The Pattern System for Psychotherapists

The Pattern System has been developed over 40 years of observing my clients’ behavior, emotions, underlying psychological issues, and their origins in childhood. This has been enhanced by many years of supervision, training, and consultation with therapists and trainees and many discussions with colleagues. I have put this together using my background in systems thinking and information technology science.

The Pattern System is a personality system that allows you to map a client’s psyche in detail. It is a new way of organizing into useful form the extraordinary amount of data we absorb about our clients. It provides a way for therapists to clarify the unique character structure of each client, leading to an understanding of his or her special needs, strengths, and difficulties.

This organizational map makes it easier for you to apply your existing therapeutic knowledge in a way that is tailored to each person. It is especially useful when your treatment of a particular client is stalled or you are confused about how to proceed. By mapping his or her patterns and healthy capacities, you are guided to a clearer understanding of where the therapy is stuck and what to do about it.

The Pattern System provides handy information about the kinds of underlying dynamics that are likely to be operating for each type of pattern a client may have. It also will help you to understand possible transference and countertransference issues that may arise with each client depending on their patterns and yours.

For example, clients who have a Prideful Pattern have a need to be seen as special and better than others. Some of them can become easily hurt by what they perceive as criticism from others, including you. They need to be gently led into an exploration of their underlying feelings which often come from the Deficiency Wound. On the other hand, clients with a People Pleasing Pattern need to become aware of their tendency to try to please others, including their therapists. They grow by learning to assert themselves, set limits, and take initiative. These are just a couple examples of patterns that impact not only the client’s life but also the therapy process.

The Underlying Dynamics of Each Pattern

Let’s look at this in more detail. Once you assess that a client has a certain pattern, the Pattern System provides readily-referenced information about the possible underlying defensive motivations for this pattern and their possible origins in childhood. For any given pattern, there are a variety of different options, so, of course, the Pattern System doesn’t attempt to tell you exactly what your client’s dynamics are. It shows you the most common motivations and origins to help you gain insight what might be going on.

For example, if a client has a Caretaking Pattern, it might be motivated in one of the following ways:

1. The client might be afraid of being attacked, criticized, shamed, or betrayed if they don’t take care of people.

2. The client might be afraid of rejected, abandoned, not cared for, or dismissed if they don’t take care of people.

3. The client might be attempting to get acceptance, interest, approval, caring, or love by taking care of people.

These are just some of the possible motivations for this pattern.

Each motivation is related to a childhood wound or other origin. For example, if the client is afraid of being attacked (verbally or physically abused) if he or she doesn’t take care of someone, this relates to the Attack Wound, where the child was subjected to or witnessed anger, rage, or physical abuse. The child probably learned that by taking care of a parent who threatened to be angry or violent, he or she could sometimes forestall the rage or abuse.

Of course, we know that every client is unique and each story is different, so the Pattern System just indicates possibilities. You will have to help the client explore their unconscious motivations and defenses and their childhood history in order to discover what the actual motivations and childhood origins are for that person.

Learning about a Client’s Patterns

Of the patterns that can be affecting a client’s life, some are more obvious than others. A client will bring up certain patterns that he or she knows are causing problems. For example, a client might say that it is hard for her to leave a relationship even though she can see that it isn’t good for her because she feels dependent on her partner. This is the Dependent Pattern, and understanding it can give you insight into what might be going on underneath.

Some patterns are fairly easy for you to spot even if the client doesn’t see them. For example, if a client finds it hard to assert herself with her husband and is constantly trying to please him, this is clearly the People Pleasing Pattern.

Other patterns are more subtle, so the Pattern System can help you to recognize a client that you might otherwise have missed. For example, a client might have a Passive-Aggressive Pattern, where he or she appears to be a pleaser but actually causes people frustration and pain through unconscious and indirect aggression. Another subtle pattern is the Change Resistant Pattern, where clients do good work until they get to the step in the therapy process where transformation happens. Here they resist real change, often in hidden ways.

You can encourage a client to use the Pattern System to learn about a certain pattern in order to enhance their understanding of their issues and help them to know what needs to change. In addition, if a client is having difficulty with a spouse, child, relative, or other person in their life, the Pattern System could help them to gain a better understanding of the other person, and the dynamics of their relationship.

In some cases, a client may have a pattern that operates in all areas of life. However, many patterns only become activated under certain circumstances. For example, a man might have the Assertiveness Capacity with his wife but have the People-Pleasing Pattern at work with his boss. Or vice versa. Thus in mapping a client’s psyche, it can useful to assess not just which patterns or capacities he or she has, but under what circumstances they are activated.

The Pattern System delineates patterns that manifest primarily in therapy sessions as well as those that show in behavior. For example, a client may have a pattern of shutting down emotionally (Numb Pattern) or becoming distracted (Distracted Pattern) whenever you approach painful material. Another client may become self-judgmental (Inner Critic Pattern) whenever vulnerability begins to arise.

Healthy Capacities

The Pattern System doesn’t just focus on psychological problems. It also delineates healthy capacities. These are healthy, functional ways of behaving, relating, and feeling. For each pattern, the Pattern System specifies which capacity is needed to overcome or transform it. For example, if a client has a Victim Pattern, they need to develop the Responsibility Capacity to overcome it. If a client has a Perfectionist Pattern, they need to develop the Ease Capacity to transform it.

Each pattern also has a capacity which is the healthy version of it. For example, the healthy version of the Rebel Pattern is the Assertiveness Capacity, while the capacity a client needs to develop to transform the Rebel Pattern is the Cooperation Capacity.

By understanding which capacity is needed to transform a given pattern, you and the client can see clearly what the goals are for your work with them. It becomes easier to assign homework practices between sessions that is designed to help clients develop certain healthy capacities.


The patterns and capacities are arranged in dimensions, where each dimension corresponds to an area of psychological functioning. There are Interpersonal Dimensions such as Intimacy, Conflict, and Power. There are Inner Critic Dimensions such as Accomplishment, Pleasure, and Self-Esteem. And there are Personal Dimensions such as Coherence, Reason/Emotion, and Change. Each dimension contains two or more patterns and also two or more healthy capacities arranged in a way that makes clear which capacity is a healthy version of each pattern, and which capacity is need to transform each pattern.

You can create a client’s psychological profile by charting which pattern(s) and capacity(s) they have in each dimension. Or you can encourage a client to do this on their own and share it with you.

A Dynamic Profile

You can create a client’s psychological profile by charting which pattern(s) and capacity(s) they have in each dimension. Or you can encourage a client to do this on their own and share it with you.

This profile of your client’s psyche can change over time because it is based on how a client’s experience and behavior is determined by patterns vs. capacities. In fact, your goal in therapy is to help clients convert pattern into capacities, so the Pattern System focuses on exactly those aspects of a client’s psyche that are relevant to therapy.

People who have been working on themselves for years will often recognize that they once had a certain pattern, but now they have the corresponding healthy capacity. Or they may see that they used to have a certain pattern triggered under certain circumstances, but now it in no longer triggered in some of these situations.

This dynamic aspect allows clients to use the Pattern System to set goals for themselves in therapy and to track their progress over time.

Transference and Countertransference Patterns

Each pattern also has typical transference issues. For example, clients with a Caretaking Pattern may try to take care of their therapist, while clients with an Entitled Pattern often push the therapeutic boundaries by asking for special treatment. The Pattern System can help you to recognize your clients’ patterns that may be playing out in their relationships with you.

We all know that it is important to recognize when our countertransference reactions to a client are interfering with their therapy or undermining our therapeutic alliance. You have probably felt that niggling uncomfortable feeling when something with a particular patient isn’t quite going right--when you feel more reactive than you are comfortable with. The Pattern System can help you understand what might be going on in these situations in two ways.

(1) Each pattern that a client has elicits typical countertransference reactions from therapists. For example, therapists can get into power struggles with clients with a Controlling or Defiant Pattern. Or therapists can become overly involved with clients with a Dependent Pattern. By seeing clearly the interpersonal patterns of any given client, you can be on the lookout for reactions of yours that might interfere with their therapy.

(2) You can also can get insight into possible countertransference reactions by examining your own patterns. For example, a therapist with a Caretaking or Dependent Pattern may try to connect with schizoid clients too quickly and thereby frighten them. A therapist with a Prideful Pattern may become too dependent on having clients idealize them.

The Pattern System can be particularly helpful when a client’s treatment seems to be stuck. By understanding the client’s patterns, you can gain an understanding of where the bottleneck lies. The client may have one particular pattern that is blocking their going deeper into the issues they need to explore, or is keeping them from changing. Or the client might have a pattern that is undermining their therapeutic alliance with you, or triggering certain reactions in you that are waylaying the therapy.

Click Transference Patterns for more information.

Patterns in Group Therapy

In group therapy, certain patterns engender particular group problems or roles. For example, clients with the Self-Absorbed Pattern can become monopolizers of the group’s time, while  clients with a Judgmental Pattern can create a hostile, unsafe group climate. By recognizing the patterns of your group members, you have a better chance of forestalling and handling group difficulties.

Patterns vs. Personality Disorders

Patterns are different from personality disorders in that, by definition, a certain level of psychopathology is required for a client to be diagnosed with a personality disorder, while a client can have a pattern at any level of dysfunction, from mild to severe. For example, a client with an extreme version of the Distancing Pattern might have a schizoid personality disorder, but someone with a milder version of that pattern might simply have difficulties in allowing intimacy or committing to a relationship.

Let’s look at the correspondences between personality disorders and patterns.

Personality Disorder     Pattern

Dependent                      Dependent, People-Pleasing

Anti-social                       Deceptive

Borderline                       Dependent, Victim, Angry, Distancing

Passive-Aggressive          Passive-Aggressive

Paranoid                          Suspicious, Prideful, Victim

Schizoid, Schizotypal       Distancing

Histrionic                        Charmer

Narcissistic                     Prideful, Entitled, Defensive

Avoidant                         Self-Effacing

Obsessive-Compulsive    Obsessive-Compulsive

Depressive                      Depressed

Other Psychotherapy and Personality Systems

The concept of a pattern corresponds to existing concepts in various psychotherapy schools—the schema from CBT, the Jungian complex, the psychodynamic defense. Many patterns and capacities correspond to Jungian archetypes. As a result the Pattern System can be used in conjunction with a wide variety of different models of therapy.

The Pattern System is different from systems of character types, such as the Enneagram or that used in Bioenergetics, because these systems attempt to capture a client’s entire character in one type. However, in the Pattern System, each pattern describes just one aspect of a client’s personality, and we expect that each person will have many different patterns and healthy capacities, at least one for each dimension. In fact, the richness of the pattern system fosters an attitude of looking deeply into a client’s behavior and issues with the goal of understanding the uniqueness of that person’s dynamics, rather than just giving him or her a label.

The Pattern System is similar to the Myers-Briggs test in being based on certain dimensions of personality. However, the Myers-Briggs system is oriented toward clarifying a person’s innate tendencies, while the Pattern System is focused on understanding a person’s healthy and problematic ways of functioning, which are more based on life experiences and can be modified by psychotherapy.

The Pattern System and IFS

IFS (Internal Family Systems Therapy) was created by pioneering psychologist Richard Schwartz, PhD. It is an established and increasingly popular form of therapy which I use almost exclusively in my practice as a therapist because it is so powerful and user-friendly.

The Pattern System and IFS complement each other. IFS is a very powerful method for psychotherapy that is process oriented. Unlike many other therapy approaches, IFS doesn’t attempt to lay out the specific dynamics of a person’s psychology, in terms of underlying core issues, primary defenses, and so on. Other than the very important distinction it makes between managers, firefighters, and exiles, IFS focuses exclusively on the therapy process, with the assumption that the therapist doesn’t need to figure out and interpret the client’s issues. Once the client gets to know his or her parts, they will tell you what is going on.

The Pattern System supplies the specific psychology of various types of parts. It constitutes a map of the human psyche. Each pattern delineates a type of part that is commonly encountered in IFS work. Each healthy capacity defines an aspect of the Self or a non-extreme part in IFS. The Pattern System shows how a kind of protector may protect certain kinds of exile, which parts may be polarized with each other, be allied, and other systemic relationships. The Pattern System lays out the typical motivations for each type of IFS protector and the usual childhood origins for each type of exile.

The Pattern System doesn't encourage people to put parts in boxes and assume they know a part when they understand what pattern it has. We recognize that each part is unique and must be understood by getting to know it experientially. The Pattern System provides a way for people and therapists to begin to understand what a person's configuration of parts may be and what typical dynamics and relationships exist.

Therefore these two models complement each other. IFS provides the therapy process and the Pattern System the psychological content. They work together beautifully.