Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Parts Part: Internal Family Systems (IFS)

If you have followed prior posts in this blog, you may have wondered why there are frequent references to "my parts."  An idea that sets IFS a-'part' from other theories of development and treatment is its basis in an awareness of our multiplicity.  In other words, we are not only one element of many systems (i.e., family, community, society, nation,...), but are also made up of many elements.  These elements work together more or less smoothly to assess and respond to our interpersonal environment, generally using past experiences to determine future action.  These response patterns, or parts activities, tend to happen so quickly that we are unaware of the unique design underlying any particular stimulus/response.  However, by slowing down these activities and witnessing the inherent meanings held therein, we gain an opportunity for perspective, and can actively modify our response patterns to better reflect current conditions, instead of triggering old "knee-jerk" reactions.

The beauty of the IFS model, (Schwartz, 1995) is its application of the concepts and practice of "Family Systems Theory" to internal personality structures.  The underlying activities of internal parts are based upon internalized versions of interactions with other (external) people in your life, so application of this interpersonal model to  internal processes makes inherent sense.  For example: if you were bullied by an older sibling during childhood, it is likely that a part developed within your personality structure to predict the likely sources and outcomes of further bullying.  A part may develop to attempt to protect you from the potential negative outcome of further bullying by running a 'script' of bullying commentary, and thus, may help you to avoid actual exposure to your brother's wrath.  A Family Systems therapist who was brought into the (external) situation would likely work with the family as a group to determine what elements of stress are producing such problematic interactions between your brother and you.  Perhaps he is acting out his own sense of vulnerability to external forces (e.g., frustration with school or friends; conflict between parents; fears of failure...). The Family Systems therapist would look beyond the acting-out to its source, and attempt to intervene at that level.  However, most of the time such victimization may have taken place with no reliable witnesses, and no intervention; instead the internal system takes on the job of management of the problem. 
This internal management process can have lasting effect on the way you respond to other perceived "bullies" in your life (the boss?, your spouse?...).  The part's activity may create a lens through which you sense others as persecutors, establishing patterns of continued negative interaction and stress across interpersonal relationships.  In order to see those relationships clearly and without the 'tint' of internally held perspectives and negative expectations, those parts need their own opportunity for acknowledgment.  Taking time to access and witness the internal models held by our parts can free us from such automatic, and perhaps outdated, perspectives.  Calm, non-judgmental awareness and validation of these isolated parts allows them to deliver their burden of expectation, and to be more present. This leads to more grounded interactions and greater self-awareness, a powerful resource and another unkind gift.

Monday, September 10, 2012

In Defense of Anger

In order to really address questions of boundary awareness, it is essential to discuss the emotion that gets a bad rap; Anger.  Too often when we say "anger," the experiences that come to mind are those of rage - "anger on steroids."  But that skips over the essential role of anger in our personal expression and self-awareness.  Rage is another thing altogether.  Where rage is loud and aggressive; anger is quiet and clear.  Where rage pushes people away; anger identifies the line between enough and too much.

I have a strong image of my angry part.  She looks a lot like Cher in the '80s; long black wavy hair, tight fitting jeans, and attitude.  She has, of course, been around for many years, but I only really got to know her 4 years ago in the midst of my level one IFS (Internal Family Systems) training.  It was around half-way through the intensive training, and I'd gotten used to starting the training day with the practice of internal observation (mindfulness), to determine what needed attention at that days session.  Anger didn't wait for the session to begin, in fact she showed herself as I waited for a light to change on my way to the training. 

 As I followed up with that day's "introduction" to Anger, it became clear to me that this part of myself had been fighting for awareness, not to "go off" on anyone, but to protect and support me.  Focus on the part showed me example after example of times she had been nearby throughout my life, and each was a strong indication of a time someone had demanded more of me than was their right; or had misunderstood my intent; or had been threatened by my abilities.  In other works, they had crossed boundaries into my personal, emotional or physical space.  Anger had gotten me through the toughest fights of my life, during cancer and other times of personal crisis.  Sometimes I had neglected to heed her warnings, instead turning anger toward myself in the form of depression, but she stood strong and kept me moving forward.

Now, I know anger to be my ally, and I attend to her before she has to get more intensive or self-directed in order to gain my awareness.  She provides balance and clarity in my responses to interpersonal and global concerns, poking at my solar plexus (the power chakra) if injustice threatens to intrude.  Sometimes we have to decide if it is worthy of a commitment to action, or agree to just let it go, but it is a decision made together with conscious attention to the boundaries and ethics, and who it may affect.

I find it interesting that keeping that part of myself nearby results in a more open, calm awareness, and more receptivity to the foibles of others.  We know who we are, and what space is ours to manage, so are less reactive to what we cannot control.  Anger supports, and deserves, gratitude

Thanks for watching my back, Anger.  I think I will keep you as close as my middle name, Claire, for your gifts of clarity.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Personal Space

It is said that "good fences make good neighbors,"  pointing to the importance of feeling in charge of your own space. Having a sense of safety and ownership provides a base of operations for taking on the world.  This is even more true when it comes to being in control of your physical space; that area immediately around and including the body.  When boundary violations reach traumatic levels, such personal control is often completely lost.  Intrusion into one's personal space may come in the form of verbal comments about how we look, what we are wearing, or our body type or gender. More physically intrusive boundary violations such as acts of violence or sexual exploitation, may create so much confusion around one's right to manage their own body, or to speak out about injustice or violation, that we are unable to identify our own meanings or sense of reality. From a perspective of interpersonal danger, it is impossible to effectively evaluate and participate in healthy relationships.

Traumatic injury causes damage to our ability to trust our world, our relationships and ourselves.  Without a trusted other to act as mirror, we are left with no validation of our perspective.  Those who have been exploited in interpersonal relationships may feel lost at sea, unable to find safe harbor.  They may look to outside sources as models of how to act and what to feel, but internally they feel like imposters, since those outside models do not reflect their history and perspective.  The trauma survivor may despair at the confusing array of what is OK or NOT OK and how that spectrum may vary from person to person.  What they seek is a method or model that they can count on; one that is based on awareness of the internal self.

If a person's boundaries have been violated, or they have never had the opportunity to learn where such personal space begins, it is difficult to determine when and how to establish healthy boundaries.  When asked for assistance with such self-determination, I encourage clients to consider their physical responses to past examples of overstepped boundaries.  They usually look confused at the question, but eventually describe some physical manifestation related to unacknowledged anger; tightness in the gut or shoulders; rapid heartbeat, etc.  From that point, they need to attend to such signals and to make a mental contract to avoid agreeing to a request while ignoring those feelings; instead taking time to consider if the question is fair, appropriate or desirable before offering a response.  It is amazing what a difference it makes to listen to the body before allowing plans to be made.  This simple attention to the body and delayed response is the key to developing a strong and consistent set of healthy personal boundaries.