Saturday, March 15, 2008

IFS Parts Work - The Escape Artist

Today's day-long session is with Richard Schwartz, founder of the Internal Family Systems model of therapy -- The Healing Self.

Here is a brief refresher on the three types of parts IFS recognizes (not including the Self at the center of the system).

Managers, Firefighters, and Exiles

Are there common roles for parts across people? After working with a large number of clients, some patterns began to appear. Most clients had parts that tried to keep them functional and safe -- tried to maintain control of their inner and outer environments by, for example, keeping them from getting too close, or dependent on others, criticizing their appearance or performance to make them look or act better, and focusing on taking care of others' rather than on their own needs. These parts seemed to be in protective, managerial roles and therefore are called the "managers."

Where a person has been hurt, humiliated, frightened or shamed in their past, they will have parts that carry the emotions, memories and sensations from those experiences. Managers often want to keep those feelings out of consciousness and, consequently, try to keep these vulnerable and needy parts locked in inner closets. Those incarcerated parts are known as the "exiles."

The third and final group of parts clicks into action whenever one of the exiles is upset to the point that it may flood the person with its extreme feelings or makes the person vulnerable to being hurt again. When that is the case, this third group tries to put out the inner flames of feeling as quickly as possible, which earns them the name "firefighters." They tend to be highly impulsive and drive to find stimulation that will override or dissociate from the exile's feelings. Bingeing on drugs, alcohol, food, sex, or work, are common firefighter activities.

So far the day has been an introduction to the model and how it works. Still, each time I hear Schwartz speak I get something new out of it, new subtleties, more depth.

We did a quick meditation at the beginning of the session to familiarize people with the idea of parts. Useful, but nothing major. But then we did one later, just before the lunch break, that allowed us to access and work with a part directly (for those of us who were able - not everyone can do so the first time they try).

Although the suggestion was to work with a manager, which is safer as a way into working with parts, I chose to work with a firefighter that I had never worked with before -- my escape artist. He is the part of me that used drugs as a teenager, drank as a teen and adult, watches dumbass TV to go numb, or uses food to self-medicate -- among other behaviors.

When I called up an image of this part, it looked like John Belushi. My initial response was disgust and revulsion -- that this part was just an out-of-control mess. Obviously, my critic was having its say, as it always did/does whenever the escape artist (EA) acts up and hijacks the system.

So I asked the critic if it would be willing to back off and let me work with the EA directly, which it allowed. As soon as it backed off, the EA transformed into a vast, borderless ocean of blue-green space.

It felt more serene and calm -- and rather than the revulsion I had felt moments before, I now felt curious and compassionate toward this part of me. It seemed almost peaceful.

After feeling through some questions, I asked it what it wanted for me. It's answer was that it wants me to feel peaceful and to honor my creativity. This only made partial sense to me, in that I often used alcohol to write even after I quit drinking as a way of life. And also that I used to self-medicate my SAD (social anxiety disorder) with alcohol, which made me feel less anxious and more at ease.

So then the big question, which is important for all parts -- what is the burden that you carry?

Parts which become extreme are carrying "burdens" - energies which are not inherent in the function of the part and don't belong to the nature of the part, such as extreme beliefs, emotions, fantasies. The part can be helped to "unburden" and return to its natural balance.

Burdens arise from any number of sources -- traumas, empathic failures, attachment failures, humiliation, intense fears, and so on. The important thing to realize about parts and burdens is that the part is not its burden; it has taken on that burden to protect the exiles or the self-system, but it would rather not carry that burden at all. Of course, it will only give up that burden (and its associated behaviors) when it is convinced that the exile or self-system no longer needs protection.

So, back to the exercise. When I asked the EA what its burden is, the reply was, "I am your father's son." OK, so just slap me upside the head, why doncha.

That's a huge statement, and I don't even know where to begin to explain what all is meant in that simple sentence. First, some facts about my father:

* He was an alcoholic, though he had stopped drinking by the time I was born.
* He was a "failed" artist, both as a painter and as a photographer.
* He ate to bury his feelings after he quit drinking (thus diabetes, heart disease, and death at age 54 from a heart attack (his fifth)).
* He watched TV and read Sci-Fi as an escape from family life.
* He was essentially a loner who married because that is what you did then.

The similarities, which I had never really looked at before, are a little scary. On the bright side, I have managers who repress this part most of the time (this is generally healthy as long as we realize that the part needs to be healed at some point), and other managers that push me toward behaviors (weight training, healthy diet, and so on) that are in direct opposition to my father's behaviors.

Nothing was resolved in this little exercise, and the burden is still in place, but now I have a new path of exploration in becoming healthier as a person. I'm not sure which exile the EA is trying to protect, so I still need to get to the bottom of that as well.

One other note on this. Although the EA is a firefighter in essence, it is also an exile because the managers fear it as much as they fear the exile(s) it is protecting, so they repress it as much as they can. There are times in my life when it is much more active, such as when I am depressed, or when I am in therapy working on hard stuff.

I enjoy how easy it is to use this model for personal work -- and I really look forward to when I'll be able to use it with clients.

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