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

Coping Modes

In the previous chapters dealing with Dysfunctional Child and Parent Modes we explained how people develop hurtful inner elements when they experience abuse or rejection during childhood and adolescence. Everyone has some experience of such Child and Parent Modes, even if only to a limited extent. Some people manage to feel well despite such experiences because these dysfunctional elements are not very strong or tend to be triggered only rarely. However, people who are afflicted with strong Modes of these types will run into emotional problems over and over again.

Whether you experience these Modes frequently or rarely you’ll be aware that human beings differ in their ability to deal with difficult emotional experiences. Many psychologists call the processes by which people address these difficulties “coping styles.” A coping style is kind of psychological survival strategy to deal with threatening emotions and experiences. Coping styles differ from person to person: just like emotions, coping styles are often influenced by childhood experiences. The intensity of Coping Modes most often depends on the strength of the related Dysfunctional Child and Parent Modes.

Three Coping Modes. In general, therapists differentiate between the following three Coping Modes, although they often overlap:

·     Surrendering. In this coping style you surrender to the Punitive, Critical or Guilt-inducing Parent Mode and start thinking negatively about yourself, and feeling bad.

·     Avoidance. In this coping style you avoid emotions and problems and so you don’t have to be confronted with them.

·     Overcompensation. In this coping style you act in the opposite way to the feelings and demands of your Dysfunctional Parent Modes. You may display excessive self-confidence or seek to control other people in order to avoid feelings of insecurity or helplessness.


Figure 4.1 Surrendering

In this chapter you will learn more about these three coping styles. As a first step we will give you an overview on how to distinguish them.

Surrendering. We talk about surrendering when a person behaves as if the messages from their Dysfunctional Parent and Child Modes are absolutely true. They do not see how to “escape” from difficult situations in a healthy way. So they start feeling bad, sad, miserable or guilty, or even mad at themselves. When they are asked to express their own needs, they may feel helpless and avoid doing so.

Case Examples “Surrendering”

1.  As a child, Holly experienced sexual abuse by her grandfather. Her grandmother was aware of the abuse, but did not dare to raise her voice against her husband. Later in life, Holly gives in to the sexual desires of any man who wants her. When a man wants to find out what she actually wants herself, she cannot say and feels horribly insecure.

2.  Joshua has a strong Guilt-inducing Parent Mode. It has its origin in his depressed mother, who frequently asked him for support when he was a child. Nowadays, Joshua is a social worker who sacrifices himself for his clients and often overburdens himself. He is always willing to care about their problems even when his working hours are over and even though his boss has asked him to set stricter limits in his dealings with clients. In his private life he does everything to make his girlfriend happy and completely forgets to take care of himself. When his girlfriend wants to do something nice for him, he can hardly feel his own inner needs.

3.  Nora has a strong demanding parent side forcing her to do everything perfectly. She works day and night. If she takes even a short rest she always feels the pressure to start doing something useful. She is perpetually afraid of being a failure. She surrenders to her achievement-oriented demanding parent side.

Avoidance. People often avoid distressing emotions related to Dysfunctional Child or Parent Modes by avoiding certain situations or by consuming sedating substances like alcohol or benzodiazepine. We talk about someone employing an avoidant style of coping when they act to put a distance between themselves and a difficult emotional experience. Note that we only talk of a Coping Mode when the reaction is dysfunctional, i.e. by showing this reaction the person fails to care for their own needs or fulfill their usual obligations.

Avoidant patterns can be related to very different actions, including avoidant behavior in a narrow sense (e.g. social retreat or not attending work), use of emotionally numbing substances (alcohol, cannabis, benzos, etc.), or other distracting behaviors (e.g., eating to cope with feelings; excessive consumption of TV or video games). In people with severe mental disorders, different symptoms can be related to Avoidant Coping. For instance, starving oneself (anorectic symptoms) reduces emotional experiences; some patients with borderline personality disorder injure themselves to escape strong negative emotions, etc.


Figure 4.2 Avoidance

Case Examples “Avoidance”

1.  Isabella has a strong Punitive Parent Mode telling her that nobody likes her and that she is ugly. Since she was a little child she has been teased about her knock-knees and her acne. Her family used to compare her unfavorably to her pretty sister. As a result she feels ashamed when she is around other people. She avoids these feelings mainly by social retreat (avoidant behavior). When she does go out, she usually drinks much more alcohol than she actually wants, probably because when she is drunk she feels less ashamed and anxious.

2.  Jake was a very good high school student. His family was strongly oriented towards achievement and he developed a strong Demanding Parent Mode. At university he suddenly found himself as merely one of many talented students, struggling with the same difficulties as everybody else. He can no longer always satisfy his Demanding Parent Mode by being the best. As time goes by he draws back from the university. Instead he spends his time playing “World of Warcraft” and other video games, surfing the Internet, and watching TV. All these can be considered avoidant behaviors to escape his feelings of failure.

3.  Catherine has a strong Guilt-inducing Parent Mode telling her that she is responsible for everything and has to support everybody. She has often helped her neighbor with various issues. Though Catherine likes to help her, the neighbor, who is a very lonely woman, clings to Catherine. She’d love to talk for several hours a day, which is way too much… Catherine, however, is simply unable to set limits to the neighbor’s demands. Instead, she has taken to looking through the spyhole in her door to check whether the “coast is clear” – her neighbor is not around – before leaving the apartment. Catherine knows that she should set clearer limits to her neighbor’s excessive demands. However, the pressure of her Guilt-inducing Parent Mode is too strong, so she avoids encounters with the woman.

Overcompensation. Overcompensation means that someone confronts a deficit with an excess. We talk about an overcompensating coping style when someone behaves as if the opposite of their Vulnerable Child and Dysfunctional Parent Modes’ messages were true. For example, someone who is feeling inferior to others might overcompensate by behaving excessively self-confidently or even arrogantly. Or a man who feels insecure with women starts behaving like a macho. Someone who feels helpless may try to be very controlling with others.

Just like avoidance, overcompensation can take many forms. What they all have in common is that the overcompensating person seeks to control and dominate the situation. Everyone else gets the feeling that it’s impossible to go against the wishes and opinions of the overcompensating person.


Figure 4.3 Overcompensation

Case Examples “Overcompensation”

1.  Ruby experienced physical and sexual violence when she was a child. Nowadays, when somebody merely holds another opinion than herself, she tends to feel threatened and helpless. She overcompensates for these feelings with a very aggressive set of behaviors: she gets loud and screams at others, trying to intimidate them. She does this even when it is completely inappropriate. She feels that only aggressive behavior will enable her to get her needs met.

2.  Carl is a small, plump, rather unattractive man who grew up in a rich family of entrepreneurs. However, the family company went into bankruptcy some years ago, so his wealth is gone. He’s always felt inferior because of his unattractive appearance. This feeling has been enhanced by the loss of his money. He compensates for his feelings of inferiority by behaving in an extremely self-confident and macho way. Most other people can see straight away that he actually feels inferior and is compensating by showing off.

3.  Benjamin was forced by his father to stay in his room for hours to do his homework. He started to resist his father and they frequently had arguments. Eventually, he stopped doing his homework, took to missing classes, and started using cannabis and cocaine – later, even heroin. He was kicked out of school. His father became very frustrated and disappointed in him. Benjamin didn’t finish his education and became an addict.

He used drugs not only to feel better but actually to resist his father’s demands. Using drugs has given him the feeling that he controls his father by doing the opposite of what his father actually wants. He has developed a narcissistic personality disorder.

Note that it is important for all of us to be able to cope with negative emotions when they overwhelm us. Coping strategies help us to survive difficult emotions and situations. Psychoanalysts call coping styles “defense mechanisms” and assume that every healthy individual needs them. Thus, emotional avoidance can be useful from time to time. Think of conflicts which can never come to a good solution – for example an annoying neighbor whose cats frequently foul your lawn. You will come across an annoying neighbor no matter where you live, so moving might not be the solution… W hat you should rather try to do is avoid angry feelings, because you may not be able to come to a solution and the issue is actually not so very important to you. You might as well just invest in a shovel and some cat repellent, and ignore your neighbor.

A coping style becomes a Dysfunctional Coping Mode when it stands in the way of you getting your needs met. For example if you try to avoid all types of conflict – not only with your annoying neighbor, but also with your significant others, such as your friends or your partner – you will not be able to address your own needs in your interactions with these important people, and in the long run the relationships will not develop in the way you need them to.

Maybe you have already picked up a feeling for your typical coping style(s) from your reading of the case examples. It is fairly normal for a person to use different coping styles in different situations. Someone with a strong Guilt-inducing Parent Mode, for example, may cope for a long time by surrendering and trying to care for everyone’s needs. However, when this strategy becomes too much to bear they might switch to coping by avoiding and start to shun social situations. Alternatively, they might activate an overcompensating coping style and push back harshly on people who make even the smallest demand.

Coping patterns develop differently in childhood and adolescence. Usually, Coping Modes develop unconsciously to “survive” difficult situations. A particular coping style was probably the best way to protect yourself from difficulties, rejection or threat, when you were a child or adolescent. It was only later in your life that it became a Dysfunctional Mode. We often learn Coping Modes from role models: we observe how another person reacts to problematic situations or feelings. Think of a family with a verbally abusive father and a mother who does not set limits and does not protect her children, but instead surrenders to the father. These children in their turn have a high risk of developing a surrendering coping style in the face of aggression.

As always, different pathways may act together in the development of Coping Modes. When a child feels threatened by its father and observes its mother surrendering, it sees a surrendering role model. This will make the child feel even less safe, since the mother does not offer protection. The feeling of being exposed to danger increases the child’s motivation to develop Coping Modes of its own.

4.1 Compliant Surrender Mode

When someone is in a Surrendering Coping Mode they care about the needs of others and not at all about their own. They allow others to treat them badly. They do things they actually do not want to do because others want or demand it – even though from an objective point of view they are not obliged to do so. They accede to the wishes of others in private, sexual, or other relationships, even though their own wishes are different.

Often, these people sense that they are actually not happy or satisfied with the way that they behave. But sometime they may actually use additional strategies associated with Avoidant Coping to keep the Surrender Mode going. For example a woman surrendering in sexual relationships may drink alcohol because getting drunk before sex is easier for her than setting a healthy limit, or saying “No.”

Now, take a moment to think about the times that you give in to the demands of others, even if they are not congruent with your own needs and feelings. Do you experience situations in which you do things that you actually don’t want to do and aren’t obliged to do? What feelings drive you in these situations? What are you afraid of that stops you setting limits? Do you have an idea about the origin of this behavior? When and why you did develop this Mode?

You may add your own examples to Worksheet 9, “My Surrendering Coping Mode.” It can help you to detect pros and cons of your surrendering and develop ideas for alternative behaviors.

Worksheet 9: My Surrendering Coping Mode

My Surrendering Coping Mode


Origin of my coping style

Positive and negative consequences of my coping behavior

How do others react in similar situations?

1. Personal example


2. Personal example


Worksheet 9a: Example of a “Surrender” Worksheet

My Surrendering Coping Mode


Origin of my coping style

Positive and negative consequences of my coping behavior

How do others react in similar situations?

My manager told me to revise my text 

My Demanding Parent Mode is triggered 

Coping Mode: working on my text till late in the evening to make it perfect

When my father was criticized he always tried to please everyone. If I was treated unfairly at school he always told me to work harder. He never supported me.

NEGATIVE: I always work too long 

POSITIVE: My manager is very happy with me 

NEGATIVE: I have conflicts with my wife 

NEGATIVE: My manager increases his demands

Someone else would listen to the comments and then consider whether they are justified. Then he would decide how much time is needed and whether this is reasonable.

My partner doesn’t want to help with the housekeeping. 

Coping Mode: I do everything by myself and tell myself that he is too busy with his work. I make my job less important.

My mother did all the housekeeping and didn’t have a job. My father didn’t have to learn how to do the housekeeping.

POSITIVE: No conflicts with my partner 

POSITIVE: The housekeeping is exactly how I want it 

NEGATIVE: I do not have enough time for pleasant things 

NEGATIVE: I have a lot of stress 

NEGATIVE: I feel abused

My best friend had the same problem with her husband. She confronted him and they made a plan how to share the housekeeping.

Sometimes, so-called dependent relationship patterns are linked to the Compliant Surrender Coping Mode. People with strong interpersonal dependency will not take responsibility for their own life. Instead, they always need someone to take care of them and make decisions for them. Only then do they feel safe. Interpersonal dependency is linked with surrendering coping, since dependent people are willing to give up a lot to make sure that they have someone to take responsibility for them.

Box 4.1: Interpersonal Dependency

Interpersonal dependency indicates that you are psychologically over-dependent on other people, i.e. you cling to them and feel that you could not survive without them (even though, objectively, this is not the case). People in dependent relationships usually behave submissively. In extreme cases they rarely take decisions, leaving this up their partner. Typically, they feel that they can’t live on their own. Therefore they tend to accept things – they don’t want to put the relationship at risk.

Dependency is often a feature of intimate relationships. Some people with dependent patterns may constantly search for “helpers” to direct and support them (e.g. medical doctors, psychotherapists, or other care-givers). Dependency might also be a problem in other private relationships with friends or relatives. The following features are typical for dependency (American Psychiatric Association, 2000).

·     Dependent people look for a lot of advice and reassurance before coming to everyday decisions.

·     They depend on others for the organization of important areas in their lives, such as financial issues, education of children, or planning their daily routine.

·     It’s difficult for them to answer back to someone, even if the other person is wrong.

·     It’s also difficult for them to try out new things if there’s no one available to assist them.

·     They often accept annoying responsibilities in order to obtain or retain support and affection from others.

·     They usually feel uncomfortable when they are alone.

·     When an important relationship ends, they need someone else very quickly.

·     They’re afraid of being abandoned and on their own.

These patterns have many long-term disadvantages and high “costs.” However, if you’re in a dependent pattern you’ll find there are several (mainly short-term) advantages: you can easily avoid responsibility if you do not come to your own decisions. Negative consequences of a decision are not “your fault.” When you always avoid responsibility you’re taking an easy way of avoiding criticism.

Furthermore, people with dependent patterns can force close attachment on to others. If you behave in a submissive and devoted way, the other person may feel that they can never leave. Thus the most important need, for attachment and affiliation, will be fulfilled for the dependent person – although the cost is that many other important needs are not met.

Nevertheless, it’s not promising in the long run to attach yourself to others by dependent patterns. It may be possible to override relationship problems by dependent behavior for a while, but eventually there will be problems if one person takes responsibility for everything in a relationship, and if needs and boundaries are not openly discussed.

If you think you have dependent patterns it’s probably hard to admit it and it will be unpleasant to take an objective look at your behavior. Nevertheless, a clear and realistic perspective on your dependent behavior is crucial if you want to change it. Always keep in mind that in the long run a pattern change will pay off for you – you have the chance to live your life…! However, it is always very hard to make pattern changes that have strong short-term consequences… so you’d better be really sure about what you do and don’t want.

4.1.1 How can I detect a Compliant Surrender Coping Mode in myself?

The following statements will help you to estimate how strong your surrender patterns are:

·     In case of trouble or difficulty, I think: “You see, this has to happen to me again.”

·     In case of difficulty I tend to give up.

·     If others treat me badly I let it happen.

·     I let others determine my life.

·     I let others get their way instead enforcing my own interests.

An easy way to identify surrendering behavior is to ask yourself whether you do things that you actually either don’t want or don’t have to do. No one likes doing their taxes, but completing your tax return is not surrendering behavior because although you may not want to do it you simply have to do it. But you should think about your Surrendering Coping Mode if it’s always you who takes over annoying voluntary jobs in your relationship, in the kindergarten etc. You should try to be objective here – mostly people tend to overestimate their own contributions (balance in social relationships). However if you tend to give in to sexual practices you really don’t like, or if you go to the movies with your partner each week although you’d prefer to exercise, it might be about surrendering.

Take a moment to reflect how you would feel if you didn’t take the assignment, or if you rejected your partner’s wishes and instead enforced some of your own interests. If the idea of being less compliant evokes strong anxiety (Vulnerable Child Mode) or a guilty conscience (Dysfunctional Parent Mode), you probably have a Compliant Surrender Mode.

You can often work these things out by thinking about a good friend. How would you feel if a good friend were to act in such a surrendering way? It’s usually easier for us to detect a dysfunctional mode in others than in ourselves.

When someone finally tries to reduce their submissive behavior other people may react in irritation. In other words, fears of being criticized and rejected might really be justified at first! If you are a surrendering type, you have to realize that you are in a vicious circle (surrendering leads to more demands from your environment which leads to surrendering). You have to break this circle in order to reduce your Compliant Surrender Mode.

Case Examples: Compliant Surrender or Not?

1.  Anna is a mother of three children and works part time. Her husband has a full-time job with lots of work even at night and at weekends. She often feels that she has to take care of everything. The children are always sick or in need of extra help – homework, exercise, piano lessons… She has already hired a cleaning woman but still the daily demands never end…

Does Anna suffer from a Compliant Surrender Coping Mode? Probably not! Note that Anna actively hired someone to help her – obviously she is able to ask for support. She does not feel that everything is her duty. Moreover, having children and working at the same time is simply stressful for everybody. The never-ending to-do list is, unfortunately, normal. Just look at other working moms …

2.  Elsie works part-time and has an 11-year-old child. Like all working moms she always has a lot to do. Recently she noticed that she seems to be a magnet for extra assignments nobody likes. She used to serve as parent associate in her sons’ kindergarten and in primary school. She was absolutely determined not to catch this job when her son started high school – and now she’s got it again! She just couldn’t stand the pressure and the rising feelings of guilt and responsibility when nobody else was willing to take the job… Apart from that she frequently assists her mother with her household and goes shopping for her groceries – despite her childless sister living much closer to her mother’s house. Elsie often feels angry at her sister, but never addresses this issue with her mother.

Does Elsie have a Compliant Surrender Mode? Most likely, yes! She takes on more responsibilities than others although she doesn’t want them. She does so because if she doesn’t do it she feels guilty and responsible. Other people don’t seem to have the same feelings in the same situations.

3.  Summer grew up with a violent, alcoholic father who used to beat her severely. Her current partner is an alcoholic and very violent, too. He has been to prison for assault. When he demands something from her she immediately follows his command. Often she feels disgusted by his sexual contact but she gives in because she fears that he might get aggressive.

Does Summer show signs of a Compliant Surrender Mode? Absolutely! Moreover, it’s important to note that Summer lives in a dangerous situation. To change that it’s not recommended (and probably too dangerous) for her to express her needs towards her partner–if anything he would react with more violence! Instead, Summer needs to protect herself, for example by escaping to a shelter for battered women.

4.1.2 How can I detect a Compliant Surrender Mode in others?

It’s a clear sign of surrendering when one of the partners in a close relationship anticipates the other’s every wish. In the short run this might be very pleasant for the spoilt one, but in the long run it might become annoying when the partner is permanently submissive. You may want to know what your partner really likes, not be “pampered” all the time.

If you observe submissive behavior in other relationships you may feel that one partner is “dancing to the other partner’s tune.” You might get really annoyed and think: “Why is she willing to let anything happen to her? She should stand up for herself.” You may come to understand how a submissive pattern developed when you learn more about a person’s history.

When people react submissively they often fall into relationships with others who find this kind of behavior convenient. The social environment becomes accustomed to one individual always taking the unpleasant assignments…

4.2 Avoidant Coping Mode

The key feature of this Coping Mode is that people avoid things that they find difficult. “Difficult things” might be performance requirements, conflicts with others, social contact (in general or with particular people), but also negative emotions or thinking about oneself and one’s problems.

There is a huge range of things you can do to avoid something. In a narrow sense, avoidance occurs when you simply avoid doing certain things – you don’t attend certain situations, you avoid difficult topics in discussions, etc. But other behaviors, such as excessive distraction, can also count as avoidance, for instance when someone watches TV, plays computer games, or surfs the Internet nonstop instead of caring about their “real world” tasks. Some of these activities are highly stimulating, like watching porn movies or playing first-person shooter Internet games. Moreover, consumption of drugs such as alcohol, cannabis, or tranquilizers (often benzodiazepines) can serve the purpose of avoidance. Some people tend to grumble or moan about everything; however, you get the impression that they actually feel quite content within their grumbling Mode. If you try to interrupt them, they stick to their never-ending complaints rather than discussing solutions. Such behavior can sometimes be classified as avoidance.

Some examples of behaviors associated with Avoidant Coping Mode are listed in Box 4.2.

Box 4.2: Typical Avoidant Behavior Patterns

·     Avoidance in a narrow sense. Staying away from difficult situations, avoiding particular tasks.

·     Distraction. Computer games, excessive Internet use, watching movies, loud music, non-stop working, excessive participation in sports.

·     Stimulation. Overeating, watching porn, gambling, risky sports.

·     Weakening perception. Unpleasant feelings are avoided by drinking alcohol or using drugs.

·     Moaning and grumbling. Monotonous, stereotyped moaning, grumbling, complaining; blaming others for everything. Frequently these people do not really seem to suffer or to be really angry. It’s more that their usual habit is to grumble and complain.

·     Low expectations. It’s another form of avoidance not to set yourself any goals – then you don’t feel disappointed by encountering problems reaching them…

Case Examples

1.  Harry is a student in economics. He suffers from high social anxiety. He had been bullied at school because of his small, plump figure, and university is a tough place for him as it often reminds him of his high school experiences. Although he succeeded in losing weight and eventually reached an average height, at this stage he can’t get rid of his feelings of inferiority.

Harry tends to avoid difficult situations. He repeatedly fails to register for exams because he is anxious not to fail. He avoids contact with his fellow students by always sitting close to the door in the lecture hall – thus he does not have to talk to others. When he is invited to a party, he usually agrees to come but never shows up. Instead he spends his nights watching TV and playing Internet games.

2.  Caitlin is afraid of other people. Her father was an alcoholic who used to beat her mother. As a result she feels easily threatened by other people even without any reason. Today she works as a sales clerk in a toy store. Her customers are sometimes quite demanding – then she feels under pressure and “not good enough.” Some years ago she discovered that alcohol melted away her fears. That is why she now always has a bottle of wine close to hand. A glass sipped throughout the morning helps her to shut off emotional distress. She has a sense that, like her father, she might have a problem with alcohol, but most of the time she can suppress that idea.

3.  When 14-year-old Lydia is sad she just needs something to eat. When she is heartsick or stressed at school she nibbles a bar of chocolate or a bag of candy. She knows that she should not, but it just happens automatically – she feels driven towards candy. It somehow makes her feel better, or at least less sad and alone.

4.2.1 How can I detect Avoidant Coping Mode in myself?

The following statements will help you to estimate whether you tend to have behavior patterns that indicate Avoidance Coping Mode, and how strong they are.

·     I would rather not have intimate friendships or relationships.

·     I prefer to avoid confrontation.

·     It is best to switch of your feelings as much as possible.

·     I like to keep it superficial.

Worksheet 10: My Avoidant Coping Mode

My Avoidant Coping Mode

My ways to avoid

Typical situations

Why do I behave this way?

What are the origins of my behavior?

What would my Healthy Adult do?


Worksheet 10a: Example of an Avoidant Worksheet

My Avoidant Coping Mode

My ways to avoid

Typical situations

Why do I behave this way?

What are the origins of my behavior?

What would my Healthy Adult do?

I complain about all kind of things and tell others that I am always treated badly. This way I prevent confrontation and change

At work, when I believe my performance is not well enough. 

When I am dissatisfied with my partner

People are understanding and support me. 

They give me attention and sympathy

My mom always complained about her bad marriage. It was difficult for me, but this way she could go on with her marriage and didn’t have to change anything

My Healthy Adult would try to change the situation by talking to my boss and partner about my problems in order to get my needs met in a better way.


It definitely requires some self-critical reflection to admit avoidance. It’s often the case that you know better and you see how constantly playing video games, eating, avoiding etc. is not helpful.

However, sometimes it’s quite difficult to detect your own avoidance, as it is so multi-faceted. It is avoiding when you don’t do things that would be good or necessary, but it can also be avoidance to engage excessively with details or to distract yourself instead of attending to your real tasks (often called “displacement”). If you have habits that you actually dislike –perhaps drinking too much or eating too much candy, check if they are related to avoidance. Maybe you drink alcohol when you actually feel anxious and insecure? Or maybe you devour candy when you are dissatisfied or feel empty? Eating can soothe and comfort you and distract you from negative feelings. This could be a big hint of an Avoidant Coping Mode. Worksheet 10, “My Avoidant Coping Mode” can be of help. You need to find out how you would feel if you did not give in to your annoying habit.

4.2.2 How can I detect Avoidant Coping Mode in others?

An Avoidant Coping Mode is usually easy to detect in other people. When you sense that someone is always ducking out of things, or when they never attend social events although they agreed to come; when someone always keeps raising issues in a meeting although the discussion is finished and all tasks have been assigned; when someone fails to register for exams over and over again… in all these cases avoidance is playing an important role.

When you get to know the person a little better you might get an insight on how their avoidance works. Maybe a friend often fails to show up at a party because he always “forgets about it” while sitting in front of the computer. Or you realize that your friend always starts drinking heavily as soon as she arrives at a party because she feels so anxious.

Take a moment to think about avoidant patterns that you have encountered in people around you in the last few weeks. You may have a glance at Box 4.2 as a prompt. You will be surprised by the omnipresence of avoidance!

Avoidance in interaction. Like many other Modes, Avoidant Modes usually contribute to long-lasting, damaging vicious circles. On the one hand, people may be upset by your chronic avoidant behaviors; on the other, avoidance may prevent you pursuing your goals – in your job or your private life. People with strong Avoidant Modes often do not have satisfying relationships!

The core feelings behind avoidance are usually rejection, threat, or lack of attachment. People may settle into their Avoidant Modes over years, stay socially isolated and experience very few positive emotions in their relationships. Crucially, the dysfunctional coping leads to an increase of those negative emotions which initiated this Mode…

Case Example

Harry (see case example 1, p. 83) is in his third term at university. At the beginning of his studies he made fewer new acquaintances than most of his fellow students because he avoided social situations such as parties or other student gatherings. Now he feels that everyone else knows each other, but he still doesn’t belong. He feels awful about this, and his avoidance becomes even stronger.

He suffers from a similar pattern with his exams, assignments, and tests. Most of the other students keep up quite well with the schedule, but Harry has already piled up a backlog of exams and assignments to be done: he feels helplessly overstrained, ashamed and inferior to the other students. Of course, this further increases his avoidance! He can hardly stop ruminating and is no longer sleeping well – he shows the first clinical signs of depression.

4.3 Overcompensatory Coping Mode

When we talk about overcompensation, we talk about people who behave as if the opposite of the messages of their Parent Modes and Child Modes were true. They may behave very self-confidently although they actually feel insecure; or they may behave in a highly dominant and assertive manner, sometimes aggressive or controlling: they show off, they attack others, although they may actually feel inferior or helpless. Not all overcompensating is associated with inner feelings of insecurity or inferiority, however; some people who are assertive, controlling, or dominant may feel strong, intelligent, and superior.

Sometimes we talk about “contraphobic” behaviors. People with contraphobic behaviors initiate situations or experiences they actually find extremely distressing or hard to deal with.

In Box 4.3 we list some typical overcompensatory patterns.

Box 4.3: Typical Overcompensatory Behavior Patterns

·     Narcissistic arrogance. These people present themselves as brilliant and superior. They look down on others, assuming an air of intelligence and success. Other people find them arrogant and show-offs.

·     Paranoid control. People with a Paranoid Overcontrolling Coping Mode are very suspicious of others. They believe that they are being taken advantage of, so they seek to protect themselves against attacks. They cope with their feelings of threat by blaming and controlling others. They are always easily persuaded that others conspire against them.

·     Obsessive control. Sometimes people who actually feel insecure insist on telling others what to do. They take strong control of a situation to arrange things “in the right way.” People with this type of overcompensation come across as stubborn and inflexible.

·     Attention-seeking. Attention-seeking behavior was formerly called “hysterical.” These people force everyone to treat them as the center of attention. They display superficial signs of high emotion, and cannot bear anyone else being a subject of interest (histrionic personality disorder).

·     Aggression. Aggressive overcompensation is typical of people who have experienced severe violence and threat in their past. People in an aggressive overcompensation Mode will typically try to seize control of a group or situation by physical violence or verbal intimidation. They may use threats or violence deliberately to take revenge on other people or even eliminate them.

·     Cheating and cunning. People who grew up in a very insecure environment sometimes learned to lie and to manipulate others to enforce their own interests. This type of behavior in an adult is typical of cheating overcompensation.

Case Examples

1.  Narcissism. Glenn works as a senior physician in a psychiatric clinic. His team often feels stressed and even bullied by him because he tends to criticize and humiliate colleagues in front of the whole team. Glenn is too sure of himself. He often makes a great show of interfering in the treatment of a patient he doesn’t even know. However, it’s not possible to stand up to Glenn as he always reacts with more criticism and humiliation. Behind closed doors his team calls him “The Lord God.”

2.  Obsessive control. Olivia is in the third year of her studies and has to prepare oral presentations with fellow students. Cooperation is always extreme stressful for Olivia, who tries to control everything. She often takes over most of the work, assigns tasks to the others in a very dominant manner, and makes rigid demands on her colleagues. She can hardly bear when the slides do not exactly look “her” way. In meetings she talks most of the time and can hardly be interrupted. It only makes things worse when others advise her to relax. That makes her talk even faster and be even more rigid. Finally she often does everything by herself, and her colleagues are not even grateful for that…

3.  Aggression. Carolyn experienced severe physical and sexual abuse when she was a child. In adolescence she got involved with drugs, temporarily lived on the street, and worked as a prostitute. She is a physically tough woman who easily becomes loud and aggressive and always gets her way. When someone asks critical questions or makes a critical comment, she immediately flicks into attack. She insults and accuses the other person, and sometimes even threatens them with physical attack.

4.  Paranoid control. John has been admitted to a clinic for drug abusers. Thus, he has become dependent on the people who are trying to help him. However, he mistrusts everyone, especially therapists and social workers. During his youth attended a boarding school and was frequently sexually abused. Since then he has kept everyone at a distance and never shows his feelings. He is constantly “scanning” his therapist and is upset by every unexpected change. He refuses to participate in parts of the program. He constantly monitors social workers’ punctuality and complains bitterly when they are tardy or miss an appointment.

5.  Cheating and cunning. Kevin grew up in a trailer park. He had a chaotic youth and he was severely emotionally neglected, but materially spoilt. He was a lively and naughty child who needed limits, but his parents did not set them. His mother was an alcoholic and his father left the family when Kevin was two years old. His mother had several partners and neglected Kevin. He was partly raised by his grandparents. When he was 14 years old he got a trailer of his own and had a life on his own. He was always cheating and often used cunning and deceit to make sure his needs were met. He became increasingly involved in illegal activities and started using and dealing drugs.

4.3.1 How can I detect Overcompensatory Coping Mode in myself?

The following statements will help you to estimate whether you tend to show signs of overcompensatory 'margin-top:6.0pt;margin-right:0cm;margin-bottom:0cm; margin-left:41.0pt;margin-bottom:.0001pt;text-indent:-18.0pt;line-height:normal; vertical-align:baseline'>·     I can be very critical about what others do or don’t do.

·     I fantasize about becoming famous, rich, important, or successful.

·     If I am criticized I jump to my defense.

·     I tend to overrule and control others.

·     I get respect by threatening others.

It can be complicated to detect overcompensation in yourself. Unlike most of the other Modes we are dealing with in this book (except Healthy Adult and Happy Child Mode), you may not feel too bad when in an Overcompensatory Mode. Sometimes you may even feel very good about yourself: smarter than all the others, or in control of the situation. This is the very nature of overcompensation! It seems often to work very well in helping you achieve your goals.

However, when looking more deeply most people feel that overcompensation is not only pleasant. The often do not feel really in touch with themselves whilst overcompensating. They do not feel certain of what they actually need or want, and they are certainly not relaxed. On some level they often do not like this state of self. Maybe they sense that they are talking too much or that they show off – but they may not have a clue on how to stop it.

Like all other Coping Modes, Overcompensatory Coping Mode often becomes active in distressing situations. If you suspect that you sometimes react with overcompensation, try to think back to a distressing situation. Remember how you felt and how you reacted. Is it possible that you showed signs of overcompensation? Work sheet 11, “My Overcompensatory Coping Mode” can help you with this question.

Worksheet 11: My Overcompensatory Coping Mode

My Overcompensatory Coping Mode

Which of the followingbehaviors seem familiar to me?

How intensive is this pattern?(0–100 )

In which situations do I behave this way?

What is my actual need in this situation?

Is this need met by mybehavior?

Narcissistic patterns


Paranoid control


Obsessive control


Attention seeking




Falseness, trickiness


When other people criticize you because of typical overcompensatory behaviors, you should take it seriously. Maybe people have already told you that you are egoistic, a show off, dominant, bossy, or way too loud or too excitable. You should check whether that behavior happened in the context of overcompensation. Try to imagine the situation in question. Were there vulnerable feelings hidden behind the dominant or aggressive face? When you have indeed been accused of such things but can’t remember a specific incident, just go and ask a good friend. They will certainly be able to give you a good example if there is one.

4.3.2 How can I detect Overcompensatory Coping Mode in others?

Usually it’s much easier to detect overcompensation in others than in oneself. People in overcompensatory Mode come across as agitated or fake; they show off, or try to take control over others. The recipients of their behavior will usually feel defensive, controlled, or even threatened. In the case of narcissistic overcompensation, the objects of the overcompensatory actions and words may feel devalued, because the other person plays the “big shot.” We usually dislike such states in other people, but, because we are afraid of their reaction, we often do not tell them. Indeed, the person is likely to react to criticism with further overcompensation – more bossy, controlling, or aggressive. Most people remain silent because they do not want to become a target of yet more overcompensation.

Again, this is a vicious circle, as with most dysfunctional modes. People usually develop an overcompensational pattern to cope with intense feelings of loneliness, helplessness, inferiority, or threat. They control threats and set limits to others via their overcompensation. Others, however, will find the overcompensator unlikable and will either draw back or engage in conflicts. This consolidates both the original negative feelings and the overcompensation. People with an Overcompensatory Coping Mode are often lonely and unloved.

Case Example

Juliette has been dating Tom for several months. Both of them were neglected by their parents in childhood. Juliette’s parents were very demanding, but never really cared about her. Tom, on the other hand, was physically abused by his parents. He can hardly stand other people being cold or even condescending. Juliette and Tom talk a lot about the past and try to support each other.

One day, Juliette returns home feeling very low. Tom, however, does not notice. He announces a football evening with his buddies the same night. Julia feels misunderstood, hurt, and abandoned by him (Vulnerable Child Mode). Instead of talking about her feelings she coldly says: “Get lost, I don’t want to see you tonight anyway” (Aggressive Coping Mode). Tom feels hurt and doesn’t understand why she is treating him so badly even though she knows all about his vulnerable side. If he were to apply the same Aggressive Coping Mode as Juliette the result would be a flaming row. If he were to resort to an avoiding coping strategy he would leave immediately, giving Juliette the feeling that he was abandoning her.

4.4 Summary

People use different coping styles in different situations. You may discover that you use one of the Coping Modes more frequently than the others. People with a strong Guilt-inducing Parent Mode, for example, may for a long time cope by surrendering. However when it becomes too much they may switch into an Avoidant Coping Mode to spare themselves strong negative emotions. Users of the overcompensating Coping Mode may be less aware of their style, because they often feel very good about themselves, smarter than everybody else, in control of the situation. It is only when they look at the reactions of others that they realize that people in their circle of acquaintances or colleagues feel pushed away or controlled. When other people tell someone that they are egoistic, a show-off, dominant, or bossy they’re probably describing and criticizing an overcompensatory Mode.

You can reflect on what you have learned about Dysfunctional Coping Modes before completing the third section of Worksheet 1, “My Mode overview.”

In the next chapter you will learn how you can cope with difficult situations in a healthy way without being overwhelmed by strong emotions or negative inner voices. This Mode is called the “Healthy Adult Mode.”