Breaking Negative Thinking Patterns: A Schema Therapy Self-Help and Support Book


Changing Coping Modes

As with all other Modes, the important first step is to understand your Coping Modes thoroughly. The best way to do this is to think hard about your thoughts, feelings, and actions and to ask trustworthy people for their views on the way you seem to cope. The trustworthy people might include your therapist but might just be your friends, your partner, your siblings, or your favorite colleagues. Moreover, you should reflect on feedback you’ve previously had. Have other people, for example. noticed and commented that you’ve got a habit of trying to get around important things (Avoidant Coping Mode)? Or have you been asked repeatedly why you let other people treat you badly, or why you tolerate unbearable situations (Compliant Surrender Coping Mode)? Have you been accused of being arrogant or too aggressive (Overcompensating Coping Mode)? Comments of this kind are a precious source of information about your Coping Modes. Since we often feel quite well when we are in a Coping Mode, neutral observers are sometimes better than we are ourselves at detecting our typical coping behaviors. However, that will change once you’ve come to understand your Coping Modes; then it will be much easier for you to identify the Coping Mode you just “slipped into.”

10.1 Get in Touch with your Coping Modes

The following questions will help you determine your Coping Modes:

·     What kind of feedback do you get from friends or colleagues?

·     Do people from different life contexts (e.g. work, leisure, family) notice similar behavior patterns in you?

·     How do you react to emotional distress, e.g. conflicts in your relationships or at work?

·     Which coping styles from Chapter 4 did you recognize in yourself?

·     Go to your friends, your partner, or other people to you and ask them directly which coping style they associate with you. They’ll probably have good reasons for their opinions – but maybe they’ll never tell you unless you ask.

Keep in mind that Surrendering and Avoidant Coping behaviors are relatively easy to detect. People with these coping styles often sense clearly that they have emotional difficulties in dealing with certain situations. Things are different for overcompensation. When you are stuck in an overcompensatory Mode, showing off or attacking others, you may feel really strong and well in yourself. Negative feelings are pushed aside.. People around you can see, maybe even see through, your behavior but don’t dare to confront you. Therefore, it is often difficult to gain insight into your own overcompensation. An imagery exercise (Exercise 10.1) can be helpful.

Exercise 10.1

This imagery exercise can be helpful when you are not sure about the origin of a surrendering or some other coping style.

Close your eyes and go back to a situation in which your Coping Mode was active. Put yourself into this situation in your imagination: What are you doing? How does your voice sound? What do you say? How do you feel? How does your body feel?

Once you’ve got in touch with the situation, build an affective bridge into your childhood memories. Let your mind wander into your childhood and adolescence. Do you see any images with your inner eye? What people, situations, feelings, and needs are related to these images? Get a feeling for the biographical situation.

Finish the exercise by reflecting on the connections between your feelings today and your childhood memories. What did you learn with the exercise? What questions are still unanswered?

Case Examples

1.  Lots of times Karin has heard her husband and close friends say something along these lines: “There you go again: backing down and keeping out of everything.” This comment is a dead give-away that Karin has a strong Avoidant Coping Mode, which goes along with social retreat. When she starts thinking about a recent conflict with her neighbor she notices that, indeed, she got around the confrontation by avoiding the neighbor for several weeks. To get a better understanding of which situations trigger this Mode, she asks her husband and a friend who’s often given her the same feedback to identify the events and difficulties that she’s inclined to avoid.

2.  Lora is a selfless and devoted nurse. She’s often been told by her colleagues that she shouldn’t always take on the extra assignments nobody wants to take. Some of her colleagues never agree to do the extra duties because they know that Lora will give in eventually. This sounds like a Compliant Surrender Coping Mode – presumably Lora feels so much pressure when there’s a new assignment that she can’t help surrendering to the demands. Instead of keeping within reasonable limits as regards work time and effort she gives in and extends her hours of work almost indefinitely. Indeed, she’s spending so much time at work that she’s lost sight of all her friends. When she finally takes two weeks of vacation –only because her bosses pressured her to do so – she realizes that she’s completely neglected her private life.

3.  You already know Glenn, the narcissistic doctor from Section 4.3. His wife has often complained about his narcissism. Now she reads about coping styles and shows him an article about overcompensation. Along with the article she asks him to think about this carefully.

Glenn reads the article and is outraged – who does she think she is? At night he gets a beer and starts thinking about the whole issue. He has to admit that she has a point – it’s true, for instance, that he feels very bad, rejected, when his colleagues get more credit than he does. When that happens he usually resorts to boasting about own achievements. However, when his wife raises the issue with him again, some days later, he pretends not to remember the article or what it was about.

10.2 Reducing Coping Modes

The main goal here is to modify, in fact, to weaken, your Coping Modes in a way that stops them standing in your way when you’re trying to meet your needs. It’s important to keep in mind that every Coping Mode has a purpose, and a sensible degree of coping is actually quite healthy. For example, in the midst of some desperate conflict at your workplace it’s good to keep some emotional distance and to be able to switch on some level of Avoidant Coping. Coping Modes become problematic when they cause harm in your life, because you can’t manage to get out of them even if you want to.

Look at the pros and cons of your coping. Work out the advantages and disadvantages of your Coping Mode. First, try to get some feeling of when your Coping Mode causes problems and when it is actually useful. A pro–con list can be really helpful here. A pro–con list consists of two columns. The left is the “pro side”: in this column you write down all the advantages of your Coping Mode. The right is the “con side”: here you put all its disadvantages.

You may remember Harry, the insecure student of economics (Sections 4.2.1 and 4.2.2), and you have just been reading and thinking about Glenn. In the following box you will find the pro–con list for Harry’s Avoidant Coping Mode and for Glenn’s Overcompensation Mode (see 4.3.). Look at these lists and then use Worksheet 16, “Pros and cons of my Coping Mode” to check your own Coping Mode. Very often you find it’s short-term advantages on the pro side and long term problems on the con side (problematic behaviors).

Harry’s Avoidant Coping Mode



I don’t risk disappointment. If I don’t attend exams, I don’t risk failure.

I protect myself against being hurt because I don’t have close contacts or an intimate relationship.

I can escape confrontation with my insecure feelings; while watching TV I feel safe and independent.

I get around comparing myself to others.

I don’t give my colleagues a chance to treat me better than my former classmates.

I cannot experience the pleasure of being accepted or liked.

I don’t have a girlfriend although I really want one.

I can’t pursue my goals (e.g. finishing my studies) because I avoid exams.

Because I never risk anything, I can’t gain (friends, good achievements). This keeps my self-esteem at a very low level.

Glenn’s Overcompensatory Coping Mode



I feel good and superior in the moment.

I get respect and others don’t dare to criticize or question me.

My appearance is a self-fulfilling prophecy, meaning that others regard me as more competent than I actually am.

My colleagues don’t like me.

In a critical situation I’m pretty sure that none of my colleagues would stand behind me.

My wife is annoyed by my “affectation.”

I actually still feel insecure when I compare myself to my colleagues.

Worksheet 16: Pros and Cons of my Coping Mode

Pros and Cons of my Coping Mode

Coping style



My coping style:


My coping style:


My coping style:


My coping style:


My coping style:


My coping style:


These two examples should give you a picture of which life domain’s Coping Modes can be particularly harmful and damaging. Moreover, they point to opportunities for change. They make it clear, too, that advantages and disadvantages are often quite closely balanced – at least from a short-term perspective. Unlike the way we dealt with Punitive Parent Modes, therefore, it is not the aim to simply erase your Coping Mode… It should be weakened, but not disappear completely.

Planning change. Where do you want to start in reducing the influence of your Coping Modes? Do you want to communicate more in a Healthy Adult Mode or do you want to show your feelings more directly? Is your first aim to express needs and limits more clearly? You will often start by seeking to change the patterns of your private or professional relationships.

Case Example

Harry’s change plans:

·     I want to confront myself with classes and exams at university.

·     I will make an appointment with my professor next week to talk about my postgraduate ambitions.

·     I want to get acquainted with at least two other students in order to feel less alone at university.

·     Two nights a week I don’t want to be on my own at home.

If you want to change your Coping Modes it’s generally good to know how to activate your Healthy Adult Mode (see Chapter 5). Many people are in close contact with themselves and their Healthy Adult part when they take part in making music with others, such as by singing in a choir. Then they do neither avoid nor overcompensate. Other people feel most secure (and do not need to rely on a Coping Mode) when dealing with children or animals.

Once you know the kind of situations where you don’t need any kind of Coping Mode, you should be able to use them to get along better in other situations as well. You should use the “coping-free” situations as an inner “safe place.”

For the following exercise you need to imagine two situations – one “safe situation” in which you do not need a Coping Mode, and another more difficult situation in which you would normally be likely to react with your dominant Coping Mode.

Exercise 10.2

First, enter the safe situation in your imagination – singing in the choir, or playing with animals. How do you feel? Try to experience these relaxed and safe feelings intensively. Next, enter the difficult situation in your imagination and try to take along the feelings of safety and relaxation. Maybe you can also take along someone who was involved in the safe situation.

Note whether this exercise can change your feelings in the difficult situation, even if it’s only slightly.

10.2.1 Reducing the Compliant Surrender Mode

After you set up your change schedule you should choose to address some concrete situation. Maybe you’ve got a colleague who has been annoying you with an irritating habit for ages and you would like to ask her to stop it. Or you’d like to get your family members involved in some tasks that you’ve been doing on your own for a long time? Keep in mind that change always takes small steps. Start with changing one minor thing and continue from there.

Exercise 10.3

Reducing the Compliant Surrender Mode

You should plan concrete, realistic, and small steps when you start changing things. Furthermore, you need some idea of what your alternative behavior should be. How would you actually like to act in this situation? Don’t just aim to put a stop to your coping behavior, go on to develop a positive “vision” of your change – this is actually more important!

As a first step, imagine your new behavior vividly in an imagery exercise:

Make yourself comfortable and close your eyes.

Take pleasure in imagining how you act in a new way. If you feel your conscience beginning to raise objections to the new you try to determine if it’s your Guilt-inducing or Punitive Parent Mode. If yes, oppose to this Mode with a clear message –for example, “I don’t want you to play a big role in my life any more! Get out of this imagery exercise!”

The next step is to implement your “vision” in a relatively undemanding situation. Don’t be disappointed if it doesn’t work out perfectly on the very first try. At least you tried, that’s already a success! And a small step is a good step.

Next, start to implement your new behavior in more situations in your daily life. Reward yourself for progress. Praise yourself or give yourself a pat on the back… Or you may grant yourself a bowl of ice cream, a relaxing bath or a little present!

Case Example

Joshua (Chapter 4) decided to reduce the influence of his Compliant Surrender Mode. He already has an idea where to start. One client always manages to burden him with annoying assignments that are actually not part of his job. In the next meeting Joshua manages to resist the pressure to offer his support. When the client asks him for help, he declines in a friendly tone of voice. After the meeting he feels relieved and looks forward to acting in this way more often.

10.2.2 Reducing avoidance

Reducing avoidant behavior can be quite a task. Surrendering in a situation is always a short-term relief; thus, you always benefit in the short run from surrendering. (However, it causes big long-term problems. It can be a huge relief not to surrender!)

Unfortunately, this is often not true with Avoidance Coping Mode. When you start doing things that you’ve been avoiding it’s likely that you will find the process extremely stressful. The positive reward comes only after some time. You need patience and consistency to change avoiding behavior patterns!

Your pro and con list is very important here, too, because it helps you to keep the long-term disadvantages of avoidance in the front of your mind. This may support and strengthen your motivation for change. The reduction and weakening of avoidance follows the same rules as for surrendering (see Exercise 10.2 and Worksheet 16, “Pros and cons of my Coping Mode”). You can also use an imagery exercise like 10.3 in this case.


Figure 10.1 Reducing avoidance

Case Example

Harry decided to get in touch with his fellow students. When the next party is announced he works up his courage and agrees to come. At the party night he finally shows up around 11 p.m. He hardly sees any familiar faces and most people are already quite drunk. Harry ends up standing alone in the host’s kitchen, feeling uncomfortable and unconnected. He only briefly talks to a fellow student who is also interested in computer games. Unfortunately that guy leaves the party soon, as he has to work the next day. Harry feels his Punitive Parent Mode reaching up with the message “You’re just not one of them.”

When he finally leaves the party he feels disappointed and exhausted. But the next week he bumps into the guy he met at the party and he invites Harry to come over and play computer games with some friends. Harry accepts the invitation and notices that he feels much better meeting and interacting with a small number of people. He feels good about talking to the other guys and gaming with them.

10.2.3 Reducing Overcompensation

The reduction of overcompensation is similar to the reduction of Surrendering and Avoidant Mode patterns. However, probably even more than in the reduction of avoidance, the reduction of overcompensation will start to pay off only after some time. At first, you may well feel worse without your overcompensatory patterns. That is why it is so challenging to reduce overcompensation.

You’ve been coping with feelings of inferiority or anxiety by showing off or reacting aggressively. But you’ve managed to identify your overcompensatory coping style and decided to reduce it. The first time you don’t show off you may find yourself in touch with your feelings of inferiority. You may well feel more miserable since you’re no longer hiding behind your Coping Mode. And apart from that, showing off often feels great! It makes you feel satisfied, strong, and dominant.

You have to do without these good feelings if you want to change your pattern. Eventually, though, you’ll probably notice how much the people around you disliked your showing-off…

All these experiences will be worthwhile and important for you in the long term – although at first they may feel very bad. You can be proud of yourself when you manage to reduce overcompensation!

Understandably, people are usually only motivated to reduce overcompensation if they experience some disadvantages from it – other people drawing back, or their partner threatening to leave them. If you’re going through this process you may become depressed or anxious at first. This may sound harsh, but experience has shown that it’s true: negative experiences with overcompensation can increase your chances of a successful reduction of overcompensation. They can motivate your change! You may not start working on your overcompensation without the spur of such negative consequences – as long as people accommodate themselves to your wishes, you probably won’t consider changing your ways.


Figure 10.2 Reducing overcompensation

Case Example

Thomas has been fighting severe feelings of inferiority and shame for the last 20 or 30 years. These feelings origin from his adolescence – he was mocked and bullied at school because of his severe acne. To cope, he developed a strong Overcompensatory Coping Mode. In this Mode he behaves extremely coolly and competently, dazzles others with his rugged good looks, and is endlessly efficient in his work.

Today, Thomas is 47 years old and no longer has quite the energy he had when he was young. He realizes that his coping style is exhausting him. Moreover his work situation has changed: the assignments are smaller nowadays and his perfect looks aren’t helping him in the way they used to. He feels burdened and sees no way out. He has developed severe depressive symptoms over the last few years.

His therapist points out his overcompensation to him. For Thomas this was a tough nut to crack. Nevertheless, he finds the topic worth working on it. He tries to cut down his “smartass” comments in therapy and instead starts to deal with his negative feelings. At work he starts experimenting with being more open about his abilities. To do so he has to say good-bye to the illusion of never-ending capacity. Instead of working all night as he used to he starts telling his boss when he needs more time for an assignment.

Thomas finds this change very hard, and feels threatened when he opens up and shows his weaknesses. However, overall it’s a good experiences; it’s a relief to be understood by others and to be given support. Best of all, he does not feel quite so alone.

When you tend to show aggressive overcompensation, your Coping Mode is probably a strong protection against feeling weak or helpless. If you intend to reduce overcompensation, you have to find new ways of protecting yourself. Everyone needs to feel protected in difficult situations. Don’t expect too much of yourself and forgive yourself if you fall back into an overcompensatory pattern – nobody is perfect at the first attempt. What matters is to persist.

Case Example

Carolyn (see Section 4.3.) has had many conflicts due to her Aggressive Coping Mode. She’s even had some encounters with the police. Thus, she has good reason to change her aggressive coping. However, when she tries to act less aggressively she feels more helpless and abandoned than before. She certainly won’t be able to stop her aggressive reactions overnight.

Carolyn learns to talk with others about her Coping Mode. This turns out to be her way out. In distressing situations she sometimes has to take a deep breath as she senses her Aggressive Coping Mode stirring. After some time she’s learned to say in such situations (sometimes to another person, but often just to herself): “Wait a minute. I feel my aggression rising. Just give me one minute to breathe.” Obviously, the people and institutions in her environment are very happy with her change and are willing to give her the time she needs to “cool down.” As time goes by. Carolyn improves her healthy and non-aggressive reactions step by step.

Worksheet 17, “Changing my Coping Mode,” will help you to reduce your Coping Mode in small steps. Why not start today?

Worksheet 17: Changing my Coping Mode

Changing my Coping Mode

I want to reduce my Coping Mode in the following situation:

I used to act like this (Coping Mode):

I want to change that, because … (disadvantages of the Coping Mode):

Instead my Healthy Adult Mode wants to act as follows:

This is how I’m going to reward myself when I make it:

Hopefully, this chapter has helped you to understand where your Coping Modes originate, which coping mechanisms are most important for you and what steps you can take to reduce them. Maybe it is a bit frightening in the beginning to be more strongly in your Healthy Adult Mode in some situations. That’s perfectly normal; the fear will fall away quite soon if you stick to the job! The more you exercise, the more you will notice how good it feels to express your emotions, needs, and limits in a clear and healthy way. Ask others who are close to you if they noticed a change in you, and what they think about it. Feedback from other people is extremely important to the success of your efforts to reflect your patterns and how they affect others.