In schema therapy, we talk about schemas, which are more entrenched, long-term character traits, and we talk about modes, which are states that come and go depending upon any number of factors.
Emotional deprivation is an example of a common schema that is born out of a persistent lack of empathy, nurturing, and/or protection in childhood.
The Detached Protector is an example of a mode. It is a defensive or a coping mode that commonly develops as a way of defending against the aforementioned deprivation.
The Detached Protector is characterized by numbness, and literally, a lack of connection or attachment to one’s emotional world. It can be misinterpreted as a state of contentment, because on the surface, someone with a strong Detached Protector can seem quite serene.
The Detached Protector develops in childhood as a necessary survival tool, but it doesn’t automatically switch off once one reaches adulthood and the traumatic situation is no longer present.
Dealing with the Detached Protector is one of the greatest challenges in therapy. It’s like a stubborn old soldier that doesn’t want to lay down its weapons even though the war has ended years ago. We must respect, acknowledge, and understand the reason for its existence, and convince it over time that the danger is no longer real and present, and that it is in fact safe to stand down.
Once the Detached Protector relaxes its defenses, it is possible to access one’s internal world of feelings and emotions and memories. This inevitably involves feeling pain and sadness; the same pain and sadness that was thwarted years ago. Except now as an adult, in the majority of cases, there are many more tools to deal with and process the pain, and one can learn that feeling it will not kill or overwhelm. It requires a lot more psychic energy to keep the pain at bay than to acknowledge it and accept it and let it go.
By David B Younger, PhD, CGP, PC
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