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- A Public Interest Lawyer’s Road Out of Burnout
- Resourcing in Parts Work
I want to speak in defense of using resourcing techniques in parts work—something that standard IFS doesn’t include. I’ll discuss how I’ve found it helpful and end with a case study of a session that benefited from resourcing.
Standard IFS doesn’t use resourcing
Those of us who have studied Internal Family Systems (IFS) will recall that its founder, Dick Schwartz, takes a stance against using grounding and resourcing techniques to help clients get out of distress. His understandable concern is that these techniques can be used to overrule the protective strategies of firefighters or suppress the emotions of exiles.
If, for example, we instruct a client who begins to dissociate to look in our eyes and feel her feet on the floor, we are encouraging her to override her dissociating part, whose goal is protective. In response, that part is likely to increase its level of activity or turn to the next option in the hierarchy of distractions.Schwartz, Richard C.; Sweezy, Martha. Internal Family Systems Therapy (p. 270). Guilford Publications. Kindle Edition.
Some styles of parts work do use resourcing
However, some parts work practitioners find resourcing techniques helpful. IFS therapist Joanne Twombly finds phase-based therapy, where the first phase builds coping mechanisms, important in creating stability for clients with dissociative disorders. She explains that techniques besides asking parts to cooperate are needed in order to keep extreme burdens from overwhelming clients by accident:
Parts may not want to overwhelm Self or may think they can tolerate witnessing, but they may lack the knowledge to make this decision as the information might be partially or totally dissociated.Joanne Twombly, Trauma and Dissociation Informed Internal Family Systems
Yet, resourcing isn’t only embraced by those who work with the most extreme forms of trauma. Steve March, the founder of the Aletheia school of coaching, was heavily inspired by IFS in the design of Aletheia Parts Work, and builds a resourcing technique into every coaching session.
This technique is called a Presence Anchor, a sort of combination of Polyvagal Theory’s orienting—looking around the room to notice its current safety and take in the sensory experience—and Somatic Experiencing’s pendulation—finding a source of safety and positive feeling and touching into it as needed. Taking techniques from these other modalities into a parts work practice that recognizes the Self (which Aletheia calls Presence) allows us to see these moves as ways of tapping into Self-energy.
Standard IFS always finds Self-energy subtractively, by asking parts to make space for it. Meanwhile, we find in the practice of the Presence Anchor that a pocket Self-energy is similarly accessible (that is, easily accessible for many clients, and still difficult to access for those with heavily guarded systems) by turning the attention towards a pocket of safety and love that’s available in the client’s immediate surroundings.
My history with resourcing
As a client, I didn’t think I needed resourcing techniques.
Sure, I often cried in sessions, but I wasn’t overwhelmed. I could handle it! I thought that turning towards a resource would back me out of the experience, while I wanted to go forward, to the healing.
But I was stuck. With all my IFS knowledge, I was finding it hard to unblend from an agenda-driven part in my sessions as the client. This part knew the IFS process and was impatient to move through it. But of course, by leading the way, it ensured that I’d get nowhere.
I tried to unblend from this part in a variety of ways, but it kept coming back on duty. So I slowed down and spent quality time with the part. I had some beautiful sessions with it, but still the basic pattern didn’t change.
But resourcing unblocked me!
Meanwhile, in my training as an Aletheia coach, my own coach used resourcing techniques on me. I told her about my difficulty and she felt that we should go even further in a resourcing direction—going beyond the usual use of the Presence Anchor to really spend some time in a resourced state.
This activated a distrustful part of me that felt it was unsafe to relax like that. We worked with that part and reached a place where I could rest into the comfort of my Presence Anchor. I started the session with a vague anchor, a calm feeling in my back, and ended with a much stronger anchor, a feeling like a hug around my shoulders that was so distinct it was almost like someone was really there holding me. I can still remember what it felt like.
Since then, my IFS sessions have been less blocked. My agenda-driven manager still shows up, but not long after my resourcing deep dive, I finally noticed the reason it wouldn’t unblend. Moments after I realized the issue, a solution appeared. I can’t even say whether it was my idea or the part’s idea; it was just there as soon as I had grasped the true nature of the problem.
It seems to me that when the “ask the part to step back” door was locked, using a Presence Anchor let some Self-energy in through a window. With that infusion of Self-energy, I was able to find the key to the door and open it properly. But what a relief to have a little help from the window in the meantime!
Enabling, not avoiding
This experience showed me that resourcing doesn’t mean have to mean backing away from the process in a spiritual bypassing kind of move. Rather, it can mean gathering the capacity to keep moving through the process.
That realization encouraged me to use the technique in my work with clients. In order to ensure that I don’t make parts feel unwelcome, I ask the client to feel the distressed feeling and the resourcing feeling at the same time. So far, no one has had trouble doing that, and it has still served the purpose of helping the client avoid overwhelm.
Since then, I’ve started to see the usefulness of this technique in other stages of parts work—not just when the client is distressed.
Resourcing for Unblending from Ego Parts
One of the tricky aspects of parts work is that sometimes the client will be convinced that a manager part is their true Self. These managers are practical, verbal, and communicate through thoughts more than feelings. They are the voice in your head, the one who makes decisions about what to do about other parts, and so naturally, we confuse them for ourselves. And yet, they are parts, and so the work gets stuck when we try to do it from them instead of from our true Self.
I’ve tried several techniques for helping myself and others unblend from these parts.
Memories as counter-evidence
Memories can prove to the client that they are not entirely that part. “Think of a time you saw breathtaking scenery or were carried away by your favorite song. Ask this part if it notices that it wasn’t in charge then.” Clients agree that the egoic manager was not in charge then, and this proves that the manager can unblend without losing the ability to come back. And yet, sometimes managers remain hesitant to unblend.
Negotiation to lower the stakes
Negotiation sometimes works. “What if you just try unblending, just for one minute? Or ten seconds? You can always come back.” The manager may try this short experiment, but sometimes its attitude remains unchanged.
Resourced feeling as counter-evidence and reassurance
The most effective technique I’ve found so far is to prove the distinction to the client with the use of resourcing. “Ask this thinking part of you to notice that feeling of compassion in your heart. Does it see that it’s different from that, and so there’s more to you than this thinking part?”
This would work to some degree with any feeling that doesn’t come from this manager—indeed, pointing out both sides of a polarization is often an effective unblending technique. But I think that using the resource as the counterevidence has the side benefit of offering reassurance to the manager that it’s leaving the system in good hands, because the resource emanates from Self. These managers often sound like they have no concerns, just confusion about who is who, but I suspect that on some level, these managers feel that the system needs their responsibility and resourcefulness. Upon seeing another resource, maybe the prospect of unblending seems less threatening.
Building the Self-to-Part Relationship
It’s for this same reason—that resourcing can be an avenue to Self-energy—that I find the resource so helpful in building the Self-to-part relationship.
Eye contact can be confrontational
At first, I used to use the IFS technique of asking the part to look the client in the eyes. This can work just fine, but I found that some parts aren’t comfortable with it. It certainly could be an issue with autistic clients, but I was running into issues even with allistic clients when their parts weren’t ready for such a direct meeting with the Self.
Identifying age can be distracting
Meanwhile, I was also having inconsistent success with asking parts how old they think the client is. Sometimes, this question is very worthwhile for updating a part to the present. But as a way to tell whether a part was confusing the client’s Self with another part, it was not always effective with my clients. Some parts don’t know, which can stir up am-I-doing-it-right and does-this-stuff-work parts. Some parts know the client’s age but still aren’t acquainted with the Self. Some are not so much relieved as distressed about aging!
Self can be recognized by its qualities
So I started using Self’s qualities to introduce parts to the Self. When the client is feeling a lot of compassion for a part, I can ask the part to notice who the compassion is coming from. This feels like it gets more directly at my goal, and that directness means I’m less likely to get sidetracked with issues about comfort with eye contact or age.
But sometimes, the client isn’t overflowing with compassion. In those moments, I can ask parts to notice the Presence Anchor, and follow that warm fuzzy feeling back to its source to meet the Self.
A Case Study in the Presence Anchor
I recently gave a gift session to someone who agreed to let me share the story of how her Presence Anchor changed the course of her session.
A pink wall gave her a feeling of wholeness
When we looked for a Presence Anchor for her, she said that the pink color in her room made her feel warm, calm, and gave her a sense of wholeness.
To an Aletheia coach, the word “wholeness” signals Presence, and the association with pink might even suggest that the client had a connection to the side of Presence that’s experienced as unconditional love. (Just as IFS recognizes the 8 C’s of Self, Aletheia recognizes many qualities of Presence.)
She was feeling insufficient
The quality of unconditional love was something the client needed to feel more fully, as she was working with a fear of not being good enough, and driven to over-give to others in an attempt to prove her worth. She noted that she didn’t think of her friends as having to earn her love, and yet she felt confused about why anyone would value her if she wasn’t doing something for them. If she could feel unconditional love for herself, this could show her experientially what she already knew cognitively: that she deserves love independent of whatever work she does.
And there that unconditional love was, in her chest, but her parts weren’t feeling it yet. So we started getting to know them. When the target part was ready to meet the Self, I guided her to introduce it to the Presence Anchor.
Shifting into wholeness
Spontaneously, the client said she was having what she called a metaphysical experience that showed her that it’s okay to be exactly who she is. She said that in this experience, she saw that we are all just energy, and that she didn’t design her current form or decide to be her, so she can just be who she is and not feel like she should be something different.
Aletheia Coaching understands this as an experience in the depth of Presence, where the client’s awareness is more focused on the qualities of their Self (such as this unconditional self-acceptance) than on their parts or other contents of awareness. We check for this depth by asking if anything is missing. She replied that nothing was missing, that “right now it feels like everything is perfect.”
We explored this depth a bit more. She reported that it felt warm, and she saw it as a red sphere containing her, yellow in the middle. “Right now,” she said, “it feels so easy to see that everything is okay.”
Letting go of the need to overwork
In response to this, the part that believed she could only be loved conditionally expressed a desire to redirect the energy it had been putting into taking care of people professionally into being a good friend. Another protector came up around her relationships with friends, and so the work would need to continue in another session to really complete this transformation. But it’s notable that the experience of Presence was enough to bring this protector to the point of wanting a job change, without exile work.
The only thing I did to usher in this experience was have a part of her notice the nice feeling that her pink wall gives her. Not every client can find a resourcing anchor in their bodies, and among those who can, not all anchors will be embraced by the system so quickly and allow for this kind of profound experience in the first session. But I hope the dramatic nature of this example demonstrates that Presence anchors are a powerful tool for parts work practitioners.
Photo by Nick Monica