Understand Life Patterns Through a Schema Therapy Lens

Understanding Life Patterns - Schema Therapy Lens
Our post will explore the ways in which our childhood experiences shape our lives in the present day.

Our post will explore the ways in which our childhood experiences shape our lives in the present day.

The very first step of schema therapy is to understand your emotions and the origin of your schemas. Schemas are self-defeating, core themes or patterns that we keep repeating throughout our lives. Many of our schemas develop in early life in response to unmet needs. These needs include safety, love, emotional connection and attention. When our needs are not met in childhood, schemas develop that lead to unhealthy life patterns. See the image below (from our recent video, What is Schema Therapy?) for an example, click to enlarge:

A useful metaphor is the idea that we all require vitamins as children in order to grow. For example, if we are missing calcium, our bones don’t grow strong. Similarly, without our ‘emotional vitamins’, we do not have the ingredients necessary to develop a resilient and robust sense of self-worth.

The second step of schema therapy is to explore all current negative consequences of these feelings and schemas. The next step is to support you in changing your feelings, schemas and associated dysfunctional behaviours. Thus, you will feel more satisfied and better able to fulfill your emotional needs in a healthy and appropriate way.

A basic principle of the mode concept is that everyone experiences themselves differently at different moments. While you may feel relaxed in one moment, you may feel sad in another. In another situation you may feel nothing and be emotionally disconnected. Such different states or sides are called “modes”.

In schema therapy we define the following modes:

Vulnerable and Angry Child Modes

Have you experienced a strong emotion in which you felt much younger than you really are? Feelings of weakness, inferiority, sadness or intense rage or anger are often related to “Child Modes” in schema therapy. We call them Child Modes because we assume that when your core emotional needs were not met in childhood, you will have emotional parts that cannot develop.

Core emotional needs are important for all human beings. However, they can differ in intensity. In schema therapy we assume five categories of core emotional needs (Young, Klosko, & Weishaar, 2006).

1. Attachment and safety: You need to feel close to others. The need for attachment comprises safety, predictability, stability, protection, guidance, attention, love, care, empathy, and acceptance and appreciation by others.
2. Independence, competence, and identity: You need to have an idea of what unique qualities make you the person you are and what you are good at.
3. Freedom to express your needs and feelings.
4. Spontaneity, fun and play.
5. Realistic boundaries: It is important for children to know their limits and to accept reasonable boundaries set by others.

Dysfunctional Parent Modes

People with strong Child Modes may be rejecting of, or confused by, the intensity of these feelings. You may experience the Vulnerable Child Mode as embarrassing or representing weakness. You may have been told that by early caretakers and punished for expressing your needs and feelings. You may have been called “too needy” in your childhood. When people devalue themselves or put excessive pressure upon themselves we may say they are in a Dysfunctional Parent Mode. We call them Dysfunctional Parent Modes as they have often been modelled by devaluing, invalidating or abusive parents, bullying peers or siblings, or media-based prejudices which interact with the temperament of the child. The concept “parent” often represents the internalisation of messages received from parents, caretakers, peers in childhood rather than an actual parent.

Coping Modes

When someone is affected by strong feelings they tend to use one or more favoured coping strategies to manage or reduce those feelings, or to hide them from others. We call such psychological survival strategies “Coping Modes” in schema therapy. Coping modes aim to help someone feel better or be less triggered in the short term. Such coping strategies include avoidant behaviours such as alcohol use or social retreat in order to manage negative feelings. Alternatively, another way of coping with vulnerable feelings is to behave aggressively or with excessive self-confidence when actually feeling weak or inferior.

Healthy Adult Mode

In addition to Child Modes and Dysfunctional Parent Modes we also have healthy sides. In schema therapy we call this the Healthy Adult Mode. In the Healthy Adult Mode we experience positive and balanced thoughts and feelings about ourselves. Our Healthy Adult Mode is our compassionate, limit setting, nurturing, assertive, wise and empathic side. This healthy side enables us to bond with others, express ourselves and have self-value, identity, and deal with realistic limitations. Our Healthy Adult Mode can prioritise activities and solve problems.

Happy Child Mode

Everyone has a need for spontaneity, fun, happiness and play, which is related to the Happy Child Mode. ☺


The Secure Nest Team


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