After our fun, we get down to business. We are working in the modality of Internal Family Systems (IFS), the only approach that has ever gotten close to truly straightening anything out. All the others — cognitive behavioral, dialectical behavioral, straight-up talk therapy, biofeedback — are skill development and acute crisis management, first responder-type protocols and essential and lifelong practices and approaches, but not a resolution of the deep and primary.
IFS, on the other hand, identifies the cast of troubled parts human beings unavoidably accumulate as we traipse through life, each character keeping us developmentally locked in at the certain points in which our various traumatic events occurred. Of course, some of us may have more guests than others, but we are all running a group home.
Over the course of a year and a half, Jonette and I venture in. We poke around, mapping the places these parts hang out or hide out. We are watched. They know we’re here to clean house and they receive us according to their soul: some hole up; others are surly and let us have it, jeering, taunting, screaming.
Our job is to slowly, carefully, and oh so respectfully gain their trust. And then they will talk. At the heart of each story is a single, underlying theme and the reason this part came to be: in all cases, it is a perception of threat, based on the watching and interpreting of what life brings our way.
How we watch and interpret….what drives us to see things and experience things in the way we do is such a curiosity. Of course there is the influence of family beliefs and philosophies and such. But beyond that, how much is predicated by our own neurochemical and emotional make-up? How much by our reasoning power? And how much by the degree our reason is able to stay online during the duel emotion is constantly proposing?
An article I read so many years ago planted deep with me for just this consideration of the unique equipment each of us bring to the living of life. The journalist tells the story of a brother and sister, ages 9 and 10, who are told repeatedly by their schizophrenic mother that she is poisoning their food. The 9-year old boy is unbothered and continues to calmly eat. The 10-year old girl is seriously messed up by it and petrified to eat, quite understandably it seems to me.
Mental health professionals involved are fascinated by the boy. When asked why he isn’t afraid like his sister, he matter-of-factly says that seeing as he hasn’t gotten sick or died so far, he figures there is something wrong with his mother, not the food. He made this inference by stepping back and assessing the situation, having no problem trusting in his own powers of analysis — enough to stake his life on it — despite the fact that he is just a kid. His sister is not able to step out of her skin to size things up — and even if she did logically understand that the food isn’t poisoned, she still has a crazy mother claiming to poison food, so there’s not much peace, calm and carry-on to that situation as far as I’m concerned. I would have about 49 parts popping up if my mother mentioned that she poisons the food she serves, to say nothing of how undermining confidence in the safety of your kid’s food is an exceptionally cruel vehicle for the expression of craziness.
And this is precisely what we are faced with everyday: each step we take delivers a series of questions we must answer. Are you crazy? Am I crazy? Is my food going to kill me?
These are the questions we ask ourselves, equipped with whatever we happen to be uniquely equipped with to form our answer.
And when threat is detected, a part springs forth, formulating often very bad plans — bad in the longterm, anyway — for how they aim to go about protecting us, the host of the party. But at least it is these disastrously maladaptive protective devices that allow us to track back to these sly parts so as to identify them, needing look no further than our behavior, which is how they show up. One part says for the love of god run away from reality! Protect your heart by sheathing it in layers and layers of numbness! But then another part says, no, oh my god, no, cling to every person who comes your way! They will save you! Yet a different one takes a look at this absurd solution and says I’ll tell you what we’re going to do. We’re going to revise reality and write it the way it should be. We’ll lie until we believe it. This, however, does not sit well with the part that is mad as a junk yard dog and who drives us to lunge and bite at whatever comes our way. And then there is the one who says bags of candy is the best we’ve got. Better double up on it. And another one who says don’t let anyone see your weakness; just puff yourself up, take all credit, misrepresent who you really are and what you have really accomplished. Inflate, inflate, inflate.
Oh, the range of contradictory solutions running us this way and that. What we do, what we do. It’s all there, our behavior* a registry of the guests in our group home.
Of course, our underground population is not all a mystery. It’s not like we don’t know there are some issues bubbling under the surface. The over-spending, inability to hold down a job, the constant interrupting of people….it’s certainly not a mystery to see parts waving their flags in the behavior of others. And if we aren’t in denial or excuse-mode we might see it in ourselves and try to shut that business down, self-improvement being part of our self-preservation make-up, though sometimes self-improvement is just the expression of another part, as the case is with me. Jill, a dear friend I worked with for a number of years, once remarked that she’d never met anyone so relentless in their quest for complete, top-down/bottom-up self-improvement. That’s me, all-in. Plus, I do love a project and I most certainly have one in myself.
For that reason and no doubt many others, I haven’t skimped on paying attention to myself, as evidenced by this memoir. But the most surprising part that most got my attention was the part that manipulated a man into marrying me. Yes, I did. Knowing he thought I was quite the catch, I somehow found the words to suggest that he had a time-limited opportunity to marry me and that (I’m sorry, but now it gets worse) he might want to consider how not all that many middle-aged women were aging all that well.
He took that opportunity. And for those two years of my life I did not recognize who I was.
*I don’t mean to imply all “bad” behavior is the product of a troubled part. Sometimes grouchy is just grouchy, in which case a good night’s sleep and a shower can work some magic.
To be continued in part III
To Jonette, with my whole heart.
The stories in this blog are excerpts from my memoir, The Organization Project. While they are true to me and reflect how I see, I acknowledge there are multiple truths, including my own which change over time, even as the events themselves remain the same, whatever they were. What I make of an event 5 years out may not be what I make of it 10 years out or 50 years out.