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.