I suppose it’s a cliche to say that something changed your life. I’ll say it anyway: IFS changed my life.
Depression fully hit me in September 2018. I’d kept it at bay since the 2016 election by spending every waking moment resisting. I resisted through protest signs and marches, writing and publishing, through curriculum and organizing, through media consumption and canvassing. If resisting is winning, then I was winning.
And then I wasn’t.
Through the fall and into winter I woke up each morning feeling defeated before the day had even begun. My words and actions in the classroom had no zeal. My afternoons and evenings were spent beating myself up for my performance at work, smoking cigarettes to cope, and crying all the time. The part of me that for 10 years had been carrying my sadness about all of the injustice in the world and the secondary trauma from my students had no other place to go but out of my subconscious to my conscious. That was very uncomfortable. I knew it was time to go into therapy again.
Serendipitously, I had a series of opportunities present themselves to me during that time. One was the possibility of a new job outside of education. Another was a silent retreat. The third was a series of free sessions with a life coach who was building a new practice. I said ‘yes’ to all three.
Saying ‘yes’ was the easy part. The hard part was working on myself and getting through the 8 months that remained of the school year before I could breathe.
I eagerly jumped into life coaching, but by the third session, I knew my progress would be paralyzed if I didn’t manage my depression. My coach reminded me she wasn’t a psychologist, but that she did have training in a type of coaching that might help.
“Anything,” I said, “I know I need more.”
Traditional therapy has been helpful for me in the past. I’d had three rounds of it before this year. The first when I was in middle school to diagnose me with depression and related OCD (which would now most likely be called an anxiety disorder). The second time was right after college to help me deal with grief and my stunted understanding of love and healthy relationships. The third was in 2015 to address my perfectionism and the struggles with work that were contributing to my declining physical health (Who needs cortisol!? We all do!!!).
Guess how many sessions of IFS with a great coach it took me to move away from crippling sadness and guilt and stop smoking?
3 sessions. Like, a little over 4 hours.
Internal Family Systems (IFS) is some samurai shit. I can explain it best in two ways:
First, Pixar’s Inside Out is a very helpful visual and probably what allowed me to access the therapy more easily for a visual learner like me. Also, the protagonist is someone I strongly relate to having moved so much as a kid. The line “It’s okay to be sad” is perhaps one of the simplest and most healing things the child in me needed to hear, so naturally I wept and wept through the ending. If you haven’t seen it and want to understand IFS, watch it and then reread this.
Second, IFS is also best described as when the most clear headed, compassionate, curious, creative, calm, and courageous part of you is having a therapeutic listening session with the part of you that is in distress — the part of you that is occupying your attention to the point where moving through the world feels harder.
Who knew that I had a little Jacque in me who was carrying such sadness all the time? Or an older part of me that carried so much guilt about privilege and not doing or being enough to fight injustice? Or a part of me that was isolated, hidden away in a cave where its light had been extinguished until I went inside to face it and let it out? Those parts needed my love and my attention. They needed to wail and cry and rage and scream out a message to me and not be alone. And just as I do when I sit down with someone, vent and feel better, I can do that for the parts of me that need someone. That someone is me.
To meet these parts, I sit with my eyes closed in stillness and evoke that feeling or part and let it take form or color or both. Then, with my coaches help, that part and I get to know each other. Some days these conversations are easy, sometimes there’s a lot of distraction from other parts trying to protect me from sitting with discomfort, sometimes the parts are so intertwined with me or one another that it gets confusing. Having an amazing and supportive coach helped me tremendously with navigation.
For years, I buried my sadness, guilt, helplessness and other “bad” feelings because they scared me, but they didn’t go away. Our culture teaches us that these feelings are “bad” and that we should shove them down and ignore them. We all do this as children, throughout life, and into adulthood and then before we know it, we have a whole host of parts that need attention, love and care and are so ignored that they never get what they need — YOU never get what you need. As a result, other parts emerge to cover it all up. For me that meant hyper-vigilant, perfectionist, critical, fighter, logical, and task-oriented parts appeared to protect me from the parts carrying the “bad” stuff. I’m not saying those protectors are a problem. Those parts are completely welcome! In fact, they’re my little heroes! They’re looking out for me and don’t want me to hurt. But they have agendas and cover up the parts that need tending and listening, creating an unharmonious system. The beauty of IFS is that when those protector heroes see that feeling the bad stuff isn’t so terrible, they’re able to chill, and to let my best self be in the driver’s seat. They begin to understand that I can take care of those painful parts. I offer genuine gratitude to those hero protectors, let them know they don’t have to work so hard, and the long term pay off for me is that I feel balanced and steady.
I’m painting an easy picture of this process here, but just to be clear, IFS is the hardest therapy and introspective work I’ve ever done — ever. I’ve revisited experiences and moments in my life that I have shoved so deep down that I didn’t even know I was preoccupied by them. I’ve felt very real fear and deep sadness meeting and speaking to the parts of myself that have been exiled from my consciousness. I also had periods of time when the part holding my rage was finally allowed to surface so I felt a lot of anger, or a part that needed to be quiet and alone manifested in my withdrawal from the people around me. If this sounds scary, I’ll say that the fact that there are three of us doing the work: me, my parts, and my coach make jumping into the abyss possible. And it gets easier when your parts learn that not only do you not die from going to the painful places, but you actual begin to truly live. I’m deeply grateful to the parts of myself that are brave and adventurous and intuitive as they’ve given me what I needed to push myself into a new way of being.
Oh, but aren’t there easier ways?!
Mindfulness has been extremely helpful to me over the years. Stop. Feel. Notice. Name. Noticing is wonderful. It helps us pay attention when we’re feeling something instead of just mindlessly reacting all the time. Without IFS, though, I wouldn’t understand the root of those noticings. Before I noticed, but didn’t dive, never facing truly facing the source.
Traditional therapy was also helpful for me. I evolved in ways that led me to take healthy risks, travel, adventure, and grow. But talking out loud to someone else gave me permission me to rationalize and detach. I’m a very good thinker, but thinking is not feeling. Thinking can lie to me. Feelings cannot.
With IFS, I spend a long time forming a relationship with the parts that holds feeling. Those parts share wisdom with me, they share snapshots of my life, they show me a memory and ask me to sit with it and heal.
For folks reading this thinking that this is a load of hippy, new-age malarky, I won’t argue with you, but I would ask you why you kept reading this far (Is there something here that a part of you is asking for?). I’ll also share with you that IFS helped me see new, exciting possibilities for my talents outside of teaching, it’s helped me be more vulnerable with my life-partner and led us to a new level of intimacy, it’s gotten me to a place where I have the most healthy relationship with exercise that I’ve ever had (I’ve gone to the gym 4x a week for 7 months straight!), it’s helped me have courage to do more personal writing and write music for the first time in years, it’s helped me start my own business, it’s helped me to stop being “nice” and start being me (which is sometimes blunt and assertive — I love those parts!). And if that’s hippy, new-age bullshit, so be it! Not to mention the fact that the teachings from IFS and my understanding of it is rooted in an ancient Eastern spirituality and thought that have always had enlightening and transformative power.
For other folks reading this thinking they want to try it — that’s great! I would offer that IFS would have been harder for me without quite a long history of meditation, mindfulness and yoga practice. In IFS, you have to be okay sitting with yourself in quiet and listening inside even when its very uncomfortable, but everyone is capable of getting there in their own time as they’re ready. Forcing this process is not helpful. Having a great coach who you trust is important, of course. And ultimately for me it is worth every moment of pain!
I write this one week into a summer break between the end of the school year and the first week at my new job at Jute Creative. I have no idea where the sandy bottom is below me or how far I’ve swum below the surface, but I feel like I’ve eaten gillyweed, grown gills, webbed fingers and toes, and am up for the adventure!
I daydream sometimes about where IFS could lead people and how. That’s the rescuer part in me. But for now, I’m working on rescuing myself.