Beware: Falling Serifs

This is draft number 3 of this post. This post is part of an ongoing series I'm calling I've Been Sad

Therapy Methods & Breakthroughs: Internal Family Systems (IFS)

I’ve worked with many therapists over the years, and even use some software (Mood Notes for iOS is great btw) structured around the techniques of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy1, which is pretty common in my experience in the United States as an effective method of reigning in anxiety and depression based on identifying the distortions prevalent in the thoughts you have. Identifying them allows the practitioner to change their thought patterns by tearing apart your brain’s cognitive distortions and allowing you to realize that you aren’t a fortune teller, or that it isn’t really a catastrophic event that you have spilled coffee on yourself. A fantastic book about CBT is Feeling Good by David D. Burns. It was recommended by my friend le and it is really a great book that can allow you to even self-administer the essential elements of CBT on your own if you’re squeamish about going into therapy for some reason and would rather work alone. I was pretty familiar with the concepts around CBT but didn’t know much of anything about Internal Family Systems (IFS)2 until a couple of years ago.

Meeting the Family

At some point a couple years ago I read the introduction to a book called “You Are the One You’ve Been Waiting For,” and thought it looked interesting but stuck it on a shelf in iBooks to read later. I thought the title was absolutely terrible, but now that I’ve read this book a couple of times I realize that it’s a very apt description of the contents and find it much less off-putting.3

It was after I started having some sessions with my individual therapist that I revisited the book. I liked how my therapists (yes plural, we’ll get there eventually) explained things or could essentially illustrate my life as being a series of emergencies that have some common reactions and experiences in spite of being disparate events. I could see similarities between what would soon be known as Protectors or Managers were aspects of my personality that are emotionally distinct from the core of my Self. 4

It soon began making sense to me that I haven’t been operating the machinery of my life much myself5, but rather handing the keys over to:

  • a toddler afraid of abandonment.
  • a teenaged version of me that revels in having no accountability to anyone.
  • a scared middle-school aged me that is afraid to ask for forgiveness because they’re too ashamed. This is but a small sampling of the many Parts I will be working with at some point, because I contain multitudes6.

This sounds like something really serious

I was very wary of this terminology because it sounded more like United States of Tara7 than actual psychiatry. I was afraid of pathologizing myself even further than I already was. Multiple personalities now? Parts of my Self? Higher Self? Am I on a commune or something? It isn’t like that exactly, but it is easy to make the comparison.

While a friend was giving me feedback after reading an early draft of this post, she said that she thought about the movie Inside Out8, which was so obvious I didn’t know why I hadn’t thought of it before. Yes, it is very much like the wildly successful (and adorable) Pixar film Inside Out. There are some key differences of course. For one, Goofball Island could never be destroyed, because I am always going to be a goofball. But more importantly, these Parts are not always aware of each other, and the actual Self of me at the middle of it all is always aware of them on some level. They work for your Self ultimately, and they depend entirely on your Self permitting them to do the jobs they think they have.

The more I read about this methodology the more interesting it got to me. Apparently your Self is easy to lose track of. Consequently, when I look around I think it’s likely most people are living out their days under the Management of their Parts, or fleeing the wrath of their Exiles and Protectors. Even otherwise assumed-to-be-normal people or even people that have been doing therapy for years sometimes prefer to live day to day as their parts. Either that or they don’t know that they’re even doing it and will hopefully figure it out and get there, or just choose to live under those conditions for the rest of their lives.

A Better Life

I could have probably continued living my life that way if I didn’t want something better for myself. My parts have made things more difficult for me at times, but they’ve done their job and kept me alive. As I started reading and thinking about these concepts I noticed that there have been times where I felt that true fully present Self inside of me. I decided that this is something that I want more of in my life, and for myself as a human being. To be Self-lead. To be more than I have been, and to be capable of truly great things easily rather than having everything be a constant struggle. I want to live by leading with my Self, representing my Self and my Parts. I do not wish to represented and driven by my Parts anymore.

Soon after deciding this, I realized that handling the relationships I have with my Parts is going to require a lot of effort and hard work. I didn’t think it would be easy, but I didn’t realize how big these Parts can be; how menacing some of them are, and how much they can influence you. Sometimes I’ve found myself overwhelmed with the task of picking a thought in my mind to check it for cognitive distortions. There are so many threads in the rich vibrant tapestry of negative self-talk surrounding my mind, and it feels like even picking one is a waste of time when there are so many. I eventually realized that the more often you do this, the less often you have to, because a lot of it can start happening behind the scenes without you doing it intentionally as your brain learns how with a little help from you.

Finding a Part to work with can be as simple as plucking one from a tree or tapping one on the shoulder in the bonfire of your heart. In either case, sometimes this is made much easier for you because you have something going on in your life that brings some of them front and center.

Looking Back

I am somewhat plagued by nostalgia and things from my past. I have a love/hate relationship with my nostalgic Parts, but it made my next task easier. Over the years there have been moments in my life that I could clearly identify as coming from the same source inside myself. Experiencing two different events in the same way, or having the same reaction to objectively different circumstances. Something happens, you feel threatened or ignored, and the Parts come to rescue you. As you see these similar responses and emotional experiences you can start to identify the calling cards and commonalities that may indicate the same Parts were involved in those moments.

When I first started attempting to act on this new knowledge, I looked inward and in that moment there was something familiar to me. This Part is a two-year-old version of me.

My Wee Me

Over the years I’ve come to associate feelings of abandonment and even fear of being abandoned with a very small version of myself. That little guy has dictated the behaviors of other Manager and Protector Parts of me that would dutifully and predictably intervene on his behalf. This influence was most evident to me with most of the intimate relationships I would have, and lose, for nearly four decades9. He’s anxious and frightened, and he’s utterly incapable of appreciating the concepts of time and space. He craves affection and adoration, and he will panic if he doesn’t get enough or thinks it is being given to someone else. He cries and reaches out for his perceived source of those feelings, and when that happens he creates dramatic theater in my mind to incite panic in me. He is despondent and demands I seek validation or redemption for him. Sooth me! In those moments, I usually can’t have what he craves. He rapidly escalates from there and hits the enrage timer10.

In many ways, that Part of me is remarkably similar to other two-year-olds I’ve known in recent history.

He’s easy for me to find right now. He is running laps around the satin edge of a blanket, with his thumb planted in the roof of his mouth. He is afraid to come forward but he can’t help himself. My therapist told me to approach with curiosity, so that is what I do. It felt weird and silly, because I was pretty sure I knew what he was all about because it’s so typical and obvious and I’ve been feeling like such a cliché lately. I wasn’t expecting any real revelations here, so I was surprised as this unfolded.

He’s the version of me that was there with my father when he went through an exceptionally painful period of time, and this was somehow forever carved out in my brain. He is in a constant state of anxiety and while I have no conscious memory of this period I can easily imagine what it was like. This was actually a completely new side to this aspect of my personality. It never quite lined up that I would have this abandonment narrative in my head because I wasn’t really abandoned at all. I think that toddler Part of me may have felt abandoned from time to time but if I step back and look at the facts as an arguably grown-ass man it doesn’t quit fit until it is paired with the rest of the story. The indisputable reality is that I saw someone that cared for me, someone larger than life, be deeply wounded, and it completely changed everything I previously believed was unchanging and permanent.

Self Soothing

I imagined picking that little kid up and kissed his head like I do my own son. It all slid into place from there. The little boy in me doesn’t need to be afraid and tormented by change. Much like my son doesn’t have to be afraid, because I will protect him. Yes, sometimes terrible things may happen, but I will be there for those moments and I don’t need the intervention of a Protector because I can protect myself now. I know what to look for and how to be vigilant — I will also protect and comfort my son and show him that we can survive and weather storms together and hopefully teach him how to make it on his own someday without relying on his own Parts to rescue him.

After providing some comfort and security to that Part of me, I could free him from his obligation of thrashing wildly for affection and being afraid for me. What I have been really needing more than ever was to find a source inside myself for what we call Ikkyo in Aikido. It’s your new chapter mind. It’s neoteny, and it’s mindfulness. Whatever you call it, it originates with being truly present in the current moment of your existence and experiencing everything for the first time.

The way a two-year-old reacts to events is not usually how I would want to act today. But I absolutely love that there is a Part of me that has never done anything before and can find anything new, beautiful, fantastic and even a little terrifying.

Giving him space to play safely and showing him things I love allows his sense of wonder to shine his influence on my present-day experience. It has been only a few weeks but I cannot believe I have only just now scratched the surface of this piece of me, finally, four decades after my birth. I would probably talk down to myself for being so late, but a friend likes to tell me that I’m always right on time, and I believe her.

Reconciliation

It was a few days after my first successful interaction with this Wee Me that he was still running laps on that blankie and letting my Self more or less consistently show up. Later on there will be some really painful days, but I just pick him up and remind him that I’m here and that everything is going to be fine and to trust me. Then he will watch me have an utter meltdown, but he can witness this without summoning forth Protectors and Managers that will struggle for control of me.

You have to be careful with those Protectors. They can quite literally kill you to save you from something they fear. They will do it gleefully and joyously and it can happen in mere moments. I make some sort of overture towards the teenaged rebellious me; he’s all flannel shirts around his waist and bad poetry. He isn’t ready yet, but he’s around.

Redemption

My therapist is delighted with my progress, I am still feeling heroic about my little guy. She wants to know if anyone else is ready. Rebellious Me is not-so-subtly judging me and mocking me for caring. He’s really not ready yet. I look inward and imagine looking through a crowded room, looking for someone staring back at me. After a couple of minutes I find him.

My initial impression of this Part was that it was an eight or nine-year-old me. Some of our Parts can apparently get stuck at the age they were when they receive trauma. Many of my Parts are like emotional bruises; you take a hard hit and it leaves a bruise on your flesh and these parts I am first working with are all created that way. They get stuck in a loop and we don’t ever move beyond them until we exile them or figure them out and give them a new job to do. This other part of me that locked eyes with me doesn’t want my therapist to know what he’s done. He is full of shame, remorse, and worry. The closer I get, the more I see other pieces. It may be a Part of me that spans four or five years, and I’m so sad for what he’s carrying around. I tell my therapist as much but caution her that he doesn’t want to talk about it.

“Approach with curiosity,” she says again. My eyes are closed to look inward, and I imagine my Self holding out my hand to this Part, urging him to come forward. There is a moment where I am immediately aware of what redemption he needs. He has been ashamed for years so I have been ashamed for years. He has tried reaching out before — indirectly, through me, to other people in ways that were not healthy or helpful. It never occurred to him to reach out to my Self because my Self was somewhat absentee. To show this part that I’m there for him, I give him exactly what he has desired. I forgive him. I forgive myself. Rather, my Self forgave myself.

“It ended with you,” I tell him. That isn’t entirely true but that isn’t his fault and he couldn’t have known where that trail lead later on because he’s stuck there. I make a note to revisit that series of events and the ramifications of that pattern of behavior later. The short version is that it is all related to my trauma-bonding and my emotional scab-picking many years later. They are things I still believe I need to atone for somehow, but that Part’s role in all of this is over and fully accepted. All I can feel is relief. I can’t help but cry about it. My therapist wants me to find a new place for him and he knows exactly where to go and breaks into a run to lead me there; my grandfather’s barn.

Barnstorming

This big white barn with peeling paint is full of rectangular bales of straw tied with cord, that can be easily rearranged by a child into the walls of a castle. A long rope hangs from the ceiling on a pulley and is looped at the bottom, where you can put your foot. There are giant wooden beams forming rafters in the barn accessible from the top of your straw staircase. I would swing in that barn from beam to beam, from castle wall to castle wall. The rope was pretty disgusting, and birds would nest above where the pulley mechanism once allowed the rope to slide the entire length of the barn before I found it, but I didn’t care. It was so much fun that I would gleefully cling to a knotted rope covered in birdshit and swing until my arms gave out and I’d plummet to the pile of straw beneath me. It was maybe ten feet, but it felt like fifty at the time.

That part of me is still swinging now. No longer agonizing over an inner conflict that could never be resolved. My Self redeemed myself, again. This part of me is no longer sad, afraid of being found out, and worried about what he’s done. He really didn’t need to feel responsible for anything because there was nothing he could have done. He (I) was just a kid.

Bruises

That Part was created like a bruise, when I lived in a very small town of about one hundred people. I lived in a red house near a school, and I met a girl two years older than me. The story is sad for a lot of reasons, but I carried a piece of her inside of me ever since. I can still hear her laughter, and her frightened whispers. That piece of her is sharp and heavy inside of me, and it rattled around and ricocheted off other Parts of me. The story isn’t finished yet, but still I feel so relieved by it all.

Because of that forgiveness, I feel much differently about some other events of my childhood that I have felt tremendous shame about for decades. That easing will allow me to better tackle stuff that I need to work on as an adult, but it won’t happen today.

My Internal Family

This entire process has so far been deeply gratifying and rewarding. I have learned a lot about myself and where I came from, and it was entirely from places in my heart and Parts of me that I thought I already knew! I am being constantly surprised at how much I had missed while it was in plain sight in front of me all this time. I would beat myself up over it for being so stupid, but as you know by now, that would only be a cognitive distortion to prevent me from appreciating the success I’ve been having with my therapy! I honestly don’t know what to expect next, but I’m not afraid. This is precisely the kind of thing my toddler Part finds fantastic and joyful.

  1. CBT 

  2. The Center for Self Leadership 

  3. Point of order; if you think this book is actually about someone in particular, I promise it’s about you too. You’ll get it when you read it. 

  4. I’m getting a little self-conscious here by going all-in with the lingo and terminology but that is due to this making a tremendous amount of sense to me later. Don’t let it run you off. 

  5. or: my Self 

  6. Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself 

  7. United States of Tara on Wikipedia 

  8. Inside Outon Wikipedia 

  9. Seriously knocking wood right now because I can’t even with this shit. 

  10. Enrage Timer (WoW Wiki) 

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