The Parts Department

It’s possible to have things going on beneath the surface of which we’re not entirely aware. I experienced this the other night in my struggle with rumination. My therapist and I have started discussing this phenomena as part of Internal Family Systems therapy (IFS). Fascinating stuff.

I sometimes feel as though there are individual “parts” of me that rise to the surface and make themselves heard in times of crisis. For example, when I struggled to fall asleep the other night, I was bothered by thoughts that kept calling for my attention. I described it to my therapist as if there was a toddler who wouldn’t stay in bed. A drink of water, a trip to the potty, a check for monsters under the bed—my thoughts seemed to be demanding some kind of reassurance from me that everything would be alright. Diane explained that in IFS, different parts have specific functions: managers, firefighters, or exiles, that can be either productive or extreme.  According to one online article:
“Internal Family Systems Therapy is based on an integrative model and believes that each sub-personality of the mind possesses its own characteristics and perceptions. This therapy technique sees each level of consciousness as having these sub-personalities, or “parts,” and each plays a distinct role in achieving self-preservation for the client as a whole. Every part within a person is responsible for warding off any behaviors, actions, or reactions that can result in dysfunction or disharmony within. In this type of treatment, each part is validated and recognized as significant because of its primary function. Parts can be identified as having either healthy, productive roles or extreme roles. The latter category is made up of parts that require transformation or alteration through the therapeutic process.”
http://www.goodtherapy.org/internal-family-systems-therapy.html#

partsMy inner toddler is one of my exiles, who carries painful, traumatic emotions that interfere with my functioning. In this case, she was making it known to me that my recent termination caused a lot of pain, fear, and self-doubt. In this situation, I didn’t have a chance to advocate or stand up for myself. This caused her to stay awake at night, worrying about how things would go in the new job, and wondering if I could rise to the occasion. She simply wanted reassurance from my core self, my true self, that I would not let the same thing happen again in the future. By taking a new job, I am taking a calculated risk—one which frightened and confused my toddler. It was up to me to let her know that despite the risk, we can trust that I am where I need and want to be, and that I would do everything in my power to protect her from trauma in the future. She needed to know I could see and acknowledge her hurt, and that I would work to take good care of her.
I also have a manager, who stands up and does what needs doing during traumatic events or times of stress. This is the one who dries her tears, registers for unemployment the same day she’s fired, and works to present professionally in a job interview. My manager is one who gets things done despite pain and fear. She’s not perfect however; she’s capable of working herself until she drops in order to avoid feelings, she’s cool and detached, and left to her own devices will drive my true self into the ground in order to further her agenda.
I imagine my toddler as “Cindy Lou Who”, with big sad eyes and a pink onesie. She has soft brown curls and rosy cheeks, likes ice cream and flowers, and needs to be snuggled occasionally. My manager on the other hand is an Execu-Dyke, with a bland, neutral two-piece pantsuit and pearl earrings. She gets things done and is uncomfortable with powerful emotions like fear or sadness. These parts aren’t pieces of a multiple personality—they coexist within my core self and each have their given roles. They aren’t Sybil. They’re merely adaptations I’ve learned throughout my life to survive. Working with them means that I take the best of them, work to subdue the negative behaviors, and encourage my true self to treat these parts with compassion. It’s interesting, it’s not easy, but I think it’s invaluable work. My goal is to bring the best of myself forward, stop the internal battles, and learn to live with myself harmoniously, with all parts intact.

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Letting go of resentment

I struggled to fall asleep last night. As I lay in bed, my thoughts moved into dangerous territory—reliving the morning of 5/6/15. That was the day I was fired from my job and in an instant, my life changed.

Although I am feeling well, start a new job in a few days, and realize that overall this was a positive event in my life, I still find myself ruminating at times. There are a lot of unanswered questions for me as to how this all came about. The fact is that I know that problems began when I was hospitalized in February, and returned a week later. I was told at that time that I was not performing up to the agency’s standards. I explained that I was experiencing a serious episode of Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) and was doing everything I could to get well with the help of my psychiatrist and therapist. I asked for time to attend an intensive outpatient program (IOP) and stabilize my medications. I managed to make it to work as scheduled, despite all of these challenges, but the situation did not improve. I was warned that I had thirty days to correct my behaviors or face termination. This placed an extraordinary amount of stress on me—right in the midst of my recovery from a life-threatening case of depression.

I believe that I did everything that was asked of me by my employer, and that I addressed the pressing issues that they were concerned about. Despite my best efforts, I was let go on the morning of May 6th rather unceremoniously. They wanted to explain in detail how I had “failed”; I asked for them to simply fire me if that’s what they planned to do, cleaned out my office, and left the building in tears. While I don’t believe the agency handled the situation fairly or appropriately, I do feel a huge sense of relief at being let go. I can’t explain why I feel this way, other than the fact that the stress that had been placed on me had become so overwhelming, I preferred to face termination rather than continue in such conditions. Personally, I think it’s ridiculous to expect anyone to be successful under such dire circumstances. I could no more have completed that month intact than calculate the number of protons that fit on the head of a pin. It just wasn’t happening, and I knew it.

In hindsight, I have no regrets. While in their employ, I did good work for the agency, and I believe I honestly did my very best. I know I am a good worker, with effective habits and a lot of skills to offer. I know that I cared deeply for every client that I had the honor of working with, and I worked hard to serve them. So here I am lying in bed, wondering if I was wrong, wondering if I am a failure, and ruminating over the way the situation was handled, and I cannot sleep. I never had an opportunity to tell my side of the story, nor was I in a place to assert myself and advocate on my own behalf. If there is one thing I am angry and resentful about, I think that’s it. I’m disappointed that an agency that is supposed to be working to assist those with mental illness treated me with such utter disregard. I’m hurt that my supervisor started out as my friend and ended up as someone who I no longer care for or respect. I’m hurt that I never had a chance for any closure on the relationships I had with my clients; I know that some were deeply upset that I was fired.

I know that I have to let go of my feelings about all of this as I move into another job. I would like to have communicated with my supervisor all of the things that I experienced during the past few months, but didn’t have the chance. How do I go about letting go of this resentment, so that I’m not finding myself lying in bed saying “fuck you” to them at 1am? Perhaps a skillful thing to do would be to write a letter to my former employer—not mail it, but write it nonetheless. That may give me a chance to get all these feelings out and on paper. I could then burn the letter and imagine the smoke going up to the Universe, like a prayer or a meditation. I could burn it in my backyard firepit and let it all go. I don’t want to hold onto this stuff. I think that holding on to anger and resentment makes me physically (and spiritually) sick, and it’s really best for me to put it down in words and release it to the sky.

Yeah. I like this idea. I think I’m feeling better already. Maybe I can consider it an offering of sorts, like one would burn incense on an altar. What it says is that I trust this happened for me as it was meant to, and I am in a better place now, with some very real opportunities in front of me. It says that I don’t have to know what the outcome is, but that there is a divine plan for me and that I trust in it.

This is good. This is helpful. Yeah.

Showing Up

It’s another great big beautiful day, with perfect temps in the 70’s and no rain in the forecast. Finally, after a prolonged, wet and bone-chilling spring, it’s finally beginning to feel like summer here in the armpit of the Midwest. A good day to get things done at home, take care of business, and enjoy feeling like I’ve accomplished something. This is not easy for me to do. I’m my own worst critic and tend to harsh on myself for even the smallest things. Truth is I’ve come a long way in the past nine years, since first entering DBT.

One of the key skills I’ve learned to use is Opposite to Emotion action. In the simplest terms, this means “showing up” for things and being willing to do what it takes. For someone with crippling social anxiety, this takes a great deal of practice. At the root of my fear lies the thought that I am not good enough and that others will see this and judge me. I remember bowing out of countless things and feeling overwhelmed by even the most fundamental social interactions, such as meeting a repair person at the house to fix a broken washing machine. Going for coffee at an unfamiliar cafe could send me into a tailspin. Drinks with one or two colleagues after work would shut me down, and I’d make an excuse to get out of it. Any situation in which I would might be exposed, have to make conversation, eye contact, or talk about myself was utterly mortifying. To add injury, I’d be forced to explain my behavior to others, bringing even more attention to this great big Brontosaurus that was my anxiety.

I’ve learned that success in DBT is based on taking calculated risks. This means going to group every week and participating. Keeping my therapy appointments. Calling my therapist when I’m feeling like the bottom may drop out. Accepting social invitations as often as I can, and actually showing up—despite the thoughts and fears bouncing around inside my head. I’ve found it helpful to honor the fears, to gently acknowledge and recognize them with “I hear you, fear”, but not cave into their demands. I often imagine putting my fear in a box “for now” and placing it on a high shelf out of reach. I’ve got things to do and experiences to live, so the fears can live in that box (punch a few holes in the top so they can breathe) until I’m done doing what I want. The tricky part of all this goes back to core mindfulness skills of being present.

If I allow my fears to take over my brain, I lose the ability to remain present. Losing the present moment means that I lose my ability to act on my own behalf. I can only advocate for myself if I’m here right now. A therapist once described this to me as “allowing one’s emotions to drive the bus”, and that’s about as good a description as I can think of. If we allow the noise of our fears to overwhelm us and our anxious thoughts to grab the wheel, we’re not in control of our own lives.

What this means is that even when we’re scared, we can choose to move forward. For example, today I can decide to meet a friend for coffee and not worry that I might have to sit there alone for a few minutes. I can recognize the fear in me, put on a half-smile and take a deep breath knowing that it’s my choice. I can remain present, be gentle with myself, knowing that despite any anxiety, I’m in charge. The fear and anxiety recede when we don’t give them all of our present energy. And we can go back to living life as it is meant to be lived—in the now. We can enjoy whatever it is we’re doing with peace of mind and our full attention.

My theory is that often if I bring the body, the mind will follow. So I simply drag my carcass to the show, and let things unfold as they will. What I’ve found is that my fear and anxiety has been significantly reduced, and my joy in ordinary daily life has increased ten-fold.