What is the Detached Protector mode in schema therapy?

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One of the most common 'modes' in schema therapy is the Detached Protector, which tries to protect us by suppressing our painful emotions. When we are in this mode we are very much in our heads, being overly rational and cut off from our feelings. I guess if I were to think of the living embodiment of this mode, it would be Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory – someone who lives completely in his head, who doesn't feel much or understand other people's emotions at all.

So this is a part of us that gets activated when, say, we are upset and fear becoming overwhelmed. Our Detached Protector (unconsciously) kicks in and we change focus from the painful feelings to change the subject, tell a tangential story, or rationalise the way we feel until we're not feeling it any more. Very commonly when my clients are in this mode they will be talking about an upsetting experience without actually feeling that upset in any way.

This part of us almost always develops in childhood, when we may have learned to shut down to cope with overwhelming emotions. A good metaphor for this process is the way a circuit breaker gets triggered when there's a power surge – it shuts the system down so nothing gets damaged. So something in your brain gets triggered and switches off its emotional circuitry, to protect you from unbearably intense emotion that you are too young and undeveloped to deal with (managing big emotions and self-soothing when they are upset is not something that young children are able to do).

We also call this process 'dissociation', which basically means disconnection or detachment from our inner experience or the world around us. The younger you are, the harder it is to regulate your emotions, so if you are scared because someone is hurting or threatening you, the only way to protect yourself is to trigger this circuit breaker in your brain.

From helpful to habitual

This shutting down was both helpful and necessary when you were little, but over time it became a habit and led to an increasing number of problems. For example, imagine that Stephen comes to therapy because his wife is threatening to leave if he doesn't stop going quiet and withdrawn whenever they have a problem in their marriage. When Stephen comes to see me, he tells me he's deeply worried about losing his wife, who he loves very much. But when they have conflict, he just 'clams up' and feels empty and numb inside.

This is Stephen's Detached Protector kicking in – probably because conflict situations were scary or threatening for him as a child, so he learned this self-protective behaviour. In schema therapy, a big part of the work would be helping him learn to feel and express his emotions a bit more – also to communicate with his wife when things got bumpy. These simple changes could make a profound difference to Stephen's day-to-day life and even save his marriage!

It's important to repeat that this part of you is a protector mode – it's not bad or mean in any way. It's just that, like Stephen's experience, what starts out as helpful and even life-saving becomes a hindrance over time. So with Stephen, it would be important to teach him healthier way of managing his feelings – talking about them to me, his wife or a friend; using deep breathing, helpful ways of thinking or mindfulness techniques to feel calmer and more relaxed, even when conflict flared up. Over time, bit by incremental bit, this could be transformative for him – and, if you have a Detached Protector, for you too.

If you would like to know more about schema therapy, call me on 07766 704210, email dan@danroberts.com or use the Contact page to get in touch.

Warm wishes,

Dan