Internal Family Systems in Action
I recently began work with a 42-year-old client named Colette, who’d been in and out of several treatment centers for an unresolved eating disorder and diagnosed by the last two centers with borderline personality disorder. Like so many borderline clients, she’d been sexually abused as a child—in her case, by a neighbor. However, her previous treatments had focused mainly on getting her to examine and correct her irrational cognitions around the eating disorder.
She told me she’d heard that I was good at helping people with their traumas. I said I could help her with the parts of her that had been hurt and were stuck in the past. I added that we wouldn’t visit those parts until we’d gotten to know them and received their permission to approach those emotions and memories. In subsequent sessions, I helped Colette talk to and reassure several different protectors, including her eating disorder, so they wouldn’t be afraid of our contacting her exiles.
Once she got tentative permission to proceed, I encouraged her to focus on the memory of the abuse. She saw herself as a curious 5-year-old girl who’d been lured to the neighbor’s house to play with his pet bunnies. Colette became able to witness the ensuing abuse scene with compassion for her younger self. In her mind’s eye, she could then enter the scene and bring the girl to safety. Her protectors were relieved to see that this part was no longer so vulnerable and said they were considering taking on new roles. As Colette left that session, she said she felt hopeful for the first time in a while. I was moved by the intensity of the work and grateful for the privilege of being allowed to share in her journey.
In the next session, however, Colette was distant and shut down. She said she had no memory of what we’d done in the previous session and that continuing to work with me wasn’t a good idea. She added that she’d come in just to say that this would be our last session. There was no talking her out of it.
Despite knowing better, there are still young parts of me that get disappointed by such sudden downturns and others that feel pouty when I work hard to help someone who doesn’t appreciate it. So at that point, one of my own protectors took over, and I said with cool, clinical detachment that I was really sorry to hear this news, but if she was certain, I’d be happy to give her referrals. As we chatted a little longer, I had a chance to notice the reactive part of my own personality that had been triggered. I reminded it through inner dialogue that it didn’t have to take over. I know you think she’s ungrateful, I told my reactive part, but it’s really just her own protective parts that are scared. Just relax a bit. Let me handle this and I’ll talk to you after the session.
As my protective part receded, I sensed returning feelings of empathy and care for Colette and gained a clearer perspective on why she was being so distant. I interrupted our conversation and said, “I owe you an apology. Your wanting to stop surprised and disappointed me. I’ve been feeling really good about the work we’ve been doing and want to keep going. I get that our last session upset some parts of you that maybe we need to hear from, and I’m totally open to that.”
Colette thanked me for my time and said she appreciated my honesty, but she still wanted to stop. Then, during the week, she called to ask if we could meet again. At that next session, she said that my telling her that I wanted to keep going had meant a lot to her and she’d already negotiated with the part that had fired me to give me another chance. I told her I was glad for the second chance, but that I wasn’t sure what I’d done to be fired in the first place. She said she wasn’t sure either, so I told her to focus on the part that had pink-slipped me and ask it why. When she did, she said the part refused to answer and started swearing at her instead. I had her ask the part if it was willing to talk to me directly. The answer was yes.
Dick Schwartz: Are you there?
Colette’s Protector, in a harsh voice: Yes. What do you want?
DS: So you’re the part that fired me. Is that right?
CP: That’s right! She doesn’t need this bullshit. And you’re such an asshole!
(There’s a part of me that reacts reflexively to being called names. I had to ask this part to relax so that I could stay curious.)
DS: I appreciate your willingness to talk to me. I want to know more about why you think what we’ve been doing is bullshit or why you don’t like me.
CP: You’re no different than the last two loser therapists. You all get her hopes up and then shit on her.
(I sensed a part of me wanting to argue with her protector and convince it that I’m different, that I’m safe and won’t hurt her. I reminded it that this approach doesn’t work.)