Emotional Intelligence, Mental Health, self-perception

Why are you so petrified of silence?
Here can you handle this?
Did you think about your bills, you ex, your deadlines
Or when you think you’re going to die?
Or did you long for the next distraction?

Alanis Morrissette, “All I Really Want” (1995, Maverick/Warner Music Group)

Decades ago, when I first tried meditating, I could not sit for more than a couple of minutes at a time. A dozen or so years ago, when I finally got serious about the practice, I could finally get past the physical fidgets and sort myself out around chronic pain, but I couldn’t get around the Squirrel Brain for the longest time. The silence, as “they” like to say, was deafening, and my own thoughts would often redouble their efforts to drown it out.

Often, in the silence when I’m trying to fall asleep, I tell myself stories that are half Mary Sue fantasies, and half a way of setting up semi-lucid dreaming as I transition into sleep patterns. They often run on recurring, familiar themes with recurring, familiar characters, like favourite bedtime stories read to us repeatedly in childhood.

These two pieces of information are the backdrop to an experience I had in a guided meditation last week, during a training course in working with internal Parts. As part of the meditation, we were invited to notice what aspects of our thoughts or feelings wanted to follow us on this path in towards silence, and gently encourage those heel-dogging experiences to wait off to the sidelines and give us some space. It’s a lot harder than we think to try to distance ourselves from our own thoughts and feelings; even as a relatively seasoned short-term meditator, I still struggle with intrusive thoughts that just don’t like being ignored. And I don’t mean “intrusive thinking” the way we often do in psychotherapy; I just mean the kinds of everyday thoughts we have about things we need to do, meant to do, random memories, feeling flashes and reflections on things that happened in the day—the usual jibber-jabber of mental cognitive load.

As I engaged in the meditation, I managed to get most of the regular Intruders to fall away, and I was good for a while. But there’s a part of me that shows up, especially in the calm and quiet moments, that starts to spin up stories. Sometimes I think of this part as my Muse, and like typical Muse Moments they always seem to show up when I am least equipped to make notes about what might be a good storyline to flesh out; once a Writer, always a Writer, after all. One ignores the whimsical and fleeting visits by their creative Muse at one’s own peril. Sometimes this part simply likes to provide some internal companionable distractions to the quietness around me. It’s generally a soothing presence, more in line with calming me than getting me fired up with creative sparks. The version that showed up in the meditation definitely had this latter energy. And while it wasn’t necessarily the bent of the exercise to converse with our Parts when we’re supposedly walking towards Silence, I still opted to get curious about what it was doing here.

This part of me has been around since early childhood. Since I was old enough to understand and appreciate people reading to me or making up stories. I don’t have any specific memories of either of my parents reading me bedtime stories, but I know it must have happened as both my parents were avid readers and encouraged my own reading. Both my parents were also alcoholics. Once they drank themselves into a stupor, they would retreat to their separate spaces and not talk to themselves, each other, or me. There was a LOT of silence in my home as I was growing up. Most of my memories of childhood Christmases, for example, are of them starting with Galiano and vodka in the orange juice and being separately passed out by early afternoon. I would escape into the books I inevitably received that morning or was assembling my own toys. The house would be silent, and those stories would be the place to which I could flee and find companions, and engagement, and solace. I spent a lot of time alone as a child; on a farm until I was 7, and in the small town I grew up in from 8-19 (though at least in town I could and did make friends I could spend more time with, perilous and political as childhood and teenage relationships could be).

Silence was also a herald of uncertainty and instability for me: I never knew what kind of adult was going to come out of those silences. Was it going to be “drunk and hyperfocused on me”, “sober and hyperfocused on me”, “emotionally estranged and distant”, “calm and friendly”, “angry and antagonistic at each other”, “angry and antagonistic at me”, or any one of a random number of other states common to alcoholics. Escape into the stories I could explore in the silence gave me consistent refuge, and that was so invaluable to me as a child and teen, and probably explains why some of the inner-world storylines I developed in my younger years are still so strongly with me even well into my adulthood.

Most people have some kind of Storyteller part, often an intellectual, “thinking” part. This is the part of us that narrates or describes an experience we’re having, rather than standing down and allowing us to be fully in the emotional experience of the moment. Intellectualizing an experience often feels more normal, or even considerably safer, than allowing our feelings to come to the surface. Sometimes the Storyteller is our fully human need to make sense of a set of confounding circumstances, connecting the dots (rationally or not) to create a narrative that makes sense at least to us, if no-one else, that we can run with as if it were incontrovertible FACT. Sometimes this Storyteller part is so strong that it retells the same story, over and over until it is a well-polished, almost scripted delivery.

Years ago, my friend and Dora-award-winning actor and director Philip Akin shared this piece of perspective on directing Shakespeare. He said you can always tell when an actor has no clue about the meaning of the words coming out of their mouths, because they simply seem to “drop out of” the lines, and if you know what to look for as a director, it’s an easy thing to spot. The words are there, but the presence of the character or actor inside them just disappears for a moment. I began to notice that in my work as a theatrical director and at some point, in the clinical office, I began to notice that with my clients as well. I could more readily spot when something they were saying to me felt like that polished script, because emotionally they would kind of “drop out” in the same way actors do. I started to get curious about what those words meant to them, and sure enough, more often than not I’d get variations on the theme of, “That’s just how it’s been for years.” They have created such a familiar and refined narrative that they can safely disconnect any emotional content from the words and recite the words now without any risk of recurring pain from vulnerable and tender lived experience.

Now I know that in the moment, I’ve been in the presence of their Storytellers. These are the parts of their internal processing system that carry the load of explaining their internal experiences to the outside world in ways that seem palatable in whatever ways seem necessary to that external audience. These recitations have become polished deliveries based on repetition and refinement based on the speaker’s perception of how Others are receiving and responding to those stories. We tweak the recitations to elicit some specific responses and minimize others, thus controlling the engagement and/or the environment in which we are ostensibly revealing some quasi-vulnerable part of ourselves—this identifies the Storyteller as what Internal Family Systems terminology recognizes as a Manager. Its job is to mitigate outward circumstances that could lead to harm, for example by controlling the narrative during disclosures, or (as in my case) protecting a child from the pain of isolation and profound loneliness.

It was lovely to have a few moments alone recognizing the presence, and now appreciating the workload, of my own Storyteller. It was nice to have the container of a silent meditation in which to walk alongside it and allow it to put down the work of keeping me calm and distracted and safe; I was able to show it where I was in life, and how I have learned to appreciate silence very much in my life (rampant Squirrel Brain during my own meditation notwithstanding). My Storyteller seemed to appreciate that understanding and was quite happy to walk along with me without needing to spin a yarn as if to keep a small child entertained. It was a lovely moment.

Do you have an internal Storyteller? Are there polished pieces of your own experiences that you keep reciting time and time again? Is there a part of you that prefers to think its way through experiences rather than feel them? Are there rich, old narratives that flow into those silent moments to accompany you when the silence feels somehow like it’s too much? What else might you be wary or afraid of encountering in those moments of silence?

Attachments, Relationships, Uncategorized

Google inadvertently teaches me some very interesting things. For example, as I sit down this morning to write something undoubtedly brilliant hopefully coherent about Schwartz’s application of Internal Family System’s parts theory in relationships, I type the words “love” and “redeemer” or “redemption” into my trusty search engine… and get pages upon pages of religion and faith-speak in return. Not entirely surprising, but given that the premise of “(romantic) love redeems and completes us” is so pervasive in western culture, I am surprised there wasn’t more content tying redemption tropes to romance and our expectations for romantic partners.

“Everyone is born with vulnerable parts. Most of us, however, learn early–through interactions with caretakers or through traumatic experiences–that being vulnerable is not safe. As a consequence, we lock those childlike parts away inside and make them the inner exiles of our personalities.” – Richard Schwartz, You Are the One You’ve Been Waiting For, Trailheads Publications, 2008, pg. 55

“To all of us drowning in this empty, striving, isolated, and anxious [North] American lifestyle, the media throws the biggest life preserver of all. From watching movies or TV, or listening to songs on the radio, you’ll be convinced that everyone, sooner or later, will find their one, true, happily-ever-after relationship. The person who will heal you, complete you, and keep you afloat is out there. If the person you’re with isn’t doing that, either he or she is the wrong person altogether or you need to change him or her into the right one.

“This is an impossible load for intimate relationships to handle. The striving for money and the isolation from a circle of caring people are enough to do in many marriages–not only because both partners are depleted by the pace of life and the absence of nurturing contact, but also because to work and compete so hard, they each must become dominated by striving parts that don’t lend themselves to vulnerable intimacy. To deal with the stress of this lifestyle, we reach for the many distractions that our culture offers, which are also obstacles to, and surrogates for, intimacy.” – Schwartz, pg. 24-5

Esther Perel also talks about how North American ideals of romance often suffer because we trade the passionate, playful parts of ourselves that initially create intimacy as we explore our chosen Other, for security, stability, and comfort over the longer term of settling down together–needful things that make our exiled parts feel safely attached and protected, but which are about as “sexy” as our oldest, softest, most familiar and comfortable pyjamas and slippers. In Schwartz’s language, we surprise the exiles as they start to manifest once the spontaneous, impetuous excitement has either secured the partnership into more fixed states (living together, engagement/marriage, children, house-purchasing), or burned itself out and been supplanted by the requirements of regular life (work demands, family obligations). There is no space for those playful energies, and while the erosion of the welcome that once existed may be subtle at first, eventually it starts to feel like parts of us are being rejected by our partners, and that hurts, so we shut down the vulnerable parts and return them to their places in exile.

Where the ideals of redemption come into play is the initial expectations we place on our romantic partners to be the people who “will heal you, complete you.” This language is inherently problematic for many reasons:

“[P]artners are cut off from their Selves by being raised in a society that is so concerned with external appearances that authentic inner desires are ignored and feared. Into this nearly impossible arrangement is poured the expectation that your partner should make you happy and that if [they don’t], something is very wrong.

“These messages about your partner play into your exiles’ dreams, keeping the focus of their yearning on an external relationship rather than you. Thus, our culture’s view of romantic love as the ultimate salvation exacerbates an already difficult arrangement. Many writers have blamed the unrealistic expectations our culture heaps on [romantic partnership] as a significant reason for its high rate of collapse. I agree with that indictment to the extent that expectations perpetuate the partner-as-healer/redeemer syndrome.” – Schwartz, pg. 18

When I’m addressing with clients their experiences of dissatisfaction and disappointment in a relationship, we look at things like core needs (that, oftentimes, clients have never directly looked at or attempted to identify/define) and the expectations they have for how those needs are to be addressed by their partner. More often than not, the needs and their attendant expectations have never been explicitly articulated or negotiated with the partner, but we see plenty of evidence of the wounded exiles when those needs and expectations go unmet.

Attachment theory suggests that when we connect with others, especially intimate others in romantic partnership, for many of us it is a way of redressing early attachment injuries. These don’t need to be traumatic injuries, but simply moving to meet a craving for warmth and attention that we may implicitly feel was lacking or inconsistent in our earliest care-giving attachments. We exile those needy, unattended parts of ourselves over time, but then look, consciously or unconsciously, to romantic partners to meet that craving need for us, to redeem our wounded exiles and welcome them back into the fold. (This is generally a decent interpretation, from a parts/system perspective for what it means when a partner “completes us”–they nurture ALL our parts and create safety and welcome for the parts we have thrust out of the spotlight for being “ugly,” “damaged,” “too broken to function,” or “too terrifying to allow to surface.”

Harriet Lerner, in her book “The Dance of Intimacy,” describes a kind of dance in which we desperately want someone to rescue us from our own internal sense of unvalued despair and isolation, but as we get closer and closer to true intimacy (vulnerability), we become increasingly afraid of what happens when a romantic partner sees what we mistakenly believe to be our “true selves”, nasty warts, scars, and all. At that point, fear takes over and we inadvertently push partners back to safer distances, or close ourselves off, or sabotage the relationship in unconscious ways to “hurt you before you can hurt me.” We crave closeness that means someone allowing those wounds to surface and heal for once in our lives, but to closer we let those exiles come to the surface, the more anxious dread at “being truly seen” comes along for the ride.

We WANT to be redeemed, and then fail ourselves at the eleventh hour because we fail to let the redeemer actually make use of the all-access backstage pass we thought we wanted them to have.

When we rely on external Others to redeem those wounded exiles, we create this intricate tension rooted in needing someone else to wade in and do something magical to “fix” those wounds; we create a kind of codependent strategy in which we rely on someone else to “complete” us and accept all our parts. But our fears, those protector/firefighter parts of us that come armed with all kinds of saboteur scripts, get in the way pretty much EVERY TIME. And as soon as we start pushing people away, we are in a loop of self-fulfilling prophecy: we get defensive (sometimes aggressively so), partners retreat from us in fear, confusion, disappointment, frustration… sometimes even disgust; we see their withdrawal as validating our internal, unspoken script about how “everyone who is supposed to love us disappoints us/hurts us/betrays us/abandons us”, and we are validated further in our belief that our exiles MUST stay locked down and far, far away from the light of love and acceptance.

The healing work in a therapeutic context, regardless of whether the focus is on an individual or on a relationship, then becomes all about teaching each party to make space within themselves for welcoming their own exiles. Schwartz describes this as moving from a process of talking FROM our activated exiles (or the messy emotional chaos of exiles and protectors all trying to get air-time control in the middle of a triggering argument with another person) to talking ABOUT them. I do some of this work when I ask clients to, in essence, narrate an emotional reaction WHILE THEY ARE EXPERIENCING IT. We talk ABOUT what it’s like to feel triggered and reactive, the physical sensations, the self-observation of emotion, the scripts they hear being spooled up in their heads, rather than allowing the triggered reaction to unleash itself AT the other person or people in the room. Parts language becomes a useful tool in this narrative process especially when it gives the narrating client a way of adding some observational separation and distance: “One part of me is observing how another part really feels hot and angry, like it’s looking for something to attack. It’s angry because it feels attacked, like there’s another part that’s been hurt and needs to be protected.”

Being able to create this separation allows us to dialogue with both the attacker part and the hurt part separately, given the person who is caught up in this momentous experience a chance to unravel what’s going on for themselves, and to figure out what is necessary for calming themselves and re-centering their sense of balance. All of this can be done in the presence of the Other but doesn’t rely on the Other to sooth or validate those chaotic parts. Sometimes we’ve been able to make massive tectonic shifts just by getting one partner to introduce that self-observing narrative perspective while the Other partner bears silent witness, an abiding, compassionate, non-judgmental presence. Sometimes that’s just the starting point for different ways of being with each other that reintroduce independent security, and space to rebuild trust without the codependent fusion that Esther Perel labels the “death of intimacy”.

When we no longer rely on a partner to redeem and validate our exiled parts–when we become more adept at welcoming and managing those hurts without reliance on an external Other to complete us–it’s not that we no longer WANT to be in partnership. Rather, it becomes more about choosing to be in partnership as coherent, whole people in ourselves. We heal our own wounds, we accept our own warts and scars; we rely primarily on ourselves to soothe our internal chaos rather than forcing romantic partners into salvation roles and expectations most of them don’t expect, or have the capacity, to carry for us.

Uncategorized

This fall I am embarking on two separate professional development (education and training) pursuits, one long planned and the other rather spontaneous. I’ll have more about finally taking the Gottman Institute Levels 1 & 2 training programs later in November, assuming my brain doesn’t explode with drinking from the firehose while on course. Before then, however, I’m unexpectedly but delightedly finding myself down the very deep rabbit hole of Richard Schwartz’s Internal Family Systems (IFS). One of my partners pointed me in this direction as a result of some of their own personal work, but given my background in systems theory, family systems in specific, it’s kind of a wonder I hadn’t crossed paths with IFS long before now.

In essence a “system” is a bunch of interconnected parts that can and do influence other system components both directly and remotely. Sometimes the influence is harmonious and the affected parts resonate in sync; sometimes the influence is discordant and jarring, and the constituent members of the system create friction, tension, or even breakage. In a healthy system, each part maintains its own discrete spatial and behavioural boundaries when interacting with other parts of the system, though as we see in many types of systems, boundary violations can rapidly become a system-wide problem as parts start to behave erratically or destructively.

“In terms of its effects, a system can be more than the sum of its parts if it expresses synergy or emergent behavior. Changing one part of the system usually affects other parts and the whole system, with predictable patterns of behavior. For systems that are self-learning and self-adapting, the positive growth and adaptation depend upon how well the system is adjusted with its environment. Some systems function mainly to support other systems by aiding in the maintenance of the other system to prevent failure. The goal of systems theory is systematically discovering a system’s dynamics, constraints, conditions and elucidating principles (purpose, measure, methods, tools, etc.) that can be discerned and applied to systems at every level of nesting, and in every field for achieving optimized equifinality.[1]” —Wikipedia

A FAMILY system looks specifically at the interconnected constituent members involved with and influencing a specific individual–usually my client(s). Family of Origin is usually the biggest source of our internalized values and beliefs/expectations about how people work, how parents and parenting work, how intimate relationships work. Even if we’re too young to understand much of the dynamics, we observe and create or invest in stories about both what we observe and what we’re taught, even when there are discrepancies in those models. A lot of my therapeutic work uses family system modelling to uncover some of the background to my clients or their current challenges and dilemmas. I use an analogy from my long years in software development to explain the value of looking backward into our origin stories before we look forward to a change process: before we can change existing pieces of code in a software package, we have to understand why that code is there in the first place. What was it meant to do? Are there any dependencies we need to investigate to loop in or remove with impending code updates? Is this a critical function that must be replaced, or is it old, superfluous functionality that we can afford to dump completely? Is the original functionality relevant or is it interfering with desired functionality?

These questions remain important when we look at how an INTERNAL family system works. Richard Schwartz, the progenitor of IFS, apologizes often for the fact that his descriptions of our internalized parts sometimes sound like he’s describing completely individuated personalities. This is not, he assures his audience repeatedly, about having some kind of dissociative identity disorder. It’s simply a way of recognizing that certain internal behavioural patterns serve distinct and unique purposes, just like human individuals in a relational system likewise inhabit distinct roles and places within that system.

There are three types of parts in IFS:

The exiles are the deeply-internalized (often to the point of compartmentalizing right out of the picture) attachment wounds that have never been adequately identified or addressed, and therefore never really given opportunity to heal. These may be early childhood issues and traumas, or emotional or psychological injuries garnered through other critically damaging experiences as adults. These are the pains we work hardest to bury so that we don’t have to deal with either the root pain, or with the fear of what that pain might cause us to do when it surfaces.

The protectors, sometimes called the firefighters, are the behaviours we adopt over time to suppress or distract the exiled pain, to keep us from looking at it or having to be disrupted by it. This is the level on which we develop our reactive coping stances, including the maladaptive ones like addictions or binge/purge behaviours, or losing ourselves in work, sex, relationships, hobbies–anything that distracts us from the pain.

The managers are the behaviours that we develop in our outward interactions with the world around us in ways that are intended to protect us. Their job is to manage the interface to others in ways that don’t trigger the exiled hurts or the protective coping strategies that mitigate those core hurts. Manager behaviours include everything from outward anger and belligerence meant to keep everyone at a Minimum Safe Distance, to compulsive care-takers who assume that “Keep Everyone Else Happy At All Costs” = “keeping myself safe from their displeasure/disappointment.”

Most of the time, the only parts of another person that those on the outside get to interact with are the manager parts, the behaviours specifically tasked with managing external interactions. For example, in individual with an angry or abusive alcoholic partner generally gets faced with the anger and abusive behaviours; they can probably see the drinking but they can’t call that out or challenge or explore it directly. The angry Manager part gets in the way every time, and drives partners back or away. The alcoholism is the Protector part, trying to self-medicate and suppress an Exiled part buried somewhere deeper in the system (fear or shame, typically).

Somewhere at the centre of all of these parts, Schwartz posits, is the core Self. Within the Self are the roots of our sense of being, which Schwartz identifies as calm, connection, compassion, and curiosity. When we can get the Managers and Protectors out of the way more effectively, we have an opportunity to heal the old wounds by bringing them into this space within the Self. IFS provides a framework to become first aware of, then acquainted with, all of the parts in systemic orbit around this core identity, working eventually towards discovering ways of more effectively smoothing out the discordance into a more-balanced, whole self.

–from Don Mangus’ “It Only Hurts When I Smirk” (click image to link)

One of the reasons why IFS resonates with me as strongly as it does is, I suspect, how it echoes many of the precepts set out by Chogyam Trungpa in his work, “Uncovering the Sanity We Are Born With.” The intersection of Eastern Buddhism and Western psychology is largely concerned with uncovering and freeing “the authentic Self” by exploring and gently uprooting the collective neuroses throttling our authentic Self over the course of our lifelong interactions with others’ expectations and projected values. IFS as a framework also provides externalizing language that gives clients some distanced perspectives on their own behaviours. Sometimes this shift is subtle, a nuanced change. Sometimes it’s earth-shattering for the client to move from, “I am an angry person” to “There’s a PART of me that is angry all the time”, a shift that represents meeting a Manager part and recognizing there’s almost certainly more going on there than just the anger. And THAT’s a shift that opens up considerable opportunities for curiosity, and maybe even a little bit of peace: if only PART of me is angry all the time, I wonder what the rest of my parts are doing? Can I connect with any of those other parts and explore them for a while, or invite them to take over for a bit?

Working within the IFS framework therefore involves sitting in a multi-way exploration of these parts; this is where it feels a little more like multiple personalities at the table, as we get curious about the purpose and function of each part in its process. We acknowledge it and ask it to step aside so that we can glimpse or interact with whatever’s buried under under that layer. I liken it to the layers of an onion, something that becomes VERY important when I confront people on their communications challenges: we’re only as good at communicating as we are at knowing WHAT it is we’re trying to communicate. And if we only know ourselves to the level of our outward Manager behaviours, that’s all we know to communicate. That’s the barest tip of a very large and complicated iceberg, and what’s BELOW the waterline is the stuff that’s probably complicating or making us miserable in relationships. But we don’t (yet) know what’s going on down there, behind the Managers and Protectors, so there’s no effective way *TO* communicate all of that.

When we lose our authentic Self like that, it’s very hard to be in healthy relationship. Rediscovering our core, exploring and learning about it, then developing the skills to communicate that understanding to others, is something IFS therapy can certainly help navigate. There is nothing more vulnerable than exploring our authentic Selves, and vulnerability is the heart of intimacy. This is as true for our relationships with ourselves as it is within our relationships with others.