Demo session 3: Meeting a part who feels anxious

When you start paying attention to your inner world, parts of you may use strong sensations to get your attention. Here, a part of “Michelle” floods her with nausea — uncomfortable, but bearable. This illustrates a crucial point: as long as you can observe a feeling, it can’t overwhelm you.

Demo session 3: Meeting a part who feels anxious

I heard a saying often during my years in A.A.: “Your mind is a scary neighborhood, so don’t go there alone.” I believed it, too — for good reason. Most people who wind up in 12-Step meetings, including me, suffer from intensely unpleasant inner sensations, thoughts, and feelings — mental phenomena so overwhelming that we use addictive substances and practices to keep them out of our awareness. Once we don’t have our addictions to rely on any longer, the overwhelming inner experiences we’ve been trying to avoid tend to come roaring back to consciousness. Only confronting those demons with the help of other people in recovery keeps us from having to face them all by ourselves.

Like 12-Step recovery, Internal Family Systems work aims to make your mind a less scary place — but it does so in a very different way. Rather than asking other people for backup while you battle terrifying inner monsters, we help you get to recognize, understand, and even appreciate every part of your inner experience, even the parts who try to get your attention by giving you intense, unpleasant feelings.

In this clip from our demonstration session, my client “Michelle” (Alyssa Haas) encounters an intensely unpleasant feeling (at 1:38):

“MICHELLE”: I’m imagining some sort of like electrical circuit that’s connected up and down my body, down to my legs and up, and it’s like the electricity is going. There’s also some circuits that go through here and like come out through my mouth. There’s this sense of wanting to like get it out through throwing up. Like that. I want to push a button that’s like “Eject!”

For someone who’s just found out she’s carrying an unexpected child, that feeling makes perfect sense. Of course there’s a part of her who wants to evict the uninvited guest from her body! But that’s not the only part of “Michelle” we encounter: another part of her is able to come up with a funny metaphor to describe the first one.

Laughing with me about the “eject button” gives Michelle a much-needed respite from the feeling of electric nausea. In that respite, I invite “Michelle” to notice something crucial:

ASH: You just noticed something really important, which is that even though you’re having this very strong feeling, it’s not all of you. … There is another part of you that could make a little joke with me and we could laugh. … This really strong feeling … it’s just one part of Michelle. It’s not all of who you are.

This is the central insight of Internal Family Systems practice. No matter how intense the inner experiences you’re having at any point, no individual sensation, thought, or feeling is all of you. You have many parts, not just one; and beyond all the individual parts that make up your personality, there’s always a calm, clear awareness that can calmly observe all the others. In IFS, that awareness is called your “Self.” When you’re in touch with your Self, there is nothing in your mind that can scare you, no matter how monstrous it might first seem.

Before “Michelle” can rely on her Self for guidance, though, she’ll have to meet all the parts of her who’ve been trying to protect her in its place. We’ll meet one of them next.

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