Dr Gemma Gladstone.
The Demanding, Punitive & Guilt-inducing ‘Parent’ Modes
These parent (or ‘inner critic’) modes are learned thoughts and beliefs (about yourself and others) which are negative in nature. They might sound like this: “I’m ugly, I’ll never get anywhere in life; I’m worthless, I’m not as good as others; no one could love me; I’m useless if I make mistakes; I’m boring, I’m going to stuff it up again, I’m just not good enough, If I don’t put other’s first I’m a selfish person, I’m responsible for other people’s happiness” and all sorts of other harsh and negative or unrealistic words. These are the messages from your inner critics or dysfunctional ‘parent’ modes. It is your voice speaking, your inner dialogue, the words or phrases you say to yourself in a tone and manner that is judgemental, demanding or nasty. But you weren’t born with these thoughts, they were all learned, directly or indirectly from your earlier experiences. These parent modes come from messages you received from parents and other early life events like bullying or other forms of social learning.
We all, depending on our natural temperament, internalised or introjected these ‘messages’ during our formative years and they became woven into the fabric of our evolving personality. That’s why we don’t tend to question them – because by adulthood, they are a fundamental part of our identify.
In schema therapy we divide the inner critic into three types: one is a fear-based part (we call this the “demanding parent” or critic), another is a nasty, mean part (we call this the “punitive parent”) and the third is a ‘guilt-tripping’ part – the guilt inducing parent mode or critic. This distinction is important because in therapy we target these parts in different ways and they can affect a person’s mental health to different degrees.
The Demanding Parent Voice – your inner perfectionist!
The demanding parent mode is fear-driven because it tells you that if you don’t do something or be something, then everything will fall apart. This part is unrelenting in its effort to get you to be better in some way. “Don’t stop studying because if you do you’ll fall behind and then you’ll fail and then you will be unemployable and have no money…….” “You have to look perfect all the time because if you don’t you’ll never meet anyone and you’ll be alone forever!” “Whatever you do don’t make a mistake because if you do others will see that you are an imposter and that you don’t have what it takes!” Basically, if you don’t follow the ‘advice’ of your demanding parent then you are doomed to failure or loneliness or some other sort of misery. People who are very perfectionistic have a strong demanding parent mode. They have huge amounts of anxiety which they manage by attempting to control every outcome with all sorts of coping behaviours (eg, being a ‘workaholic’; a ‘control-freak’; doing all the work and not delegating anything; checking their work excessively and countless more). If you’re a perfectionist you may have already realised that your inner critic never shuts up and you’re always listening in for its updates.
The Punitive Parent Voice – the nasty side!
The punitive parent mode is not fear-driven and it’s not trying to frighten you into doing something because it believes (albeit flawed) you need it. Punitive parent is a nasty voice that is demeaning and tells you that you are worthless, useless or defective in some way. This voice is often formed from direct and blatant verbal/psychological abuse from care-givers or others who hurt you in some way. It can also be formed because you did not receive positive messages about being valued, ‘seen’, respected & loved. It can often come about from a combination of early experiences where the child felt unseen and worthless because their emotional needs were not met. It’s important to remember that we are not born into the world with a sense of self-worth (psychologically speaking). We develop this sense of worth only if we are cared for in a way that makes us feel emotionally understood and validated. We need to be seen as a separate person with our own needs – physical, emotional and social.
Someone with a strong punitive parent mode may believe deep down that they don’t deserve good things, that they are worthless and unworthy of love. The person may feel as though they deserve punishment and they display signs of self-loathing such as self-mutilation and suicidal fantasises. Sometimes the punitive parent voice can be extremely strong and can cause people to hurt themselves or try to take their own lives.
Generally speaking, the louder this voice, the more at risk a person is of suffering from recurrent or persistent depression. It is the presence and strength of the punitive parent voice which often predicts how people cope over time and how much they struggle with persistent low mood. People with chronic or recurrent depression often have a strong punitive parent mode.
The Guilt-Inducing Parent Voice – the, if I win, then you will lose dilemma!
There is also another type of inner critic voice which we call the ‘guilt-inducing’ critic or parent mode. It sounds something like this: “If I ever put myself first, others will suffer”; “If I can’t always help others, then I’m lazy and selfish”; “If I say no to a request, then I’m just being self-centred”; “I am the one that has to help, it has to be me!”; “Disappointing others is unbearable for me, I feel so guilty” and so on, you get the picture!
Basically, this style of inner dialogue usually develops when a child grows up being somehow responsible for one or more of their care-takers or another ‘vulnerable’ person within the family unit. There is usually some type of pattern whereby the parent or parents gave the child a message that they must somehow take care of or protect the parent. These messages can be either direct in nature (eg, direct requests or directions from parents that the child must be responsible or take care of them), or indirect (eg, more subtle messages where the child learns that a parent needs to be taken care of or protected). In this regard one or more parents are very likely to be dependant on the child, either emotionally or physically. The parent does not have to directly make the child feel guilty explicitly, as the guilt is often more gradually and subtly acquired by the child. The ‘guilt-inducing’ voice can also come from experiences where a parent did try and manipulate the child’s emotions and actually make them feel guilty to a greater or lesser degree. This can be a more robust or toxic form of the guilt-inducing parent mode. For example, whenever the child or adolescent attempted to be independent of separate from the parent, the parent may have responded with messages which implied that the child would ‘hurt’ them, it they were to ‘separate’ and attend to their own needs (eg: “I don’t know what I’d do without you, I’d never survive without your help”; “go out with your friends if you like, I’ll just sit at home feeling lonely all night”; “It’s OK you have your own life to live, I’ll manage somehow I suppose”). As you can see, the development of the ‘guilt-inducing’ parent mode can be quite complex and can develop gradually over the years without any apparent parent-child conflict or trauma. If you have a strong ‘guilt-inducing’ parent mode, then you will generally have a lot of trouble setting healthy limits with others and even agonize over letting others down or saying no, even when you have to. Guilt is a very familiar emotion for you!
Your own demanding, punitive or guilt-inducing parent mode can come out and be directed towards other people, like your partner and your own children. If this is happening you need to gain insight into when it happens because ultimately it will destroy relationships. A child who grows up with a demanding or punitive parent will harbour a lot of resentment towards their parent and will have a strong angry child mode that they will have to work on.
In relationships, critic or parent modes can play out with negative consequences. For example, you may feel yourself flip into punitive parent mode if you feel the need to harshly berate your spouse if they have not done something to your standard, or you may say harsh, critical things to your child when you feel they are not listening to you. Afterwards, when you calm down, you might see that you have been excessively harsh or unreasonable and you may regret your words.
Fortunately, we can do something about all these types of inner critics! The goal of working on the demanding parents is to tame it, to dilute it down to an acceptable level where it helps you instead of hindering you. Because the punitive parent voice does not help you in any way, the goal is to override it in therapy with proven strategies. In schema therapy we can use all sorts of creative ways to destabilize the punitive parent, so that it’s ‘presence’ is either fully eradicated or reduced significantly. One of the key antidotes for all forms of inner critics is of course self-compassion. In Schema Therapy we refer to this as the ‘Healthy Adult’ mode. In schema therapy we want to heal the childhood vulnerabilities that believe the negative critical voices and also bolster the self-compassionate part of the person – their ‘Healthy Adult’ mode.
In schema therapy, the therapist can use different experiential methods including chair-work to externalise the inner critics to see how they play out in a client’s life and also how they might hinder progress in therapy. Being able to identify your inner critics and the types of message they express is an important first step towards healing in schema therapy.
Vulnerable Child Modes
Child modes are parts of self (or representations of the self) which came into being in childhood in response to the parenting you received and other experiences you encounted. Think about the concept of the ‘inner child’ that many therapists have written about. The term Vulnerable child (VC) is a general one used to described a part of the self which harbours all the emotional pain belonging to childhood. All the emotions, beliefs and behaviours which came about due to negative childhood experiences and relationships belong to the VC mode. The pain associated with physical, emotional and sexual abuse; abandonments and losses; and dismissive or neglectful parenting styles, are all stored here – within the VC mode.
There may be many different, more specific types of the VC modes, such as the ‘abused child’, the ‘abandoned child’, the ‘lonely child’, the ‘grieving child’ and so on. The VC is where all the unmet needs of the child reside. It very much depends upon your own personal childhood experiences, as to how you identify your VC part or parts. An essential part of therapy is to reconnect with and heal the VC mode, with the guidance of a skilled therapist experienced in the art of imagery re-scripting. With the help of your therapist, you will be able to meet and reconnect with these parts which you have previously cut off or disavowed in order to cope and get on with life.
It is very normal for people to want to ‘forget’ or dismiss aspects of their past in an attempt to get on with life and avoid feeling hurtful and uncomfortable emotions. However, when we do this we leave behind parts of us which continue to feel rejected and outcast and they can unconsciously influence the way we feel, the partners we choose and all manner of decisions we make.
There may be many ‘child’ representations of the self within all of us. That is, a person may have many painful or vulnerable inner children – so to speak. The thing to understand is that these ‘child parts of self’ often tend to get stuck in a time warp – as though they are stuck or trapped in the past (with only an awareness of what happen back then). Finding, reconnecting with and healing vulnerable child parts is an essential part of good schema therapy. It is only when we do this, that a person is able to truly accept and love themselves in a way that promotes long-term healing and real-life changes.
Angry Child Mode
This mode comes about as a natural response to not getting your childhood needs met or having them violated through mistreatment. It is the (child) part of self that feels the injustice of the unmet needs and gets angry because the needs were not met. During childhood, the anger was understandable. After all, if someone mistreats you, or stops you from doing something you really want to do, the normal human emotional response is anger. So the angry child mode is the part of self that develops out of wanting to defend or protect the child who was being mistreated, abandoned, invalidated or unloved. The underlying intention of the angry child is understandable, but it tends to be a disorganised and unhelpful mode when activated in the adult person.
You can usually tell if someone is in angry child mode because their anger outburst is excessive and appears to be disproportionate to the triggering event. Angry child mode often surfaces quickly after the person feels hurt, anxious or fearful. Angry responses come in to ‘over-compensate’ for an emotional need not being met.
The angry child wants to get a need met (they want understanding and connection) but they go about it in an unhelpful or primitive way (ie, it may look like a tantrum). For example, you could feel very hurt by a friend not returning your call and then flip into an angry mode. This anger usually feels very hot, intense, impulsive and out of control. In relationships, the angry child mode is triggered a lot. A person may feel abandoned by their partner and then pick a fight with them and get very angry, instead of expressing their true feelings of hurt. The angry child mode can be a destructive force in relationships and won’t win you any friends at work either. When the angry child mode is extreme and escalates into acts of impulsive (verbal or physical) aggression then a person may be in ‘enraged child’ mode. It is scary to be on the receiving end of the enraged child mode. The ‘trigger’ for the angry or enraged child modes is always some type of threat, criticism, abandonment, rejection or mistreatment – either real or imagined. The angry child mode is not an effective, healthy adult way of getting one’s needs met or resolving relationship disputes. If left unchecked it will most likely destroy relationships and leave you feeling very isolated and lonely.
Impulsive or Undisciplined Child Mode
A similar child mode is the undisciplined child mode. This part of self has developed either from a lack of discipline during childhood (ie, giving in to the child and poor limit setting) or the opposite whereby the childhood environment was very stern, rigid and strict with harsh discipline. So therefore, as a child – you either heard the word “no” too infrequently or not at all, or you heard it way too much. This is the “I want what I want, when I want it” mode and is usually quite strong in people struggling with addiction and other impulsive behaviours. Whenever we say to ourselves “I deserve this, I know I shouldn’t but I’m having it anyway” – we are usually in some degree of undisciplined child mode. Again, a person in this mode is usually trying to get some need met, but is probably going about it in an unhelpful way. One of the long-term negative consequences of having a strong undisciplined child mode is that it affects your ability to regulate yourself and your emotions in a healthy adult way. It is also linked with a sense of poor autonomy and a dependent personality style.
Happy / Contented / Authentic Child Mode
There is a mostly positive, ‘feel good’ child mode – referred to as the happy child mode. Can you think of times from your childhood when you felt free to express yourself, felt joyous and silly while also feeling safe and nurtured. Do you have times when you feel like that now? This might be your happy child mode – a part of you to be fostered and further developed. Sadly, some people don’t have any recollection of ever feeling this way in childhood because their early years were too marked by experiences of neglect, abuse or hardship. Therapy can help these people create a more positive, free, compassionate and joyful side of themselves. Intentionally, we can also help a VC part evolve into a happy or contented child mode.
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 ModesThese 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 ModesThere 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 ModeThis 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.
Why Schema Therapy Can Help You …..
Most people can benefit from Schema Therapy because we all have some degree of difficulty in our life which is linked to a schema. Everyone has schemas. Have you ever wondered why your emotional buttons get pushed, or why you seem to push other people’s buttons? Have you met people that really trigger a powerful emotional response in you? The answer is tied up in understanding your schemas, what they are, where they came from, and what or who triggers them. So gaining some insight around your schemas at an intellectual level firstly is helpful so you can have a framework for understanding your issues or problems. An experienced schema therapist will help you formulate your issues in a different way. Quite frankly, it is often the case that schema therapy is able to conceptualise your issues in new meaningful ways which differ significantly from previous therapies you might have tried. Schema therapy offers many people new hope when they have been previously told that they are beyond help or somehow ‘treatment-resistant’.
When schemas and/or modes are very strong and go unchecked or unchanged for a long time they become factors which play a very real role in the cause of emotional/psychological health problems like depression. By modifying your schemas, you can greatly reduce your vulnerability to future depression, clinical anxiety and other psychological issues. In particular, schema therapy is very useful for anyone with recurrent or long-standing mental health or psychological difficulties. Things like, multiple episodes or recurrent depression; depression which is difficult to shift; reoccurring negative events or persistent low self-esteem. It’s also very helpful for people with problematic romantic or family relationships and for people whose own personality styles tends to interfere with their well-being, relationships and general functioning.
Good examples of problems which are driven by schemas include: being a ‘self-sacrificer’ who can’t say “no” and becoming depressed or ill as a result; being attracted to ‘unavailable’ partners over and over again; expecting or anticipating that others will have control over you and carrying a lot of anger internally; expecting yourself to be perfect and not feeling good enough; feeling inferior to others; feeling inadequate and not able to stand on your own two feet; expecting loved ones to leave or disappoint you; being unable to trust other people; having volatile or difficult relationships or avoiding romantic relationships all together .
If you have noticed any type of recurring and unhelpful ‘pattern’ in your life, in relation to your mental health, work relationships or friendships, romantic relationships, stressful family dynamics or decisions you have made, then schema therapy is probably the best therapy for you! If you suffer from recurrent episodes of depression or if you have been told that you have ‘treatment resistant’ depression, then schema therapy is likely to help you in a way that other treatments have been unable to. If you have been told that you have Bipolar II disorder, problems with emotional regulation, urges to self-harm, or issues of addiction, then a dedicated attempt at schema therapy is likely to really help you.
You don’t have to have a serious mental health issue to benefit from Schema Therapy. It might be that you are curious about learning more about your personality and understanding why you do the things you do. Do you find it hard to ask for what you need? Are you the one always giving to others or do you guilty when you decide to take care of yourself? Have you noticed that you seem to be surrounded by Narcissistic people – at work, in your family of origin or in your friendships? Are you having trouble finding a healthy romantic relationship? Do you tend to have relationships with the same type of person? Do you tend to attract emotionally unavailable partners when all you are wanting is a secure relationship with a loving partner? Why does it seem so hard? Schema Therapy can often provide the answers you’ve been looking.