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  • Writer's pictureTena Davies, Clinical Psychologist, Certified Schema Therapist

How therapist modes impact experiential work

 It takes a lot of courage to try experiential work with clients at first. Our own therapist modes can make this process harder. Fortunately, with a bit of awareness and a few tweaks getting back on track is easy enough.

Can you relate to this?

You did the schema training and the experiential work looked amazing. You knew instantly that techniques such as imagery and chairwork were going to be a game changer. While you couldn’t wait to start doing these techniques you often find yourself hesitating to implement them.


If you can relate, read on...

In my time as an accredited schema therapy supervisor and trainer, I have noticed that many therapists start with enthusiastic intentions but sometimes pull back on experiential work when it comes to taking the plunge in session. This particularly happens when they hit a bump during experiential work. There are two things to do when you feel you’ve lost your way with experiential work:


1.  Refine your approach – whether you do this by doing more reading, engaging in an experiential techniques role play with your schema therapy supervisor or do some more training, it’s worth consolidating your knowledge. There is often something that can be tweaked that will make a difference and in turn that will give you more confidence (and peace of mind!).

2.  Explore the modes that come up for you during experiential work. Below is a list of 3 common modes that get in the way of experiential work and what to do about them.


Mind your mind

The critic loves to ambush experiential work for high achieving therapists with good hearts. It can manifest in the room through a negative mental dialogue, “you don’t know what you’re doing,” or guilt inducing messages, “don’t be so selfish, the client didn’t ask to do imagery, who’s needs are you really meeting here!”


If this sounds like you, I’d suggest doing the same for yourself as you’d do your clients. Stick up to the critic! It can be powerful to write these messages down and then notice how little you feels. Then, from your healthy adult, come up with a way to give little you some encouragement. Something like, “you don’t have to be perfect, good enough is enough.” “Critic, if being hard on me worked, it would have worked by now!” 



Lean into your inner coach rather than your critic. For example, the if the critic says, “you’re not good enough.”

The inner coach might say, “ok, I get it, you don’t feel super confident about chairwork. I know it’s important to provide good care to your clients. How about we review how to do chairwork with 2 modes and then give it a go again with a high functioning client so it’s not too tricky initially. It won’t be perfect but it’s a start.” Or “I’m confused about how to initiate imagery, so I’ll ask my schema therapy supervisor to model it and then give it a go myself.”


Tomorrow is always a day away

This avoidant protector may try to protect you from painful feelings (often of defectiveness or failure) through avoiding aspects of experiential work or avoiding it all together. For example, the avoidant protector may creep in if you’re conducting imagery rescripting at challenging points such as reparenting or confronting the antagonist.

This can look like “over-explaining” and might sound like the therapist is delaying. For example, therapist may spend a lot of time asking the client to paint the scene in imagery, more so than is necessary.

Alternatively, it’s easy to think “I’ll definitely do imagery soon but today is not great because, “the client doesn’t seem up for it/I have a big day tomorrow/I should probably wait until I feel more confident etc…”


If this sounds like a webcam into your soul, the avoidant protector may be at play. To combat this, notice how little you is feeling before you go into imagery. Use the moments the client spends locating an image from the past to check in on how little YOU is feeling and offer them some soothing. For example, putting your own hand on your heart for comfort and saying, “it’s ok little one, I’ve got you. Just breathe.”


The compliant surrenderer mode

The compliant surrenderer mode may seek to please and seek approval from the client. It may sound like overly asking the client if they want to engage in experiential work. For example, a therapist may offer chairwork like an apology, “would you like to explore this from different vantage points such as the critic and your avoider mode? We don’t have to of course, if you think that’s weird we can just skip it and talk about it. Or if we do it, and you feel weird or it doesn’t make sense, we stop immediately and won’t do it again of course. I want you to be really happy and confident to try something new.….” This is a very well-intended approach. However, the lack of confidence conveyed in can make the client feel uneasy. They may not want to try something new if they perceive you’re not comfortable.

Instead, invite the client to give it a go. For example: “Hey, I thought we could try something different today to work with your critical part that has such a big impact on your depression.  Are you ok to give this a go to see if it helps? We’re a team and can do this together.”

After the experiential work, explore how that was for the client and remember to connect the experiential work back to the presenting problem. 


Tena Davies is an advanced certified schema therapist supervisor, and trainer based in Melbourne, Australia. Tena enjoys supervising and training  the beautiful and courageous therapists who adopt schema therapy into their practice. She has a particular interest in simplifying schema therapy to make it easier to implement particularly for therapists undertaking schema therapy accreditation. You can learn more about Tena at





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