Vulnerability to Harm Schema

Individuals who experience some form of impaired autonomy or self-identity formation may develop one or more of these four schemas: dependence/incompetence, vulnerability to harm, enmeshment/undeveloped self, and failure.



We may all occasionally have the worry that something bad is going to happen. If you have developed the vulnerability to harm schema, you may experience a persistent sense of imminent threats to the safety of you or your loved ones and an expectation of inevitable disasters striking unpredictably. This is linked to an ongoing feeling of the world being a dangerous place. Fears can circle around medical issues and severe illnesses (e.g. cancer, HIV), emotional issues, financial issues, criminal issues (e.g. murder, robberies, loss of freedom), and environmental issues (e.g. earthquakes, warfare). These fears are intense and disproportionate to the actual level of risk.


When activated, this schema may understandably trigger overwhelming fear, withdrawal, avoidance, protective measures, and fight or flight responses. The true need behind this schema is physical and emotional stability and safety in our environments; and the ability to handle upcoming threats or challenges.



Here are some questions to think about if you are considering whether the vulnerability to harm schema resonates with you:

Do you worry excessively about potential bad things happening to you or your family?

Do you feel unsafe when interacting with your environment?

Do you frequently read up on negative events that have happened in your wider environment, for example on the news?

Do you find your environment unpredictable and dangerous?

Do you frequently worry about your physical safety?

Do you frequently worry about your health?

Do you frequently worry about your finances?

Do you tend to catastrophize potential outcomes of challenges you are faced with?


If you generally answer no to most these questions, you are unlikely to have developed the vulnerability to harm schema. Please note: If you are dealing with active trauma, for example abuse, conflict zones, diagnosed health issues, environmental catastrophes such as fires or flooding, fears and concerns for your safety are appropriate responses to your environment.


This schema pertains to environments that are relatively safe and in which fears of imminent threat are disproportionate. If you think the vulnerability to harm schema applies to you, start observing how it manifests in your daily life. Recognition is key to changing patterns that stop you from achieving your goals.


To find out more about your own personal schemas, book a consultation with Dr. Terrighena on (852) 2715 4577 or e.terrighena@mind-balance.org.

Dr Esslin Terrighena - Psychologist in Hong Kong

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