One of the key aspects of schema therapy is working with people’s ‘modes’, which are different sides of their personality that may serve a particular purpose for them. Some of these are known as ‘coping modes’, because they help us cope with difficult thoughts and feelings, interpersonal problems, or stressful events or situations. And a common coping mode is the Detached Self-Soother, which helps us detach from our painful feelings or cope with a tough situation using a substance or behaviour that is numbing or soothing.
In the UK, our go-to strategy for self-soothing is with alcohol. And, of course, the odd beer or glass of wine with dinner is not a problem at all – I like a nice glass of red myself. It’s just when that glass turns into a bottle, or the occasional pint with friends becomes four or five pints, then a daily habit, or in the worst case we find ourselves sliding into addiction.
We can also use behaviours or activities to self-soothe, such as spending hours on Facebook or Instagram; compulsively shopping; gambling; computer games; or endlessly surfing the Web or slumping in front of the TV. Again, none of these activities are bad per se – it’s all about how much we do them and why.
Escaping painful feelings
When we detach with this mode, one of the main problems is that we are avoiding our feelings – and in schema therapy we see that as ignoring/silencing our Vulnerable Child mode. This psychologically young, vulnerable part of us needs attending to, not ignoring. For example, if you feel sad or lonely because you don’t have a partner, it’s important to acknowledge the loneliness of your Vulnerable Child and help him/her feel better by trying to meet someone you can connect to. Or if you feel really anxious about leaving the house, because you’re agoraphobic, it’s helpful to listen to and try to soothe/reassure your Vulnerable Child, then seek professional help if you need it to overcome your problem.
In neither case would it be helpful to compulsively avoid or ignore your feelings, numbing yourself with alcohol or distracting yourself with a Facebook binge. It’s important to remember that you don’t need to feel bad or guilty for self-soothing in this way. We all have to find ways of coping with painful feelings – and many of us do so using some form of this mode. At the same time, just because we have done something habitually for a long time doesn’t make it a good idea, or mean we can’t seek to change.