To answer this question you need to first understand what we, as schema therapists, mean when we talk about psychological modes. To help explain this I want to introduce you to Laura (Laura is fictitious to ensure my clients confidentiality)…
When I asked Laura early on in our work what bought her to therapy and how I could help
she said she just knew she was feeling very unhappy but she didn’t really know why. She
told me she had a loving partner, a good job, some close friends and felt confused as to why
she wasn’t feeling more content. In fact, she was very invalidating of her struggle-telling me
she just needs to get over herself and people have it far worse than her. I of course wanted
to better understand why Laura was feeling unhappy as I knew if we looked beneath the
surface a little we were likely to make better sense of what was going on for her.
Laura and I spent a few sessions exploring different aspects of her life. She told me how she
often felt very lonely despite having good connections in her life, including a loving
relationship with her partner Ben. She pushed herself relentlessly at work (often getting in
before all her colleagues despite having gone for a gym session before work), was sensitive
to any signs of criticism from her boss and co-workers and in the little time she did have in
the evenings (as she would often get home very late from the office) she usually found
herself mindlessly watching television whilst drinking her favourite glass of wine (or three).
When I asked her how she speaks to herself she was at first a little confused as she had
never really taken time to consider this. She started to get curious about this and began to
notice how much pressure she put on herself to keep on top of everything (her work,
household chores, making time for her family and friends) and also how harsh and
unforgiving she could be when she didn’t live up to her unrelenting expectations. This way of
living had been the norm for Laura now for many years and it was starting to take a toll. In
reality it had been taking a toll for a very long time it’s just that Laura had only just started to
recognise that something was wrong when her mood started to change-nowadays she often
felt very heavy and low and anxiety was making it hard for her to relax and get good quality
As we got further into our work together I asked Laura what life had been like for her growing
up. She told me she had a ‘normal’ childhood and relatively uneventful adolescence. She
explained she was an only child and that both her parents had been very high achievers and
travelled a lot with their work. They loved their daughter and really wanted the best for her
and they thought this meant sending her to the top school in the area, hiring the top nanny
and ensuring she was actively involved in multiple extra-curricular activities. They wanted
Laura to go to Oxbridge like they had so she could go on to get a good job and have a
successful career, which she largely had accomplished but she hadn’t expected this to come
with a feeling of emptiness and loneliness. What Laura didn’t remember so much of was fun
happy family time, or her parents noticing that she was withdrawing a little in the six months
that she was being bullied when she was 13 years old, or being reassured when she was
anxious come exam time. Laura remembered that nothing ‘bad’ really happened to her but,
as none of us usually do, she didn’t remember the absence of what didn’t happen that
should have happened. This is sometimes referred to as Childhood Emotional Neglect or
CEN and Dr Jonice Webb has written two great books on this topic which I encouraged
Laura to read. It was quite a painful read for Laura but also radically changed her
understanding of the unmet needs in her childhood.
What are modes?
When we have unmet emotional needs in our childhood we are often left with a part of us
still feeling like a lonely vulnerable child even when we have landed in adulthood. In schema
therapy we call this the Vulnerable Child Mode. A mode is simply a part of ourself- human
beings are multi faceted and modes help us understand these different parts. In schema
therapy we seek to explore and understand our own individual modes to help us make better
sense of ourselves and our thoughts,feelings,reactions,difficulties, relationship dynamics etc.
So through our work together Laura and I came to understand that she had a strong
Vulnerable Lonely Child Mode (feeling empty and alone) which we can see came about
because her most important emotional needs generally were not met. Laura also had an
Inferior Child Mode, another subtype of the Vulnerable Child mode, in which she easily
experiences feelings of humiliation and inferiority related to childhood experiences of
bullying and competitiveness amongst peers at school.
There are child modes that Laura didn’t develop, she didn’t have a Dependant Child Mode,
an Angry Child Mode, an Impulsive Child Mode or Undisciplined Child Mode. Sadly however
Laura also didn’t develop a particularly strong Happy/Contented Child Mode so she
struggled to feel loved, contented, connected, fulfilled and self confident.
As well as Child Modes schema therapists also refer to Parent Modes. Parent modes refer
to the internalized voice of the parent (although sometimes the internalised voice can be
from grandparents, siblings, peers or teachers). Laura had developed a very strong
Demanding Parent Mode: she continually pushes and pressures herself to meet excessively
high standards. Through therapy she also came to realise how strong her Critical Parent
Mode was learnt to soften the harsh, critical, and unforgiving way in which she had been
talking to herself.
The third category of modes that Laura and I explored were her coping modes. These are
ways we have learnt to protect ourselves and survive in the early environment in which we
were raised (including home and school life). There are many different coping modes that
people can develop but for Laura she had come to rely heavily on her Detached Self-
Soother mode. The function of this mode is to shut off emotions by engaging in activities that
will somehow soothe, stimulate or distract from feeling. These behaviours are usually
undertaken in an addictive or compulsive way, and can include workaholism (as was the
case for Laura), gambling, watching television (Laura would sometimes spend hours in front
of the television at night), dangerous sports, promiscuous sex, drug abuse or excessive
drinking (which Laura was heading for).
The final mode I want to discuss is referred to as the Healthy Adult Mode. This was the part
of Laura that could form friendships and relationships, take responsibility for her choices and
actions and problem solve. This is also a part that Laura and I strengthened in our work
together so that in a more balanced way she could pursue fulfillment in her work as well as
her intimate and social relationships.
As well as developing an understanding of her modes, which greatly helped with Laura’s self
awareness and self-understanding, she also (through the process of in-depth therapy) was
able to soften her parent and coping modes and comfort her Child Modes. Of course Laura’s
modes will likely be different to yours (although there is likely to be overlap) as we all have a
unique personality and thus a unique set of schema modes. As a Psychologist I love this
way of understand ourselves, moving away from diagnostic labels and instead developing a
rich, attuned and nuanced picture of who we are which then allows us to work towards the
version of our self we want to become.
Written by Dr. Olivia Thrift – registered Counselling Psychologist and founder of The Psychology Company.