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

Gaining Control over Angry and Impulsive Child Modes

Do you want to learn how to deal with your Angry, Enraged, Defiant, Impulsive, or Spoilt Child Mode? Two points are particularly important here: first, you have to identify the needs associated with this Mode; second, you need to find ways to express and fulfill these needs in a healthier way.

Again, these Modes usually originate from childhood. Different patterns can result in the development of these kinds of Modes. Maybe you were treated unfairly by relatives, teachers, or classmates. If so, your Angry Child Mode may pop up today when, once again, you feel mistreated or abused. In these cases anger goes usually along with sadness, loneliness, and other emotions of the Vulnerable Child Mode. Most often, the needs behind these feelings ought to be accepted and taken seriously. However you have to learn to express yourself in a healthier way. It’s important to realize your needs early – before they are expressed explosively by your angry Modes.

Bear in mind, though, that Impulsive or Spoilt Child Modes can develop when someone was spoilt as a child and didn’t learn to accept discipline. It might be that parents or carers tolerated their child acting in a defiant and recalcitrant way. In some way this can actually be considered as neglect – as children need limits, and setting these limits is part of a parent’s duties. So, in these cases it is important to learn to accept limits and become more disciplined. Not all needs can be fulfilled – not for children and not for adults.

Case Examples

1.  Impulsive Child Mode. You already know Susie from Section 2.2 – the 21-year-old student with a strong Impulsive Child Mode. She is reckless: she drinks a lot and likes to party excessively. Sometimes she even puts herself in danger (unprotected sex), and she’s failing in her studies due to lack of discipline.

Susie’s maternal grandmother is the root of the problem: she spoiled Susie, just as she’d spoiled Susie’s mother when she was a child. Susie’s mother did not take responsibility for her girl but left nearly everything up to the grandmother. As a result, Susie has never learned to control herself and accept limits; she nearly always follows momentary desires.

After Susie comes round to seeing that she’s lost track of her studies and that her party life doesn’t make her all that happy, she starts to see a psychotherapist. The therapist teaches her that although meeting your needs and having fun is important, it’s also necessary to perform tasks and take on responsibilities. Finally, you have to find a balance between discipline and fun. Susie has to learn to be more disciplined and accept some limits. This means she has to push back against her desires in the short term so that she can reach important long-term goals. Of course, this will take some time and sometimes it will be frustrating… However, as Susie realizes, it will be very beneficial for her.

2.  Angry Child Mode. You already know Matthew, the 41-year-old software engineer who was introduced in Section 2.2. He becomes angry all too easily when he feels he’s being criticized or treated unfairly: he tries so hard to do his best. Behind his anger is the need to be recognized and accepted. He works at high intensity for long hours, striving for perfection, to try to get this need met.

Matthew has to learn that he doesn’t need to be such a perfectionist, and that minor criticism need not be emotionally devastating. When he really gets that message, he will no longer react to criticism so angrily. He also has to learn to set limits for other people – only when he’s managed all this will he come to understand that other people like him even if he doesn’t function at 100 per cent every minute of every day.

7.1 Get Acquainted with your Angry or Impulsive Child Mode

The first things to do are to recognize and analyze the moment when the Angry or Impulsive Child Mode shows up. Does it come along with feelings of vulnerability? Then it is probably “secondary” to a Vulnerable Child Mode. If vulnerable feelings do not play a role, it’s likely “primary” anger and frustration. Worksheet 3, “My Angry/Impulsive Child Mode” (in Section 2.2) can be a support. A good way to get in touch with this Mode is through imagery of a situation when your Angry or Impulsive Child Mode showed up.

Exercise 7.1

Close your eyes, focus on your breath, and relax.

Go back into a situation when your Angry or Impulsive Child Mode was in action. Imagine that you are back in this situation. Explore your feelings. Can you feel anger or rage? Or is it mainly indiscipline and frustration? How intense are your feelings? Do you also sense other emotions such as sadness, loneliness, or rejection? Do you feel unfairly or badly treated? If yes, by whom? Would it also be unfair if this person treated other people the same way?

If sadness and vulnerability play a role or if you feel mistreated, this is a hint that a Vulnerable Child Mode is involved. Exercise 6.2 can also help you to find that out.

If you become aware of a Vulnerable Child Mode playing an important role, you should take good care of it. People with both vulnerable and Angry Child Modes often find that rage and anger suddenly disappear when the needs of the Vulnerable Child are met. Sometimes you don’t even have to deal with rage and anger as a separate issue. Just go back to the exercises for healing the Vulnerable Child Mode (Exercise 6.2). An Angry Child Mode can even be helpful here, as it teaches you not to neglect your needs. Moreover, you can learn which situations are particularly difficult for the Vulnerable Child Mode.

When an Angry Child Mode is in the foreground, or if your rage and anger are at a dangerous level, exercises 7.2 may be helpful. But always keep in mind that the needs of the Angry or Impulsive Child Mode are often justified, at least to some extent. It’s all about the degree and the way that these needs are expressed.

Exercises 7.2

Biographical Origins

As you already know from earlier chapters, it’s always worthwhile finding out how your Spoilt, Angry, or Impulsive Child Mode developed. The following aspects are very common:

·     Combination with a Vulnerable Child Mode. Angry or Impulsive Child Modes can show up as a “secondary” Mode when you feel intensely hurt or rejected.

·     Insufficient autonomy. Many people with strong defiant or Angry Child Modes report that their most important attachment figures, usually parents, did not grant them enough autonomy. Examples would be a mother insisting on choosing the clothes for her teenage son, parents interfering in their children’s friendships, or parents making shaming or belittling comments in the presence of friends or relatives. If you experienced a denial of autonomy or unfair treatment as you grew up you’ll know that it often provoked defiant behavior patterns, and that sometimes you became “stuck” in those patterns. Such reactions can show up again later in life, even if by then no one actually has the power to take away your autonomy or freely abuse or belittle you.

·     Role models for angry or impulsive behavior. Learning problematic behavior from observation of other people is a form of social learning through role models (vicarious learning). For example, if your father used to react impulsively or aggressively or expressed his needs no matter what the circumstances, you will inevitably have learned that this is normal behavior. No wonder that in adult life you act in a similar way– you just never learnt any better.

·     Lack of limits in childhood. Sometimes parents fail to set sufficient limits for their children. They may do so because they want to give their children everything they can, or they may be trying to avoid conflicts with the children. They prefer the “easy way.” Unfortunately they don’t see that children need limits and mustn’t be spoilt. It is important for children to learn to be disciplined and to cut back on their own needs, at least sometimes and to a sensible degree. It is important for healthy adult people to accept their limits. Maybe you were unfortunate enough to have been spoilt as a child. Now you have to catch up on the job of setting limits.

7.2 Setting Limits to Angry or Impulsive Child Modes

After reading the last few pages, would you say that you sometimes show spoilt, impulsive, defiant, or angry patterns? If your answer is yes, it might be important to cut them back – depending on their severity of course! And don’t forget that a desire for pleasure or the spontaneous expression of frustration are basically normal – you only have to work on them if you sometimes express them in an exaggerated way.

If you wonder whether your reactions are exaggerated, have a look at their effects on the people around you. For example, is your partner telling you that they feel frustrated by your attitude, and calling you defiant? Do friends or family complain repeatedly about you being egoistic? If that’s the case, you should think about working on those patterns. Try to be honest with yourself and take into account that people rarely make a big issue of egoism or defiance. Most people most of the time draw back from someone they find egoistic or spoilt; they wouldn’t take the trouble to confront them. As a rule you bring yourself to address this kind of problem only with people who are really important to you. Our assumption is as follows: if more than two people have given you similar negative feedback they might have a point. Of course not every negative feedback should be something to dwell on – it may just be the result of a specific situation and have no connection with your personality. Nevertheless, when it comes your way this kind of social information needs to be taken seriously.

7.2.1 Goals and needs

Take a moment to reflect on what you want to accomplish in your life and how your Angry or Impulsive Child Mode is interfering with your progress. Make a list of the advantages and disadvantages of your Angry or Impulsive Child Mode. Worksheet 4, “Advantages and disadvantages of my Angry/Impulsive Child Mode,” will help you with this and enable you to get a clear picture. You should note that the list of advantages reveals the obstacles you are going to deal with when you set out to change this Mode.

Case Example: Advantages and Disadvantages of an Obstinate Child Mode

We encountered Ethan in Section 2.2 – boyfriend of Lucy, spoilt as a child and now selfish, unhelpful and easily distracted. Here is his listing of the pros and cons of his behavior pattern:

Advantages of my defiant, Obstinate Child Mode:

·     I don’t have to deal with annoying stuff.

·     I feel that I’m right when I am pig-headed with my girlfriend Lucy. Her anger and frustration hardly reach me. Acting like this is somehow comfortable for me.

·     Overall, I manage to hold annoying tasks at arm’s length.

Disadvantages of this Mode:

·     I don’t complete important things. That makes daily life complicated at times and I am frustrated with myself.

·     This pattern is bad for my relationships. Lucy, who is very loving and understanding, doesn’t deserve to be treated like this.

·     I am behaving childishly and I don’t like that. I am an adult and I want to behave accordingly.

·     I’ve noticed already, several times, that this Mode interferes with my work. I will not progress if I continue like this. My colleagues and supervisors cannot take me seriously and are more and more annoyed with me.

7.2.2 Chair dialogues

In therapy, this kind of pro–con-argument is often dealt with in a so called “chair dialogue.” We use two chairs for the two perspectives – the pros of the Angry Child Mode, and the cons, representing the Healthy Adult point of view. The patient expresses one perspective from the first chair then moves across and responds from the other. If you go through this procedure you’ll find that you can develop a clearer understanding of your inner conflicts and make a good start in figuring out your real goals. This method isn’t going to work when you are beside yourself with anger, though; you must wait till your fury has cooled down before you can explain the point of view of your Angry Child.


Figure 7.1 Angry Child Mode

Some people carry out such chair dialogues by themselves, outside the context of therapy. Just try it out, even if it feels silly in the beginning! Sometimes you may find it easier to use two symbols, puppets, or soft toys, instead of chairs. One soft toy (e.g. a cheeky monkey or a crocodile) represents the Undisciplined Child Mode and the other (maybe a teddy bear?) symbolizes the Healthy Adult Mode. Now you can perform a little puppet theater and let the two exchange arguments.

7.2.3 Learn to direct your behavior

Angry, Enraged Child Mode. If you want to change your Angry or Enraged Child Mode, the biggest challenge is to control anger and rage in provoking situations. If you think that this might be difficult, you’re absolutely right! But that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible… you can change your Angry Child reactions into more appropriate and healthy behaviors – step by step. The basis for this change is to be in touch with your Angry Child Mode (see Worksheet 3, “My Angry/Impulsive Child Mode”). The aim is to know when your Angry Child Mode is triggered, and what needs are at the center of these situations (e.g. autonomy or recognition).

Case Example

You already know Florence from Section 2.2. Her Angry Child Mode pops up when she feels exploited or ignored. She makes a list of situations that typically trigger her Angry Child Mode and adds notes about her related needs:

When does my Angry Child get triggered?

What need of mine is frustrated in the situation?

I come home and see that the children have just thrown their jackets in the hall instead of hanging them on the cloth hook.

My reaction: I slam the door behind me and hang the jackets myself, feeling a lot of anger.

I feel exploited by my children. I would like them to support and unburden me by carrying out small duties.

My children complain that I am too tired to go to the swimming pool with them.

My reaction: I scream at them that I had to work all night. Then I start crying.

I feel that my commitment (working night shift to care for the kids at daytime) is not rewarded or appreciated. I feel. On the other hand, it is not my kids’ role to appreciate my effort – that’s rather up to my husband!

My husband watches football with his friends although I had a bad day and really need his support.

My reaction: I yell at him and tell him to get lost.

I need some support and attention. I would really like to talk about my day and feel that my husband understands me.

Florence realizes that the situations triggering her Angry Child Mode have something in common: they are almost always associated with her family. This is a useful basis on which to plan a little experiment, something we like to call a “behavior experiment.”

Behavior experiments. Behavior experiments are an excellent way to try out new ways of dealing with difficult situations. It is important that you regard such an experiment as a challenging game to break through fixed behavior patterns. A behavior experiment addresses one of the problematic situations you want to change – in Florence’s case situations including outburst of anger or slamming doors.

You start by planning in advance to behave differently the next time such a situation comes up. The new “experimental” behavior can be a constructive attempt to solve the situation in a healthier way – or it can be a funny or exaggerated reaction.

Case Example

For Florence it’s easy to choose a situation for her behavior experiment. She is frequently confronted with situations in which she feels exploited and ignored by her children. When she reaches her front door the next day she already is aware of the chaos awaiting her inside. She takes a deep breath and enters the hallway. As expected, all the children’s jackets are lying on the floor. She takes another deep breath, takes off her jacket and throws it on top of the pile. Her youngest daughter comes running in the hall to welcome her mother and watches the scene – stunned and irritated. Finally, mother and daughter burst out laughing.

7.2.4 How can I learn to control my anger?

You will certainly need some practice in handling these situations in a healthier way. The following suggestions can help you with this. The goal is to regain control over your reactions and behaviors.

·     Observe early signals. You know yourself best. What are the early warning signals of your Angry Child Mode? These may be very specific and individual, including bodily sensation (e.g. tensed shoulders) or, thoughts (“I’m fed up with all of this,” “You don’t give a damn about me”). If you manage to react quickly to those signals you may be able to keep a clear mind instead of exploding with anger. Then you can address the origin of your frustration in a healthier way, which is probably better both for you and for the people around you. Don’t delay the expression of anger too much!

·     Express anger stepwise. Start by expressing your anger calmly. When the other person is still not listening, you may show a little more anger. You are learning to show anger step by step.

·     Take a little break. Sometimes a short break is the best you can do when you feel the Angry Child coming up. You might stand up in a meeting to open the window and take a deep breath. Or take a very detailed look at the eyebrows and ears of the person in front of you. This kind of short break can help you to become aware what you really want to achieve in the situation (your needs).

·     Use a calming symbol. Many people find it helpful to prompt themselves with a symbolic object (e.g. a smooth stone to carry in your pocket), a picture (e.g. a lake mirroring the sky), or a certain song that calms them down. Whenever you get into a “critical” situation you can grab your symbolic object in your pocket, imagine looking at the picture, or play your song in your mind… this will help you to relax.

·     Practice alternative behavior in imagery. You may well have already heard about “mental training.” Imagery exercises work pretty much the same way. Imagine a situation that triggers your Angry Child Mode and then imagine in detail how you would react differently. For Florence in the example above this would have been a good alternative option.

Exercise 7.3

Imagery Exercise to Limit Anger

Imagine a situation in which you are likely to react with anger. Try to feel the usual emotions.

Make yourself comfortable and make sure that you will not be disturbed.

Think about what would make you feel less angry, and subsequently see how this changes the situation in your mind. It might be, for instance, that you are in need of reassurance from someone; someone telling you that not everybody is restraining or rejecting you. Maybe you can imagine a good friend standing at your side, putting an arm round your shoulder?

Imagine how the situation continues without you expressing intense anger. Instead, imagine yourself staying calm and talking in a clear and measured tone – although it’s most important that you still address your needs and point out the limits that have been violated in the situation!

Obstinate” Spoilt Child Mode. It is very important for you to fully understand the advantages and disadvantages of this type of Mode as a preliminary to determining clear goals. A detailed plan will help you. Be aware that this Mode may influence many areas of your life, so you need to choose the domains of your life in which you want to restrict its activity at first. It’s going to take you some time to change this Mode substantially.

List critical situations in which you want to set limits to the Obstinate or Spoilt Child Mode. Maybe you want to behave less obstinately with your partner; maybe you’ve been planning for years to start exercising but you’ve never managed because your Undisciplined Child Mode does not comply. What do you want to change first?

Try to be realistic and honest with yourself. How difficult will it be to put your specific plan into reality? Some steps might be quite easy – e.g. not to let your partner clean up the breakfast table by herself every day. But others will be much more difficult – e.g. starting a reasonable diet or exercise regime when so far you’ve only made it as far as walking to the car and you’ve hated vegetables all your life.

Make a realistic plan of how to implement the changes in your life. Rewarding yourself for successful steps is very important! When you actually manage to change a dysfunctional pattern you deserve to be rewarded. It’s a great accomplishment! So, also make a plan on how to reward yourself for passing each of your milestones.

Case Example

Ethan has had some serious arguments with his girlfriend lately. That’s why he’s decided to become more disciplined and less obstinate. However, this aim in itself won’t change anything. He’s had to plan concrete goals.

Ethan decides to get two things done weekly – two things that he would normally have delayed doing until his girl-friend took them on. He manages to keep to his plan quite well and his girlfriend is happy with the change. Nonetheless, it’s also obvious to both of them that this is just the beginning and that Ethan has to carry on trying to grow.

Don’t be too hard with yourself! It’s a big step to admit that you act obstinately or like a spoilt child from time to time. This insight deserves respect. You will certainly not change overnight. Of course, you can also keep some of your spoilt habits… but, please, not the ones that hurt or annoy your partner the most. And keep in mind that Modes usually work together; sometimes you have to give priority to dealing with another Mode e.g. your Vulnerable Child Mode or a Dysfunctional Coping Mode. The more you observe and understand all your Modes, the better you will become at setting the right priorities.