The Presence of Strangers

This past weekend I did an acting showcase at TVI, which was so fun, rewarding, challenging…I got to fight with my ego for three solid days, which is part of acting.  Sitting, watching other actors work, being glad they’re good, but also comparing yourself, fantasizing about your future, feeling not good enough…I have to tell you, I felt so grateful for Buddhism and yoga I could have cried.  It’s so different to watch those thoughts and be like, wow, I’m really not liking my feelings right now, obviously, so I’m having these thoughts…only I don’t like them either and wouldn’t it be terrible if I BELIEVED THEM!  This weekend, I didn’t believe my thoughts.  I heard them, I listened, but I knew them as statements about how hard it is for me (or anyone) to put myself out in the world, to show not only whether I possess talent, but also who I am–my take on the world, the way I see and feel, my body and what it can openly express.

I loved this weekend not only because everyone in the showcase was good, and not only because I learned and got to do what I love, and not only because I could hear my own craziness with some real equanimity, but because the weekend started with a human connection that had nothing to do with acting.

I was taking a cab from Manhattan to Brooklyn, and my driver did this rare thing–he turned off the meter and stopped charging me after he made a wrong turn.  Then I didn’t pay with the credit card right away, so the machine clicked off.  He talked me into letting him drive me back to Manhattan–and without having been paid, went to the bank to do some business to give me time to get ready to go back.  In other words, he trusted me.

My friend Sam, watching me hurry, said, “How did you get a NEW YORK CABBIE to let you not pay while he waited?”

I said, “I just figured that I’m trustworthy and he could see that, so he trusted well.”

Sam was like, “Nice.”

So I get back in the cab, and I started talking to the driver.  This is from traveling all over the world–I’m really curious about people, so I often ask cab drivers their names, and where they’re from, and how they got to this country and what they think of it.  Or else we talk about sports.  I’m kind of happy to talk about whatever.  But in this case, the driver told me that he had been educated in France, then went back to his native Cameroon, where he taught farmers to use technology so they didn’t have to be swallowed up by the corporate farming coming in, and so he was an activist and was threatened with jail and expelled from his country.  Then, here in the US, he was a victim of racial profiling by the NYPD, falsely accused of assault, and spent four years in court trying to prove his innocence (he mostly did).  I asked how he felt about driving the cab when his education qualified him for better work, and he told me he couldn’t work for corporations, and he had learned not to hope, but just to take each day, and enjoy what he could.

I’m not a fan of injustice.  I have also been an activist, and have been a recipient of some pretty heavy rounds of homophobia and sexism, so though he may not have known it–he talked; I listened–we are very alike.  When the cab stopped at the yoga center, I decided to just tell him how I felt.  So I said, “Thank you for telling me your story.  I want you to know that I have fought for justice in the world, and part of the reason I do this is because stories like yours make my heart hurt.”  And then, to my surprise (and certainly his), I started to cry.  I contained it as well as I could, but the look on his face wasn’t only surprise.  His face grew suddenly younger, and that hope he had foresworn made a brief appearance.  This moment happened…when I was as connected to him as I have ever been to anyone in my life.  Then it passed, and he asked me to take a picture of his name and cab number in case there was ever a way to help him, which I did.  And I got out, went into the yoga center, cried again, and then did yoga.

We so often think of listening as the gift, but truly, to tell someone what has hurt us, what we have struggled against, how we feel in the world–that is also a trust.  I love when people trust me.  I love when I can live up to it.  And here’s the thing–he gave me that gift.  I went into my struggles with acting with the knowledge of my own humanity, and my connection to the suffering of other people, and how important it is that we find a way to reach each other.  It gave the usual struggles, the ego, the insecurity, the desire for affirmation, a context.  I felt, ironically, worthy of my place on this earth.

The gift was trust; and I was the recipient.

The gift was witnessing; and I was the giver.

Thus do we heal the world.  In such small moments, that mean everything.

Internal Family Systems–A Life Philosophy or Therapy?

Why am I writing this blog?  Because I am very attracted to the ideology of Internal Family Systems and its promise of healing, and find it very disturbing at the same time.  I’m hoping I may convince myself to have a more integrated point-of-view if I explore it.

I studied English literature and, at the same time (approximately), read philosophy voraciously.  I found statements, scattered here and there, written by novelists, poets and philosophers, about how metaphysics and the definition of human nature had fallen out of the hands of artists and philosophers, and that in modern life, psychotherapists had taken charge of defining reality and human nature, if not the relationship between heaven and earth.  Like most writers with a philosophical (and metaphysical) bent, I resented this.  And because I am a Pisces and hold on to resentments into eternity, I still resent it.  In fact, as time has gone by I’ve come to be horrified by the hold psychology has on our modern consciousness.  This doesn’t keep me from going to therapy, BTW.  But then, every time I go (particularly to couples therapy), I blog and make fun of the therapist.  So at least I get some amusement out of it.

Internal Family Systems, developed as a discrete model for approaching therapy, was developed by Dick Schwartz and is now the hip therapy to learn (along with Diane Fosha’s AEDP, which I am not attracted to) .  He’s an interesting guy–fairly unassuming as therapy gurus go–but then, since his model is derived from what his clients told him, he would have to be.  And he seems to encourage other therapists to apply his way of thinking to all aspects of life–coaching, co-counseling, political models, etc.  He’s not obsessive about holding onto and controlling his own ideology.

This is all to the good.

Internal Family Systems in based in Jungian theory (among others) that we all have a multiplicity of subselves that operate to protect us from life’s vicissitudes.  They may be archetypal, but they are, of course, a family of subselves, and family systems theory may therefore be applied to an understanding of the individual.  Schwartz classifies the different types of subselves and their relationships in this way (simplified):

  1. Protectors–Subselves who work to prevent an individual from experiencing unpleasant emotions.  For example, after a bad experience, a “Manager” Protector will come up with a strategy to avoid any experiences that might resonate to the original painful experience.  If a repeat starts to occur, a “Firefighter” Protector will introduce an extreme and immediately numbing behavior (like drinking, overeating, blaming/yelling) to shut the experience down asap.
  2. Exiles–Young subselves who carry the unwanted and painful emotions.  The Protectors want to keep the Exiles from being reactivated.
  3. SELF–The essential core of any person, creative, confident, compassionate, and able to heal and coordinate the other parts.

Of course, in all therapy, language is taught:  “I” statements, for example.  My partner and I joke all the time about saying, “I feel that you are an asshole.”  Or, “From my perspective, you are an asshole.)  We like to call this recovery with a license to kill.

Anyhow, in IFS (Internal Family Systems), languaging is taught as well, but goes even further.  Clients are taught to identify parts and to speak of them in the third person–to speak for parts rather than from parts. But IFS goes beyond languaging.  In order to do this type of therapy, in order to learn the language, the client must first agree to the construct–that there are subselves or parts, and that there is a dominant and central spiritual self with certain qualities and abilities.  Introspection as well as communication is guided by this understanding–the client looks internally for typical experiences of exiles, protectors, inner critics, etc.  And the client must seek, always, to be “Self-led.”

By the way, I do accept the construct of subselves and I also empirically understand the experience of an enlightened “self” within me.  I even find the concepts for introspection really interesting.

So what’s the problem?

Think of it this way.  Feminism teaches us to 1) listen to each other rather than to assume any one opinion or world view is best (opposite to the paternalistic, one right way approach), and 2) that empowerment comes from facilitating and supporting a person’s own vision and point-of-view, rather than correcting, reframing, controlling, or dominating.  In other words, basic respect comes into play.  It’s easiest to do this from a relativist philosophy, or from a Catholic (as in, pluralistic) understanding that incorporates many different perspectives or systemic approaches to the world and being human.

This is where IFS can run into trouble.  In IFS, the education is very explicit, and therapists can and often are dogmatic in practice.  In a session, for example, if you say how you feel, the therapist is likely to say, “You mean a part of you feels that.”  Then the therapist will explain to you whether that’s a protector or an exile, and may give lectures about how the different subselves relate to each other.

I may or may not disagree with this in any particular moment, but I have to return to feminism and say, isn’t it dangerous for someone to interpret another human being’s internal world, label its construction, and insist that this construction be memorized as a set-in-stone interpretation?  I have heard IFS practitioners say, “Managers ALWAYS elicit firefighters.  They can’t ever get along.”  I was like, really?  Subselves have prescribed relationships that never vary, individual to individual?  Man, that is a SCARY way to think.

Then, while I strongly believe that spirituality is the true foundation of human healing and human change, I worry about how specifically Self is defined in IFS, and how practitioners will say, “That can’t be a Self thought because of x, y, and z.”  The spirituality implicit in IFS is both its strength and its great danger, because often spirituality is taught as a belief system, and if people are taught a belief system, that’s usually called a religion or a cult.  And if clients are pressured into beliefs, the name is malpractice.  (I grew up Catholic, and believe me, there’s not a lot of difference between, “If you don’t accept x, y & z then you are going to hell,” and, “If you don’t accept x, y & z and see the world this way, then you won’t heal or your healing will take decades longer.”  Both are threats; both contain language to invoke shame.)

I do understand that Dick Schwartz developed IFS through observation, and since I took a workshop with him, I also know that he explains IFS specifically as a collection of observations about what clients had in common in explaining their inner lives.  I suppose, therefore, part of my problem is simply with the practice, with making the observation of IFS into dogma, and losing the impulse that Schwartz had originally–careful and present listening as the way to truly help.

I bristle at being told what to do, what to think, or how to speak, just as a matter of principle, and also, truth be told, because I like to rebel and be different (or I can’t help rebelling and being different, or I have subselves who rebel–firefighters and managers).  But I also find that the greatest challenge for all of us humans is to be present to what is, congruent to the present moment in our thoughts and behavior, and to be endlessly creative and adaptive.  We can’t phone it in.  Accepting thoughts or constructs or the stories we tell ourselves about why other people do what they do as gospel–well, I study Buddhism so as to quiet that insanity.  And it is insanity…all the righteousness, all the one correct way, is insanity.

So philosophy or therapy?  It is both.  And therein, as the man says, lies the rub.

The good thing is that thinking about IFS calls into question all therapy–which always contains a life philosophy, always contains a definition of human nature and the human mind, and must therefore always and continually be questioned.

Therapy, as a practice, is an art form, not a science.  (Sometimes science is an art form, but I won’t go into that.)  And we must be careful of each other.  Because one side of the couch or the other, we are flawed, even with our best intentions.  We can hurt each other.

As for me, I’ll probably keep trying this stuff, because I’m ridiculously curious.  But I’m also arrogant, so let me say that I hope to try it with someone who is close to my level of intelligence.  Otherwise, it’s all war, all the time.  Because no one gets to tell me what to think, what to say, and what inside me is nearest to the light.  If I let them, then I abdicate my independence of mind and spirit.  And how can that help anyone?

Click to access Fosha_Meta_Therapeutic_Processes_2000.pdf

Avoidance 101

I plan to generously pass on Lessons Learned from My Partner in the next 7 blogs.  I got angry at her today, and for some reason that makes me want to remind myself of the things she has taught me in the last twenty-five years.  I’m sure I could fill many more than 7 blogs, but I’m not sure she could stand it (she’s become addicted to reading this thing!).

So.  Lesson 1:  The Healthy Uses of Avoidance as a Relationship Strategy

First, one must understand that I’ve learned most of what I know about how to behave from books.  Or, to put it bluntly, I decided at about, oh, age 6 that my parents were completely clueless (and that they thought I was an alien from outer space and had no idea what to do with me), so I looked for other resources.  I read books on how to communicate (“I” statements, be honest and direct), books on how to be assertive (“no” means “no”), books on how to deal with children, how to have better sex–I mean, I have a reading disorder.  I read unbelievably fast and remember almost everything I read.  I read a couple books a week at minimum.  I get that this makes me strange and a bit of a freak.

Anyhow, all the early reading meant that I created my own rulebook on how to behave, communicate, be assertive, etc (the sex part I extemporized on…a lot, but we won’t get into that).  And, as I have mentioned ad infinitum, I have a certain penchant for drama and never doing anything halfway.  I mean, if I’m going to be direct, I’m going to be DIRECT.

I will say this–being DIRECT creates a lot of drama in your relationships.  Like, you’re getting to know someone, and you notice that she is a monologuer.  Meaning, she says, “Hi, can you talk?”  You say, “Yes.”  She then talks for 44 minutes without taking a breath.  (If you’re me, you’re holding the phone away from your ear, swearing at it, making faces at it, dancing around and generally being extremely mature.)

Now, my rulebook says to be direct, so I call this person up a couple days later (this all happened about 20 years ago) and say, “Did you know you talked for 44 minutes in our last phone call without even asking me how I was?”  And she says, “YOU WERE TIMING ME???!~!!!!!!”

This was when my partner decided to do an intervention on me.  She sat me down and said, “You need to learn that if you don’t want to be friends with someone, JUST DON’T PICK UP THE PHONE!”

I was like, “You can do that?”

My partner then tore all her hair out at once.  It grew back, though.

“YES!!!!” she said (after the hair had been cleaned up and she’d stopped swearing).

“You don’t have to tell people everything you think?”

“You’re completely hopeless,” she told me.

Later, she came back and explained that if you want to be friends with someone, but not as close as they want to be to you, you wait before calling them back.  Or you do only group outings.  There are, it turns out, about a million ways to keep people at a distance without telling them that you’re timing their phone calls.

Who knew?

Besides my partner, I mean.

And so I came to study Avoidance 101.  I thought psychological health grew out of direct communication, but it turns out that mostly drama grows out of anything the least confrontational.  AND, my partner tells me, if you tell someone what bothers you about them, that’s actually pretty intimate, so if you don’t want to be close to them, it’s better not to say it.


Of course, if you do want to be close to someone, direct communication of the skillful variety is a good idea.  My partner has to study that with me, though, because guess what?  Being direct isn’t always her strong suit.

Anyhow, here I am, making a pitch for The Healthy Uses of Avoidance.

Some of us just need things spelled out.

All the time.

And while I am a student of avoidance, I personally prefer to say what I think with no punches pulled, and to hear things that way as well.  As long as it’s gentle, kind, and basically complimentary.  Of course.

You Mean I Have to Be Honest about MY FEELINGS?

So last night my partner and I get home and she hops right into the shower and then starts oiling her body, giving herself self-massage.

That’s right, she’s in the middle of a ayurvedic cleanse.  She gets up at 6:30am and cooks bean/rice mush.  She eats only bean/rice mush.  She drinks de-tox teas.  She oils her body and takes tablespoons of oil plain.  Her skin looks great and she seems so centered I could scream.  I call the cleanse the WOO.  It’s not really all that out there compared to the shaman, the psychic, the holotropic breathwork and the hypnosis, but if I can get a joke out of anything…well, you have to know I will.

Anyhow, so she comes home and oils herself up and then puts a shirt over her head so she looks like a nun.  A nun with Eastern European heritage.  Who davens.  Then she goes to sleep.

She wakes me up ungodly early, making the mush, which is just not a quiet activity.  I lie in bed, rehearsing my speech to our couples therapist, Sheepdog.  It’s really a rant, starting with, Please sit quietly and listen.  Do not interrupt, reframe, or tell me to stop so my partner can talk because I HAVE THINGS TO SAY.  Included in the rant are all the big reasons I’m angry with my partner.  So halfway into the rant, I not only hate the couples therapist, I also hate my partner.  I am a seething kettle of rage soup.

So my partner comes to say, “Have a nice day,” before she goes to work.



“You, too,” I say.  Which I obviously don’t mean, since I am homicidal.

Then she makes a half a heart with her hand, which is our thing for “I love you.”

“I’m feeling angry at you right now,” I say.

She’s like, “Why?  Oh, I have to go to work so we can’t talk about it.”

I say, “The short version is that I’m angry at you for x and x.”  (The two big impasse issues in our relationship from my side of the fence.)

She says, “Well, you have every right to be angry about that.”

Which pretty much destroys any possibility of me really picking a fight.

So I say, “I’m also rehearsing my farewell speech to the Sheepdog.”

She says, “Can I hear the beginning?”

I’m like, “If you want me to sit here for more than 30 seconds, don’t interrupt, etc.”

She says, “I’m with you on that.”

Then I said, “I have all these doubts.  I have all these fears.  I am grieving again and you are in there oiling your body and that just pisses me off.  Why can’t you be the one with the grief and I be the one oiling my body?  Especially since I have a right to be mad at you?”

And she says, “I’m doing the meditating and the cleanse and the breathwork to build a foundation for the harder things I have to face.  So maybe soon you will be the one oiling your body.”

I say, “That’s good, because I want you to go get some pain.”

She cracks up.  “Thanks,” she says.

Of course, having now told the truth about being pissed at her for being all WOO, not to mention the big unfinished relationship business, I am not only NOT homicidal any more, I feel close to her.

“You’re still the one I want to tell about feeling homicidal,” I say.

“I appreciate that.  And now I really do have to go to work.”  She makes the heart again and leaves for work, and this time, when I say, “Have a nice day,” I mean it.

But Christ, it’s hard to wake up in a rage and then have to f-ing talk about it.  I mean, how exhausting!  I want to just go back to sleep now.

Of course, the fact that’s she’s all WOO, and able to hear about my homicidal feelings with equanimity makes it easier to tell her.  Even though the equanimity pisses me off.  I know it makes for a better relationship.  But do I have to be crazy all by myself?

I seriously hope her time is coming.  And I get to be all equanimity meditator spiritual person and she gets to suffer not-so-Buddhistly.

Metta for my partner.  She obviously is going to need it.

PS-I also woke up with back pain.  That disappeared in the middle of the above conversation, continuing to motivate me to CHANGE MY LIFE.

The Diagnosis at 4am

So last night my partner gets home from her Kripalu workshop on how to breathe.  Don’t ask.  She has also become this major inner investigator.  She’s gone to a psychic (OMG!) and learned how to do Reiki.  Not to mention the Internal Family Systems co-counseling thing, which is, of course, very cutting edge.

But, life at our house:  I’m up coughing my head off in the middle of the night.  And she holds me and tries to soothe me back to sleep.

So I say, “I’ve decided that you have Munchausen by Proxy and also that you are very competitive.”

She says, “I’m feeling really diagnosed right now.”

I say, “That’s because I’m diagnosing you.  But to make you feel better, I’ll diagnosis myself.  I am a saint.”

There’s a very very very very pregnant pause.

Then I say, “Who just happens to be chock full of homicidal rage.”

Then we lie there laughing.

Which is to say, for last night at least, our relationship was completely back to normal.

Oh My God, the Couples Therapist Didn’t Blow It!

Which means I have to return for another week.  Urgh.

Or maybe not urgh.

Could couples therapy actually help?

Our history as a couple says yes, if the therapist shuts up and let’s us talk to each other, only intervening when communication turns into miscommunication, which turns into, “I did not say that!  I didn’t even mean that!”

At that point, a long-ago couples therapist was helpful.  In facilitating understanding.

But can couples therapy actually change you?  Do you grow?  Get a better sex life (who isn’t up for that?)?  Learn how to be intimate in new ways?  Well, David Schnarch claims that after he TOUGH LOVES his clients by calling them on how badly they really treat each other in all these subtle ways, they make major gains.

Once, my partner and I went to a couples therapist who did that to us.  Both.  I got called on threatening to leave the relationship whenever I got frustrated.  The word abandonment was used.  My partner…well, I am only allowed to blog about what I got called on, but I will say that she got called on something.

We didn’t go back to that therapist, because we are really couples-therapy-wimps, but we were awfully nice to each other for the next two years.

Really, that was a very financially effective couples therapy.  One session carried us for two years.  Not bad.

I don’t know if my partner and I can stand the heat of being called out on how we hurt each other without meaning to, and how we’re unconsciously selfish, and how we want the other person to cure our broken places and won’t admit it.  I don’t know if a David Schnarch, for example, saying, “What you’re doing is cruel!  You’re putting your partner in a double bind!  There is no intimacy when you x, y & z!”  would be the thing.  Is it possible to take the confrontation, to hold it, to see it as “normal marital sadism?” (His term.  Mine would be “Being a f-ing a*(&%(.”

Am I about to find out?

I’m so weird, I think it would be really interesting to find out.  I don’t know if this is the couples therapist to call us out on our stuff–she seems kind of sympathetic for that.  But it would be wild to be called out on stuff and have the therapist get it right.  It might be liberating.  And if it wasn’t, you could just go home and meditate about it until it left you, and that would be liberating.

I seem to be in an optimistic mood.

But, you might be interested to know that I did sit in a chair at the door and plan to do so again.  However, I made only one slightly inappropriate joke and overall behaved like an adult woman.  I don’t know if this is progress.  I mean, me?  Socially acceptable?  In couples therapy?

I am, however, quite certain the couples therapist would have appreciated my behavior even more than she did if she had any idea how many jokes I kept to myself.

I will now go write about rage.  Because I am on day 4 of 90% of pain gone.  I don’t always enjoy the writing about rage, but today I can write about how sick I am of keeping inappropriate jokes to myself, and that might even be fun.

Metta for all of us who hold it in, trying to protect other sentient beings.  May we find another, easier way.  To be our own unadulterated selves.  And do no harm.