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

Setting Limits to Dysfunctional Parent Modes

In Chapter 3 you read a lot about Dysfunctional Parent Modes and how they can put you under pressure by making you devalue yourself, feel ashamed of yourself, or become filled with self-hatred. In this chapter we will deal with the question of how to change this, in two steps.

Step one will begin by listing the messages from the Dysfunctional Parent Mode. You’ll learn how to find out which critical inner voices are giving you a hard time, where they come from, and what activates them.

In the second step you’ll learn how you to set limits to these voices. To achieve this it is important to make a clear distinction between the Healthy Adult and the Dysfunctional Parent Modes. The Healthy Adult is also about challenging yourself, but in the way a good parent would do. The Parent Mode becomes dysfunctional when it is harmful, i.e. it forbids you to take care of your needs or it makes you go past your limits over and over again. Healthy and constructive self-criticism is a positive thing, but destructive self-criticism or self hatred has to be reduced.

9.1 Get in Touch with your Dysfunctional Parent Mode

We have introduced you to the use of imagery exercises to get in touch with your inner child elements. However, you have to be very careful if you’re thinking about using imagery exercises to get in touch with your Dysfunctional Parent Modes. Going back into situations related to belittlement, punishment, or abuse can lead to serious negative mood shifts . In severe cases you may need help from a therapist to get out of your lowered mental state. So please take care with the exercises in this chapter, and instead of deep imagery just use rational thinking.

Exercise 9.1

Get in Touch with your Dysfunctional Parent Mode

Make yourself comfortable and try to relax.

Think about a situation in the past in which you felt under strong pressure although objectively the situation did not demand it. When did you recently feel strongly rejected, unlikable, forced to do something you actually did not want to do? When was your Parent Mode particularly active?

Now, reflect what the situation was all about. What did you feel you had to do, why did you feel rejected? How would you have felt if you had been able to act in the way you wanted? Would you have felt like a loser, like a traitor? Would you have felt guilty, or sensed that you are not entitled to fight for your rights? The answers to these questions will help you to better understand your Dysfunctional Parent Mode.

If the situation was about feeling like a failure, there was probably a strong Demanding Parent Mode in the background. If the main feeling was guilt, it was very likely a Guilt-inducing Parent Mode. If shame, self-hatred, or intense fear were the main feelings, it was probably a Punitive Parent Mode.

Try to sense what the voice of your Parent Mode was like. Does its “tone” sound familiar to you? Often, people have a spontaneous idea about where this Mode originates from in childhood. They know the person that this voice arises from. If you understand the roots of the Dysfunctional Parent Mode it will be easier to do the exercises later in this chapter, which are all about silencing that voice.

We strongly recommend that, in contrast to the imagery exercises you may have used to deal with Vulnerable Child Modes, you really shouldn’t get into the Punitive, Guilt-inducing, or Demanding voices of your Parent Mode. Stay on a cognitive and rational level when you first try out these exercises. In other words, don’t try to relive feelings very intensely. After you’ve gone through the process of collecting first experiences you may intensify the mental images. But be careful – beware of becoming overwhelmed by the feelings of these Modes! In particular, strong Punitive Parent Modes can easily take “emotional command” and make you feel very low very quickly. If you sense that distressing feelings are overwhelming you, think about someone you can talk with about the experience. This should reassure you and calm you down.

Particularly in strong Punitive Parent Modes we recommend that you deal with the following questions on a cognitive level – just think about them in the here and now.

Exercise 9.2

What are the Messages of my Parent Mode and what is their Origin?

During our childhood and youth we usually face various demands regarding discipline, achievement, modesty etc. Sometimes we hear specific sentences over and over again and they seem to become “burnt” into our memory – slogans such as “No Pain, No Gain,” proverbs like “The early bird catches the worm.” Maybe there was an authority figure who kept on at you with the same, typical sentence – something such as “Do I have to get mad at you again?” People with a Punitive Parent Mode often have memories of insulting nicknames. One of our patients for example was always being called “Mr Hopeless” by his father.

Do you remember such messages? Make a list of the messages you got as a child or adolescent (Worksheet 13, “Identifying parent messages”). Which of these messages are still important to you today and which ones are not that strong? What do those messages mean for your life? How do you feel about them? How do you act in response and reaction to these messages today, and how do you feel about that?

Worksheet 13: Identifying Parent Messages

Identifying Parent Messages

Message of the Parent Mode:

Origin of this message:

How strong is the impact of this message today?(0–100)

When does this Mode get activated?

To do something just for yourself is egoistic.

My mother used to sacrifice her life for others (role Model)

Impact today: 85

As soon as I try to allow myself something


Discriminate: Which rules and messages from your Healthy Adult Mode are helpful for your life today? Which ones are not helpful any more?

Usually, some of the messages we get from parents and other authority figures are very helpful later in life. For example, most parents try to impart discipline. Although you may have found it annoying or boring from time to time, on the whole you’ve benefited from it. You have learned to keep going when things are difficult, and that it’s not always possible to do what you like. Very likely you are a good parent yourself today because you learnt from your parents that it is important to care for others.

In the schema Mode concept, such “good” messages are part of the Healthy Adult part of you. They help you to perform well and to adhere to important social rules (see Chapter 5). Most adults have benefited from the positive and negative messages given out by their parents.

Nevertheless, there are also messages from the past that put pressure on you without being helpful to you or anybody else. This applies in particular to the self-devaluing messages of the Punitive Parent Mode. The influence of those messages has to be reduced because they only make you feel bad. As so often, it’s about finding a happy medium – discipline and healthy self-criticism are good; but perpetual self-criticism or punishing yourself harshly for normal mistakes is damaging and only makes you unhappy.

It is important that you figure out which of your “parent messages” belong to the Healthy Adult and which are part of the Punitive, Demanding or Guilt-inducing Parent Modes. Worksheet 14, “My parent messages,” will help you with this. You need to be familiar with the Modes described in the first part of this book before you start on this worksheet (see Chapters 3 and 5).

Worksheet 14: My Parent Messages

My Parent Messages

Parent message

Biographic origin












After discriminating between messages from the Healthy Adult and Dysfunctional Parent Modes you should decide which of these messages you want to carry on receiving and which you want to cut right back. Aim to keep the messages of the Healthy Adult Mode and to put onto the change agenda those messages that are putting pressure on you or giving you a bad feeling about yourself. In addition, you should start to adopt healthier, more moderate rules for messages in need of revision (see Section 2.1.2).


Figure 9.1 Overcoming Parent Modes

Case Example

In the beginning of Chapter 3 you got to know Aisha, Annabelle, and Freddie, who all suffer from different types of Parent Modes. All of them were able to identify different messages emanating from their damaging Parent Modes:

Aisha’s parental messages

Biographic origin


If you don’t take care of others you are a bad person


Guilt-inducing Parent Mode

Your feelings and needs do not matter


Punitive Parent Mode

You can reach your goals if you make an effort.

Teacher, father

Healthy Adult Mode

Aisha decided to change the first parental message. She intends to replace it by the rule “It’s good to take care of others but your needs are also important. I want to find a good balance.” in the future. The second parental message should just be erased since it does not help Aisha or anybody else at all. Aisha senses that the third rule does not make excessive demands and therefore is related to her Healthy Adult Mode. It should continue to play an important role in her life.

Annabelle’s parental messages

Biographic origin


You don’t deserve good food


Punitive Parent Mode

You don’t deserve pleasure


Punitive Parent Mode

Your need for fun is bad


Punitive Parent Mode

You are a loser when you make a mistake


Punitive Parent Mode

The messages that Annabelle picked up from the nuns deny her needs, her emotions, and the right to care well for herself. They make her hate and reject her body and her needs. She decides to work on erasing and replacing of all these messages to help her develop self-compassion and a more satisfying life.

Freddie’s parental messages

Biographic origin


Business before pleasure

Parents as role models

Demanding Parent Modes

It’s important that you feel good

Parents’ statements

Healthy Adult Mode

Freddie gets messages from his Demanding Parent Mode driving him to high achievement and diligence at work. However, his parents also taught him to be interested in other things beside his job and that he should always look after himself. Therefore, Freddie has a strong Healthy Adult Mode alongside his Demanding Parent Mode.

His aim is to reduce the weight of his Demanding Parent Mode messages to some degree. In the future it should be: “Work is important and it’s a good thing to be successful. But it’s also important to keep a balance – there are other important things in life besides your job.”

9.2 Silence Dysfunctional Parent Modes

Now we’re going to teach you the ways to change Dysfunctional Parent Modes. First, you have to revise the rules that apply to your damaging Parent Mode to define new, healthy rules. Then you must learn to answer back to the Dysfunctional Parent Mode messages with your new rules – step by step your answers will become louder and the influence of the damaging messages will be reduced – they may even become silenced.

Find new life rules. How can you replace the rules of your Dysfunctional Parent Mode with healthier messages? In Worksheet 15, “Collecting Messages against the Damaging Parent Mode” you will find two examples. Try to add some of your own.

Worksheet 15: Collecting Messages against the Damaging Parent Mode

Collecting Messages against the Damaging Parent Mode

Message of my Damaging Parent Mode

Personal proof against this message

You are bad if you don’t take care of others.

It’s important to support others. To do so, it’s important to take care of myself, too.

Business before pleasure

It is important to deal with assignments responsibly. However, I have to make sure that I allow myself pleasures from time to time for a good balance in life.


How much truth is there in your parent messages? After starting to deal with your Parent Mode you may well begin to wonder whether your Dysfunctional Parent Mode isn’t right after all. Such doubts are completely normal. The Dysfunctional Parent Mode has been part of your life and of your self-perception for many years. People with a strong Punitive Parent Mode develop a tendency to perceive themselves and others as if the Punitive Parent Mode was right. Psychologists call this phenomenon selective perception: you see proofs of only the negative messages about yourself and ignore the evidence supporting the positive messages. The following box gives an example.

Case Example

Abigail’s Punitive Parent Mode tells her: “You are so ugly that you’ll never find a partner.” Ever since she started getting this message she’s tended to interpret events and remarks as if this message were true. When she looks into the mirror, she only sees what she assumes to be – what she knows to be – a big nose. She does not notice her beautiful eyes and her lovely hair. Nor does she notice that her good friend and tennis partner has been in love with her for a long time.

Collect facts and arguments that you can set against your Guilt-inducing or Punitive Parent Mode. This may be difficult in the beginning, but stay tuned! You need a lot of practice before you can answer back effectively to a Punitive Parent Mode. Worksheet 15 will help you. When you’re struggling, finding that this is too difficult to do on your own, ask a close friend to help you check the messages from your Parent Mode.

After you’ve decided which messages you want to diminish in influence, you face the challenging task of reducing the power of those messages. Which one is the first to take on?

9.2.1 Exercises to reduce Dysfunctional Parent Messages

·     Use the power of symbols. It can be very helpful to carry a small item with you (e.g. a small puppet, a stone, a shell, a little Stop sign) as a symbol and reminder of your resistance to your damaging Parent Mode. It reminds you of your plan to answer back. For example, a small Stop sign on your desk may remind you to set limits, not to say “Yes” to every extra assignment.

·     Postcard or letter to yourself. Write a postcard to yourself to reinforce your intention of diminishing the influence of a particular parental message. Emphasize that you have the right to change these things in your life!

Hey Isabella,

You are okay, and your needs are okay, too! At least that’s what Molly, Joseph, Mia, and Emma think – and they should really know…

·     Get support from others. Such a postcard can be particularly powerful when others write it for you, acknowledging your needs. You might also put pictures of people who would answer back to your Parent Mode (e.g. your partner, family, friends) on your computer desktop to reinforce you every time you look at the screen.

If you have a very strong Punitive Parent Mode (such as Annabelle in Chapter 3) it may be difficult for you to do these exercises. Maybe your Punitive Parent Mode makes fun of you or doesn’t allow you to act against it. Then you may feel guilty or even feel that your Punitive Parent Mode is gaining strength instead of weakening.

In such cases the support of others is extremely important. It can be very helpful to talk these topics through with someone. Often, professional support from a therapist is needed as well. You need real support from others, but you may use imagery exercises to increase the impact of their support. Many people do that quite automatically: when they’re worried or upset about something they talk to supportive people in their imagination. Do you know that phenomenon? Mostly it happens automatically, but you can also try to generate, or retrieve from your past or current life, an “inner helper.” Try to get in contact with your helper whenever your dysfunctional parent rises up or denies your emotions and needs. If you’re not used to drawing on the support of such an “inner helper” you should definitely give it a try – it may be a big help!

Exercises 9.3

Exercises with the Inner Helper

The messages from your Punitive Parent Mode are probably very clear to you. Now, think about those people in your life who are self-compassionate and who stand by you and acknowledge your needs and your feelings. Who might have a very different image of you than the people who laid the ground for the Punitive Parent Mode? Maybe your grandmother or a loving aunt from your childhood; or it might be a current good friend or your partner. It’s not necessary to choose a person who actually knew you when you were little.

When you’ve found your inner helper you can start dealing with a situation in the here and now where your Punitive Parent Mode is active. Maybe you’re blaming yourself for strains in your intimate relationship, although the problems are is not all your fault and you would be well advised to be lenient towards yourself. Or do you hate yourself for gaining a couple of pounds during the holidays? Or do you feel ridiculous as soon as you open your mouth in public?

When you find yourself in such a situation, imagine telling your inner helper about it. It is very important to wait for the answers they give you. What does your inner helper say? Do the answers suggest that your inner helper generally accepts your needs and feelings and looks at you in a loving way? If that’s not the case, it’s probably your Punitive Parent Mode again. If this keeps happening it’s probably better to address these issues in psychotherapy. But if you sense that the answers from your inner helper are actually supportive and helpful you can take the next step and do an imagery exercise.

Imagine a situation where your Punitive Parent Mode is active. Now, let your inner helper enter the situation in your imagination. How does that feel? What do you need to join in, in your imagination, to further weaken the influence of the Punitive Parent Mode?

It will certainly take some time to change Dysfunctional Parent Modes. But it’s worth it – you will notice that you’re getting more relaxed and you’ll see how you can accept your needs once you’ve decided that you’ll no longer tolerate these Modes. Keep in mind that normal problems and crises in anyone’s life (e.g. problems in your marriage or your job) are usually accompanied by the rise of Dysfunctional Parent Modes. That’s normal and shouldn’t discourage you from following this path!