise, or disgust for a smart tennis
trainer. This has been outlined in its most differentiated form by Pascual-Leone (1991).
3. Processing: This includes recall of past experiences that are connected in some way:
The person is giving meaning to the cue and affect, especially in relation to the selfconcept. Cognitions, e.g., about the fit of past and present, are launched, and the
process may be connected to words and language. Again this is an assimilation process:
perception and affect are worked through with the existing schemas as operators.
4. Emotion: The emotion is a consequence of the previous points. It is a construction
resulting from a valuing process. As outlined by Elliot and Greenberg: the emotional
schema is the organisms operative structure to experience the emotion when given
elements are present. I am jealous; or I am ashamed about being jealous. The emotion
can also be regarded as being neuronal activity within a certain system of broad neuronal
pathways. Once activated it dominates other possible networks and therefore the
5. Action Motivation: In order to regulate emotional arousal, a tendency for actions,
and sometimes an action, emerges. It mostly occurs as an automatic habitual process,
which immediately follows the affect or follows specific emotions in specific contexts.
As the example tries to convey, in the cluster of steps 3 to 5: processing-emotion-action can
be perceived as a new cue by the organism. This new cue activates a new exploration schema:
the person perceives jealousy as a new cue, followed by astonishment, several memories,
shame and distraction. Again the cluster of steps 3 to 5 could be taken as a new cue thus
perpetuating the process of experiencing like a never-ending spiral. This model might be
visualized as a circle or spiral, see Figure 4. Again and again an experience undergoes processing,
and the processing results in a new cue. It is a continuing experiential process parallel to what
Gendlin (1962) had outlined much earlier.
To simplify the model, steps 1 and 2 might be subsumed as assimilation, and steps 3 to
5 might be subsumed as processing, which results in a new cue that will be assimilated. Thus
the flow of the self-exploration process can be regarded as an ever-developing chain or spiral
of assimilation and processing.

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Constructing Emotions and Accommodating Emotional Schemas

Figure 4. The ever-continuing circle of exploration


In contrast to the fairly congruent person A, the following example sketches the processes in
a less congruent person B.
Example 3: If I were this person B, the same cues the smart trainer and my euphoric
wife would broadly activate the same perceptive schemas and stimulate affects. As
to the processing (step 3), allow us to suppose there would be no schema in me that
would give a sexualized meaning to such situations. Maybe I generally have few schemas
to categorize interpersonal relationships. The meaning I put on the situation is: he is
a clown and she is having fun. In addition, another cognitive schema is working:
having a lesson means having to pay to work on improving skills, and having fun is
mainly in order to increase motivation and to sustain the learning process. Now they
are acting vice versa: fun is the main thing. Strange tennis lesson! I think. I am
feeling somehow odd, I can feel a slight tension; it makes no sense to watch this.
54 Person-Centered and Experiential Psychotherapies, Volume 8, Number 1


Why might person Bs process be called less congruent? The processing takes place on the
basis of existing schemas. Some perceptions thus do not make sense to him. There seems to
be an absence of significant symbolizations. Perceiving the whole situation does not evoke a
meaning for his self. The existing schemas cannot evoke or construct the interpersonal triangle
situation. Person B just assimilates a limited choice of what he perceives. In order to create an
adequate meaning for the self the existing schemas are insufficient.
Given these examples some ideas can now be gathered about how congruence,
incongruence, and symbolization could be defined. First I propose to use the term absence of
congruence, when lower order schemas are activated, but somehow isolated from one another
and from the rest of the experiential and cognitive field. Within the example a flirt schema
does not exist. Such isolated lower order schemas do not generate a conflict, but also they do
not generate a stronger meaning. I propose to regard absence of congruence as an incomplete
schema: a meaningful experience, a schema on a higher, general level, cannot evolve. In this
example this is because person B lacks some elements, sub-schemas, and thus cannot identify
a relationship where flirting is taking place.
A second important case is that of conflicting schemas. An example of this would be a
person C who booked the expensive club hotel only because everything else was booked up
but who has cognitive schemas to favor a simple, modest life, which leads him to regard
a five-star hotel as decadent, and whose organismic experiencing then starts to enjoy all these
luxurious facilities. These experiences conflict with the self-image of being a modest person.
Emotion-focused therapy conceptualizes conflicting schemas explicitly as the point of departure
for emotional change. Classical person-centered theory describes incongruence as a conflict
between self and experience and thus implicitly also as conflicting schemas.
A congruent experience has its roots in a complete schema: all needed aspects of human
functioning are involved. Once the cue is assimilated, all schemas addressed allow processing
to proceed without contradictions or missing elements and they thus provide meaning for
the self. Elliott and Leijssen have described this as an emotion schema with components
similar to those mentioned in the circle model Figure 4 (Elliott, 1999; Leijssen, 1998). But
this is not necessarily a new experience and a change of the schema network; an accommodation
has not necessarily begun.

How can a symbolization be described? According to classical person-centered theory a new
self-experience is integrated into the self-structure. Person As sudden experience of jealousy is
a good example: existing schemas interact but some of them did not do so before. Neglected
pathways were activated and broadened a little, especially those which connect the selfschemas with the notion of jealousy. So a new combination of sub-schemas was used for the
process. However, symbolization of experience is taking place, not only during significant
moments, but all the time during the experiential flow of everyday life. This experiential flow
has received a parallel description by Gendlin (1981) in the theory of focusing. We are
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Constructing Emotions and Accommodating Emotional Schemas

experiencing all the time in some way, but only when we focus on a special set of cues can a
meaning for the self arise (a felt sense) and a modification of it is possible (a felt shift). This
experiential flow can now be described as the circle above (Figure 4), where the processing and
finding meaning become a new cue for the next circle and so on. The experiential process thus
could be regarded as the rotation of exploration units as described above. Thus our everyday
experiencing is an ever-continuing flow of symbolization, and schemas of all sorts and on all
levels are activated all the time. Most of the time they form networks that do not provide
options to create meanings on a high level. Therefore they are too incomplete or conflicting.
But sometimes they do, and a significant symbolization can occur. And sometimes this significant
symbolization is new: this means: unconventional networks interacted via neglected pathways.
This leads to the culminating question of this model: How can the process of schema
accommodation be understood? How do schemas and thus the patterns of the persons general
functioning change? If repeated new significant symbolizations of a similar type occur, this
means that higher order network structures have to adapt: new lower level networks of
schemas interact via pathways which had been previously neglected or did not even exist.
This forces the pathways to learn to function, it broadens them and thus creates a new
network. This new network represents a new skill for the person to experience, express himor herself and to act. Thus schema accommodation is the emergence of new sub-schema networks
or the extension of neuronal pathways. It is imposed by repeated experiences of new significant
A highly functioning person would be someone whose circular processing of exploration
schemas would work well and rapidly. Thus this rotation would include many sub-schemas
and as a result provide more options to modify networks or allow new networks to emerge.
New interactions between the networks, thus new pathways, would often become necessary.
This person would have a reasonable chance of repeatedly experiencing significant
symbolizations and consequently, over some time, of creating new schemas. In contrast, in a
low functioning person the rotation of the exploration schemas would be slow or blocked.
The process whereby clients shift to symbolizations by constructing experiences and
emotions can be seen clearly in child psychotherapy. Young peoples symbolization processes
include language but this is not the predominant medium. Young people symbolize via
staging play scenes within the playroom and via acting out relationship issues with the therapist.
The playrooms toys are assimilated into the existing schemas, meanings are given to them,
and we assume that the staged scenarios refer to existing views of their reality (Behr &
Cornelius-White, 2008; Frhlich-Gildhoff, 2008). An example for schema accommodation:
Example 4: Seven-year-old Sue is aggressive, refuses to do school work and closes up
completely when asked to learn or to do something. Her father is addicted to alcohol;
the mother tries her best to keep the situation secret within the village. Within the
family she cannot protect Sue, Sues sister or herself when the father gets aggressive,
beats her and destroys the childrens toys. The mother cannot set boundaries anywhere.
As the therapist learned later, Sue is the only family member who is sometimes valued
by the father and at those moments can relate to him.
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Given this information we might understand the scenes Sue stages during the play
therapy process as incomplete schemas. In her fourth session a crocodile attacks the
castle of some animals and attempts to steal the storks eggs, the stork flies away and
the crocodile pursues the bird. I would regard this to be experiences and behavior
based on some kind of threat and flight schema with not many detailed aspects. An
aggressive figure takes away beloved objects and threatens the family at home. This
represents one dominating life experience of Sue, one major schema of experience.
Later on in therapy Sue creates all sorts of what we might interpret as father figures
and assigns all sorts of bad personality traits to them. Sometimes the figures are
threatening as before, sometimes they are put in prison, sometimes they slowly start to
be more pleasant. In the twenty-third session the animal family sits in their castle and
is visited by the crocodile, who now gets a name: Croco. Croco is allowed to come in,
they show their treasure, Croco wants some of this and they negotiate and give some
items to Croco. Finally Sue even decorates Croco.
Although fathers behavior did not change during therapy, Sues schemas underwent
an accommodation process. While experimenting with different modes of family life
and handling threatening people, new schemas emerged. They have significance in
addition to the threat-fight schema. A higher order schema was constructed, which
included a variety of views and continuous changing of experiences towards the father.
This schema did not exist before, it was constructed and it is new. It is interesting to
note that at this point in the therapy Sues behavior in school changed completely and
she became a pleasant, interested and accessible student.

In addition to the emergence of new sub-schema networks there seems to be a further process
which facilitates personal growth and which could be named distancing. This process
happens, for example, when the childs symbolization of a sad experience shifts from just
crying to saying I am sad. Obviously the child has found a further level of symbolization in
addition to a bodily and behavioral one. Similar processes occur when adolescents or adults
can put experiences into words instead of acting them out. For example, an adolescent who
succeeds in verbalizing needs and negotiating areas of decision making instead of violating
boundaries in a provocative fashion. What the client has achieved here is to gain a distance
from their immediate experience. They can look at their experiential process from a meta
position, or, as Bohart (2007) puts it, gain a meta-cognitive and meta-experiential relationship
with constructs. The person can learn to apply this in everyday life. In stressful situations they
keep their control by switching between two modes of perception: On the one hand they
perceive and are in the situation and acting, and on the other they can look at the situation
and at themselves from a certain distance. Thus, for instance, they can observe that anger
builds up in them and then follow self-chosen instructions to calm down.
This process seems to start with every new experience. The person dives into the experience
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Constructing Emotions and Accommodating Emotional Schemas

when a cue is assimilated and an affect arises. During the processing a distancing may take
place. The person perceives what is happening in her on an experiential level. The exploration
circle mentioned above (Figure 4) sometimes has a very small radius and sometimes a greater
one. In a person who acts out, the radius is near zero. Increasing the circles radius means
elaborating perception schemas, which allow the person to monitor her experiential process.
This is accomplished by gaining diverse modes of symbolization. In play therapy this
happens within the childs staging of inner processes. The child creates visual symbols, action
processes and experiences of self within this. The therapist supports this by offering the core
conditions and adds one pivotal mode of symbolization: namely language. The therapist
puts into words what is happening, addresses actions, motivations, cognitions, and feelings.
The child can perceive manifest aspects of his or her schemas: for example, see what has been
built, become aware of the play process, and hear the words the therapist adds to this. The
child can observe what has previously been an inner experience. Some distance arises. Thus
the childs exploration circle increases its radius.
Accordingly my second proposal is:
Proposal 2: The exploration process is a sequence of continuous constructions. It functions like a
circular process. Extending the radius means that symbolization increases in quantity and
significance. The more the radius is extended, the more the person can monitor her experiential
process from a meta position. The person can distance herself from her experience.

I propose to think not only in terms of one person-centered relationship, but to distinguish at
least two modes of person-centered relationships (Finke, 1994). Using the above mentioned
five-step exploration circle model (Figure 4) we can well identify at which phase of this
exploration process therapy work occurs: mainly within the processing, emotion, and action
motivation components, i.e., elaborating the dominating thoughts, feelings, motivations,
what contradicts, what is basic, how can this be reframed, which thoughts give better feelings,
etc. The client works this through and the therapist facilitates the clients process with empathic
and clarifying reflections. The person-centered relationship within which this work is grounded
may be called a facilitative relationship.
In addition an interactive relationship means that the therapist brings in his person and
experiences. They become the cue for the client and often launch most powerful and effective
processes. This leads to
Proposal 3: Most if not all relevant cues within psychotherapy are interpersonal and relational in
nature. They trigger interactional schemas. A symbolization is an accommodation or a new creation
of an interactional schema. The more the client enables the therapist to and the therapist
succeeds in responding on an interactional, relational level, the more effective therapy will be.
58 Person-Centered and Experiential Psychotherapies, Volume 8, Number 1


Most of the exploration schemas mentioned above could also be called relationship schemas
or interactional schemas. I prefer the term interactional schema, as this refers to a more detailed
view of sub-schemas dealing with what is observably happening between persons. The more
comprehensive experience of a relationship is rooted in a relationship schema. We might
regard a relationship schema as a higher order schema and as a construction of the lower level
interactional schemas.
It is interesting to note that two developmental theories have already conceptualized
similar constructs. One is attachment theory where Bowlbys notion of inner working models
refers to mental processes in which the child develops interactive schemas about both the
mothers and the selfs relational functioning (Bowlby, 1951; Grossmann & Grossmann,
2004). The other, D. Sterns infant research (1986), even regards a self-schema and an interactive
schema as the same thing. The components of the experiencing self are schemas that hold
experiences of relationship and interaction. Stern especially provides a very useful theory.
Reconsidering it for therapy, it suggests that the development or accommodation of schemas
will best be fostered by immediate interactional experiences. Thus immediate interactional
experiences would be very powerful cues in therapy. This can also be explained within the
model of an exploration schema mentioned above (Figure 4). Within a therapeutic facilitating
relationship a high proportion of attention is paid to the processing components. But when
offering immediate interactional experiences the therapists interventions shift forward towards
addressing the assimilation step. When this happens the client is challenged to assimilate the
therapists behavior and thereby to question existing schemas much earlier. This model supports
a person-centered way of thinking in which the relationship in itself is regarded to be the
decisive element of psychotherapy (Mearns & Cooper, 2005). In the following example the
therapist provides an immediate interactional experience. The assimilation of the cue is
immediately questioned because, instead of working through with language, the therapist
brings herself in by acting as a whole person.
Example 5: Tim chooses a board game and cheats. His interactive schemas are prepared
for this to be addressed, and also for going through a power struggle when claiming
that he did not cheat, and for receiving moral advice about being fair. But instead the
therapist starts to cheat in a similar, but not too threatening way herself. Most children
now struggle to retrieve an adequate interactive schema in order to assimilate this
behavior of their adult board game companion. A challenging process starts.
In contrast to the person-centered facilitative relationship, this mode of therapist behavior
could lead to a relationship that might be called a person-centered interactive relationship
(Behr, 2003, 2009). For example:
Example 6: Jo, a seven-year-old-boy, seeks an interactive process at his very first play
therapy session. He constructs a cave and then hides there, seeking verbal and auditory
contact all the time while not being visible. Of course the general topic of hiding in a
secure place gives room for many interpretations and therapeutic considerations. To
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Constructing Emotions and Accommodating Emotional Schemas

me the major topic staged by this boy is a relational one. He communicates to me his
emotional state but conceals what he is doing at the same time. This little client acts
out relationship schemas and seeks interactive experiences: establishing privacy,
autonomy, and feeling superior in this hidden position; at the same time schemas
about seeking interaction and empathy are awakened: Guess what I am doing. He
most skillfully stages this double experience and is completely immersed in this.
This goes on for some ten minutes. I sense an explicitly provoking and reactionseeking element in this guess-what-I-am-doing scene. Maybe he is acting out an
inconsistent interactive schema which combines search for privacy, feeling superior,
and provoking contact from this superior position. Thus I decide to give a cautious
resonance to this behavior: Thinking aloud I consider vaguely peering into the cave.
This provokes a strong reaction. Jo equips himself with a crossbow and threatens to
shoot at me. The inconsistent schema with the components I want to be heard,
understood, want contact shifts towards some clear defending privacy schema.
This is pivotal and a prerequisite for other experiences.
This little client acts out relationship schemas. He stages a scene with a distinct distribution
of privacy and power. In staging this he can, to some degree, watch and experience variations
and clarifications of this. Maybe a tiny bit more distance to experiences arises, when he
experiments with the ongoing process: In these minutes I never sensed that he had a plan of
how to proceed but instead abandoned himself to a flow of ideas and experience, working
through the privacy, superiority, contact topic, and finally shifting to clearly experiencing
and successfully defending the privacy need.

This papers main line of argument is: It makes sense to regard the process of symbolization
as a process of construction. When talking about episodes, thoughts, feelings or self, the
emerging emotion is a construction taking place in this very moment. This construction is
an ever-changing circular self-exploration process. The flow of exploration is continuous as
the processing is the cue for the next exploration unit. The self-exploration process goes on
and on in an ever-continuing circle. An accommodation of self-schemas is likely to occur,
when the rotation of the self-exploration circle is vibrant and when the person can distance
herself from and perceive the immediate experience. Thus I suggest a circular-constructivist
model of the self-exploration process.
A still greater potential for change is present when the therapist can respond to interactive
schemas which are acted out in therapy. The therapist therefore offers an interactive relationship,
giving resonance to relationship issues. This seems to be very challenging and very helpful in
many therapeutic situations. New interactive experiences are possible and thus new interactive
schemas, which can be regarded as self-schemas, may change directly and thus change the
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