What are Coping Modes in Schema Therapy?

What are Coping Modes in Schema Therapy?

Schema Modes are considered to be moment-to-moment cognitive-emotional states (or personas) which a person can ‘live in’ and ‘operate from’. Modes tend to be observable by others. When our schemas are triggered, we react in certain ways (to cope with the schema or the pain of the schema). These behavioural reactions, along with the thoughts, feelings and sensations which go along with them – are schema modes. Each mode may have a specific behavioural response or set of responses when triggered and each mode will have a particular function or purpose. As observers, we experience people as being in a mode or having a dominate mode. Having an appreciation for modes, is a useful way to understand how and why a person might be behaving and to understand your own behaviours. A class of modes are referred to as maladaptive coping modes. People can flip into these modes as a way of coping with the core beliefs, thoughts and feelings of a particular schema or set of schemas. Another way of saying this is that people can flip into a coping mode as a way of coping with the negative messages from their inner critic modes (or dysfunctional ‘parent’ modes).

Avoidant or Protecting Modes

These modes develop usually gradually during childhood or adolescence as ways to protect the self and safe-guard the vulnerable child modes against harm and emotional pain. These modes can develop quite consciously with the person making a decision to act in a certain way, but they can also develop out of conscious awareness without the person being fully aware of the mode. These modes function to protect the vulnerable child (VC) mode from feeling the pain associated with the original unmet or violated childhood needs. These modes try to avoid painful schemas being triggered and if schemas are triggered they attempt to short-circuit the pain. A common protecting mode is the ‘detached protector’ which is a part of the person that detaches from ‘real’ connection and from inner needs. This mode is a part that is very cut off from emotions and it is difficult to have any authentic connection with a person in this mode. This mode can actively block therapy because it does not want the person to feel vulnerable at all – because being vulnerable is risky and potentially dangerous. There are other typical protector modes such as the Angry Protector and the Avoidant Protector. A person in angry protector mode is not easy to be with. They typically present as cynical, irritated, annoyed, and with defensive body language (ie, it might look like a wall of anger). The function is again to protect any vulnerability from being exposed or experienced and the angry protector is often very successful at keeping people at a distance. Often a challenge to work with in therapy, this mode often makes the person terminate therapy early – feeling very disillusioned. The therapist (if unaware of the function of the angry protector mode) may actually be relieved when the client does not return. This is very unfortunate, because after all, the angry protector is just a mode and it can be addressed and modified just like any other. Unlike the angry child mode, the function of the angry protector is to keep people away so that the VC cannot be seen. Sadly, the mode is often very successful. An avoidant protector mode attempts to keep the person safe by avoiding situations where painful and vulnerable feelings might be activated. This mode is extremely risk averse and simply avoids to keep the VC safe from activation. When working with your therapist, you might be able to come up with your own names for any protector modes that you have. If another name fit, then use it. Another very common avoidant/detached mode is the ‘detached self-soother’. This mode engages in compulsive or self-stimulating behaviours to soothe and distance the person from painful and tough emotions. We all engage in a little (or a lot) detached self-soothing from time to time, but it becomes a problem when its a repetitive pattern that interfers with our life or relationships, Common examples include excessive use of food, drugs or alcohol to numb or avoid painful feelings; binging or excessive time spent on social media to the exclusion of other important areas of life; compulsive use of gambling, internet porn or gaming; excessive ‘doona therapy’; shopping; ‘adrenaline junkies’ and compulsive sex (sometimes).

Over-Compensating Modes

There are a variety of typical over-compensating modes whose function is to fight against the feeling of certain schemas. Someone in an over-compensating mode may believe and behave as though they are the (dysfunctional) opposite of their inner thoughts and feelings (the opposite of the schema). As a way of coping with the messages from the punitive or demanding parent, these modes function to create an alternate reality by turning things on their heads. A very common over-compensatory mode is the ‘self-aggrandiser’. Here the person flips into a mode that has the external displays of the narcissist. They may act in a way that is superior, self-absorbed and self-important. They may sing their own praises, be demeaning to others and need to be ‘top dog’. The function of this mode is to convince themselves that they are OK and not inferior and to keep the negative punitive messages at bay. Also, if they can see others as inferior, then it is easier to see themselves as superior. If they can be intolerant and critical of others short-comings, then it’s much easier to be oblivious to their own. The self-aggrandiser can reject their own feelings of defectiveness by seeing that defectiveness in other people (or perhaps projecting it onto them). One big down side is this mode is its inability to get core emotional needs met. This mode tends to repel other people (particularly healthy people). Another common type of over-compensating modes is the ‘over-controller’. It might come in a few varieties (such as the perfectionistic or the suspicious type), but this mode is characterised by a need to have your hands on ‘the controls’ at all times. Underneath, the person is often very anxious and/or afraid of losing control and feels that they need to gain control and certainty to feel secure and good about themselves. The underlying fear is often that bad things or harm will happen to them (or others) if they relinquish control. This part of self is preoccupied by detail and is a micro-manager of life. Routine and rigidity is common-place and it’s very hard for this part of self to relax and let go. Highly correlated with dysfunctional perfectionism and negative mood, the ‘over-controller’ is not a pleasant mode to reside in! Another mode which over-compensates is the ‘bully and attack’. This is a threatening mode whereby the person in it believes that they need to ‘attack’ to survive or defend themselves (or a belief about themselves). The person can be intimidating and nasty in this mode and is trying to make themselves believe that they are powerful and get rid of any feelings of shame. In fact, a shame inducing event or a perception of being ‘ridiculed’ can trigger this mode in many people who are prone to it. The function of the mode is usually to let the other person know to “back off and watch out!” and to make them feel small and afraid. Sometimes, it is because the person was the victim of domestic abuse as a child and/or was raised by a cruel and violent parent. In this mode the person may be attempting to prevent being abused or to defend against perceived humiliation. In its extreme form, a person in this mode is sadistic, abusive and dangerous. People who regularly flip into this mode tend to have poorer psychological insight into what is happening and can often blame others for their own actions. There are other less common over-compensating modes which have been identified, more typically within forensic populations

The Compliant Surrenderer Mode

This is a common mode, which is often (unkindly) thought of as the ‘door-mat’ of coping modes. In schema therapy terms, ‘surrendering’ is one of three coping styles or ways people can respond when a schema is triggered. Typically, surrendering means to accept without question and ‘give in’ to the meaning or basic beliefs of the schema. When you surrender, you act, think and feel as if the schema were true. For each schema, there will be different surrendering behaviours – depending upon the meaning of each schema. There is also a ‘mode’ (ie, a persona or mode of operating) referred to as the ‘compliant surrenderer‘, which is a more generalized and global behavioural response or coping style. Like other modes, this is also considered to be a moment-to-moment cognitive-emotional state (or persona) which a person can ‘live in’ and ‘operate from’. It is not uncommon for this mode to be a dominate one in people with recurrent depression who also have dependant and/or avoidant personality traits (eg, cluster C personalities). A person in this mode tends to act in a passive, subservient, self-doubting and reassurance-seeking way to avoid rejection, disapproval and anger from others. A person with strong dependent traits in a co-called dependant relationship will display the persona of the compliant surrenderer. Those in romantic relationships with Narcissists often present as having a strong compliant surrenderer mode when they present for help with their relationship. Such people find it difficult to make important decisions and find it very difficult to cope in life without a ‘strong’ or dominant partner telling them what to do. Sometimes these people are willing to sacrifice their own true wants and needs in return for having their partner making all the decisions and taking responsibility for them. The cost for being in such a relationship is usually very high and the person ends up feeling trapped, unhappy and likely depressed. The attitudinal stance of the compliant surrenderer goes something like this: “oh well, this is just how life is”; “I can’t change things, there’s nothing I can do”; and “I have to accept the situation for how it is, it is beyond my control”. This mode (and all the associated personality features and behaviours) can be very robust and difficult to shift. There are many complexities tied up with this mode and the client need a skilled schema therapist to help disentangle all the strings. Having insight into your coping modes (as behavioural responses and reactions), as well as an understanding for how they are activated and why they have evolved, can be a very helpful first step towards real change. Importantly, we need to appreciate and understand the vulnerability which is underneath or behind the coping mode in order to ultimately reduce these maladaptive ‘surface’ modes.

Changing Lives with Schema Therapy