While I am not a mental health professional, it feels like I’ve spent as much on therapy as a psychologist spends on education. To stretch the value for dollar, I like to tell others about some of the great strategies and lessons I’ve learned from my therapist – kind of like buying an album and making cassette copies for your friends. And truthfully, I am often so excited by how helpful the process is that I want to share it with others.
Sobriety is about not drinking, but recovery is about changing ourselves from within so that we can enjoy life without constantly feeling the need to numb out. I got sober on my own, but I am recovering with a lot of help.
Recently my therapist did some work with me around “Internal Family Systems”, which is a process developed in the 1990s by Richard Schwartz. It is an evidence-based practice that considers all the ways an individual can fragment into different parts of the self (think about how are you in different situations, how distinct aspects of yourself are more to the forefront at work, with family, in tense situations, at play, and so on).
First, my counsellor assigned me some homework: to list out all of the distinct part of myself. I filled an entire page! Even though I had never given much thought to them, I could quickly give names to distinct roles: The Critic, The Child, The Bad Me, The Entertainer, The Teacher, The Boss, The Mother and several more. The page filled so quickly that I re-wrote it in a new format, with my own notes of whether the parts were “good” or “bad”.
When we went through the list in session, the first thing I learned is that none of these aspects should be seen as bad. All of these parts emerge for a reason, to do a job. Maybe “The Bad Me” had done bad things, but her purpose was to protect and comfort me using any means necessary. When I feel scared, I might act in some immature ways, because The Child is the only part of me who is allowed to cry. The thing to understand is that it can be helpful to have all these aspects of ourselves, but they should be managed by what Schwartz calls the Self (I like to think of it as my Highest Self).
The Entertainer in me can charm a crowd and work the room because I created that part to overcome some natural shyness that wanted to hide in a corner. When I made the list, I identified this part as half bad because it feels fake when I am in The Entertainer role. Now I understand that it is not bad or fake, it is a useful tool. The key is to choose when to use a part and not be led by them, especially in extreme ways. It is good to have a little cry and allow myself to feel like The Child, as long as I don’t throw a tantrum in the grocery store. It’s fine to be The Entertainer in some settings, as long as it is by choice and appropriate.
We can think of that addictive voice in our head the same way, as a part that emerged out of a situation and is trying to be useful. It truly believes that alcohol is necessary for our survival and works hard to convince us that drinking would be the correct response to a situation. I have learned that the goal is to spend the majority of our time the High Self role, to call on our parts if necessary and to relieve them of their duties if they emerge unexpectedly and want to run wild.
A good example of this would be the old patterns we can fall into with our family of origin. Funny how we can find ourselves behaving in ways around our parents and siblings that are so different from how we conduct ourselves as adults in the world. We slip into those darn old parts without even realising it, until we hear ourselves whinging or arguing or feeling wounded and wonder “What the hell just happened here? How do these people push my buttons so easily?” It isn’t them pushing our buttons, it is us following some well-worn neurological pathways, like emotional muscle-memory. The part can be trance-like.
My therapist suggested when I feel myself being a part, I should pause to consider if that role is necessary under the circumstance or if I am just following an old habit. When I am in the closet changing my clothes for the 8th time because nothing seems like the right thing, I can pause and say, “Hey Critic, thanks for showing up. I know you are worried about me going to that event today so you are trying to trying to be helpful by telling me everything I put on looks terrible. I have this under control so I need you to be quiet now. I promise I will take good care of myself so you don’t have to worry.”
Other internal conversations for me sound like this: “Hi Martyr, you are getting very upset about how other people are treating me. I appreciate you are feeling threatened but I am going to be protecting my boundaries so you don’t have to. Thanks, I am taking over now.”
“I am talking so much right now and sitting up straighter than normal, I am in my Entertainer part. That feels okay for now, seems like the right thing to be.”
“I can’t stop thinking about drinking today, my Addicted part is on high alert looking for ways to comfort me today. What is really bothering me? Hey Addict, I know you want me to feel better right now so I am going to take over and book myself a massage. How does that sound?”
The goal is to spend the majority of our lives in our Highest Self, and take charge of the parts as manageable tools.
I hope this explanation does justice to the theory. It is my layman’s perspective of a process that has been very insights and helpful to my recovery.
Mull it over and give some thought to your parts. How would it feel to be in charge of them all instead of a step behind? Does the prospect comfort or frighten you?