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Owning Your Recovery – Internal Family Systems (Episode 3)

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Episode 3: Internal Family Systems (feat. Lynn Trauzzi)

Kinga Burjan: Hi, welcome to our podcast called Owning Your Recovery. You made the decision to look at your life from a different perspective and realize that the destructive behavior of addiction doesn’t serve you anymore. The grip of addiction can be strong, especially when times are tough. This podcast has been created to remind you that ups and downs in life are normal and to provide you with professional and peer-related insights and support in your recovery from illness to wellness.

My name is Kinga Burjan and I’m a registered psychotherapist here in Ontario, Canada, and today I have the privilege of having my colleague, Lynn Trauzzi, also a registered psychotherapist, on the podcast with me. Welcome, Lynn.

Lynn Trauzzi: Hi, Kinga, thanks for having me.

Kinga Burjan: Thank you. So I’m really excited to have you here today, especially since the topic we’re going to talk about IFS is not a common type of therapy and it’s actually one that I’m also getting to know and one that is quite new to me. So I’m really glad that our listeners get a chance to hear this firsthand from someone who’s applying it. So if we could start by sharing what IFS is.

Lynn Trauzzi: Yeah, absolutely so IFS is short for Internal Family Systems. I guess I want to start, I think, would be useful for the listeners to know that it is a therapeutic practice that is considered an evidence-based approach. So that means that it’s gone through rigorous scientific scrutiny, right? And it’s gotten that stamp of approval from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Kinga Burjan: Okay, that’s really good to know because I know there are so many different therapeutic approaches out there that aren’t necessarily therapeutic and haven’t been tested. So the fact that this is evidence-based hopefully will bring some ease of mind to listeners that might want to try or at least learn about this type of therapy and that they’re not wasting their time, basically.

Lynn Trauzzi: That’s right, and it’s starting to gain a lot of traction. And in both the trauma and addiction communities, noted speakers and authors like Gabor Maté and Bessel van der Kolk and others are starting to mention it more and more because the nice thing about it is not pathologizing. We’re not looking at the person as having a problem, even if they’re in active addiction, we don’t look at them as having a problem. We look at them as having a part.

Kinga Burjan: Okay.

Lynn Trauzzi: That is extreme and using addiction to solve a problem or really protect a part of them. That has been injured in some way. And so we see it then as a self-correcting approach that then can be kind of unwound and then the whole system relaxes and people wind up feeling better overall.

Kinga Burjan: So when you say self-corrective approach, especially for our listeners who are new to IFS because it’s called internal family systems, but you were talking about parts in that self piece. So can you expand? Is this a family therapy or how is this therapy usually used?

Lynn Trauzzi: Yeah. So it was developed in the 1980s by a guy named Richard Schwartz. He was a trained family therapist, and so he worked with families taking a systems approach, meaning that the whole system is connected in this case, in this case, the family system.

He also was an individual therapist and he was working with a large group of clients with eating disorders. And what he noticed was that the internal dialogue of his individual clients sounded very similar to the different family members and how they related to each other in a family session. And so that’s where that name came from. It’s our internal family. All of these parts are all parts of us.

Kinga Burjan: Oh, OK, that makes so much more sense now.

Lynn Trauzzi: Yeah. And so they’re broken into different categories in a way within us, right? So we have self-energy. We have a part that Dick has called self and it has certain qualities like, you know, it’s very cute. It’s another c-word cute and clever that they’re all c-words. And so those are curiosity, calmness, compassion, clarity, courage, creativity, confidence and connectedness. We also could throw in playfulness, forgiveness, perspective, perseverance, persistence.

These are all qualities that when we are engaged with them, when those are active in us, we’re generally doing pretty well. We’re achieving our goals. We’re feeling well and healthy and stable. We’re not being overwhelmed by emotions. So in IFS, we talk about that as self-leadership. We then are trying to create the therapeutic approach is to deal with these other parts of us that we refer to as protectors and exiles.

So exiles are parts of us that have been at some point in time, usually when we were younger, rejected or traumatized. And you know, it doesn’t have to be, you know, we often think of trauma as something that is a big thing. Whereas extreme abuse of some kind. But that really trauma is any point in time when we’ve been open and vulnerable and we’ve been hurt. And then another part of us will say “Oh no, that’s never happening again”. And then we have the birth of our first protector part.

Kinga Burjan: Interesting, and I know too the underlying themes of clients that come to residence is trauma and or some type of rejection or abandonment.

Lynn Trauzzi: Absolutely. Right. So we see here that the addiction isn’t a problem with the person. It’s actually a solution to this problem or issue of the trauma right, of these wounds that we carry. And so what happens is we we don’t want to feel that right.

That’s child at some point got overwhelmed. And we push it away. We don’t want to feel that. And we spend the rest of our life trying to push these parts or exile them and then protectors come in. And they are. Their job is to make sure we don’t feel that. But the exile they’re, part of us. So they just want us to know their story. So they’re constantly trying to come through, trying to get us to know what they experienced.

Kinga Burjan: And how is that? How do they come through?

Lynn Trauzzi: Well, that’s a word trigger. When we become activated, something in our present time is very familiar to what happened back then. And then they are there that all those feelings come forward, which is why people will say, “you know, why on earth did I act like that? Why on earth like that situation did not warrant?” Maybe the person was insensitive, maybe the person was thoughtless, but why that intensity of response?

Well, that’s why. Because it actually isn’t from this present moment, it’s something that we’ve been holding on to. So the other part of that are our protectors. These are these parts of us that make sure we don’t feel those things and we kind of break those into two categories. We got managers and firefighters, right? So managers are those parts are preemptive. They’re the ones that are trying to control everything.

Kinga Burjan: Okay.

Lynn Trauzzi: So they try to control people, they try to control events and activities. They’re the ones that have us always in the future speculating. We know what people are thinking. We know what their intentions are. We we can look in the future and we think we know how this is going to play out because they’re always trying to plan and prepare right. When that defense doesn’t work, then we have firefighters and they come in like a firefighter.

They spring right into action. If that exile is being threatened, right, threatened to come through. So and that is the addict is a good example of a firefighter, right? A firefighter is like, you know, substance abuse, attempting suicide, bingeing on food, overspending, having affairs, disassociating, associating, cutting. Those would all be examples of firefighters.

Kinga Burjan: So basically unhealthy behaviours or maladaptive behaviours.

Lynn Trauzzi: We call them extreme, right? These are parts that you know in. If the system wasn’t, if it wasn’t in a protector role, they would be taking on some other role in the system that was healthier. So for example, I’ll often have clients who have we all have a critic, right? The one that, you know, is really harsh and demanding. I have often found that when that part right feels that it’s safe. So remember, if we can heal the exile right, then that protector doesn’t need to do that job. They will often rather be a cheerleader or a motivator.

Kinga Burjan: Ok, so it’s not necessarily negative. It just is based on what else is happening in the system.

Lynn Trauzzi: You just become extreme in their roles. And so our goal is to understand them. Get their permission really in a way to approach the exile heal that. Really just hear its story from that perspective. And then we will often find that either the protector is there, just softens, goes away or it turns into a more helpful role.

Kinga Burjan: Ok, so when you were sharing, I had two different thoughts come up. One was when you were talking about the manager, and it’s kind of proactive role trying to control, you know, protect the person from what’s to come.

That kind of reminded me of the anxiety symptoms, that fear of the future mind reading. So in the IFS approach, would you spend time on, say, trying to reframe the thinking of the manager? Or is it primarily just addressing that pain that the exile experiences and then the whole system shifts?

Lynn Trauzzi: Right. So we see it as, we know that if there is something like an addiction that we know that there’s some I mean, it was just accepted now, that there’s some trauma there. But we don’t go after the exile or the trauma directly, right?

Because we know that there are these protectors like the addict. So we have the person identified what we call a trailhead, which is, what part of them either they don’t like or that they want to get rid of. And so we’ll work with that, and it’s the idea of just really guiding the person to be mindful. Right to notice, so say, for example, we’re going to want to get to know this addict part. We’ll ask the person where they notice it in their body or around their body.

People, this is all really intuitive and people will always be able to notice it somewhere. It’s in my chest, it’s in my throat. It’s over here on the right-hand side, and we just then we’ll ask them, how do they feel about how they feel towards that part? That’s angry at it. Doesn’t like it. Might be a part that likes it because it helps him deal with things.

Lynn Trauzzi: And so this will be all kinds of things, and we’re just going to be keeping asking those parts to kind of step back and give us space as we continue to get to know this target part. And as we go along, we’re just going to be asking questions of it. We will use the self-energy as the therapist in IFS we hold self-energy until the client has access to it. So I am engaging in these qualities of self.

Start with curiosity. What does this part want you to know about itself? What is afraid might happen if it didn’t do this job? What would it rather be doing if it didn’t have to do this? We start just asking these questions about it and people will always find that as they move closer to these parts, that they’ve spent so much time like hating and trying to get away from that. It’s a really different experience. It’s actually quite calming. It’s actually really surprising that the part that seems to be ruining their life is actually they get in there and start connecting with this directly and realizing that its intention is actually to protect them from something.

Kinga Burjan: That’s beautiful and as you’re sharing, do I feel a level of acceptance, right? So accepting that there is this part of me but doesn’t mean this part’s against me because like you’re saying, there is an intention. This part’s actually trying to protect me. So if I can treat it with compassion and therefore treat myself with self-compassion, then that whole system inside me becomes more calm and connected.

Lynn Trauzzi: Right. And you just named almost all of the qualities of self.

Kinga Burjan: That’s beautiful. So how does someone like if we have a listener listening and they’ve most likely completed a treatment program of some sort? And say they’re dealing with this part of them that feels rejected. What could you tell them, is there a bit of information that could help them connect with that self-energy?

Lynn Trauzzi: Yeah, well, you just start with curiosity. Right, so generally, we want to get rid of this stuff as soon as the thought comes up or these critics, as you know, you’re fat, you’re ugly, you’re stupid, you’re lazy, you’re useless, you’re a loser.

These big labels that are critics, right? Will throw on us, you know, can’t believe you did that and all this kind of stuff. We tend to want to push it away. Don’t think of that. And then that drives us to use even more right or an individual to use even more.

What we want then, is to stop and engage mindfulness, right? Which is not so much of the idea of just being aware of something and letting it pass. In this case, we become aware of it and we hold the quality of curiosity we’re like hold on a second that’s pretty strong language you’re using here. And then I’ll often advise people to force our parts to be precise in their language.

So, for example, it says you’re fat, and I have a part that says that to me and I say, well, hold on a second what exactly does that mean? And as soon as you force apart to define and be precise, you’ll find it is kind of Swiss cheesy. There’s a lot of holes in there. There’s not a lot of definition. So then I say, Okay, well, what does this mean? Okay, maybe I’m over the BMI index that says, for my height, maybe this is true. Maybe that is true. So that’s precise, but the fact I can’t work with once I get precise, right, then I can say, okay, well, maybe I want to eat less. Maybe one exercise more. Maybe I want to practice self-acceptance.

Right. Now, I’ve got some goals that I can set. So for our listeners, they’re going to have the craving. Craving is going to hit right, come out of Trafalgar they’ve been following their discharge plan. They’ve been doing everything and then they get hit with a craving. No longer is it that they have to use now. The craving is a part of them. Something’s happening now they can say, Oh, okay, well, what’s happening in my environment right now? And if they think about it, they might realize, Oh, I haven’t really been taking care of myself anymore. I have stopped going to meetings. Maybe I’m going to meetings, but I’m not particularly engaged anymore. Maybe I’m a little on my phone. Maybe I’m not sharing, right? Maybe I have stopped exercising.

So they’re going to notice, you know, this part that’s hit back in is really telling them that something is happening and that self-care and some action, maybe of even self-abandonment is happening that needs to get their attention. So then the craving can be an opportunity for self-corrective action. Maybe they’ve disengaged from life a little bit and they’re bored. You know, maybe they’ve been following this really healthy schedule for six months and they feel a craving. They can’t figure out why it could be that it’s time for a change. You know, maybe they’ve been jogging and going to the gym every day. And maybe now the body feels like it needs some yoga, maybe some more gentle exercise. So it’s just an opportunity for people now to investigate what is going on in their life.

Kinga Burjan: I really love how you’re able to reframe even a craving or something not going well. It makes so much sense and what you are sharing over the last few minutes. There is an underlying piece that I’m going to verbalize for listeners is this idea of observing without judgment because as you’re saying this curious part, you’re being curious to look at these different parts.

And rather than getting caught up in this belief of or the feeling of the belief of, Oh, I’m fat, you’re taking a step back and going, Wait a second, what does that actually look like? What does that actually mean? And maybe I am over the BMI, but when you break it down into a fact, there’s less emotional charge behind it and there’s some space or differentiation between who you are doesn’t mean that you’re a bad person because your BMI is a bit higher than what another person might be.

So I think by not judging, then we’re less likely to fall into that cycle of shame and guilt. And like you said, use those perhaps unpleasant feelings or maladaptive behaviors as an opportunity for self-corrective action, as you mentioned. So I think that’s such a great kind of nuanced insight for people in recovery to be able to own what’s going on for them rather than be a victim to it.

Lynn Trauzzi: Yeah. And IFS we would never use the word maladaptive.

Kinga Burjan: Okay.

Lynn Trauzzi: Because we see the whole thing as very adaptive.

Kinga Burjan: Mm-hmm.

Lynn Trauzzi: We have a wounded part. We have a young, vulnerable part, you know, that is still really stuck in time, still experiencing 20, 30, 40 years later. What happened to them back then? And so this whole protective quality, it’s like the scab. Right? Even though it might be ugly, it’s not a maladaptive thing. It’s actually there to protect. So we’ve got these behaviours that are doing a job to make sure that that young child never feels that again and the system doesn’t get overwhelmed. So your work, that’s what makes it confusing, because these fear of loneliness, this fear of being rejected, this fear of worthlessness. These are all things that the person can’t quite understand because other parts of them they know they have worth.

They know they’re capable. They know they can handle things, they know there’s other parts of them that feel this. There is still a part of them that feels that that is a threat to their existence because at one time it was they were threatened with being overwhelmed. Too much emotion. So the protector? It’s completely adaptive then to protect that. So what we want to do then, is to bring self-awareness or access to self-energy is really what is the problem here is the person doesn’t have access to self-energy.

They’re completely blended with these feelings. And so in this mindfulness, and it’s moving closer to it, being curious, then we can start to separate because it becomes a part of it. Not us. I’m not an addict. Part of me uses addiction to make sure I never feel like I’m so alone in this world that nobody’s paying attention to me. My actual very safety and existence are threatened. That’s a big deal, right? So these firefighters and managers, right, the the the problem we could say is that they’re extreme. It’s not that they’re doing these rules, but they’re extreme in their behaviors.

Kinga Burjan: Yeah. Such an interesting way to think about it. And I think by having that perspective, it will also reduce some of the shame around it.

Lynn Trauzzi: Well, that’s what I really like about this, right? Is that and then if there is shame, we don’t think of the shame as something negative. We get curious.

Kinga Burjan: It’s a part.

Lynn Trauzzi: Right. What is the shame trying to do and generally, we’ll find out. The shame just wants to make sure you don’t do it again. Right? These behaviors. So it’s reacting to another part behavior. So sometimes in the beginning, it seems the way I kind of frame it in my head is like, if you had a really small room and your whole family was in it, like all 50 of your family members are in like in a bathroom and you walk in and they all want your attention at the same time.

And they all have different views. I hate her and she said this, and it’s really overwhelming. That’s when a person comes to therapy. Ideally, it would be great if someone could come back a lot earlier, come in a lot earlier than that before, you know, 50 people are in their bathroom. So the thing about exiles is although they are sensitive right there, they’re dealing with the, you know, anger dependency. They also have really great qualities. Once the trauma has been healed, then they have access to their innocence and their spontaneity and their openness. And that’s a lot of what we’ve lost in addiction. Isn’t that right? What people do?

Kinga Burjan: That’s beautiful, but it’s so beautiful to hear and to again, it’s just so refreshing to hear a different perspective. About what’s going on inside, especially when at the time, it can feel so overwhelming and the person can feel so helpless.

Lynn Trauzzi: Yeah. And that there’s something wrong with them. Why can everybody else handle these problems? And I can’t. Right? And why doesn’t this happen to other people? So it’s very individual, right? And so these parts, we just move closer to them and then then the healing begins. I always tell people the first step in healing steps and lockstep self-awareness, self-compassion, self-awareness, self-compassion that just starts the end blending. Once we blend, we have more choice, we have more control and then we have some space to do some of this deeper healing work.

Kinga Burjan: And it’s so interesting too, I think, a lot of the underlying essences of their therapies that work effectively have to do with expanding your self-awareness, and therefore you can help self-compassion as to why this is happening in your life.

Lynn Trauzzi: Yeah.

Kinga Burjan: And I now knowing more about IFS, it’s like, Wow, maybe this is the right tool or right pathway for someone who does have a lot of those parts that can be confusing or overwhelming.

Lynn Trauzzi: Yeah. And we believe that in IFS that the person who holds all the wisdom to heal.

Sure, I have the knowledge of the process. I hold self-energy till the person has more access to their own and then I act as a guide. But you, you know, just get the person access to their system, and then I can ask what should happen next and they know. Right? They can access a part of them because there’s also the part of them that got him into treatment. Right.

They get the part that wants them to be healthy. Right. That inner wisdom is there. Right. So for me, as an IFS therapist, I just help a person gain access to that. And it’s all there and helping a person trust. It’s a new skill. You know, it takes time to get acquainted with it. But once people get on to it, it’s quite natural and intuitive.

Kinga Burjan: Yeah. And as you’re sharing with me, even in therapy, I have a lot of just random visuals that pop up like metaphoric ones. But it just it sounds to me that as the practitioner, you’re helping a person basically unpack kind of what’s stuck or blended and help them kind of break it apart to bring more clarity so that they can see what’s going on.

Lynn Trauzzi: Yeah, yeah. And we know in that space, right in that space between what they’re feeling and the thoughts that seem to be so automatic and some awareness of, Oh, I’m thinking that, oh, there’s that part of me. Oh, I don’t really like the way you called me that. We’ve got some space and now we have choice. We have choice in how we react to ourselves. We have choice in the way we respond to others.

Kinga Burjan: Mm-hmm.

Lynn Trauzzi: And in that is our power. And then we start building self-worth.

Kinga Burjan: Yes, Absolutely. I’m just noticing the time Lynn, it’s been so enjoyable and hopefully beneficial for our listeners as well that you were on here and shared your experience about and understanding what IFS is. And I think there is a lot of good points in here, especially about getting to that point of self-energy, self-compassion and awareness of all the different parts that, as you said, it’s not at the time it wasn’t an adaptive behaviour.

It was actually all these parts working together for the person. And I just think it’s such a good way to look at the world in terms of different opportunities for that ability to have the choice and also the agency to know that you have a choice in moving forward and owning your recovery, owning your power to move forward in your recovery.

Lynn Trauzzi: Yeah. And I hope I was able to do justice to the model, you know, in such a short period of time. There’s a lot of elements so.

Kinga Burjan: Well, if there’s a subsection you’d like to talk about, you can always join us again.

Lynn Trauzzi: Yeah. Well, thank you so much for inviting me. I really enjoy sharing this stuff.

Kinga Burjan: Thank you, Lynn. It was a great pleasure to have you today.

Lynn Trauzzi: Ok, bye-bye.

Kinga Burjan: Thanks. Goodbye, listeners. Have a great day.

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