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By Mary Kruger, MS, LMFT
Moving into the new year, I have been focusing more on what actually is happening in the room with my clients and their parts, and the impact of the presence of others (therapist, group members, and family members). Experiential therapy has always been of great interest to me and has long been an important part of how I work with clients. In the 12 Step Programs, there is a saying that our greatest journey is the 18 inches from our head to our heart. IFS-informed experiential work has helped many of my clients to make their recovery journey, in a safer, faster, and easier way.
In parts language, we speak of fostering a Self (compassionate)-to-parts relationship. I often find that an intellectual manager is in charge and not so willing to allow access to other parts deemed too dangerous (firefighters) or too vulnerable (exiles). They are often more willing to allow access to a simple breath or a micromovement, draw or map a part(s), or witness/assist in another clients experience. I start by doing something simple, with the intentions of accessing more Self energy and engendering the trust of the protective system. Over time, we progress to more in-depth experiences.
Clients are often surprised that they can be with themselves (inside) in these ways. For people with addictions (extreme firefighters), most of the time is spent looking and being outside the body, avoiding parts that feel pain, shame, rejection, lack of love, and worthlessness. A client who engaged in an experiential piece around a family member and her triggered parts reported an amazing and unexpected shift. She had talked about this issue in past therapies with little resulting change. Through experience, the presence of others, and witnessing, she was able to unburden and experience a physiological shift.
At another time, my group was spending several weeks working with their angry parts. The first week, clients were asked to focus on their anger and describe it after a brief meditation. During the ensuing discussion, intellectual managers began to take over and speak for those angry parts, moving clients into the “safer” cognitive zone. The following week, I asked clients to break into dyads, embody their anger while being witnessed, and to then have their partner mirror for them while they witnessed their anger. This was all done without words. Clients were reported being deeply moved, there was a clear energy shift in the room, and the discussion following was more heartfelt.
I have had the privilege of guiding numerous clients who were stuck in cycles of addiction toward recovery using experiential IFS interventions. Many of our parts and experiences are beyond words, not reachable through traditional therapies. I continue to be curious about ways to move our clients into a place of true and compassionate healing.
By Susan McConnell, MA, CHT, “The Internal Family Embodied” Topic Expert Contributor
I just returned from Esalen, where I had the privilege of doing a workshop with the Israeli and Palestinian women from Together Beyond Words. This nonprofit organization promotes “the empowerment of women, the healing of emotional wounds and traumas and the undermining of prejudice as a path towards building a just and peaceful society.” The women of TBW deeply impacted all of us—Esalen staff, guests, workshop leaders—with their heart and their courage.
When I heard about this group of Jews and Arabs and learned that they were finding IFS helpful for their peace-building efforts back in Israel, I felt a strong calling to be involved with them. Dick taught them some IFS at Esalen for a few years and then recommended me to work with them when they came to Alabama at a time when he wasn’t available. Sharing a farmhouse and a rich mixture of eating and sleeping, dancing, crying, laughing, learning, and healing together was a remarkable experience. So when Nitsan invited me and Beth to bring Somatic IFS to the TBW group at Esalen this year, we were delighted and honored.
Sitting in the circle of women with the Pacific pounding the shores of the cliff outside our room, Beth and I know only Nitsan from TBW. I look around the circle. We are a diverse group. We are different ethnicities, religions, cultures, and languages. We are Buddhists, Jews, and Muslims—including Bedouins and Druze. Hebrew, the Palestinian dialect of Arabic, and English are spoken. The language of the body is shared by all of us. Some are trained in IFS; others hadn’t heard of parts until they got to Esalen. Some are longtime close friends; others had not met before they arrived. All of us are leaders. All of us are committed to peace and justice and healing personal and societal wounds. By the end, we have become a sisterhood.
As I give a brief overview of the five tools of Somatic IFS, I realize they already effectively use these tools, especially movement and touch. Rooted in an expressive cultural heritage, they break into dance and song at every opportunity. They are eager to heal their burdens and to learn new skills. As trust grows, they share many stories—stories of displacement, of terrors of bombings, of huddling in shelters, of being both oppressor and oppressed, of victim and perpetrator, and of issues common to all women, such as the desire for freedom and satisfying relationships.
They tell their stories first in words and then choose people to embody their experience and act out the stories. They bring their understanding of the IFS Model into their work with Playback Theater. They present their theater to the larger group at Esalen in the evening, facilitating small groups of the audience to share their reactions to the theater. They experiment with using Playback Theater with their parts and with their relationship issues with each other. Their time at Esalen prepares them for interactive Playback Theater performances and follow-up workshops throughout Israel to audiences of women and girls—at least 30 performances to 2,500 people in 2013–2014.
I am inspired and touched in more ways that I can speak about yet from this experience at Esalen. I am particularly touched by the courage of the Arab women. Palestinian Arab women face double discrimination as both Arabs within the Israeli state and as women within the Palestinian society. Some of the Arab women at Esalen had never before left their village, let alone flown in an airplane. They risk disapproval from family and community in order to heal and develop their skills as leaders in their communities. I learned that many forces make it difficult for Arab women to form close friendships. At Esalen, and in the TBW organization, they have the freedom to forge and strengthen their bonds and get support for these crucial connections.
My heart opens as I witness the deep, embodied experience of connection between the Jews and Arabs. They consider themselves daughters of Abraham: Arabs descended from Ishmael and Jews from Isaac. The sense of sisterhood—of mothers, daughters, and sisters whose hearts ache for themselves and each other—is a strong basis for building peace in the world. They feel that many of the efforts to build peace in the Middle East have been on the shoulders of the men, and that it is time for women to stand up and bring their gifts to the effort. Together we celebrate our embodied Selves and commit anew to peace in the world.
By Susan McConnell, MA, CHT, “The Internal Family Embodied” Topic Expert Contributor
The following session is an example of how the tool of Somatic Awareness can translate the nonverbal narrative of sensation and integrate it with the verbal narrative. The client’s parts, speaking only through sensation in her head, are welcomed and witnessed. We bring Somatic Awareness not only to the parts that were “speaking” but also to those that were silent—to her largely disembodied lower body.
Rachel suffers with chronic migraines. She has been doing some good work with another IFS therapist but hoped that Somatic IFS could help her specifically with the headaches. My heart went out to her as I heard of the intense and unremitting pain and saw the pain in her eyes. I became aware of a part of mine that wanted to effect a miracle cure. I told her I needed to first work with this part. I focused on the part and the sensations of restriction in my upper body until my body felt more open and spacious. I recalled a lesson I learned from a client who also suffered from debilitating headaches. He taught me that although all my efforts had not cured his headaches, his work with me had totally transformed his relationship to them. From him I learned the difference between a cure and a healing, so this part could step back and trust me.
I then brought my attention back to Rachel. Her goal was to help her parts find another way to communicate with her rather than through the headache. Rachel had a great deal of awareness of the varieties and intensities of the pain in her head from moment to moment. It variously stabbed, throbbed, and ached in her temples, around her eyes, in her cheeks, and even down into her neck. Her awareness of her body below her neck was much less. At first she told me it all felt fine, but it became clear that her lower body was just out of her awareness. Her ankles were crossed so her feet were not making contact with the floor, and as I looked at her body, I had a flash of imagination of her being a paraplegic in a wheelchair.
During the session, we worked together to translate the sensations in her head into words. I would make two different guesses about what the sensations wanted us to know, and Rachel was able to tell from the sensation in her head which of the two statements was true. By this translation process, we learned how her mother had regarded her childhood pains (coaching stoicism and expressing impatience and exasperation) and how alone with her pain her parts had been. As we attuned to the sensations and together listened to them with respect rather than from parts that were either exasperated with them or trying to get them to be different, there were many moments of relief from the intensity of the headache.
Rachel’s lower body began to come alive as her story was being heard. There were involuntary and mostly unconscious movements in her hands and her legs. There were occasional stabbing pains through her right arm. Some of the details of the stories were not entirely new to Rachel, as she has done a lot of IFS therapy. But what was new was the quality of the attention to the sensations and the permission we were giving them. The nonverbal stories were being integrated with the verbal narratives.
I decided to focus our awareness in a stronger way on her lower body. I guided her to uncross her ankles and notice her feet on the floor, and I also helped her scan the muscles and bones of her lower body. I asked her to breathe into her pelvic floor. This seemed to relieve the pain in her head. Then I asked her to focus on the place in her core where the cutoff between the upper and lower body was located. With this, she got an intense, stabbing pain. That translated into a clear “no” to going there in that session, and we respected that “no.” With that, the sensations subsided.
Near the end of the hour, the movements of her lower right arm changed in quality. They were still involuntary, but when she brought her conscious awareness to them, the movements became more lyrical, more graceful, and more integrated. We appreciated the “dance” of her right arm. Neither of us had the expectation that her migraines were cured after one session, but she had learned several things she could do to lessen the intensity of the sensations. She has a direction for future sessions to explore the block between the upper and lower body.
When I followed up with her, she said that this one session had a huge impact on her. She says the pain is down a notch, and she is feeling hopeful again, which is crucial to her recovery.
By Susan McConnell, MA, CHT, “The Internal Family Embodied” Topic Expert Contributor
We have all experienced the automatic changes in our breath when we are stressed or frightened. The sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system causes our breath to become more rapid, more shallow, and higher in the torso. Once the perceived threat is gone, the breath is supposed to be governed by the parasympathetic branch and return to a deeper, slower rhythm.
However, sometimes parts are frozen in the time and place of the stress or trauma and continue to believe they are in danger. The individual’s nervous system becomes locked into the fight-or-flight mode and can’t return to the rest-and-relaxation phase of the parasympathetic branch. Somatic IFS’s tool of Conscious Breathing can help with these and many other burdens in the internal system.
Breathing is both a voluntary and involuntary process. It is controlled automatically from the brainstem but can also be controlled voluntarily from the motor cortex. As an involuntary process, conscious breathing can access parts that are otherwise unavailable to our awareness. As a voluntary process, various breathing techniques can assist with unblending and bringing Self energy to the part. These techniques are also effective with clinical issues such as trauma and addictions, depression and anxiety, working with chronic illness, and improving one’s general health and well-being.
I describe some breathing techniques below that are examples of working with the voluntary muscles of breathing to shift the emotional states of their parts. Most of the techniques focus on the exhale since more muscles are involved in exhalation than inhalation, and therefore the exhale is more subject to our voluntary control.
When protector parts are blocking the expression of the exiles, the Release Breath can be used. The Pause Breath and Grounding Breath are useful in the opposite case—when exiles’ emotions flood the system and when asking the exile to not overwhelm isn’t sufficient to contain the emotions.
Release Breath: I used this technique with Roger, who wanted help getting in touch with his sadness. Having been abandoned by his mother as a young boy, he came to me because his wife was leaving him. He had high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. He easily accessed his anger, but he couldn’t feel his sadness, which he sensed was just below the anger. His manager parts had been afraid he would be humiliated if he cried. They realized the situation was safer now to feel his sadness, but the tears remained elusive.
I considered that the shift in the managers was only in his cognition and not yet in his body. Knowing that the breath is a favorite body process that managers control in order to contain an exile’s emotions, I observed Roger’s breathing pattern as he talked. His breathing was typically fast and shallow, and only his upper chest moved.
“Roger, just pay attention to your breath for a few breaths, particularly the exhale.” I took a few breaths along with him and then gave him another suggestion:
“Now open your mouth and your throat with the exhale. Don’t force the air out, but just let the exhale be as full and as long as it wants to be.” I didn’t want to engage a striving or pleasing manager who might polarize with the one controlling his breathing.
I noticed Roger’s shoulders tensing and asked him if he could let that tension go.
“Breathing out is the body’s way of letting go of what it no longer needs. The body lets go of 70 percent of its toxins through breathing. Blood pressure decreases on the exhale. You just let go of some extra tension in your body. Now see if you can make a sound that expresses the relief of all that letting go.”
I breathed with him and let out an “Aaaahhhhh” on the exhale. He began to make the sound as well, at first with some hesitation but then with more expression. After several audible sighs, the next inhale was followed by some sobs. After crying for several minutes, he reported feeling relief, more relaxation in his body, and less anger. The manager part was reassured that Roger had not been shamed for his crying. His breath continued to be slower and deeper. He was able in the next weeks to be more vulnerable with his wife.
Pause Breath: At the beginning of a session, Diane was activated by a panicking part and was hyperventilating as she tried to talk about what was upsetting her. I directed her to shift her awareness to her exhale and guided her through the following process.
“Purse your lips, breathe out, and wait one second before you take in a new breath.”
As she was able to do that, I directed her to pause for two seconds, and then three, before she inhaled. After about a minute of this Pause Breathing, Diane had more Self energy to bring to her panicked parts.
I have also used this technique of Pause Breathing with Amy, who struggled with various of issues around letting go. She was a hoarder. She struggled with overeating and couldn’t find the courage to leave her dead-end job. I noticed she took several fast inbreaths, but it was hard to notice her exhales.
After a few minutes, Amy said, “I feel very uncomfortable with the pause. I have to make myself wait even a second before I inhale. But I notice after the pause that I can take a longer and deeper inhale, and that feels good.”
“Good. Just notice what feels good about the deeper inhale, and notice the discomfort in the pause before you breathe in again. Maybe you will find a part involved in that reluctance.”
Amy found parts that feared not being enough, and not getting enough, that were being expressed in the overemphasis on the inhale. In the discomfort of the pause, she found a part that was afraid of losing control. As we explored that part more deeply, its fears of dying were revealed. The Pause Breathing allowed us to access her core parts’ beliefs that we had not found before. Amy began to incorporate this technique several times a day and found her life beginning to change for the better. We had greater access to these parts and to her Self energy as her breathing became more normal. She let go of some of the clutter in her home and in general felt a lessening of the anxiety and tension in her body.
Grounding Breath: In the middle of one of our sessions, Jasmine’s fearful exile blended with her, and Jasmine wasn’t responding to my words.
“Let’s just leave the story and the feelings aside for now and just breathe together for several breaths.”
Jasmine’s breathing slowed and deepened slightly.
“Now focus just on the movements in your lower belly as you breathe in and out. Let your belly move out on the inhale and move in on the exhale. On every exhale, bring your navel closer toward your spine.”
As she was able to do that, I added one more voluntary movement.
“On the next exhale, as you pull your navel toward your spine, also pull up on the muscles of your pelvic floor.”
Dropping the story line relaxed the firefighters who were blocking her from our interaction. Focusing on her breath gave her mind an alternative focus to the upsetting narrative. Activating the muscles of the lower belly and pelvic floor brought Jasmine’s awareness to some earlier places of grounding from before her trauma. The navel is the infant’s source of grounding and connection, and the infant expands that grounding to include the pelvic floor and sitz bones as it learns to sit.
Now that she had regained her grounding and her access to her Self energy, we were able to continue to witness her exile’s narrative story.
Conscious Breathing assists the therapeutic relationship: These three techniques of Conscious Breathing can be effective with many clinical issues with every step of the model. As with all the tools, whether or not they are appropriate for your clients, you will find them useful for you in the role of therapist to unblend from burdened parts and to increase your access to your Self energy.
* * *
There is one way of breathing that is shameful and constricted. Then there’s another way: a breath of love that takes you all the way to infinity.
Happy and aligned with the One are those who find their home in the breathing.
—the translation of the original Aramaic of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, usually translated as “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”
From Prayers of the Cosmos by Neal Douglas Klotz
By Susan McConnell, MA, CHT, “The Internal Family Embodied” Topic Expert Contributor
The holidays can be stressful for any number of reasons. The continued economic uncertainty, the dizzying array of demands on our time and energy, unresolved personal histories, and unrealistic expectations cause our autonomic nervous systems to get stuck in the “on” switch as the sympathetic branch of the nervous system (SNS), also known as the “fight and flight” mode, goes into overdrive. Our SNS and the muscles and organs governed by it prevent us from being able to be fully present to the gifts that the season offers us and to give the gift of our embodied Self energy to those we love. Firefighter behavior abounds when the SNS is dominant, resulting in more emotional and physical stress and suppressed immune function. When we are in Self energy, the parasympathetic branch (PSNS)—the “rest and relaxation” phase—is predominant. The activity of our autonomic nervous system is largely out of our awareness and our voluntary control. But there are some ways to consciously bring our nervous system back into balance.
I want to offer a somatic exercise to help the autonomic nervous system shift from the sympathetic (SNS) to the parasympathetic (PSNS) mode. In the PSNS state, we are more likely to be able to fully embody Self energy and all the qualities of compassion, joy, and harmony that we wish for in this season.
First, to understand why the technique works, let’s look at the diagram of the autonomic nervous system below. You can see the two main divisions of the autonomic nervous system, the sympathetic (SNS) and the parasympathetic (PSNS), which ideally act together, largely outside of our awareness and our voluntary control. The diagram shows where the neurons originate on the spinal cord with each of the two divisions. Notice that the neurons of the SNS—which is responsible for our racing hearts, our shallow breathing, and our digestive distress when our parts perceive danger—come from the thoracic spine, while the neurons of the PSNS come from the base of the brain (the cranial nerves) and the sacrum (S2–S4).
Simply bringing our attention to the places in our body that are governed by the PSNS system—other words, the base of our head and our sacrum—can begin the shift of the nervous system out of SNS and into PSNS. To the tool of somatic awareness, we add conscious breathing and mindful movement. You can do this exercise, which is similar to the yoga move commonly known as “cat and cow,” sitting in a chair. You can do it in in your therapy office, and if you find it helpful, teach it to your clients. You can do this while sitting at the family dinner table to assist your digestion and help you enjoy the social interactions. You can also do this on your meditation cushion to help quiet the racing thoughts of the managers.
“Rock and Roll” Exercise
- Bring awareness to the base of your head where your top cervical vertebra meets the base of the cranium. Try a few micromovements to help you tune in to that area of your body—a very small “yes,” “no,” and small circles—so small that others won’t notice you are moving. Ask the muscles that connect your head to your spine to relax. Let your jaw go. Drop your shoulders and gently squeeze them together in the back. Let the back of your neck lengthen.
- Now, with your feet on the floor, bring your awareness to your pelvis as you sit on your chair, and, with the same tiny movements, rock forward and back.
- Coordinate this rocking of your pelvis with your breath so that on the inhale, you are rocking forward on your chair as your lower back arches a bit, and on the exhale, you rock back on the chair as your spine flattens and you draw your navel toward your spine. These movements can be large or so small that they will be nearly undetectable.
- About a dozen of these breaths should be sufficient to return your nervous system to a more relaxed state. Come to stillness, flatten your lower back, drop the sacrum toward the chair so the sitz bones of the pelvis are grounded. With shoulders relaxed down but slightly squeezed together in the back, allow your breath to come into your heart area.
Even when the holiday season is over, most of us living in this post-industrial, cybernetic age will continue to experience stress in our nervous systems. Overwork, overstimulation, compassion fatigue, and environmental toxins leave us in a chronic state of SNS dominance. The gas pedal is pushed to the floor and is our default position. Even when we are not consciously triggered by something in our lives, we may feel jittery; have sleep problems, high blood pressure, poor digestion and immune function; and suffer from various inflammatory conditions. In that physical state of chronic SNS activation, we are at the low end of the continuum of Embodied Self. The tools of Somatic IFS can help to move us along that continuum.
Wishing you all restful, peaceful, healthy, joyous holidays.