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?
Thank you so much for sharing this. It is very informative and helpful – it gives me something to work out for myself and put into practice. Again, thank you!
So good to have you as part of my support team, Jean! Thank you for sharing this most interesting concept. I think it will be very helpful to me to identify the many roles I play in this drama/comedy I call my life! It’s challenging to dig deep, but I feel confident I can do this – and do it with loving kindness.
Great line: “following some well-worn neurological pathway.”. Boy, was I ever guilty of that. Time after time, like an old horse , I’d get on the same old pathway back to the barn. Same old roles, same old ( destructive ) responses. My therapist went over this with me as well and it made a world of difference in my life to learn to manage all my “selves” and be good to, or at least understanding, of them all.
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This is brilliant! I have been wrestling for years with these roles I play, and have been unable to get past the ones that are holding me back. I am definitely going to try this, and this does not scare me at all, gives me hope!
Thank you, thank you!
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This is cool!
I have a People Pleaser self that I don’t like, especially today.
I can understand her need to feel included, but she tries to make people who don’t give a darn about her, to like her.
Which doesn’t work.
SO, my highest self, needs to step in here, and hug her and tell her how many people do care about her.
I am not sure if this message will get to you directly or not but I was just wondering if you happen to know of a support group or women that might like to get together in the Abbotsford area. If you do that would be wonderful.
A huge thank you for all you do for all of us
Big hugs from H
Great post. I have been viewing the addict in me as some sort of devil, but perhaps it could be helpful to have compassion. I have a lot of compassion for others suffering through addiction; maybe it is my “Denial” self that wants to make the addict something other than a part of me.
This is Epic! I am going to go make my “parts” list right now, so Higher Self will know how to talk to Addict self, when the cravings hit. Which is daily and sometimes ALL day.
Any time you want to share insights from your therapist – you are really paying it forward.. and all of us can benefit from your knowledge and experience. You are doing a great thing here!
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When you said, “I got sober on my own, but I am recovering with a lot of help,” it struck a chord with me. It was almost like a shock wave blew me back. It describes in one sentence why I have failed to stay sober in the past.
In previous sober attempts, after 30 or 50 days, I would feel fine to go back to the booze. At these times, I had not drank for a while, but everything else about me was still the same. My emotions were the same. Most of my habits were the same. My thought process was the same. I was the same heavy drinker, just minus the beer.
Having a week under my belt today, now I know I need to begin incorporating other aspects other than just not drinking. Exercising has helped me to begin changing the way my body feels. I’ve been working on the spiritual aspect of it reading in my bible each day. However, I haven’t really been working on the mental side of it. I need to begin checking my emotions, old issues and mental habits. This is the only way I will make lasting change in this area of my life.
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Wow Jean, I just had my 3 year soberversary yesterday and went to my therapist. I am upping my recovery, with reading, i just finished Love Warrior, I have been listening to a lot of Bubble Hour Episodes, going to more meetings, reaching out to more family and friends, and doing more commitments in AA to get myself out of my comfort zone, also I am doing more yoga classes, I even found a Kundalini class that Taryn suggested for me to try out and loved it. I tend toward isolation, especially in the winter hunkering down in my home I may have a little seasonal effective disorder in the winter and start making excuses to stay in. But this year my intention is to identify what holds me back and forge ahead and get healthy in the new year and in my life, spiritually, physically mentally and emotionally. This blog post is huge for me because I am gathering up all of the resources I can to learn more about me and learning I am. From a little girl, and who knows why, I was the child of 5 and in the middle and I always felt like I wasn’t enough, I didn’t fit in, I could never get it right and I was on the outside looking in. Although I had a pretty good childhood and had some great friends I always compared myself to others and never felt good enough and it has carried with me my whole life. It has caused me to become a complete co-dependent and has mixed with a lot of resentments and fear and insecurities. This past three years has been a journey to learn how to feel and act and be without all the negative self talk and fear and I have been reaching out more even thought it is not comfortable, it always produces positive results. I feel I am emerging from my shell like a turtle coming out of the darkness and I feel good growing and learning and not numbing. My therapist yesterday said that i probably would have numbed some other way if I did not pick up alcohol because thats what I tended to do all of my life. Anyway thank you for sharing this information from your therapist that I will put in my tool box, it all helps so very much!!
I almost forgot what I most wanted to express from your post, family, oh family, whenever I visit or interact with family, siblings Aunt cousins etc. I get the same feelings and insecurities that I had as a child and I drank to avoid them and now I have to deal with them and used to run away! I am encouraging myself to deal more with them because I was avoiding to not get hurt but I know now instead of always being angry that its me and they are against me and don’t like me, I am seeing that it is me going back to my child with all the insecurities that I had as a kid. Its crazy how that happens and I really have to face it or drink or isolate and both I don’t want to do at all so I have to do the hard work and we are all getting slowly closer and I am allowing myself to see that some of my family are sick and if they behave badly towards me that its not me its them fighting some insecurity inside of themselves. So great piece of info on family as well ! thank you!
This is such an interesting post, thank you for sharing! I will be sharing this with my beloved recovering alcoholic.
I enjoyed this post- I was not familiar with this type of therapy, but it is interesting. I beat myself up for cheating on my husband when he was deployed (our marriage was already on the rocks) and I was living alone in a strange city with zero support system. I can get over some of the guilt and shame if I realize that my ‘bad’ self was trying to comfort me and get me through this period of extreme loneliness. Maybe someday I can forgive myself. Thanks!
Lynn, to help you process this I recommend the work of Dr Scott Haltzman. He has identified that there can be a link between addiction and infidelity, something he calls “Flame Addiction”. When you understand the science behind what happened, you might find it easier to accept (and forgive) your behaviour. Here is a great article: http://brainworldmagazine.com/the-neuroscience-of-infidelity-flame-addiction/
I love this post. It gives me a different way to think. Thanks Jean!
I have come to love all my old monsters and beasts– the bad girl in the red cloak– and bless her heart the girl with the business cards working the room. It’s like having a large family living within. I have my various addict beasts broken down by category– the food monster– the wine thing– the cocaine idiot. Different ages. Different addictions. Hope your leg is coming along.