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

Healing Vulnerable Child Modes

It was good old Sigmund Freud who said that the most important goal of therapy was to learn to be a good mother and a good father to yourself. We think that two issues are particularly important for this: first, you have to get in touch with your Vulnerable Child Mode; second, you must learn to take good care of it.

Getting in touch with your Vulnerable Child Mode may not be that easy for you. Many people have difficulties remembering their childhood, or they find it distressing to deal with childhood memories. Many people even reject their Child Mode, even up to the point of actually hating it, because of the negative feelings that come with it. Unfortunately, this attitude doesn’t do anything to decrease your problematic emotions…

The second step – learning to take good care of your Vulnerable Child Mode – may also be quite a challenge. An important precondition for good care is that you accept your “inner child” even though it might be difficult at times. Try to find out what the real needs of your inner child are. As time goes by you will come to better understand what it’s telling you.

6.1 Get Acquainted with your Vulnerable Child Mode

There are different ways of getting in touch with your Vulnerable Child Mode. One of the best ways is through so called imagery exercises. In these exercises you connect your feelings with images or ideas in your imagination. Our feelings and memories are closely linked to each other. When you suffer from inner child feelings such as sadness or loneliness, an inner journey into the past (an imagery exercise) may help you to understand the origin of these feelings.

Exercise 6.1

Get in Touch with your Vulnerable Child Mode

Close your eyes and relax. Take a deep breath. Feel how your breath flows in and out.

Let your mind wander to a recent situation when you had negative feelings which were possibly linked to your Vulnerable Child Mode. Relive the situation and feel the emotions as intensely as possible. When you can feel the related emotions, erase the current situation from your inner screen and let your mind wander into your past. Wait to see the images or memories that turn up… sense the feelings of the child you were when you experienced these memories.

Are these feelings somehow related to the emotions you’re reliving today?

Case Example

Maddison is a middle school teacher with a strong Vulnerable Child Mode. It originates from her experience of being bullied at school. In her job the Child Mode is triggered when she has conflicts with her students.

Today she had to teach three lessons in a very defiant 9th grade. In the afternoon she feels exhausted, rejected, lonely, and desperate. Lying on a couch she closes her eyes, accepts, and senses these emotions. Then she lets her mind wander back to her childhood. After a few seconds a mental image pops up – a memory that she had forgotten all about. While on a class trip she had stumbled and fallen and broken her glasses. Without her glasses her journey back to school and then home had been difficult for her: her teacher had to hold her hand. The other kids made fun of her, and at home her mother did not comfort her, but instead was upset because of the trouble and expense of replacing the broken glasses. Her feelings were very similar to those she felt today.

Maybe you are afraid to get in touch with your inner Child Mode through the path of reliving a distressing situation. Exercise 6.2 illustrates another good way of access. In this exercise you slowly approach and make contact with your “little self.”

Exercise 6.2 

An Imagery Journey to your “Little Self”

For this exercise it’s important that you are sitting in a quiet place where you are comfortable and relaxed. Make sure that you won’t be disturbed for the next 15 minutes. Read the complete set of instructions to this exercise first. Then close your eyes and relax

Imagine you’re walking on a country lane. Green lawns are to your left and right, the sun is shining, and a gentle breeze is blowing. You walk along the lane as it winds around a hill so that you can see just 100 yards or so ahead. Imagine how you’re walking; feel the sun and the breeze on your face. Stick with that image until you are calm and completely relaxed.

After you’ve been walking for some time you see a little child walking towards you from behind the hill. The child is maybe five or six years old. You keep walking slowly and the child comes closer. You realize that this child is you. Your “little self” comes closer and closer. Take your time to look at it as you come to each other. When you finally meet, take the time to say a friendly hello. Maybe you want to hug it or pat its hair. Or it might be that you want to keep some distance at first. Try to imagine the scene in as much lifelike detail as you can. What does your “little self” look like? How do you feel about meeting it? Is there something you want to tell your “little self”? Or perhaps you just sit next to each other on the grass for a time. Spend a few minutes on this encounter, then, when you feel that it’s the right moment, say good-bye to your “little self.” Do you want to pass something along? You watch your “little self” departing slowly. Finish the exercise at your own speed… sense what your body feels like in your chair and feel your feet touching the floor. Then open your eyes slowly and return into the here and now.

After exercise 6.2 you may ask yourself some questions:

·     What did the encounter with your “little self” feel like? Take some notes of the feelings and thoughts evoked by this exercise.

·     What did your “little self” want you to do? What did it need?

·     Was there something that you wanted to give your “little self”? Maybe an object such as a blanket, or some advice, or comfort?

You may vary this exercise if you wish. You could visit your “little self” in your former home or meet it at some other significant place. You can take a walk around the house where you grew up, and maybe meet other people who were important to you (parents, brothers and sisters, classmates, teachers etc.).

Get in touch with memorabilia. Objects like old toys, letters, or pictures are also helpful in your attempt to get in touch with the feelings you had as a child. Our memories and feelings are closely linked to sensations. The smell of a certain perfume can bring a memory of your grandmother to life; an old picture can evoke a scene from your childhood. Try to sense the feelings associated to these objects as vividly as possible. If you understand the origin of your feelings, you also may find an understanding why certain situations evoke distressing feelings today.

Case Example

After the horrible meeting when he stumbled over the flip chart Daniel (see Section 2.1.) examined his feelings on his way home. He’d already had a vague idea that there might be a connection between his experiences at school and the intense shame and helplessness he sometimes experienced as an adult. At home he searched out a box with school stuff from his basement and found an old picture of the whole class with the teacher who had teased him so badly. Little Daniel in the picture seems to be feeling pretty miserable. Daniel becomes very sad and angry because “Little Daniel” had such a hard time at school. In his imagery he returns into these memories. Then he imagines that he enters the school scene as the adult man he has become. He finds Little Daniel and comforts and hugs him. This experience makes him sad, but also gives him a sense of relief and a feeling of attachment and safety.

6.2 Taking care of your Vulnerable Child Mode

Accepting and tolerating your feelings. You can only take better care of your vulnerable child part if you accept and tolerate its feelings. Try to find out the needs of your Vulnerable Child Mode.

Exercise 6.3

What Can You do When Your Vulnerable Child Mode Shows Up?

When your Vulnerable Child Mode is triggered, just close your eyes and try to sense what you really want and need now. What needs of yours are not being met right now? Does this remind you of a childhood memory? Can you take better care of those needs today than you could when you were a child?


Figure 6.1 Healthy Adult – Happy Child

Healing Vulnerable Child Modes. The case example of Daniel may give you a first idea of a way that you can heal or comfort your Vulnerable Child Mode with mental images or symbols. Whenever Daniel feels his Vulnerable Child Mode arising, he tries to bring up the mental image of Little Daniel being comforted by Adult Daniel. Not only such images, but also symbols, gestures, and slogans can comfort your Vulnerable Child Mode. It can be very helpful to imagine your “adult self” standing by your “little self” providing comfort.

In imagery exercises you can find healing images of your “adult self” or another good and caring figure taking care of your “little self.” The only rule for these images is that the needs of your “little self” have to be fulfilled.

Symbols, images, songs, etc. can help to establish better care for your Vulnerable Child Mode and be a reminder of it in your everyday life. Moreover, it is obviously important to fulfill your current needs for contact, comfort, and fun in the here and now! Finally, your Vulnerable Child Mode can only be really healed when you achieve a feeling of being loved and your needs being met today.

Case Example: Creating an Image of Affiliation

Keira’s fellow students are having a party on Saturday night. They invited everybody (including Keira) via e-mail but did not ask Keira personally to come along. Saturday night she can be found sitting alone at home, unhappy and dissatisfied with herself.

To get in touch with her feelings and needs she initiates an imagery exercise, starting from her current feelings. In her memory she slips into a scene when she was about 8 years old. She had just moved to a new town and didn’t yet know the other children in her class. After school the other girls played skip rope in the schoolyard. At that time Keira didn’t dare to approach them; she walked home feeling lonely and crying. Now she imagines “Adult Keira” coming to the schoolyard and taking her by the hand. “Adult Keira” encourages and reassures “Little Keira.” Together they approach the other girls. With the support of “Adult Keira” “Little Keira” is able to ask the girls whether she can play with them. The girls agree and they all play together. “Adult Keira” sits at the side and watches the girls play. Her presence reassures “Little Keira” and makes her feel safe. When Keira finishes the exercise with a feeling of safety and affiliation, she decides to draw a picture of the scene. In the next weeks she just thinks about that picture whenever she starts feeling insecure or lonely. Usually that makes her smile and gives her the courage to get in touch with others. What’s more, she decides to join the next party no matter whether she gets a personal invitation or not. Everybody just gets an email, so why not accept it? And as soon as she walks into the next party she can sense a feeling of connection!

If you’ve already got to know your little Child Mode better, it can be a useful exercise to write them a letter. It may not be easy to start writing this letter. Try to remember what you were missing at that age, and put down what you want to tell your “little self.” Think about what you could do today to care for your “inner child.”

Case Example: Madison’s Letter to “little Maddie”

Dear little Maddie,

You really had a tough life at school. I wish I could travel back in time to protect and support you. On the other hand, I can understand very well why you did not stand up for yourself. Sometimes I still don’t even manage to say something when things go wrong for me. Why is it so damned hard for us to stand up for ourselves? I want to tell you that you are important to me and that I will learn to take care of you…

Taking better care of yourself. Better care for your vulnerable child is closely linked to self-compassion. If you are self-compassionate, you look at yourself with friendly attention and try to meet your needs. In Chapters 8 and 11 you will find exercises that will help you to get much better at this.

Here are some suggestions for questions you should ask yourself that may help you to adopt a self-compassionate perspective.

·     Why do I feel hurt or sad right now?

·     What do I need right now?

·     (When a Child Mode turns up more often than usual) What is currently wrong in my life?

Do you have relationship problems, or other distressing issues such as too much work, a move, the experience of a loss? What could comfort you, and help you to find a better balance with your needs?

·     The Child Mode comes along with specific emotions, e.g. sadness or loneliness. What do you need to experience the opposite emotion, e.g. joy instead of sadness, or companionship instead of loneliness?

Case Example: Maddison – Learning to Meet her Needs

After the hard day in front of the tough class, Maddison understood that rejection by her students reminded her of being bullied at school. She felt isolated and lonely. She asked herself what she could do to feel less so. This made her think about a colleague she can talk to about the trouble you can experience as a teacher with a difficult class.

Maddie knows that, like her, the colleague had some problematic childhood experiences. So, she calls her the same night just to chat a little bit and arrange an appointment for a coffee next day. It’s actually not that important for Maddison to talk about the bad morning she had. All that matters is experiencing the safe and friendly contact with her colleague, which is “balm for her soul.”

Be aware of Dysfunctional Parent Modes! You may sometimes find that Vulnerable Child Modes and Punitive or Guilt-inducing Parent Modes are closely connected. When you feel weak, ashamed, or lonely, you may also blame yourself for being such an emotional loser (=Punitive Parent Mode). Stay on the watch for these Dysfunctional Parent Modes and set them limits! In Chapter 9 you will find some strategies that help you deal with a Guilt-inducing or Punitive Parent Mode.

Case Example

After stumbling across the flip chart Daniel retreats to the rest room. His feelings of shame and inferiority begin to decrease, but then he notices some old, familiar thoughts coming up in his mind: “That’s a classic Daniel – to expose yourself to such ridicule… If you could just once pay attention. … And leaving the room afterwards was so unprofessional; it made everything worse! Why the hell can’t you stay cool? You’re such a loser!”

It’s absolutely necessary to fight this inner voice! It certainly doesn’t help you to feel better! Your inner child needs support and comfort to grow up and get happier.

You’ll find strategies on how to weaken the punitive voice in Chapter 9. Fighting the Punitive Parent will help you to turn towards your inner child. If you can take care of your inner child, in particular with imagery exercises, you’ll start feeling better.