“Don’t make solemn vows. You’ll only break them.” ~ Christopher Isherwood, My Guru and His Disciple
I spent my 20s committed to the vow of never repeating my teenage years again.
Life for most teenagers involves a normal dose of rebellion, experimentation, and lots of hormones. Erikson’s Stage Development Theory says that making identity is the central theme of this period.
Teens test rules, invade boundaries, display self-absorbed behavior, prioritize their peers, and question authority, all in the quest to develop a self that is strong enough to sustain the tides of adulthood. This is not a moral commentary—it is simply biology and society at work, helping humans develop the necessary skills to survive.
My teenage years involved the normal dose of disobedience and questioning, and then some. While I incorporate knowledge of stage development in my work as a teacher, coach, therapist, and MFT-in-training, I often struggle to describe how abnormal this period was for me. Factors beyond the main crisis all teenagers face of constructing identity caused upheaval, chaos, and trauma in my personal life. They include a laundry list of personal crisis items such as addiction, assault, hospitalizations, running away, self-harm, and blackout rage, to name the heavy hitters.
I have worked with enough people to know that everyone experiences extraneous factors and undergoes some version of abnormality. In that way, we are all similar, engaged in this terrifying, violent, and sometimes beautiful dance that is called the human experience. Still, I am intimately aware that most teenagers can look back on proms, senior trips, graduations, college entrance, and other key events without conjuring the memory of rehab trips, overdoses, and home instruction.
While these factors did help shape the sense of self in which I take nourishment and strength today, their aid took the form of evidence of what I don’t want. I used this evidence as momentum to seek healing, recovery, and inner work in my early adulthood. I attended 12-step meetings and therapy. I discovered ashtanga yoga, and apprenticed with a dedicated community that taught me how to practice vulnerability, discipline, and love. I went back to college and I started writing again. I learned to use my voice, trust myself, and commit to the beautiful dance, to commit to life.
The darkness of these factors still infiltrated my life as I allowed their lessons to inspire it. In other words, because I had experienced violence and turmoil, I dedicated myself to spiritual principles and ideals. The movement toward these ideals occurred through my participation in practices and groups such as yoga, therapy, and 12-step meetings. On the surface, cultivating ideals is the picture of well-being and spiritual development. Yet the more I attempted to embody ideals was the more I discovered my failure at meeting them.
From where did these failures spring? The same pit that midwifed my teenage strife.
Richard Schwartz, the founder of Internal Family Systems therapy, discusses how the self is formed of multiple parts that serve specific functions in the preservation of the psyche. Schwartz organizes these parts into three main groups: managers, exiles, and firefighters. Each part serves a different function. Managers keep the system of parts safe. Exiles carry the emotional pain of the wounds in the system. Firefighters eliminate the emotional fallout of the exiles when they overtake the managers’ line of defense.
I like to think of the preservation of the psyche as the denial of the pit. Thinking in IFS terms, my parts catapulted me out of the pit I described previously. I remember a crucial moment, the night of my last drug use, when I sat in a hospital bed, recovering from an overdose. I had a choice: get high, and come right back to this hospital bed again, or get clean.
My managers shifted into high-gear. My shame at getting stuck in the pit became the exiled parts that my managers banished to the recesses of my consciousness. And all might have been well for a time, had my managers been more industrious and skilled at running the show, had my exiled parts been less wounded and sad and beaten down by the trauma I never processed, had my firefighters not leaped into gear when the exiled parts wailed too loudly.
What this looked like was the following scenario: commit to going to lots of 12-step meetings; engage intense psychic pruning through rigorous moral inventory and chanting yogic precepts that encouraged non-violence, non-stealing, and contentment, amongst a host of other virtuous promises of enlightenment; practice six days a week; sponsor a bunch of girls in recovery; show up for family events with clockwork consistency; and move so quickly on the path of service, moralism, and compassion for all beings that I could outrun the wounded parts of me that begged for the same attentive care.
Then, when I couldn’t outrun these parts anymore, and went on an emotional bender that involved isolation, blowing up on someone I cared about, or bailing on commitments like yoga, another part of myself puffed up her shoulders and reorganized the system by renewing commitments, making new vows, and adding responsibility back to my plate, which just sent the exhausting cycle in motion again.
What I have learned from having this process repeat, over and over, is the following:
1. No matter how successful the managers may seem at running the show, and no matter how believable the façade of managing the system may seem, managers will always fail because they cannot outrun the exiles.
2. The exiles are the wounded parts of us that have experienced the pit and never been soothed, held, or assured. What is the pit? A mass of terror that I have named the Deep Dark Doom. What is the Deep Dark Doom? Shame.
3. Firefighters eliminate the emotional fallout of the exiles by any means necessary. Their extreme measures are overridden only by the managers, who can assure them that they can rise to the task of Protector of the Realm now that the firefighters have done their duty. How firefighters put out fires often seems illogical—but if you consider the function of the firefighter, it is perfectly logical in the system of dysfunction.
4. The system is dysfunctional because it is sustainable. Meaning, the very presence of the system, which sustains itself, is always dysfunctional because the fact that the system exists at all means that a deep wound has taken place.
I only came to this realization after experiencing this cycle of dysfunction in the 10 years that I have been sober, seemingly doing all the right things everybody applauds you for on Facebook, family holidays, yoga retreats, and 12-step anniversary celebrations. I became curious about how to arrest this system without activating another dysfunctional system, which led me to ask the question:
How can I actually experience freedom and the realization of the Self if it will always elude me the more I reach for it?
Jack Engler, an IFS therapist, defines Self and the process of realizing it in Internal Family Systems Therapy. Engler writes:
“Self is what remains when parts are willing to un-blend from us. When we relax into being that which is not any of our parts, we find our core, our essence, our true nature. Our natural state is a state of wholeness and completeness. Our natural state is a state of wholeness and completeness. And from that core, uncontrived state, we discover that basic wholesome qualities emanate spontaneously.
“For instance, we don’t become compassionate and kind. Kindness and compassion are already there, as are many other positive attributes. We cannot acquire or generate them, and we don’t need to because they are innate. They are not transient states of consciousness that come and go, but timeless qualities of being. Self is like a beam of light that refracts into all the colors of the rainbow as it passes through a prism and illuminates our parts and external objects in the world.” (Sweezey & Ziskind xviii)
When we get into inquiry and acceptance of our parts, they are able to step back. When they step back, we experience “a state of pure, open receptive awareness and acceptance without judgment or agendas” (Sweezey & Ziskind xx).
Everyone, even the most skilled of us, gets sucked out of this state at some point. Schwartz acknowledges that sometimes IFS therapists use their parts to help a client’s parts un-blend. It is inevitable; it is part of the human experience. I used to think that the goal of a life devoted to spirituality meant transcending this experience. Understanding that desire within IFS framework, I can see that this desire is actually the manager still at work.
The presence of a goal is always evidence of Doing, which is the antithesis of Being. Where there is Doing, there is a part working. Where there is Being, there is the intimate, blissful encounter with Self.
The Yoga Sutras, a text written hundreds of years ago that codifies the system of yoga, describes in the second chapter on spiritual practice a group of hindrances called the klesha. Kleshas are root causes of pain. A few are named, but one that sticks out is abhinivesa, the will to live. The will to live causes suffering, and yet without it, we cannot exist long enough to comprehend that which lies beyond life, or beyond fulfilling basic survival needs. The Yoga Sutras goes on to name spiritual precepts we must abide by to experience freedom from the klesha. One of these precepts is ahimsa, or nonviolence.
I used to believe that nonviolence, understood within this context, meant engaging in uniform actions and steps, such as being eternally pleasant, never snapping at my mother, or restraining caustic words. What I am beginning to wonder is that perhaps precepts such as these which offer freedom from the causes of pain are referring to how we should treat that which causes us pain. In other words, maybe the spiritual ideal is actually referring to the state of being I must embody to pause the parts that engage the act of doing.
Schwartz says the more we can respect, honor, and understand the functionality of a part is the more we can pacify it to a state of non-use. Perhaps spiritual precepts such as ahimsa are not referring to homogenous actions or a strict moral code; perhaps these precepts are ways to come into relationship with our klesha and inner parts so that they don’t have power over us. They are simply one aspect of us and our gorgeous multiplicity rather than something to be stomped out, or banished (this would just create more Exiles).
In this sense, spiritual practice is the continuous expansion of awareness to the state of Self, rather than more Doing, more vows, more commitment. It means we acknowledge all parts, even the dark, wailing, and terrifying. We do not acknowledge these parts to merely bypass them. In the same way that parts can un-blend and integrate into a state of being, this intrapsychic, intraspiritual work generates a similar epiphenomenon in which the states of being and doing can be integrated. We become set free to experience the multiplicity of the collective human experience itself, which is its own kind of healing, un-blending, and integration.
In other words, we get to experience the full dimensions of the human experience, which was the point all along.
Today, I’m no longer in the business of making vows. I’m just learning how to be human.
Source: Sweezy, Martha and Ziskind, Ellen. Internal Family Systems Therapy. 2013.