How Internal Family Systems Helped Me Heal

A brave friend of mine inspired me recently. By talking about mental health more openly, he’s been trying to remove the stigma surrounding it. His vulnerability made me realize how I could also help people by sharing my own experiences with this subject.

My life has not been all sunshine and roses. Like most people I know, I grew up with a tumultuous childhood and an even more painful adolescence. It’s probably enough to say that my experiences before the age of 18 left me with ample baggage, some of which I’m still working through today.

But how am I working through that baggage? Counseling, of course! (Among other things, but counseling is what has been the most powerful catalyst in my journey.)

Counseling in my mind is not a one-size-fits-all kind of deal. There are certain methods of counseling that make no difference for me at all (and quite frankly tend to do damage) even though they are extremely helpful for other people.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is one such method that makes absolutely no difference for me. Attempting to control the thoughts of a highly creative, intense person is like trying to convince an extroverted toddler to quiet down and play alone. All you end up with is paint splattered across the wall and an epic meltdown.

Instead, the counseling methods that are most beneficial to me are a particular set of highly visceral psychotherapy practices. They don’t tend to focus on my thoughts, whether by understanding them or trying to control them. And they don’t try to dive deep into the workings of my past and why things affected me the way they did. Rather, the therapy that works best for me focuses on the feelings, emotions, body sensations, and other experiences that make up my present-moment life and affect my reactions in the real world.

“Visceral” has become one of my favorite words because it describes much of what I have the most difficulty with. It’s all the things you can’t name but you know are there – the clenching in your gut when you’re anxious or the sudden anger that comes up even though you can’t pinpoint a cause. It’s also when you get triggered by something and want to cry, but you have this inkling that the trigger is not what the tears are really for. You simply needed to cry something else out. Something deeper. All these things make up a visceral experience, and all can be understood and worked through with these forms of therapy.

In one such method that I’ve been employing with my counselor recently, I take my emotions and my experiences and I give them a persona. This is called Internal Family Systems and is one of the most powerful and most helpful modes of therapy I’ve ever encountered.

For example, like a lot of people, I struggle with anxiety. When you are in the middle of anxiety, it can be overwhelming because it feels like the anxiety is you and you are the anxiety. There is no separation. You are anxious.

But when I employ this mode of therapy, I think of my anxiety as a separate being. For me personally, Anxiety is a furry, purple monster, not unlike a purple version of Sulley from Monster’s Inc.

On most days, Anxiety Monster is small, maybe three feet in height, and he’s rather cute. But whenever I feel anxious, Anxiety Monster grows. He doesn’t like to grow, but it happens nonetheless. He might grow to six feet if I’m a little anxious, hovering over me and feeling especially scared. If my anxiety gets even worse, to the point of being overwhelming, he can grow to over 20 feet tall!

At this point, Anxiety Monster is so big he knocks things over with his big furry purple arms. He doesn’t mean to, and he feels so bad when it happens, but he just can’t help it. This is in direct correlation to all the ways my anxiety “knocks things over” in my real life, like how it derails me and affects my relationships and keeps me from focusing.

But when I let Anxiety Monster embody these giant feelings and inadvertent destruction, rather than taking it on as something that is me and me alone, something very peculiar happens. I feel compassion.

This poor, giant, purple monster is scared and he’s knocking things over and he doesn’t mean to. Poor guy! I wonder what he needs? Oh! He needs a hug. I imagine myself hugging this giant 20-foot purple monster and guess what happens? He shrinks again. He goes back to six feet tall.

Are you still with me? Because this is not stereotypical therapy. It’s at this point when I can feel it in my body. That tightness in my chest, the clenching of my jaw, that breath I was holding…they all release. I felt compassion and love and caring for my anxiety, after having separated my Core Self from it, and I came out on the other side feeling better. Anxiety Monster can go on about his day now, knowing that I have his back, and if he grows to 20 feet again, I’ll be there to comfort him.

I have similar experiences with other overwhelming emotions. My depression is an empty, black bodysuit that walks around on his own. Whenever I’m feeling depressed, he smothers me in his form-fitting rubber, holding on tightly because life is too overwhelming and scary.

But when I ask him, “what’s so scary?”, he let’s go a little, and we figure out together what’s getting me down by listening to our hearts. I hold his hand (which is really just the black sleeve of the suit) and he relaxes. Then I relax. I ask him gently to stand next to me, rather than smother me, and in return, I won’t abandon him. Suddenly I don’t feel quite so heavy, quite so hopeless, quite so scared.

There are also all the versions of me from various times in my life who I comfort and love as well. There’s 5-year-old me, unsure of the world, unable to make friends, but super creative and sweet. There’s 10-year-old me, numb and reeling from a pain that makes no sense, but sharp and stronger than she knows. There’s 15-year-old me, shocked and sad and unable to cope and so very angry, but beautiful and powerful and able to create a coping system within herself that carries her through the pain. By seeing these parts of me as separate and deserving of love and kindness, I can heal so much easier. I can give them the love they didn’t get when they needed it most.

This mode of therapy has been so helpful, so powerful for me that I have learned to do it on my own, without my therapist’s help. I can feel an emotion that’s overwhelming, distance myself from it, give it a form and personality, and give it whatever I need most at that moment. It has been truly life changing.

I don’t recommend starting this practice on your own. As always, it’s best to speak to a professional (of which I am not) before attempting these kinds of things by yourself. Not only can it be scary to work with these parts of yourself all alone, but a therapist can guide you in knowing which parts of you are safest to meet first, and determine what it is that specific part needs from you. It can be scary when you try to dig deep into your psyche to pull out something dark and painful you aren’t ready for, so be sure to have someone helping you along the way as you learn the process.

I hope this article was helpful in one way or another. Even if you are one of those people who are skeptical of therapy, or woo-woo things, or even just cultivating imagination as an adult, I encourage you to give it all a second thought. Maybe the next time you have an overwhelming emotion that doesn’t make a lot of sense, you can think about my story and wonder if there’s a better way to approach it. A way that is more compassionate, loving, and exactly what you really need.

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