I truly believe that the way we think about ourselves and the world we live in greatly determines the way we behave and act. We get that conditioning in childhood, good or not so good, and it is added to by gained experience over a period of time. We can often remember the feelings around significant events that have shaped our thinking more than the events themselves. These feelings leave an imprint on us that we take forward into our adulthood and subsequent relationships. These feelings turn into protective thinking patterns that try to warn us about impending danger or the possibility of being under threat. It is not easy to live with the rigid feeling that these thinking patterns bring and we often try to escape or avoid them by methods that give us instant gratification. Eating, drinking, shopping, sex all give us temporary relief from the pain of being told by our self-talk that we are bad people and we should feel shame and guilt.
It is essential for any recovery process that the way we think is analysed and adjusted to help the way forward. There are many different methods that can be employed to help this process but I personally enjoy turning thinking parts into people. I find it is then easier to talk and negotiate with them. While it might initially seem strange, it can truly help to understand thinking, where it came from and how it has been affecting the way the world is seen for many years.
When I ask clients to do this, they are initially reluctant to draw with the non dominant hand and often feel apprehensive to show me their efforts. In a way, it is a mirror of the expectations placed on them in childhood and resulting shame at not meeting those expectations. Some take a perfectionist view, not finishing until they are happy with the resulting image, which could take some time. Working with the non-dominant hand adds the element of working with the emotional part of the mind, opening doors that have been largely closed for years. It can be an emotional experience as clients tap into their psyche. The best results when it comes to depicting any of the internal family as a person comes between sessions when time can be taken to get the image right.
In one particular case I have at present (the client is still in therapy, so no details of her case are given here), some wonderful pictures were hand drawn to depict the Inner Child, Shame, Inner Critic, Escape and Assertive voices*. The client is very left brained and works in an industry where that is very much called for. However, she is also an artist and we needed to direct her attention to using her right-brain skills in this exercise. She was initially reluctant to do this and often made comments that suggested she couldn’t or didn’t see the purpose or need. She was, of course, protecting herself from what she might find there. As we worked further in therapy, she gradually warmed to the idea and through a mixture of drawing and meditation, she was able to access enough feeling about the different thinking parts to be able to depict them in the wonderful drawings you see scattered through the post here.
Every week as they appeared in my mailbox, they got better and better as she found more enthusiasm for the work. While these drawings are the work of an artist, the depictions of an internal family do not need to be to such a high standard. People often relate to shapes, symbols, animals and a stick figure in their attempts to understand the way they feel. Quite interestingly, the shame and critic thinking parts are often depicted as old, sad figures and the escape as wistful and airy. This really does denote their “manager” and “firefighter” status.
So what is the point of all this meditation and creative writing and drawing? Is this real therapy, one might ask? The question that has plagued therapy over the years is just how do you encourage and help a client to move from what they perceive to be a hopeless position to one that might help them see a better future. We generally seek to take the easy way out of any issues we have and one of the main methods of employing the easy way is to avoid, procrastinate and do nothing, hoping the issue will solve itself. We may also overwork or keep busy to avoid these feelings. The main driver of these actions is the self-talk we employ to avoid facing the issues. In the case of codependency, this attitude often prevails when deciding whether to leave a relationship, often with disastrous consequences. My firm belief is that we are what we think and we behave and act based on that thinking. Seeing that most of our thinking is adopted from a very early age, it is only right to delve into that part of us and understand fully why we think like we do and what it protects us from.
There are many approaches in therapy that aim to do this. CBT, is perhaps the best known but it has a focus on the here and now, attempting to change the way we view a situation. While this is a great approach, I believe that it works better if a client fully understands why they think like they do that initiate a skewed view in the first place. Exploring the thinking parts that govern the way we see the world is the part of the iceberg under the water.
Once these thinking parts are discovered, what can we do with them? Drawing a picture of them means very little other than a recognition that that part of us exists. While this is hugely important because we often hide some of these thoughts, we then have to look at what we do next and it is all about connection. The process is to get to know these parts of our thinking, create a relationship through dialogue and as in real-life relationships, build a trusting partnership. This is done by not only communicating with them when they appear but also randomly through meditation. As lost children of our psyche, who were formed to protect us, they are fearful child-like characters who motivate us with their fearful messages. They need release and they will only stop when they, themselves, feel understood enough to believe that they do not need to intervene. This will often come when we reach the point that the Adult or Assertive voice can sooth and regulate them.
I often use a meditation of being in a room, initially with just a window and a door to act as a meeting place for the adult /assertive voice, the inner child and any given thinking part that might be present. This can lead to a dialogue that can help bring understanding of what is truly holding us back and why. We are faced to confront our own fears. This exercise can be expanded to creating a whole world in and out of this room where the figures we identify as our internal family can meet, greet and get to know each other but most of all, help each other to move forward by being a functional family.
(*) Footnote: All images are reproduced with the expressed consent of the person who drew them. Please do not use these images.
Dr. Nicholas Jenner, a therapist, coach, and speaker, has over 20 years of experience in the field of therapy and coaching. His specialty lies in treating codependency, a condition that is often characterized by a compulsive dependence on a partner, friend, or family member for emotional or psychological sustenance. Dr. Jenner’s approach to treating codependency involves using Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy, a treatment method that has gained widespread popularity in recent years. He identifies the underlying causes of codependent behavior by exploring his patients’ internal “parts,” or their different emotional states, to develop strategies to break free from it. Dr. Jenner has authored numerous works on the topic and offers online therapy services to assist individuals in developing healthy relationships and achieving emotional independence.