Helping Clients Access Their True Selves

Dick Schwartz on Changing Outer Dialogues by Changing Inner Dialogues

Richard Schwartz

We all know about those luminous moments of clarity and balance, in our own lives and in those of our clients, that come briefly now and again. However we get there, we suddenly encounter a feeling of inner plenitude and openheartedness to the world that wasn't there the moment before. The incessant nasty chatter inside our heads ceases, we have a sense of calm spaciousness, as if our minds and hearts and souls had expanded and brightened. Sometimes, these evanescent experiences come in a bright glow of peaceful certainty that everything in the universe is truly okay, and that includes us--you and me individually—in all our poor, struggling, imperfect humanity. At other times, we may experience a wave of joyful connection with others that washes away irritation, distrust, and boredom. We feel that, for once, we truly are ourselves, our real selves, free of the inner cacophony that usually assaults us.

For much of my life, the closest I'd come to actually experiencing this kind of blissful oneness was on the basketball court. Over the years I'd become addicted to basketball because of the fleeting moments when I entered into a state in which my inner critics disappeared and my body seemed to know just what to do. I had total confidence in my abilities and experienced a sense of joy and awe at being spontaneously in the moment.

When I became a family therapist, I longed to experience something similar in sessions with my clients. Instead, my work seemed hard, frustrating, and draining. I believed that it was up to me to restructure families—to use the force of my personality to pry apart enmeshed relationships and open up blocked communication patterns. I thought I needed to change clients by pure force of intellect and will. I had to come up with reframes for their symptoms, solutions to their problems, new perspectives on their dilemmas. And then I had to find a way to motivate them to do the homework I gave them, and to not feel totally frustrated when they didn't. All this responsibility for creating change, and doing it quickly, not only precluded any peak experiences in my work, it was burning me out.

Then in the early 1980s, I began noticing that several clients with eating disorders described extensive internal conversations with what they called different parts of themselves when I asked about what happened inside them to make them binge and purge. I was intrigued. I had one client, Diane, ask the pessimistic voice she was describing why it always told her she was hopeless. The voice responded that it said she was hopeless so that she wouldn't take any risks and get hurt; it was trying to protect her. This seemed like a promising interaction. If this pessimist really had benign intent, then Diane might be able to negotiate a different role for it. But Diane wasn't interested in negotiating. She was angry at this voice and kept telling it to just leave her alone. I asked her why she was so rude to the pessimist and she went on a long diatribe, describing how that voice had made every step she took in life a major hurdle.

It then occurred to me that I wasn't talking to Diane, but to another part of her that constantly fought with the pessimist. In an earlier conversation, Diane had told me about an ongoing war inside her between one voice that pushed her to achieve and the pessimist who told her it was hopeless. Could it be that the pushing part had jumped in while she was talking to the pessimist?

I asked Diane to focus on the voice that was so angry at the pessimist and ask it to stop interfering in her negotiations with the pessimist. To my amazement, it agreed to "step back," and Diane immediately shifted out of the anger she'd felt so strongly seconds before. When I asked Diane how she felt toward the pessimist now, it seemed like a different person answered. In a calm, caring voice, she said she was grateful to it for trying to protect her, and felt sorry that it had to work so hard. Her face and posture had also changed, reflecting the soft compassion in her voice. From that point on, negotiations with the inner pessimist were easy.

I tried this "step back" procedure with several other clients. Sometimes, we had to ask two or three voices to not interfere before the client shifted into a state similar to Diane's, but we got there nonetheless. When they were in that calm, compassionate state, I'd ask these clients what voice or part was present. They each gave a variation of the following reply: "That's not a part like those other voices are. That's more of who I really am. That's my Self."

I've devoted the ensuing three decades refining methods for helping clients to release this state and to get in this state myself, for I've found that the most important variable in how quickly clients can access their Selves is the degree to which I'm Self-led. When I can be deeply present to my clients from the core of my being, free from anxiety about how I'm doing, or who's in control of the therapy, or whether the client is following the correct therapeutic agenda, clients respond as if the resonance of my Self were a tuning fork that awakens their own. It's this deep, true, and faithful presence of the therapist—without portfolio or baggage—that every client yearns to connect with.

The Self in the Consulting Room

I'm meeting for the first time with an anorexic client, Margie, in a residential treatment center where I'm a consultant. She's fought with her anorexia for 19 years, and has found that whenever she starts feeling better about herself, she stops eating. Before the session, I focus on my internal world--to center myself. I hear a familiar voice of fear saying that she's obviously very fragile and I shouldn't do anything to upset her. I tell that part of me that I'll be sensitive to her condition, and ask that it trust me and let my heart open again. I focus on my heart and sense the protective crust that had enveloped it as I approached the time of the session melt away. I can feel more sensation now in my chest and abdomen, with a vibrating energy running through my limbs. I feel calm and confident as Margie enters the office and sits down.

She's looks like a cadaver and has a feeding tube in her nose. Her movements are controlled and rigid. She eyes me warily. At once, I feel great compassion for her and respect for the parts of her that don't trust me and may not want to work with me. I'm not invested in a certain outcome for this session. I'd like to help her, but I'll be fine if she chooses not to let me in. I'm curious about what her anorexia has been up to all these years, yet am certain that it has good reasons for doing this to her. I feel the energy in my body extending nonverbally through my heart toward her, and trust that at some level she can sense it. I'm confident that, if I can remain in this state, whatever is supposed to happen will--I don't have to make anything happen.

I introduce myself and tell her that I'm good at helping people with the parts of them that make them not eat. I ask Margie where she finds that voice of anorexia in her body and how she feels toward it. She closes her eyes and says it's in her stomach, and she's angry at it. She says that it tells her that it's going to kill her and that there's nothing she can do about it. I feel a jolt of fear clenching my gut and hear a familiar inner voice saying, "It's determined to kill her and is succeeding. What if you say something that makes it even more determined!" Again, I quickly reassure the fear with words like, "Trust me. Remember that if I stay present something good always happens." My abdomen immediately relaxes and the soft, flowing energy returns to my body.

In a calm, confident voice I tell Margie, "It makes sense that you're angry with the eating disorder part, because its avowed purpose is to screw up your life or even kill you. But right now, we just want to get to know it a little better, and it's hard to do that when you're so angry with it. We're not going to give it more power by doing that—just get to know more about why it wants to kill you. So see if the part of you that's so angry with it is willing to trust you and me for a few minutes. See if it's willing to relax and maybe watch as we try to get to know the eating disorder part." She says okay and when I ask how she feels toward the eating disorder now, she says she's tired of battling with it. I have her ask that part to relax and step back, too, and then another part that was very confused by the disorder. Remarkably for someone in her condition, each time she asks a part to step back, it does. Finally, in response to my question of "How do you feel toward the eating disorder now?" she says in a compassionate voice, "Like I want to help it."

The moment in a session when a client suddenly has access to some degree of Self always gives me goosebumps. Up until then, I'd had to repeatedly reassure my fear and my own inner pessimist, who, as each new part of Margie's took over, were sure I could never get access to the Self of someone who was so emaciated and symptomatic. At the point that her own compassionate Self emerged, all my parts could relax and step back because they knew from experience that the rest of the session would go smoothly.

How did I go from often dreading doing therapy, hoping clients would cancel, and feeling chronically depleted, to enjoying therapy as a spiritual practice filled with experiences of connection and awe-inspiring beauty? How did I come to be as refreshed after an intense therapy session as if I'd been meditating for an hour? How did doing therapy come to replace playing basketball as my greatest source of that flow feeling? The short answer is that, over the years, I've come to trust the healing power of what I'll call the Self in clients and in myself. When there's a critical mass of Self in a therapy office, healing just happens. When I'm able to embody a lot of Self, as was the case with Margie, clients can sense in my voice, eyes, movements, and overall presence that I care a great deal about them, know what I'm doing, won't be judging them, and love working with them. Consequently, their inner protectors relax, which releases more of their Self. Then they begin to relate to themselves with far more curiosity, confidence, and compassion.

As clients embody more Self, their inner dialogues change spontaneously. They stop berating themselves and, instead, get to know, rather than try to eliminate, the extreme inner voices or emotions that have plagued them. At those times, they tell me, they feel "lighter," their minds feel somehow more "open" and "free." Even clients who've shown little insight into their problems are suddenly able to trace the trajectory of their own feelings and emotional histories with startling clarity and understanding.


Once you're attuned with your client, the session begins to flow, and there's an almost effortless quality to the work, as if something magical were unfolding almost by itself. I don't even think about what I'm going to say—the right words just come out, as if something were speaking through me. Afterward, I'm full of energy, as if I'd been meditating for an hour rather than doing hard, demanding, clinical work. In a sense, of course, I've been in a state of meditation—a state of deep mindfulness, full-bodied attention, centered awareness, and inner calm. And even after all these years, I still have the sense of being witness to something awe inspiring, as if the client and I both were connected to something beyond us, much bigger than we are.


This blog is excerpted from "The Larger Self," by Richard Schwartz. The full version is available in the May/June 2004 issue, Enlightenment in the Consulting Room: Opening to the Larger Self.

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Topic: Mind/Body

Tags: Anxiety | anxiety symptoms | burnout | change | Depression & Grief | depression symptoms | Dick Schwartz | eating | eating disorder | eating disorders | IFS | inner parts | internal family systems | personality changes | resistance | resistance to anxiety treatment | Richard Schwartz | Richard Schwartz PhD | Self | self-compassion | self-criticism

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