By: Stephanie Featherston, M.Div., EdS, LPC
In the last few months, I have learned a great deal about myself. I have learned that teaching was easier in the classroom, and that my children’s teachers are amazing people. I have learned that I can actually miss my commute, because that is my time to listen to audiobooks and expand my world. I have learned that working with people through a screen is a lot harder than working in person. My world has certainly been different with this pandemic.
During this time, I have also seen people in fear and confusion. People are not sure what to trust, who to listen to, or how to respond. I have seen people who are frustrated with the government for very different reasons. Some people feel stifled and others feel unprotected. Some are home with families or children who feel overwhelming, while others have been home alone for months. I have known some for whom this has been terrifying and very real due to their own illness or due to loss of friends or family, and I have known some for whom this all feels very overblown and distant. Furthermore, many are struggling to understand where others are coming from and how they can make the decisions they have. The common thread for all is that we are experiencing a time that is traumatic. None of us is sure what is happening or how to respond to it. None of us knows what safety looks like going forward or how we will know what that is. We are trapped in an overwhelming, potentially lethal, situation over which we have minimal control.
Over the last five years or so, I have been learning about a model of therapy called Internal Family Systems (IFS). It was developed by a man named Richard Schwartz in the 1980’s. The core concept of IFS is that we are all made up of parts who each have their own role and way of being in the world. My favorite example of this is cheesecake.
Let’s picture that I am stopping by the grocery store on the way home from work (yes, this is a dated example) and I happen to see a cheesecake slice for sale. Part of me thinks,”I want that cheesecake!” Another part says, “You don’t need it. It’s not good for you.” A third part says, “I’ve been working hard. I deserve a reward.” Another part might point out that it would be a waste of money. Other parts might chip in their thoughts, too. In the end, I either buy the slice or I don’t, depending on who wins the debate. In this example, the first part wants me to be happy, the second wants me to be healthy, the third wants me to be rewarded for my efforts, and the fourth is focused on economic matters. Others might be concerned about weight, outside perspectives, the response of my children, guilt after eating, etc.
The goal of IFS is to get to know and work with our parts so that the system functions more efficiently and so that trauma can be resolved. To work with those parts, we approach them with compassion and curiosity rather than judgment or expectation. IFS believes that every part is doing the best it can to try to help. Some parts may be working off of old information or responding in an extreme way to extreme circumstances. If we believe, though, that they are doing the best they can with what they have, how does that change our view of ourselves and our choices? If I make a mistake or a poor choice, it is helpful to explore what was happening and why I responded that way. Certainly, this is more effective than shaming myself. If I can be compassionate and curious, I can learn more about myself and find a better way to meet a need or respond to a trigger.
A beautiful side-effect of IFS work is that we begin to develop more compassion for others. How would my world be different if I believed everyone around me were doing the best that they could do? All of us were brought up in a particular way in a particular situation with a particular set of beliefs and a particular set of caregivers. We have each had our own struggles and experiences, and we each have different strengths and points of view. How, then, should we all have the same understandings or reactions in a traumatic time? What if that person, whose beliefs are so different than yours, is working out of their own understanding of what is best? We all respond differently to trauma, and our responses are not always conscious.
While I have had many frustrations over the last few months, I have also benefited from compassion. Clients have been remarkably patient with technological issues. They have forgiven me when my foot has been lodged so firmly in my mouth I have needed a shoehorn to get it out. Friends have checked in with me about mine and my family’s health. My children have received love and support from their teachers while we have been quarantined at home. My husband and kids have been supportive to me as well. All of this has helped make this overwhelming time more manageable.
As we continue to navigate this pandemic, I hope we can all find some space for compassion, both for ourselves and for others. None of us have been precisely who we would like to be, but I believe we are all doing our best. If you are having trouble finding your compassion, I hope you will reach out. You are, after all, worth it.