Colette: Why do you think I deserve to die?
Suicidal Part: You just do, and it’s my job to make sure you do.
C: What are you afraid would happen if I didn’t die?
SP: I’m not afraid of anything!
Dick Schwartz: Ask it what would be good about your death.
C: OK then, why would it be good if I died?
SP: You wouldn’t keep feeling good about yourself.
C: So you don’t want me to feel good about myself?
SP: Yes, because you’re a worthless piece of shit and a waste of space!
C: What’s so bad about me feeling good?
SP: (after a long silence) Because then you try.
C: And what’s bad about trying?
SP: You keep getting hurt.
Ultimately, the part revealed that it couldn’t stand another failure: it would rather have her dead than disappointed yet again. Colette showed the part appreciation for trying to protect her from that outcome, and we asked for its permission to heal the parts of her that had been devastated in the past by disappointment.
Fortunately, Colette’s story has a happier ending than Pamela’s. She realized that this wasn’t a suicidal part per se, but another, tougher extreme protector part that had been a major player in her life. Because of its belief that pain and suffering were her destiny and any good thing coming her way had to be false and delusory, it had limited the amount of confidence or happiness she was allowed to experience and had resorted to sabotage when it felt things were going too well. Without the unconscious constraint of this saboteur, the trajectory of healing went steadily upward.
The difference in outcomes between Pamela and Colette was related to my differing perspectives on borderline personality disorder. What helped even more was my ability to notice the parts of myself that were triggered by Colette, work with them in the moment, and then return to self-leadership. Regardless of your orientation as a therapist, this ability to monitor the openness of your heart and quickly recover from a “part attack” is especially crucial when treating borderline clients. As my experiences have shown, clients’ distrusting protectors are monitoring your heart, and they’ll test and torment you or terminate therapy the moment they sense it closing.
One of life’s great inequities is that so many people traumatized as children are reinjured throughout their lives because the original hurt has left them raw and reactive. It’s inevitable that borderline clients will, from time to time, trigger feelings of fear, resentment, and suffocation in their therapists. Your recognition of what’s happening inside you and authentic attempt to reconnect can become a turning point in the therapy. Many borderline clients have had little validation in their lives. When they’ve been in conflict with someone, they’ve typically been shamed and rejected for being too sensitive, emotional, or impulsive. As a result, they often carry the sense that they’re doomed to be alone along with a battery of unusually reactive and extreme protectors.
These clients deserve to be in relationship with someone who, after initially being triggered, can regain perspective and see behind the explosive rage, icy withdrawal, or manipulative controlling to the pain that drives those behaviors. As you become aware of the parts that try to protect you from these clients and get them to let your inner self shine through, not only will these “difficult” clients become some of your most rewarding, but your level of self-leadership and compassionate presence will increase.
Richard Schwartz, Ph.D., director of the Center for Self Leadership and the originator of the Internal Family Systems model, is the author of Internal Family Systems Therapy and You Are the One You’ve Been Waiting For: Bringing Courageous Love to Intimate Relationships.
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