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A brief overview of schema modes: Which ones do you experience?

The human being is an organism capable of experiencing itself in a variety of ways. One main way experiencing manifests within the human organism is by experiencing different moods and emotional states, known as 'schema modes'.

Schema modes include emotions such as being sad, happy, angry or content. Schema theory postulates that there are at least 10 schema modes which are divided into four categories. Human beings experience these modes as they live their lives moment-by-moment, day-by-day.

The four categories are known as:

  • Child modes
  • Dysfunctional coping modes
  • Dysfunctional Parent modes
  • Healthy Adult mode

Each category has identifiable emotions, action tendencies or ways of being. At any given time, one or more of these modes may dominate our experiencing, coming forth and affecting how we feel, think or behave.

Identifiable child modes include the Vulnerable, Angry, Impulsive or Happy Child. The Vulnerable Child mode, once activated, can construct feelings of abandonment, abuse, deprivation and/or rejection. The Angry mode constructs angry feelings and inclinations to lash out without consideration of possible consequences. The impulsive mode acts without regard for self or others, it can be reckless and is led by its own desires. The Happy Child mode has satisfied its current emotional needs.

Dysfunctional coping modes include the Compliant Surrenderer, the Detached Protector and the Overcompensator. These modes correspond with the human responses of fight, freeze or flight when threatened.

For example, the Surrenderer submits, becoming passive, helpless and compliant. The Protector withdraws, emotionally detaching to escape from what is threatening and the Overcompensator fights back but may mistreat others and behave in a disproportionate way. 

The Punitive and Demanding Parent modes are two dysfunctional modes that are internalised by children as they grow-up in a relationship with their parents. The Punitive mode is punishing and gives the message to the person they are “bad” and should be punished. The Demanding Parent pushes and pressurises the child to meet excessively high standards which, ultimately, leaves the person feeling like they are inadequate or failure.

Finally, the Healthy Adult mode is the mode which schema therapists aim to strengthen. This mode is essential because it moderates all the other modes and has the capacity to heal or nurture them.

Human beings can shift between these various modes of functioning. If the Healthy Adult mode is strong and functioning in an optimal way, when other modes are triggered, the Healthy Adult mode will be able to regulate their effect and prevent them from dominating or ‘taking over’ one's experiencing.

As person-centred experiential therapists, we are always trying to help individual clients to understand and process their experiencing. Schema theory and practice offer a useful and helpful way to conceptualise, understand and work with our clients' process and may be worth integrating into the practice of person-centred and experiential therapy.

Meeting the needs of our clients is extremely important. If we aim to do this, it can be useful to 'open our minds' and take a look at what other approaches have to offer. The theory and practice of schema therapy is one such approach I highly recommend.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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