One of the most difficult and frightening consequences of trauma is dissociation, a form of suffering that IFS addresses in the concept of parts. In what was once called "multiple personality" and is now named "dissociative identity disorder" it is most clearly recognizable. But I hate these labels and like much better the IFS thought that these are very strong and deep parts where the self is cut off from even knowing about them. I remember how fascinated I was when I read Trudi Chase's book "When Rabbit Howls" years ago. The absolutely horrifying abuse that she endured as a child brought out different personalities that knew nothing of each other, had different hand writings, dressed differently, acted and acted out in stunningly different ways, and had different names. And then, in Dorothy Otnow Lewis' chilling, amazing book "Guilty by Reason of Insanity"
(I have written about it in "Child Abuse—The Essential Reason for Murder":
there were shocking examples of severe dissociation, or multiple personalities and stories of horrific, bestial child-abuse. I could only read one chapter a day, or every other day, because her reports were so horrible and painful to read.
Luckily, most people are not so devastatingly traumatized and split, but I surely remember how dissociated I experienced myself and suffered when I entered IFS. I also have made the experience that not every feeling is authentic. When for example a parent feels hatred for a child and wants to lash out, even does lash out -- physically, verbally, emotionally, mentally -- this is clearly not an authentic feeling and need. So how do you deal with that in therapy? We all know that judging, condemning and sending, even forcing it away does not help. But ask questions, and the feeling of hatred will tell you and your therapist very soon how this hatred was caused and what traumas lie behind it, what the parents of this parent did to him or to her. Often spontaneously memories come up, which the client previously had not remembered or taken seriously and Richard Schwartz' unconditional, courageous and unwavering belief in these memories of traumatic experiences that emerged enabled me to believe them and what they shared, too, even if often I needed some time.
And I have experienced the strong inner relief when this form of inner understanding and meaningful communication unfolds and is successful. It is a powerful way of inner communication that helped me deal with overwhelming feelings, agonies, dissociation -- through inner fights, obsessive beliefs and ways of thinking, which were tormenting me -- in a much more effective way. It allowed me to question myself, to question the way I act and act out, in a respectful way, without increasing the already judgmental, enormous and powerful self-hatred, which today I rarely and if so only gently experience. By now, I see IFS as finally extending self love and compassion -- a compassion that I always had had for others but never given to myself and to what was happening within myself -- to these deepest, most frightening and even repulsive inner torments, which I was terrified to face because I could not believe: "This is me??? NO, this is NOT ME!" Whereas in the previous forms of therapy that I had worked with -- my work with a psychoanalyst and then the written primal therapy on my own, for years -- I often was at the mercy and overwhelmed by strong feelings and confusion for hours, even days and weeks and felt stuck, caught, even imprisoned in them -- in IFS, the therapeutic process developed and worked faster and my suffering and agony were resolved sooner.
Although all my therapists were compassionate and never moralistic or pedagogic at all -- they all wanted me to be in touch with, trust and follow my true self -- they did not know about "indignation as a vehicle of therapy," were afraid (I think) of their rightful anger, covered their own truth with spiritual illusions that confused them and increasingly me, and could not completely be on the side of the child because they did not face deeply their own childhoods and traumas and did not fight for their own true selves and liberation. In the end, these problems caused such pain in one of my foots that I could barely walk anymore -- my body was suffering because I had lost my autonomy. After I ended my work with them, this pain got much better, and with every burdensome relationship that I left behind, my foot has felt stronger and better.
As I have written before, IFS is not the one and only answer and never has been for me or as such been recommended or practiced by me. It requires intensive mental and emotional work and the commitment to ask respectful and thoughtful questions of oneself and one's parts. This form of therapy really freed me to ask all sorts of questions about and to myself. My work with my DMT therapist (Dance Movement Therapy) was different; it empowered me to get in touch with my whole body and with movement, and do exciting and enlightening creative work, in various artistic ways, just as my work with my psychoanalyst had helped me get in touch with my feelings and some childhood memories, and the primal therapy that I wrote empowered me to discover and even fulfill important needs of mine. I have learned and benefitted from every form of therapy, even also in the end by what disappointed and angered me. The excruciatingly painful feeling of betrayal opened my eyes for the truth and empowered me to get even closer in touch with my true self.
The IFS technique, like every form of therapy and every therapist, can be confusing if the therapists hold on to illusions, especially spiritual illusions, practice poisonous pedagogy, have not confronted their own childhoods, are not in touch with their own feelings and authentic needs, do not question their behaviors and actions, and are not on their own path to liberation. By now, when I work therapeutically with my feelings and suffering inside, as well as with my physical symptoms, I use spontaneously different ways of therapy that I have experienced during my therapeutic journey and that I have found and find helpful. When the need comes up in my spontaneous therapeutic writing, I sometimes use the IFS way of communicating with my inner world because it helps me uncover, confront and question mistreatments and destructive beliefs of my parents and other caregivers, which are haunting me, so that then I can protest against and overcome them. Another way to ease emotional or physical suffering is writing letters (not to send) where my feelings can come out, where I can express and understand them, realize their causes, and often, my anger wants to speak up in these letters, too. And then, with time, I know if I want to write a real letter or not.
So to me, helpful and meaningful therapy embraces different approaches and experiences and also has an effective tool to address dissociation, which causes immense and debilitating, powerless suffering and comes out especially visible and hurtful -- for oneself and others -- in self-destructive and destructive forms of behavior. Also, without an actual alive enlightened witness on and at our side -- thus experiencing, living and breathing compassion -- a supportive ally who guides us to face and deal with the truth and the split off feelings that come along with trauma, we cannot change and grow and heal from severe childhood abuse and neglect. In fact, it deepens the already abysmal loneliness and fears of the traumatized child if actual work with a therapist does not support and hold us as we uncover and deal with the consequences of traumatic childhood and life experiences.
As my view of effective therapy deepens, I have come to question the use of venting rage as THE main and even a cure-all therapeutic tool. Of course I know and have made the experience that feeling the long repressed rage and even hatred stemming from our childhood is a vital and essential tool of therapy. My anger has always been "my lover:" (http://www.screamsfromchildhood.com/anger_lover.html) -- and Alice Miller encouraged me to embrace it even more. Writing angry letters and, at times, sending them, has been a therapeutic tool in my life for many, many years; it got me out of hurtful relationships; it has supported me in alleviating some of my physical symptoms and suffering-- and it certainly has been one of the most important contributions of Alice Miller to the process of therapy. What she has written about indignation as a vehicle of therapy is also vitally important and an essential discovery for a helpful, liberating therapeutic process. ((http://www.alice-miller.com/articles_en.php?lang=en&nid=54&grp=11))
In my work, I have seen how deeply this indignation creates support and compassion for the abused and neglected child as finally an enlightened witness is truly on the side of this abused and neglected, abandoned and tortured child, helps to unmask the perpetrators and their crimes and helps the suffering human being to express her/his truth and to speak up.
After I had followed Alice Miller's advice from her earlier books into two forms of therapy that she later withdrew her support from, I had a dream in 1997, where I was angry with her for having sent me into two "parking lots" (psychoanalysis and a form of written primal therapy) that kept me from living my life freely, as my dream informed me. After that dream, I decided to look for myself for a different form and way of therapy. As I talked with therapists recommended to me by friends, a dream of mine said a clear no to one of them, but my soul agreed with the other two, and their approaches to therapy made a lot of sense to me, and still do. The "parking-lot dream" caused me to work with my IFS and DMT therapists in 1997; it ended my work with the psychoanalyst, with whom I had been working again since 1995 because the written primal method of therapy, which Alice Miller had recommended in one of her books, turned out to bring people into severe states of anxiety that overwhelmed them, which happened to me when I fell in love with my second husband. It became clear that doing therapy all alone, by oneself, without a therapist as the compassionate, enlightened witness was a dangerous undertaking, and, if I recall correctly, Alice Miller talked about this herself during those years.
Through the experiences of the past weeks, I am discovering new insights about therapy and I have realized that dissociation is neither addressed nor helped by the tool of venting and discharging anger and rage, especially not in unfair and unjust ways against others who have not done anything to deserve it. If we have a tool in therapy to deal with dissociation, we can confront and overcome how we act out in destructive and self-destructive ways. I have not recommended techniques, which I experienced and learned during my IFS work, as the all-cure therapeutic tool; and I have shared my different opinion regarding certain spiritual beliefs of my therapists in my essay about "spirituality cements childhood blindness."
Despite of some disappointments, I do know from my own experience that some of the IFS techniques were effective in addressing dissociation because they allow painful, devastating and shocking traumatic childhood experiences, suffering and memories to come out in an amazing and clear way, along with the accompanying and long repressed strong feelings -- and as well grant powerful insights about one's childhood reality. What I learned above all in my work with Richard Schwartz is to question all that was/is happening inside of me, not only my at times crazy beliefs and ways of (re-)acting, but also some of my overwhelming feelings and obsessive beliefs. I learned to face them without judgement and to communicate with them. I learned to BELIEVE what these "parts" were telling me about my childhood and to take it seriously. Whereas previously, I had judged myself and my memories in many different ways -- often as exaggerated, imagined, crazy, untrue and unfair (towards my parents and nanny, of course) -- I learned, with his help, to trust these memories, to let them come out and come alive -- and above all to believe them. I made the experience that I could trust what MY inner world revealed to me and taught me about what I was remembering, obsessively feeling, thinking and believing (about myself and others) and about why and how I was acting out. Instead of fighting in judgmental ways those thoughts, beliefs and feelings that shocked and frightened me because I could not believe that they really represented me and my true self (because how could I ever think or feel or want to do "such terrible things) -- I was encouraged to ask questions and communicate with compassion with them and thus also within myself.
Finally, I could extend towards myself what I had been doing for years for others -- compassion and a new form of deep understanding for the most frightening, threatening inclinations of myself and beliefs about myself and others. Working internally in this way, I found out very often that there were devastating childhood memories and childhood feelings behind my fears, my obsessive feelings and beliefs -- or internalized crazy and dangerous beliefs, attitudes, expectations, demands and ways of feeling and acting of my parents. As I came to understand their origins, I then could question, see through, unmask, argue with, rescind and abrogate them.
And I also could make another experience, which has accompanied me ever since I worked with Richard Schwartz: that the true self looks at and questions all the feelings, thoughts, beliefs and ways of acting out that I have. It communicates with everything that is going on inside of me and decides which feelings are authentic, which feelings I really need and want to express, as well as to whom, where, how and in what way. My true self helps me see which feelings stem from "parts" whose obsessive beliefs and feelings are blinding me and keeping me stuck in the prison of my childhood. The true self helps me find out why I cling to beliefs that were forced upon me in my childhood -- and empowers me to question them and the ways in which I behave in order to liberate myself from them and stand up for my integrity, dignity and truth. My true self helps me through compassionate, thoughtful inner communication find, choose and follow a way of action as I try to live true to myself and give voice to my truth. By now I think that it is dangerous and misleading to regard venting anger as the most important therapeutic tool because it can become a dead-end street that leads not only to confusion and the unquestioned, unchallenged acting out of (self) destructive behavior but also separates us from our true self.
Recently, I feel as if a dense fog has been lifted that had confused and blinded me; I call it the fog of admiration. There have been many fogs I have strayed in and uncovered during my therapeutic journey -- fogs of confusion, fear, among others. The fog of admiration let me make excuses for hurtful behavior towards me -- and called that "respect." It let me be taken advantage of -- and let me believe that I was valued and appreciated. It let me serve generously to the point of exhaustion and self-sacrifice -- and call that "dedication to the cause." When the fog cleared, it felt as if a veil had been lifted from my eyes. Flooded with one insight after another, I had to recognize another self-destructive and self-defeating mechanism stemming from my childhood that still had had power over me and controlled me.
All my relationships in my adult life have given me the opportunity to learn and grow and change -- sometimes in amazing and wonderful ways, even if in the end often in painful ways. I am sure that communication and growth are the power and gift that relationships grant us, even if some of them only may last for certain amounts of time.
My deepest need has always been to communicate honestly and openly, and in many of my adult relationships I could do that -- either for some time, or at least to some extent -- and certainly in all of them MUCH MORE than I ever could in my childhood. But some of my closest relationships came to an end when I had grown within and through them -- also closer to my true self while I continued my therapeutic work -- and gained a deeper understanding of myself and my needs.
When my need for honest and open communication hit a wall, it took me some time to figure out what had happened. Looking back I realize that at some point my body began to speak up about close, important relationships and about experiences that began to feel hurtful and stifling to me -- often at first with symptoms of pain, then with illnesses like a kidney infection or a sore throat with fever. As I began to listen to my body and to voice my discomfort and point of view, it became painfully clear that there was no (more) room in some relationships for an awareness of my pain and needs.
As I struggled with hostile reactions, I had to realize that something -- above all I -- had changed in these relationships, and that they could not survive if the counterparts in those relationships were still somehow stuck in the past, trapped in certain "parts" -- in dissociative, destructive acting out -- that they did not question and did not want to face.
When relationships ended, I had to step back and take a freer, clearer look at them. The fog lifted and another blind-spot from my childhood was healed -- with time -- by mourning, raging, talking with others about my perceptions and finally taking them seriously. Instead of trusting someone capable of disrespecting, hurting and even betraying me, my trust in myself and my values grew every time that this has happened to me in my life. As my self-hatred has no longer a voice and power in my inner world, it cannot persecute me anymore for having "failed" by not seeing sooner through a relationship and its potential problems.
The traumas of childhood are traumas suffered in relationship, and their impact and consequences can heal through being in relationship with others that are DIFFERENT than what we had to suffer so silently, alone and abandoned as children. The relationships of my adult life granted me chances to love and change and grow. Of course I wish that I had had a different childhood and not have had to stray around in those fogs of fear, obedience, submission, admiration, confusion etc. and instead make healthy choices to build the life that I truly wanted for myself. Realizing that I could not build the life that I longed for has brought along tremendous mourning and outrage. Yet, these feelings pass, and by now, I often feel a deep satisfaction that I have lived true to myself -- which really has been my deepest need and longing. Because of that I have had an interesting life of growth and change where I learned a lot, and still learn every day. I feel at peace knowing that I chose and lived, and still live values that are so utterly different from the ones that formed and oppressed me as a child.
Sometimes, I tried too long and too hard to keep relationships alive; I am a human being who gets deeply attached. It has been astounding for me that I could free myself from hurtful relationships because as a child and teenager and young woman, every good bye, above all those that entailed the notion of "forever," seemed traumatic, devastating and unbearable to me. But I made the experience that I not only survived relationships that ended. Once I was free and began to see more and more clearly, my confidence in myself, my experiences and insights, and the inner freedom that developed were a rewarding and empowering experience. Over the years, I have tried less and less to understand hurtful behavior if people do not want to become aware of how they act out with aggressive emotions from insulted, envious, revengeful or other destructive parts. It does not make for respectful and equal relationships -- on the contrary, it drowns them in uncaring, even arbitrary and reckless hurt.
Of course I realize that I was blind and susceptible and impressible to these fogs; their atmosphere and mechanisms were all too familiar because of childhood experiences which I had not yet EMOTIONALLY seen through and freed myself from. And it is this EMOTIONAL understanding that I have experienced as most liberating, and I also consider it as granting us the healing that is only possible in relationship with other human beings.
Genuine, emotional inner growth happens through "being in relationship," in my experience, because relationships give us the power to change how destructive relationships formed us in childhood. My children were the source of my longing for change and the motivation that asked me over and over again to take more honest looks at myself; they challenged me and the ways in which I used to live my life, and still sometimes do. I cannot express how grateful I am for their presence in and inspiration for my life. My friends have been at and on my side, granting me insights, appreciation, invaluable input, love and support, especially at painful, difficult changes and times of my life. Without my friends, I could never have made my journey. Without being in the presence of my three therapists, I would not have been able to develop genuine compassion for myself and a deep trust in my true self, my memories and my voice. My husbands’ support moved me out of many childhood limitations. These past months have changed my view of effective therapy (once again); they have deepened my awareness of what being in relationship means and can accomplish, how it contributes to our healing and our capacity to heal.
© Barbara Rogers, September/October 2008
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