Broken & Beautiful - an inside look at Internal Family Systems

It’s been a few weeks of Exposure Response Prevention (ERP) therapy for my OCD – which is the gold standard treatment for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder where you intentionally create opportunities for anxiety and fear to rise up, and then don’t do the compulsion that normally alleviates that fear. 

The problem was, I was hitting a bit of a roadblock. 

The good news is that all I had to do was change one word.

The whole idea of ERP is to practice leaning into the fear and riding the wave of emotion- rather than doing something to alleviate the fear. This is something I’ve learned how to do when a panic attack hits. Instead of fighting it off, resisting it and essentially prolonging it, I just lean into it, let my body freak out for a few minutes – ride the wave, catch my breath and continue with the rest of my day. 

Panic attacks are more of an inconvenience for me now than anything else…which I realize is kind of weird now that I say it out loud.

Tell me you intellectualize your feelings without telling me you intellectualize your feelings haha!

Anyway, so back to the ERP thing. In the sessions with my therapist she was really helping me create that sense of panic-attack-inducing fear, and I was able to have the fear start and rise up….and then I’d dissociate by shutting down my ability to feel and go completely numb to all emotions. 

(Dissociation is a maladaptive protective mechanism often from trauma that causes a feeling of disconnection from emotions, the body, or in some extreme cases can even cause amnesia)

She’d then talk me back into a place where I could feel the fear again, but there was a fine line for me between trying to sit with the anxiety enough but not too much that my body’s protective mechanisms kicked in and numbed me out via dissociation. I was starting to get really frustrated because it felt like my body was trying to sabotage my efforts to heal and work with my OCD. 

This part of me that kept protecting me by shutting down my fear…well it was really pissing me off. Especially after the dissociation lasted several days after one particularly heavy ERP session. 

I sent an email to my therapist asking for ideas to help get out of this emotionally numb state because it had almost been a week since I had any kind of emotion, and she said something that was both incredibly frustrating and incredibly helpful at the same time (like most good therapists do).

She said “I wonder if you could make some space for disconnected apathy – welcome it and allow it to stay as long as it needs.”

Ugh. That’s exactly what I needed to hear.

In a previous episode I shared how everything shifted when I decided to hold space for my chronic illness and disability and welcomed it in, rather than resisting it. My brilliant therapist gave me the exact reminder I needed to do the same thing for this part of me that was holding me in a dissociated state.

And it got me thinking around the circumstances that led me to have this skill of being able to dissociate and disconnect me from my emotions. Trauma is awful, absolutely, but it turns out it does teach us some great things! And actually great things, not great things in a sarcastic way.

My ability to take one deep breath and completely remove myself from big emotions was a HUGE asset as an ICU nurse. To be able to stay super objective, calm and in control of my higher level thinking brain when something started going sideways with a patient was an incredibly helpful skill.

This also showed up as my ability to not show weakness or fear when I worked as a nurse in the prison system and was in some wild situations.

It all came from trauma.

Objectively, when I look at it, I’m actually glad I have this part of me that knows how to do this so effectively.

There’s a psychology model that I really resonate with and have been using with my clients for nearly a decade now and it’s called Internal Family Systems. Truth be told, I started using it long before I knew there was a model for it – it’s just something that came so naturally and intuitively to me. 

The idea is that we all have different parts inside of us that are formed at pivotal moments in our lives that take on some kind of role. This expert dissociator – they’re one of my Protectors. They’re my primary protector now, actually. And no, I don’t have Dissociative Identity Disorder, but I really resonate with this model because it allows me – the true me, my Objective Observer – to be separated from all the reactive responses I have. It’s what allows me to notice the emotional freight train zipping off into the distance when something triggers me and for me to be able to stay on the platform and not get swept up in the reaction. 


The key here, though, is that all of these different parts of us were created to protect the wounded parts and the true self that hadn’t yet fully developed into the adult version of the Objective Observer.

This Primary Protector formed when I was a child in physical danger and helps me stay calm, not show fear, and not feel anything really. While this part of me absolutely served a powerful purpose, apparently it can’t tell the difference between actual physical danger and perceived physical danger that my OCD is great at creating. 

My true self, my Objective Observer self can tell the difference though. 

The core principle of the Internal Family Systems model is to let all these parts know that you, your true Objective Observer self:

  • Values them
  • Appreciates their input
  • But don’t need them to make the decisions to keep you safe, because that’s what YOU, your Objective Observer self can do.

In the Elevate program I explain it as if your body is like a fortune 500 company. You, your Objective Observer, are the CEO. You’re in charge, but you have a number of people working for you, bringing things to your attention and offering ideas.

Your Inner Critic, your Inner Child, your Protectors, your Wounded parts, the parts of you that you Exile and push away – they’re all departments that all have a role and all have ideas of what’s best. But you, the CEO, get to listen, take it all in and then decide what to do with it.

Two episodes ago when I shared about my acceptance of my OCD and leaning into the uncertainty, I shared that I had been given the word Formidable as a way to describe myself. And I really liked that because it has this essence of being unshakeable, unaffected, unafraid. I read this word as part of my morning check in every morning (one of the optimize program habits) just to remind me of who I am and who I want to be. 

But after my therapy session this week, I realized that Formidable doesn’t actually describe ME, the Objective Observer inside this body. It describes the Primary Protector. By reinforcing the idea of being formidable, I am making it impossible for me to stay with uncertainty – because if I’m uncertain, I can be shaken, I can be affected, and I can get scared.

I was sharing this with my partner that I needed to come up with a new word to connect with each morning because formidable wasn’t it. I was stuck because all I was thinking was to be like Spiderman, haha. Spiderman gets hit, knocked down, beat up, smushed – and gets back up because that’s who he is. But I wanted a word that summarized the essence of that without the vision of a red and blue spandex onesie.

My partner, having the beautiful brain that he does, helped me land on the Japanese word Kintsugi.

Kintsugi is the Japanese art of mending broken bowls with gold paint.

Showing compassion for the broken parts, holding space for them, and honouring them. This is exactly what that moment felt like when I was in a puddle of tears on the ground beside my treadmill when I welcomed in my chronic illness – and this is exactly the feeling I get when I hold space for the Formidable Primary Protector and let them know that they don’t have to protect me by themselves anymore. 

Because you see, in Internal Family Systems, our Protectors only take back control of the “System” – us – when they feel they’re not being listened to or we’re not taking their concern seriously. 

Since spending some time reconnecting to my Objective Observer and reassuring my Formidable Primary Protector that I’m in charge again, I’m starting to see the way forward to lean into the uncertainty and feel the fear. To release the grip that OCD has on my thoughts right now, and to hold space for the hypervigilance. Because right now, it needs to be heard and will only get louder if I ignore it or push it away. 

So, friend, my challenge for you for this week is to reflect on the part of you that you’ve been resisting, trying to push away, and shove down into those dark corners of your body never to see the light of day again?

Which part of you do you need to hold space for? 

Which part of you needs to be heard? 

Which parts of you need compassion and understanding instead of frustration and resentment?

Which part of you needs a little gold paint?

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Broken & Beautiful

This was the first song that popped into my mind while I was writing this post, so I figured I’d share it. Cheers to being broken and beautiful!