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Schema Modes


The concept of a Schema Mode is probably the most difficult part of schema theory to explain, because it encompasses many elements.

As we mentioned on an earlier page , schema modes are the moment-to-moment emotional states and coping responses that we all experience. Often our schema modes are triggered by life situations that we are oversensitive to (our “emotional buttons”).

At any given point in time, some of our schemas, coping responses, and emotional states are inactive, or dormant, while others have become activated by life events and predominate our current mood and behavior. The predominant state that we are in at a given point in time is called our schema mode. All of us flip from mode to mode over time.

Here is our formal definition: a schema mode represents “those schemas, coping responses, or healthy behaviors that are currently active for an individual”. A schema mode is activated when particular schemas or coping responses have erupted into strong emotions or rigid coping styles that take over and control an individual’s functioning.

An individual may shift from one schema mode into another; as that shift occurs, different schemas or coping responses, previously dormant, become active.


Viewed in a slightly different way, a schema mode is: a facet of the self, involving specific schemas or coping responses, that has not been fully integrated with other facets. According to this perspective, schema modes can be characterised by the degree to which a particular schema mode state has become dissociated, or cut off, from an individual’s other modes. A schema mode, therefore, is a part of the self that is cut off, to some degree, from other aspects of the self.

The term Dissociative Identity Disorder (or Multiple Personality Disorder) is used to describe individuals who flip into schema modes that are at the extreme end of the dissociative spectrum. Patients with Dissociative Identity Disorder usually have different names (like John, Susan, or Danny) for each schema mode.

At the other extreme of dissociation — the mildest form of a schema mode — is a normal mood shift, such as a lonely mood or an angry mood.

We have currently identified 10 schema modes. The modes are grouped into four general categories: the Child modes, the Maladaptive Coping modes, the Maladaptive Parent modes, and the Healthy Adult mode. Some modes are healthy for an individual, while others are maladaptive.

One important goal of Schema Therapy is to teach patients how to strengthen their Healthy Adult mode, so that they can learn to navigate, negotiate with, nurture, or neutralise their other modes.




Vulnerable Child: feels lonely, isolated, sad, misunderstood, unsupported, defective, deprived, overwhelmed, incompetent, doubts self, needy, helpless, hopeless, frightened, anxious, worried, victimised, worthless, unloved, unlovable, lost, directionless, fragile, weak, defeated, oppressed, powerless, left out, excluded, pessimistic

Angry Child : feels intensely angry, enraged, infuriated, frustrated, impatient because the core emotional (or physical) needs of the vulnerable child are not being met
Impulsive/Undisciplined Child : acts on non-core desires or impulses in a selfish or uncontrolled manner to get his or her own way and often has difficulty delaying short-term gratification; often feels intensely angry, enraged, infuriated, frustrated, impatient when these non-core desires or impulses cannot be met.; may appear “spoiled”
Contented Child : feels loved, contented, connected, satisfied, fulfilled, protected, accepted, praised, worthwhile, nurtured, guided, understood, validated, self-confident, competent, appropriately autonomous or self-reliant, safe, resilient, strong, in control, adaptable, included, optimistic, spontaneous


Compliant Surrenderer : acts in a passive, subservient, submissive, approval-seeking, or self-deprecating way around others out of fear of conflict or rejection; tolerates abuse and/or bad treatment; does not express healthy needs or desires to others; selects people or engages in other behavior that directly maintains the self-defeating schema-driven pattern

Detached Protector : cuts off needs and feelings; detaches emotionally from people and rejects their help; feels withdrawn, spacey, distracted, disconnected, depersonalised, empty or bored; pursues distracting, self-soothing, or self-stimulating activities in a compulsive way or to excess; may adopt a cynical, aloof or pessimistic stance to avoid investing in people or activities

Overcompensator : feels and behaves in an inordinately grandiose, aggressive, dominant, competitive, arrogant, haughty, condescending, devaluing, overcontrolled, controlling, rebellious, manipulative, exploitative, attention-seeking, or status-seeking way. These feelings or behaviors must originally have developed to compensate for or gratify unmet core needs


Punitive Parent : feels that oneself or others deserves punishment or blame and often acts on these feelings by being blaming, punishing, or abusive towards self (e.g., self-mutilation) or others. This mode refers to the style with which rules are enforced rather than the nature of the rules.

Demanding or Critical Parent : feels that the “right” way to be is to be perfect or achieve at a very high level, to keep everything in order, to strive for high status, to be humble, to puts others needs before one’s own or to be efficient or avoid wasting time; or the person feels that it is wrong to express feelings or to act spontaneously. This mode refer to the nature of the internalised high standards and strict rules, rather than the style with which these rules are enforced; these rules are not compensatory in their function.



Healthy Adult : nurtures, validates and affirms the vulnerable child mode; sets limits for the angry and impulsive child modes; promotes and supports the healthy child mode; combats and eventually replaces the maladaptive coping modes; neutralises or moderates the maladaptive parent modes. This mode also performs appropriate adult functions such as working, parenting, taking responsibility, and committing; pursues pleasurable adult activities such as sex; intellectual, esthetic, and cultural interests; health maintenance; and athletic activities.