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The Schema Therapy Bulletin

The Official Publication of the 

International Society of Schema Therapy

Mode TrackingSM with Couples

By Chiara Simeone DiFrancesco, Ph.D.  (USA) 

Mode TrackingSM and Need TalkSM are service marks created by the author and belonging to Dialog International Press, LLC.

What is Mode TrackingSM and how does it work?  Mode TrackingSM comes from the conceptualization of Schema Therapy.  It involves the activation of the developmental history of a person, particularly in their childhood.  Because we do not live in a perfect world, most children have at least some of their core needs unmet.  How core needs are or are not met will impact the individual’s emotional development and their capacity for connection with others.  The vantage point of adulthood does not necessarily bring recognition of the lessons learned in childhood, and the consequent formation of early maladaptive schemas (schemas).  Schemas are complex patterns that arouse the autonomic nervous system into a familiar way of coping that maintains the unmet need.  These schemas can generally be classified into 18 different patterns.  This helps us have some meta-awareness of their activation.

One can track the activation of the schemas like pistons firing in an engine.  Together they more or less, depending on their state of repair, get the car moving.   When schemas are activate, often many of them in rapid succession, people exhibit schema modes. We can observe this from a three-dimensional perspective of core emotions activated (Child Modes), the cognitively mediated “voice in one’s head” (Parent Modes) providing commentary about self and others, and the actual ensuing behaviors (Coping Modes).    These layers can be diagrammed in a Mode Map or Mode Cycle Clashcard.  They can also be experienced through the exercise of placing the modes in chairs, as their layers are “peeled off” like thin onion skins occurring at some moments nanosecond by nanosecond.  

Therapist’s Tip:   “Map-it” out (Couples Mode Cycle Clashcard) or “Chair-it” out…It’s hard to slow down the interaction and break it up into parts.  These methods create a mindful meta-conscious state as they and you focus on the physical objects of the chair/labels and Clashcard to externalize what is happening. 

The beauty of this three dimensional model, is that it slows down the process of interaction within and without a human being. This corresponds to what we know about allowing the adrenalin-based somatic flooding to calm.  This in turn allows for a reflective process of: identification, evaluation, determined re-refocusing, and re-evaluation identification of a much deeper issue, internal and external Need-TalkSM

Need-TalkSM simply put is the identification first to oneself, and then to pertinent others, especially intimate relationships, the patterns of unmet Needs that form their “gridlocked” issues and feed hopeless and often helpless feelings.  When couples share at this level, it often propels them into greater intimacy and furtherance of empathic understanding.  This empathy may naturally find resonance within the partner, as Needs are universal and applicable to all.

When the Needs are peeled off from the covering “onion-skin” layer of the Wants, creative new avenues of understanding are presented to a couple.  The ability to do this can be trained as part of Healthy Adult Mode development.  

One main way to develop facility with Mode TrackingSM and Need-TalkSM is training in detecting and inquiry into presumptive statements that sound socially acceptable.  However, these stonewall the therapist and partner into acceptance of the statement as being impossible to politely contradict without escalation of conflict.  These assumptions can often be detected by the structure of the statement coming out of the mouth as a “conclusion”.  Previous to mode work in the chairs, it was quite challenging for a clinician to question these conclusions without seeming to be unsupportive. With mode work in the chairs, the clinician now has a way to ally with the client(s), since together we stand above the chairs and seek to intercept, understand and simply clarify what voice is speaking and what just happened between the modes.

This type of Need-based connection with a client is often a more absorbable form of empathic understanding.  It is in the active recognition of the deeper interpersonal Needs that a person may find a sense of finally being understood. 

In sum, in ST-C therapist and clients jointly become active as they “peel back”, each mode as it arises concurrently in the issues and context of the session.  The therapist leads, brings these mode states out into the light, and even explores the modes that may be hiding behind them. As clients and therapists ally together above the chairs, observing, feeling, and reflecting on the different states of experience that are shifting in the session, the therapist leads them to identify what the Child’s Needs truly are.  This can loosen up the coping mode’s grasp on the frequently inflexible chosen Want.   

Loosening up this grasp takes  some abstract thinking and philosophical knowledge. But as this skill is developed in the therapist, clients may find a sense of joy as they hopefully reach what it is they are really Needing, and start to see that this Need never conflicts with another person who is in Healthy Adult mode.  Each and every human has these Needs as they belong to their humanness, even if the individual is too fractured to see it.  The therapist works to rally the partner’s recognition of these Needs and demonstrates a model of expressing loving understanding towards their past lack of fulfilment, with expressions of a current sharpened focus towards them.  This often takes some scripting to put this into words, and is demonstrated by session modeling.  

Result?...We aim the clients to proffer the Need-target-based first action of love, the empathic words,followed up by ongoing love-actions to fill the Need.  Focus is on the coping mechanism cycle being their common enemy, forestalling partners from going off into cognitive explanations or worse.  Since this intervention eliminates blame, both sides tend to soften, or at least gain distance to re-apprise the situation from a more Healthy Adult perspective…hopefully Love in Actioned-Acceptance.

Originally published and copyrighted by:  Dialog International Press, LLC, 11/6/13ISBN #:  978-0-9719948-9-8 Revised Dec. 12, 2015.  All rights reserved.  Contact publisher for further permissions at: EMAIL


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