Saturday, July 28, 2007

The Aware Self in Therapy and Relationships

Richard Schwartz is the creator of the Internal Family Systems model of psychotherapy, an approach to therapy that works with parts or subpersonalities. One of the things I find valuable in his approach, beside the fact that I find "parts" therapy to be incredibly useful and productive, is that he also emphasizes that the therapist needs to be aware of his or her own parts so that they won't act up during the course of working with a client.

Moreover, and I think this is where the most benefit comes from, he places great importance on the role of the Self in therapy, for both the therapist and the client (and by self he means "the deep ground of our being"). As I suggest below, I think this also provides a valuable tool in our interpersonal relationships.

The following passage is from an article in Psychotherapy Networker (May/June, 2004).

From The Larger Self

[O]ver the years, I've come trust the healing power of what I'll call the Self in clients and in myself. When there's a critical mass of Self in a therapy office, healing just happens. When I'm able to embody a lot of Self ... clients can sense in my voice, eyes, movements, and overall presence that I care a great deal about them, know what I'm doing, won't be judging them, and love working with them. Consequently, their inner protectors relax, which releases more of their Self. They then begin to relate to themselves with far more curiosity, confidence, and compassion.

As clients embody more Self, their inner dialogues change spontaneously. They stop berating themselves and instead, get to know, rather than try to eliminate, the extreme inner voices or emotions that have plagued them. At those times they tell me, they feel "lighter," their minds feel somehow more "open" and "free." Even clients who've shown little insight into their problems are suddenly able to trace the trajectory of their own feelings and emotional histories with startling clarity and understanding.

What's particularly impressed me in those moments isn't only that my clients, once they've discovered the Self at the core of their being, show characteristics of insight, self-understanding and acceptance, stability and personal growth, but that even disturbed clients, who'd seem to be unlikely candidates for such shifts so often are able to experience the same qualities. The accepted wisdom in the field during my training was that clients with truly terrible childhoods -- relentless abuse and neglect -- resulting in flagrant symptoms needed a therapist to construct functioning egos for them, virtually from scratch; they simply didn't have the psychological wherewithal to do the job for themselves. But even those clients, once they experienced a sense of their own core, began to take over and acquire what looked like real ego strength on their own, without my having to shovel it into them. And yet, almost no Western psychological theories could explain where this newfound and quite amazing ability to contain and understand their inner turmoil came from.

The more this happened, the more I felt confronted by what were in essence spiritual questions that simply couldn't be addressed in the terms of problem solving, symptom-focused, results-oriented, clinical technique. I began my own novice's exploration into the literature of spirituality and religion and discovered a mother lode of esoteric writings by sages, holy seekers, wise men and women, who emphasized meditative and contemplative techniques as a means of coming to know their Self. ("Esoteric" here means not exotic or far out, but derives from the Greek esotero, which means "further in.") Though they use different words, all the esoteric traditions within the major religions -- Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam -- emphasized their same core belief: we are sparks of the eternal flame, manifestations of the absolute ground of being. It turns out that the divine within -- what the Christians call the soul or Christ Consciousness, Buddhists call Buddha Nature, the Hindus Atman, the Taoists Tao, the Sufis the Beloved, the Quakers the Inner Light -- often doesn't take years of meditative practice to access fully because it exists in all of us, just below the surface of our extreme parts. Once they agree to separate from us, we suddenly have access to who we really are.

I have also found, however, that the most important variable in how quickly clients can access their Self is the degree to which I am fully present and Self-led. It's this presence that constitutes the healing element in psychotherapy regardless of the method or philosophy of the practitioner.

The cool thing about this approach, for those of us who are not therapists or in therapy, is that this same basic approach can be used in our relationships, especially when conflict arises.

When we are in conflict, there is nearly always a part or subpersonality that is involved, defending its "turf" in some way. But we can always be mindful of this and choose to step back from that part -- ask it to let us handle the situation without its interference, as long as we promise that its needs will be met. This takes a well-developed self-awareness, and it will be hard at first, but it is possible. And when we do it, as I have seen in my own experience, it can greatly enhance the intimacy and integrity of our relationships.

Subpersonalities are reactive -- that's their role to a large extent -- but the Self is not reactive. When we access the aware self, we can relate with others from a place of compassion and empathy rather than conflict and reactivity.


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