It’s Wednesday morning and I’m slowly waking up for the pre-conference workshop. I dread to think that it is 3am in New York City right now. The conference centre - Messe Wien - is situated in Prater, Vienna, a stone's throw away from an amusement park that holds the oldest working ferris wheel in the world. Vienna, with its long history in psychoanalysis, the strong association with Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler, is a most appropriate place for a psychotherapy conference.
From an impressive list of pre-conference workshop options, I signed up for the Schema Therapy for Couples workshop.
For me, specializing in couples therapy work fell in the same category as dental work - necessary but guaranteed to cause discomfort. Living in New York City, the backdrop of the famous Sex in the City TV show - I work with many clients who either strive to be in romantic relationships or are dealing with troubled partnerships. Therefore, I felt it was important to learn more about this important human phenomena from a schema perspective. Also, I didn't want to miss out on an impressive panel of speakers: Travis Atkinson, Eckhard Roediger, Poul Perris, David Edwards, Bruce Stevens, and Chiara Simeone-DeFrancesco.
While CBT for couples has been used readily, schema therapy for couples is a relatively new innovative approach. Schema therapy for couples focuses on identifying the unmet needs of each partners and how they can be met in the context of the relationship. However, it is not simply "individual schema therapy x 2". A breadth of existing research and clinical material is integrated into schema therapy for couples, including work from Sue Johnson, John Gottman, Emotion Focused couples work, gestalt therapy chair work, and more.
I thoroughly enjoyed the role play activities and watching the wonderful video demonstration of couples chairwork by Chiara. The powerful schema therapy model applied to couples work -
I must say, I feel seduced by the prospect of working with more couples. Pun intended.
At the end of a long but stimulating day, we were treated to some wonderful poster presentations. I was particularly impressed to meet the delegates from countries where schema therapy is not widely practiced and where therapists are flying solo as beacons of schema therapy. These wonderful researchers and clinicians are part of the Ambassador’s program for ISST. In particular, Javad Najmabadizade and Marzieh Mottaghian worked on group schema therapy for couples and children in Iran, after translating Jeffrey Young’s Schema Therapy bible into Farsi. I also met with presenters from Belgrade studying the relationship between Early Maladaptive Schemas and war related experiences - very important work in light of the refugee issues facing most of Europe and the world. There were also presenters from Washington DC, Australia, and many more cities and countries that I did not have a chance to speak to.
It was truly wonderful to see schema therapy applied in such innovative ways across the world. There has always been a gap between Western modern psychology and the dissemination and representation across cultures. But I’m glad to see the efforts ISST is making to bridge this gap. I look forward to hearing about more applications of schema therapy in nonEnglish speaking countries in years to come.
The new president of ISST, Eckhard Roediger (MD) is a neurologist, psychiatrist and psychotherapist from Germany. He showed us a very heartening Powerpoint slide: in 2006, at ISST's first conference, only 45 people attended and the atmosphere was more like a "family reunion". Fast forward 10 years and the ISST membership has grown exponentially in size with over 600 people attending this year's conference in Vienna.
The topic of the Vienna conference was, “What is it with Modes? The Transdiagnostic Power of Mode work in schema therapy.” In the 30 years since Jeffrey Young created the powerful schema therapy model, the shift to looking at schema modes has been critical. The 2006 borderline personality disorder study and the 2014 Cluster C studies by Arnoud Arntz and colleagues are major milestone studies in our schema therapy world. These developments provided important empirical evidence to show that schema therapy is an efficacious treatment for personality disorders.
Over the course of the 2 day conference, presenters from all over the world provided the latest research and clinical applications of the schema mode therapy model on groups, positive clinical psychology, aging, forensics, therapy with family and children, sexuality, autism, addictions and more. It was truly inspiring.
I wish I could go through and describe every single workshop and symposium that I attended. However, that would be a monumental task and it does little justice to the many workshops and symposiums that I could not attend - as there were 6 streams of wonderful presentations going at most times.
At the closing ceremony, we were treated to a lovely performance by local Viennese performer who really showed us that acrobats and schema therapist have a lot in common- we both require a lot of flexibility!
The 10th ISST conference was a hit. I felt a tremendous connection to the schema therapy family. The conference reflected the main tenets of schema therapy such as authenticity, understanding and real human connections. It was also wonderful to see Jeffrey Young, the founder of Schema Therapy asking insightful questions at presentations and chatting to old friends at the conference banquet. He and the many schema therapists at the conference has truly created a community akin to a family.
I had a final day in Vienna after the conference. I spent the day enjoying the Egon Schiele paintings at the Leopold Museum and walked past this wonderful scene below. The human mind and spirit are truly wonderful.
Readings on Schema Therapy couples work
Atkinson, T. (2012). Schema Therapy for Couples: Healing Partners in a Relationship, In: van Vreeswijk M, Broersen J, Nadort M (eds). Handbook of Schema Therapy. Theory, Research and Practice. New York: Wiley, p. 323-336
Simeone-DiFrancesco, C., Roediger, E., Stevens, B. (2015). Healing Relationships: Schema Therapy for Couples, Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.
Readings for key Schema Therapy research
Dickhaut, V. & Arntz, A. (2014). Combined Group and Individual Schema Therapy for Borderline Personality Disorder: a Pilot Study. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 45, 242-251.
Josephine Giesen-Bloo, MSc; Richard van Dyck, MD, PhD; Philip Spinhoven PhD; Willem van Tilburg MD, PhD; Carmen Dirksen, PhD; Thea van Asselt, Msc; Ismay Kremers, PhD; Marjon Nadort, MSc; and Arnoud Arntz, PhD. (2006): Outpatient Psychotherapy for Borderline Personality Disorder: a randomized trial of Schema focused therapy versus Transference focused therapy. Archives of General Psychiatry, Vol. 63, No. 6, pp. 649-658.
Wetzelaer, P., Farrell, J., Evers, S.M.M.A., Jacob, G., Lee, C.W., Brand, O., van Breukelen, G., Fassbinder, E., Fretwell, H., Harper, R.P., Lavender, A., Lockwood, G., Malogiannis, I.A., Schweiger, U., Startup, H., Stevenson, T., Zarbock, G., & Arntz, A. (2014). Design of an international multicentre RCT on group schema therapy for borderline personality disorder. BMC Psychiatry, 14:319. DOI: 10.1186/s12888-014-0319-3