Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Harnessing the Power of Schema Therapy in Coaching

We are pleased to share an article entitled  “Harnessing the Power of Schema Therapy in Coaching”  written by Katia Vlachos, Ph.D., CPCC, ACC
& Michael Watkins, Ph.D

As coaches, we guide and accompany our clients on their journeys to achieving their goals, helping them to overcome challenges and develop their potential. One tool that we find very useful in this work is the Schema-Trigger-Mode framework, derived from Schema Therapy. While typically used in therapeutic contexts, this framework can offer valuable insights as we seek to better understand and support our clients. At the same time, however, we need to recognize where coaching ends and therapy begins and know when to refer clients to mental health professionals.

An Overview of Schema Therapy

Schema Therapy is an integrative approach to psychotherapy, combining elements from cognitive, behavioral, and psychodynamic methodologies. Pioneered by psychologist Jeffrey E. Young and his colleagues, it was developed to address chronic mental health conditions that proved resistant to more traditional cognitive-behavioral therapy, including personality disorders, chronic depression, and anxiety disorders.

At the heart of Schema Therapy are the concepts of schemas, triggers, and modes.
Schemas are deeply ingrained patterns of thinking and feeling, often formed in childhood, which can shape a person’s perceptions of themselves, others, and the world around them. They typically develop when there are unmet emotional needs, and while they can be adaptive in childhood, they often become maladaptive in adulthood.

For example, the Unrelenting Standards schema is the pervasive belief that one must always strive to meet extremely high internalized standards of behavior and performance, usually to avoid criticism. Excellence isn’t good enough, only perfection, which is never achievable. This schema can develop as a result of growing up in an environment where achievement was excessively valued or where approval was conditional upon meeting high standards. In adulthood, this schema can lead to perfectionism, workaholism, and a constant sense of pressure or dissatisfaction. As a result, a person with the Unrelenting Standards schema can end up in a state of “joyless striving.” They can also push the people around them, such as their children or people who work for them, to behave similarly.

Triggers are specific situations, events, or experiences that activate a particular schema. These triggers can be anything the person perceives as similar to the conditions in which their schema was initially formed. A trigger for a person with an Unrelenting Standards schema could be making a minor mistake at work or seeing someone else do so. 

Modes are temporary but powerful mindsets or states a person enters when a schema is triggered. Modes are like moods, only stronger. They usually represent the person’s characteristic way of coping with the distress caused by the activated schema. Think of them as the versions of you that “show up” when you are triggered. Depending on the mode, this can involve avoiding the distress, fighting it, surrendering to it, or overcompensating for it. Common modes that people exhibit when triggered include:

  • Child Modes represent different aspects of a child’s emotional life. They include the Vulnerable Child (who feels sad, abandoned, or overwhelmed), the Angry Child (who feels angry, frustrated, or rebellious), and the Impulsive/Undisciplined Child (who acts on whims without considering the consequences).
  • Dysfunctional Parent Modes are internalized versions of the critical or demanding messages that the person received from their parents or caregivers. They include the Punitive Parent (critical and punishing) and the Demanding Parent (perfectionistic and never satisfied).
  • Maladaptive Coping Modes are ways that a person learned to cope with their distressing feelings and experiences. They include the Detached Self-Protector (who disconnects from their feelings to avoid pain), the Compliant Surrenderer (who gives in to other people’s demands and expectations), and the Overcompensator (who tries to cover up feelings of inadequacy or vulnerability by being overly assertive, controlling or perfectionistic).
  • Healthy Adult Mode is the mode that Schema Therapy aims to help people strengthen. When they’re in this mode, people can see things clearly, make good decisions, take care of themselves, and interact with others in healthy and satisfying ways.

The relationships between schemas, triggers, and modes are summarized in the table below.

Using the Schema-Trigger-Mode Framework in Coaching

Schema therapists help their patients understand and manage their triggers and modes but also support them in healing the underlying schemas. They use elements of cognitive behavioral therapy to challenge destructive thought patterns and behaviors, aiming to replace them with healthier alternatives. They also engage in the deeper work of helping their patients recognize and heal the childhood traumas that gave birth to maladaptive schemas. 

While coaches are not therapists and should not be excavating their clients’ early experiences or exploring traumatic events, they can apply the Schema-Trigger-Mode framework to help their clients:

  1. Identify recurring patterns in their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. This might include helping them to recognize their common triggers and the ways that they typically respond to these triggers.
  2. Increase self-awareness: This could be by helping them understand their schemas and modes and recognize when they’re getting activated.
  3. Develop healthier responses: This might involve cognitive strategies (like reframing negative thoughts), behavioral strategies (like practicing self-care), and mindfulness techniques (like noticing when a schema is being activated and choosing a different response).
  4. Set and achieve goals: Replacing destructive behaviors with healthier ones also helps clients as they pursue their goals. For example, if a client has a schema of failure and a trigger of taking on new challenges, the coach could work with them to develop a healthier response to this trigger (like reminding themselves of their past successes) in order to take on a new project at work.

Strengthen the Healthy Adult Mode, which is the mode that allows a person to see things clearly, make good decisions, take care of themselves, and interact with others in healthy and satisfying ways. This could involve strategies for self-care, assertiveness, and healthy boundary-setting.

Respecting the Boundary Between Coaching and Therapy

While the Schema-Trigger-Mode framework can be an effective coaching tool, coaches must be mindful of the line between coaching and therapy.

Coaching is present- and future-oriented, focusing on personal growth and transformation, whereas therapy aims to heal psychological dysfunction, cope with past traumas, and manage mental illness. While they can use the Schema-Trigger-Mode framework to help their clients better understand themselves and overcome barriers to their goals, coaches should recognize when a client’s distress is beyond the coach’s ability to support them. Coaches should not attempt to treat mental health disorders or severe psychological pain. If a coach identifies that a client is in significant distress or that their schemas, triggers, and modes are leading to harmful behaviors or severe emotional distress, they should refer the client to a mental health professional.

In summary, the Schema-Trigger-Mode framework offers a helpful model for coaches to understand and address their clients’ emotional regulation and behavioral challenges. It can help coaches work with their clients to identify patterns that may hold them back and develop healthier strategies to reach their goals. Still, this work is no substitute for professional psychological treatment when such treatment is needed. Therefore, coaches must know their limits and respect the boundary between coaching and therapy.

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