When I began training in Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS) several years ago, my whole life became a story of healing. I was drawn to the IFS model after reading Richard (Dick) Schwartz’s textbook in graduate school. It stirred my heart. It just felt right to me. And now I know why!
IFS uses the following terms to identify parts of the Self: exiles, managers, and firefighters. I will use these terms throughout my story. Please see the IFS topic page for further information on these issues.
Not long after beginning the training, I found it difficult to proceed without exiles crawling out of the woodwork. I knew I was a woman with a history of what I called “sexual problems,” but I did not know I was a person with a severe trauma history. I should applaud the strength and tenacity of my performing managers for helping to preserve a sense of normalcy for so long.
Most people who knew me as I was growing up considered me bright, popular, and likely to succeed. I think many wondered over the years why success hadn’t materialized for me. It wasn’t that my life was a failure–I just never managed to find myself or settle anywhere professionally. I always felt like I was running away inside. Truth be told, I was.
I knew that I had experienced some sexual abuse as a foster child; I seemed to be a magnet for inappropriate treatment by men as I was growing up. As an adolescent and young adult, I went through several long-term, destructive, illicit relationships. I blamed and hated myself for them. I remember wondering how and why I kept ending up in those situations, especially since I was a Christian and did not believe that was the way God wanted me to experience life. From the time I had a personal encounter with Jesus at age 13, I knew I wanted to live in a way that honored that relationship.
In spite of sincere and repeated repentance and many attempts to find help, the destructive relationship patterns continued. As my despair about myself deepened, I began to develop secret firefighter activities to numb what I could not change. Drinking, binge eating, and pornographic depictions of abuse were my favorites—not only did they numb me, they intensified and reinforced the self-hatred I accumulated over the years.
Periodically, I would seem to be getting my life under control—by avoiding destructive relationships for a year or so—and it seemed that hope was in sight. But inevitably the cycle would resume, and I would engage in battle with my inner demons again. Few people knew what was going on inside. I managed to obtain a teaching degree, a ministerial degree, and more recently, a master’s degree. Still, I struggled to land anywhere professionally because I was internally tormented over my struggle with destructive relationships and the drastic dichotomy I saw between my public and private lives. I did not like myself. I did not believe in myself. I did not know who I was. In fact, I spent several seasons of my life not wanting to be alive at all. I made a few halfhearted attempts at suicide, but somehow I knew that how I lived privately was not reflective of who I really was. I never accepted it as truly me—I just couldn’t find the help I needed to create the balance in my life that I craved.
By the time I began studying IFS in 2001, I had not been doing anything self-destructive in my life for many years. But neither had I healed my history, and this was evidenced in my lack of professional confidence, and in my faithful, unquestioning commitment to a difficult and painful marriage. I had constructed a story for my life that allowed me to function—until the exiles began showing up.
My first encounter with one of my exiles came at an advanced training weekend. The topic was sexuality—no surprise this focus would trigger some stuff for me! I was so blended with the exile who came up that Dick Schwartz worked with me, and we discovered an infant, buried under signs that read, “You can take advantage of me,” “You can hurt me,” “You can treat me like a thing.” I was shocked, amazed, and awed. I began to realize that I had a lot of work to do, and I tackled the challenge in earnest.
For nearly five years, as I continued to study and work clinically in the model, I also began a process of deep and intense healing from physical and sexual abuse, experiences that I was largely unaware of. This amazing journey of healing uncovered memories going as far back as early infancy and the womb. Sometimes it was difficult to believe some of the memories could possibly have come from my life, but I knew I was not manufacturing the torment of my mind, body, and spirit, nor was I imagining the powerfully spiritual healing experiences I began to have.
Once I had a taste of what was possible for me through this work, it was all I wanted. Years of hopelessness, despair, and desperation began to melt away as my life started to heal. So often I thought I was done—I thought the peace, joy, and wholeness I felt after healing another exile would last forever. I was always surprised, and sometimes discouraged, to find yet another layer beneath. I was determined to persevere, because I knew I was finding what I had been searching for all of my life.
Through IFS therapy, I have found that my life is worth mending and that the pain of every human being can be healed. I am so very grateful to God, to Dick, and to this model, for the internal homecoming I have experienced in my life. I recognize the presence of God and Jesus every time another part is healed and brought home to my heart. Self, to me, is that sacred place—where peace, love, safety, and calm abide. For so long I knew that I deserved to be internally at home, unafraid, and safe. I just could never seem to stay there.
Now I can. At last I am at peace within. I know myself, like myself, and enjoy being with me. I am at rest with God in a way I have believed in for years, yet could rarely experience. The torment is over. The pain is gone. Joy is now my frequent companion. My life and my work are increasingly an overflow of that joy. I am forever grateful.
It is my heart’s desire that sharing this snapshot of my journey through these writings will encourage others to fully embrace and experience the healing power of the IFS model.
© Copyright 2007 by By Karen Reed. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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