IFS

The Love Within

Happy Valentine’s Day!  This day can bring up a range of emotions for many of us - excitement, sadness, numbness, anger, disappointment, tenderness, ambivalence and much more.  This can change depending where we are in our life.

What I’ve come to realize over the years, is that how I experience this day (and relationships in general) is largely related to where I am in relationship with myself.  

Many of us have core wounds related to lovability, worthiness, and/or our value.  These wounds were often created early on in life.  Maybe by a message we heard from a loved one, maybe it was the absence of a primary care giver (literally or due to mental health or substance use), maybe it was because of another early negative experience or trauma.  That wound can be raw for a very long time.  Sometimes we don’t even realize it’s there.  

We often move through life trying not to acknowledge that wound.  Sometimes we are trying to avoid it through distractions like overworking or binge watching our favorite shows.  Sometimes we try to people please or try to be “perfect.”  Sometimes we try to numb it through using food or other substances.

There are times we try to find something or someone outside to assure us that this fear we hold about ourself isn’t true.  If I win that award… If I date this person… If I get that job… If that person loves me…

Sometimes this may help us short term.  Eventually something changes.  Then, we are again questioning our lovability, worthiness, or value.  

There is another option though… What if we could give ourselves the love we deserve?  Take some time to sit down, get to know ourselves better, get to know the different aspects of ourselves, and in time help heal those wounds.  Then, we wouldn’t be needing someone or something from the outside to give those things to us.  Then, when we meet another person we won’t have the same expectations.  Yes we have standards, we have goals, and we have hopes for relationships.  But how we feel about ourselves is no longer dependent on these outside factors.  

I invite you to take some time today or over the next days to get to know yourself.  Be curious about why you do all the things you do.  Connect to the different aspects of yourself.  Thank them for getting you to where you are today.  Make a plan to spend time with them again.  When you’re ready, set an intention to take steps towards healing any wounds that are there by participating in therapy.  You deserve it.  

Let this Valentine’s Day be a day you give yourself the love you deserve.  If there are others in your life whether they be friends, family, partners, or pets that you want to send love to, take moments to do that too.  When the love starts within, the rest is icing on the cake.  Make the day one full of love, appreciation, joy, and connection.

Later that day I got to thinking about relationships. There are those that open you up to something new and exotic, those that are old and familiar, those that bring up lots of questions, those that bring you somewhere unexpected, those that bring you far from where you started, and those that bring you back. But the most exciting, challenging and significant relationship of all is the one you have with yourself. And if you can find someone to love the you you love, well, that’s just fabulous.
— Carrie Bradshaw
San Diego Therapist

Numbing the Pain

Tell me more about your pain.  Where do you feel it in or around your body?  What does the pain look like?  How long has the pain been there?  Can we get curious about it?  What does it want you to know?  

Some clients can go through these questions with a level of openness and imagination.  Some clients may have a quick reaction of “Hell NO” when asked to explore their pain.  They want to talk about what to do to make the pain stop.  I’ve also heard everything in between the extremes.  It can be uncomfortable to make room for emotions that we don’t like or don’t want to feel.  

Many of us are experts at what helps us numb the pain.  We distract with Netflix binges.  We over compartmentalize and try to lock those boxes away where we can’t feel them.  We over eat.  We shop.  We drink.  We use drugs.  We overwork.  We daydream.  There are endless ways that we shut down uncomfortable thoughts and emotions.  We all have our go to’s.  Some days these methods “work.”  But sometimes what we are trying to do to cope with the pain ends up causing us more pain.  

The problem is… that you cannot selectively numb emotions… You can’t numb the hard feelings without numbing the other affect and emotions. When we numb those we numb joy, we numb gratitude, we numb happiness, and then we are miserable and we’re looking for purpose and meaning. And then we feel vulnerable so we have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin. And it becomes this dangerous cycle.
— Brene Brown

A question that I often ask my clients is “How’s that working for you?”  Then we explore how it helps and how it doesn’t. Whether it’s using substances or other avoidance tactics there is always a reason why we do the things we do.  At one time it worked.  That reinforced the behavior.  Chances are though that it’s not working so well anymore.  That’s why you are reading this blog.  That’s why you are thinking about making a change.  

There are some ways we numb the pain that are “less harmful” than others.  All methods have the potential to become harmful especially when done to an extreme.  When we continue to do something in an effort to cope despite negative consequences we are entering the realm of addiction.  When we start talking about addiction whether that be to a substance or a compulsive behavior we also start to talk about judgement.  Judgement may come from ourselves or from others.  Likely it is both.  

Part of me wants to stop and part of me doesn’t.  When we acknowledged the ambivalence the work can truly begin.  Tell me more about the part of you that wants to stop.  Tell me more about the addict part.  There are things to be learned from both.  

It’s “easy” to numb the pain.  It’s more challenging to make room for it.  It’s “easy” to judge our addict part and our “bad behaviors.”  We all have a critic inside that has a lot to say about what we do.  It’s more challenging to spend some time with that addict and that critic (and the many other parts we have).  These parts have a lot to say.  They have been doing their best to help us through life.  They have been trying to protect us from that pain.  

In order for any behavior change to be lasting we need to look at what is fueling the behavior.  There’s a reason for it.  Once we get to know the part that feels like this behavior is the only solution we can start to heal it.  Then we can look at our pain and begin to heal that.  

I want to invite you to take a look at the ways you numb your pain.  Maybe there’s a part that looses itself in TV.  Maybe there’s a part that likes to shop.  Maybe there’s a part that uses substances. Let’s get curious about the part. How long has that part been around?  Do you remember what was happening when it came into existence?  What does it fear would happen if you didn’t do this?

Next the inner work begins. Healing is possible.  Change is possible.

The question is not why the addiction, but why the pain.
— Gabor Mate

Healing from Trauma

What is trauma? When people hear the word trauma they may think of PTSD. That can then make them think of “Big T” traumas including combat, rape, natural disasters, and near death experience. There are also “Small T” traumas. These are smaller “everyday” or less pronounced events and may include bullying, neglect, difficult relationships, and loss. Now I need to say using terms like “big” and “little” in reference to the type of trauma gives me mixed feelings.  Depending on the individual circumstances, any of the “Small Ts” I mentioned could be a “Big T.” I do like that describing trauma this way opens the door for people to recognize a multitude of events as traumatic – because they can be. However, I don’t like that it inadvertently has us quantify these events.  This is something that we may do automatically. “What I went through wasn’t ‘bad enough’ to be considered trauma.” “Other people have experienced worse.” Trauma is trauma. It leaves a mark. Sometimes it impacts us immediately and sometimes we don’t even realize its impact until later in life. 

Experiencing a trauma also does not automatically mean we have PTSD.

The mark left by events that we have experienced doesn’t mean that we are “damaged” or “broken”. It is possible to heal. It is possible to turn that experience into something that makes us even stronger. Things may get harder while we are doing the work. It can be similar to when we clean a cut or a scrapped knee.  It stings while we clean the wound. I often use this metaphor to explain what therapy can be like for clients. 

How do we heal? The specifics of how to start may depend on the event. It’s important for the person to re-establish safety.  When a person has been impacted by trauma they may feel unsafe in their body and in relationships.  A person may need medical care. They may need to physically get to a safer place and in contact with supportive people. 

To heal we need to reconnect to our body.  See, our system has this fabulous coping skill of disassociation. We all do it. Have you ever zoned out? Have you ever been driving somewhere then poof you’re there and barely realize the time went by?  These are just a couple every day examples.  There are many ways we dissociate. Another example is when a person feels like they are outside of their body watching themself.  Also, sometimes when someone is experiencing trauma their system checks them out  (it’s almost like they aren’t even there) in efforts to protect them from feeling and thinking everything associated with what’s happening.  Sometimes our system gets so good at doing this that it happens all the time…. Sometimes when we don’t want or need it to.  That’s why we need to find a way to get back in our bodies.  Some of the ways we can do this are through meditation, grounding exercises, and physical exercises like yoga or cardio. 

To heal from trauma we need to find a way to make sense of it and process what happened. Two amazing therapeutic approaches that I use with my clients are EMDR and IFS.  These are both evidence-based practices.  Research has shown that they work.  But for me it’s more than just the research that makes me believe in them.  I’ve seen it work with clients that I’ve supported in therapy.  Additionally, I experienced my own healing through EMDR and IFS when I was the client on the couch.  Next, I’m going to share a bit about these approaches to explain how they help individuals heal from trauma.

EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is a form of psychotherapy that enables people to heal from the symptoms and emotional distress that are the result of trauma.  When a traumatic event happens that memory can get stuck.  All the emotions, thoughts, and physical sensations we had got stuck in time.  When that memory is triggered we can get flooded with emotions and get overwhelmed.  It’s almost like it’s happening again. EMDR helps an individual to process what has happened so that the person is in a more balanced state and grounded in the present.  When the person thinks of the event, it’s a memory that doesn’t overwhelm them.  There isn’t the same charge. 

IFS (Internal Family Systems) is a form of therapy that uses the language of “parts” as a working metaphor for our internal experiences.  We use this language every day.  After a stressful day, part of me wants to go workout and part of me really just wants to go to DQ and get a soft serve.  We all have parts.  Our different parts are trying to help us out.  Sometimes they are helpful and sometimes they get stuck in roles that aren’t helpful.  Maybe we have a people pleaser part that is often sacrificing our own needs to make sure people around us are happy.  Maybe we have a part that believes the quickest way to deal with feeling overwhelmed is to drink a bottle of wine or get high.  These parts are doing what they think is best to help protect a part that feels vulnerable. This part may feel unworthy of love.  Once we get to know our parts we can work creatively to help them find new healthy ways of helping us out.  We can help transform that vulnerable part. 

What I love about both EMDR and IFS is that they help us get to a place of deeper healing.  There are many types of therapy that can help us learn about ourselves and gain helpful skills.  Some tools only take us so far though.  We don’t just want to put a Band-Aid on a wound so that it doesn’t get dirty or infected.  We want to no longer NEED the Band-Aid because the wound has HEALED. 

Scars and stitches always fade
and only strengthen me.
— Guster

Thank you for taking the time to read my first blog.  Please feel free to leave a comment.  Let me know if you relate or if you have questions.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness & Prevention Month.  This is a topic that I’m passionate about.  It’s why I’ve decided to start blogging at this specific time.  My intention is to do a series of blogs this month related to the topic of Sexual Assault.