Ben: Yea, but then I get mad at myself for screwing up (points to Angry) and my parents get on my back and that really pisses me off. Then I cuss and throw things and break things. But it just makes me feel worse. So I go party again.
Sharon: Hmmm, sounds like you’re caught in a loop. The Stressed-out Boy is trying so hard to live up to impossible expectations and its wearing him down. He’s exhausted. So the Party Animal steps in to give the Boy a break. The Party Animal is trying to help, but he doesn’t realize he’s making matters worse, because now you’re behind in school, which disappoints your teachers and your parents, which adds more weight to the Stressed-out Boy. Then Angry enters the picture and he’s really pissed. He’s responding to the fact that the Boy can’t take any more and he wants the world to know it. He’s very concerned about the Boy and his intentions are good, but again his behavior causes more harm than good. And now you really look bad. More weight is added to the shoulders of the Boy. Do you see the loop?
Ben: Yea, I do. I see it..
This is an abridged version of an actual therapy session which lasted two hours. Although my client has given permission to present this case for educational purposes, names and certain details have been changed to protect my client’s identity.
Ben is a 16 year old high school student who reports feeling depressed, having trouble in school and strained relationships with his parents. His mother is a teacher and his father is a salesman. He has an older sister, Audrey, who is a junior at a prestigious college on scholarship to study chemistry. On the day of this session, Ben presented friendly and polite, appropriately groomed in jeans and a T-shirt. Ben is about 5’10” and weighs approx. 135 lbs and reports no physical illness. He says he likes sports, likes to party with his friends, hang out by the woodland creek near his home and play with his dog. He also likes to compose synthesized alternative music. He says he has a good relationship with his older sister. In fact, it was she who told him to seek help for his depression. He denies alcohol use although admits smoking marijuana when he parties with friends, but not during school hours, which is substantiated by parents and teachers.
Now imagine being Peaceful Guy again, watching the creek flow and hearing the birds, everything that makes this place seem real to you. It is all so peaceful. And from the eyes of Peaceful Man, look at Judge and tell me how you feel toward him.
Ben: I see he is trying to help, but he isn’t. He needs to back off.
Sharon: Yes, that’s right. He needs to back off. But he has a job to serve you. Having a healthy inner Judge part can be very important in life, like knowing when to stay away from kids who could get you into serious trouble, or standing up against a bully, that sort of thing. So, tell the Judge how he can help you right now.
Ben: He needs to stop criticizing me and tell me that I’m good at what I like to do, like my music. I really like my music and my friends like it too. It makes me feel good when I D.J.(disc jockey) at a party and everyone’s dancing and having a good time. I like making people happy like that. I want Judge to tell me I’m doing good when I ‘m working as a D.J..
Sharon: That’s a great idea. Sounds like you know what makes you happy, and right now that’s when you D.J. and see people having a good time. And how does Judge feel about that? Is he willing to help you explore what it means to be Ben, to help you find you’re path in life? Ask him about this.
Ben: Yes, he’s OK with that.
Sharon: Good. Now have Peaceful Guy take all of your parts, Angry, Party Animal, and Judge to the creek. And once you are there ask Peaceful Guy to help your parts understand Stressed-out Boy and to help him with his burden, with the heavy world of expectations and criticism on his back. Just let the scene play out.
I have Ben sit on the carpet and spread the cards out in front of him, telling him to look at each card as he lays it down. I am sitting next to him on a low foot stool where I can see his face. Next, I instruct him to select cards that seem to represent some part of him, parts that are involved in the way he feels right now. I stress that he shouldn’t think about or edit his choices, but go on his gut feelings about which cards fit best for him. I explain that the cards have no set meaning, only the meanings he gives to them. Ben chooses four cards he calls Stressed-out Boy, Angry, Peaceful Guy and Party Animal.
Sharon: Hmmm, I’m hearing a critical voice. Another part is in the living room and it’s saying the Boy isn’t good enough. Ben, open your eyes now and look at the other cards again. See if you can find a card to represent a part that thinks the Boy isn’t good enough.
(Ben picks the Judge.)
Sharon: Yes, I think you found him. What’s his name?
At the beginning of the session I took about 10 minutes to explain “Parts Work” using the book Parts Work: An Illustrated Guide to Your Inner Life by Tom Holmes, to highlight ideas of multiplicity of mind and how, and why parts develop and function. I stress that he is safe and has the right to stop therapy at anytime. We review the rules of confidentiality and my duty to warn. I will be using Inner Active Cards (prototype, before publication).
Ben chose a burdened “child” card, Stressed-out Boy, to represent how he felt growing up in the shadow of his sister. The Judge is a “manager” that formed from cues collected from the external environment; familial, religious and cultural influences. The “Party Animal” takes the role of rebel and/or distracter. Here Party Animal serves as a reactionary function to diffuse the constant criticism of the Judge. The Angry Bull card serves as an extreme protector. Anger in Ben’s case is a “red flag” that some part was in conflict with who Ben truly is: namely the Judge.
Peaceful Guy presented Self qualities and I was fortunate to have access to this source from the beginning. Peaceful Guy initiated Self- Leadership when dealing with the Judge, an extreme manager, resulting in transformative healing in Ben’s inner system. This transformation had a ripple effect, helping to center other extreme and reactionary parts in later sessions.
This session was more “directive” than sessions I have with adult clients, mainly because of Ben’s age. At 16, cognitive functions are still forming as is a young man’s knowledge base and perspective on life. It was my judgment call. Some Internal Family Systems therapists are directive in their techniques even with adults. However, I find therapy more effective when clients are allowed to come to their own conclusions concerning parts and their purposes. Most adults are able to do this and it fosters a sense of confidence, which ultimately translates to Self-Leadership. With young people, however, I do double duty as guide and teacher, and this has proved to be effective.
Remember this is an edited version of the session; more dialogue took place than I have presented here. The session lasted two hours. Never-the-less, I hope this version demonstrates how Inner Active Cards function to “catch” the dynamics of the inner world, enhancing and concretizing the therapeutic process.
I created the Boy Dancing on the World card as a commemoration to Ben’s session. Later, Ben inspired me to create the College Student card as he discovered a part that wants to go to college and study music. His parents, concerned about Ben’s grades, worked with teachers and had Ben enrolled in A.P. (advanced placement) classes and he is doing much better. Ben continues to pursue his interest in music composition and has been getting “gigs” to D.J. at events in the area. He also is self-employed doing yard work part time during the summer, earning his own money. His parents and sister are proud of him.
Ben: It means I’m trying so hard to be like my sister, to get good grades and make my parents proud of me, but I keep failing. So I go party with my friends and don’t do my school work. (Ben points to the Party Animal)
Sharon : The Party Animal helps distract you from your burden of trying to be like your sister and doing good in school.
I give Ben several minutes to study his selected cards and instruct him to imagine how that part feels when it is active (in the living room). Then I have Ben tell me his story using the cards to represent his feelings.
Case Example - Ben
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(about a minute passes and Ben has a smile on his face)
So what is happening?
Ben: The Boy feels better now.
Sharon: What happened to the world that he was carrying?
Ben: He’s dancing on it.
Ben: This first one (Boy world on his shoulders; Stress-out Boy) is how I feel most of the time, especially at home and at school.
Sharon: You are carrying a heavy load on your shoulders. That is quite a burden and the trail you follow looks hard, if not impossible. Tell me what this means to you.
Sharon: And this is really hard on you. Every time Judge criticizes you it makes you feel worse, it adds more weight to Boy’s shoulders. (Ben nods). So ask Judge why he does this. Ask him why he judges you all the time. (Pause)
Ben: He says he wants my parents to be proud of me. He wants me to succeed. And its not like I don’t try. I do. But I’m not like Audrey. I don’t like science that much. I’m not good at it like she is. And I don’t like school. I like other things.
Sharon: You’re right: You are not like your sister and Judge needs to know that, because maybe he’s confused about something and needs you to set him straight. Maybe he has the wrong idea about how to help you.
You said Judge believes you have to be like your sister so your parents will be proud of you. Judge really believes he has to be hard on you to keep you in line for your own good. These kind of parts act as inner managers taking cues from the outer world about how you should behave to be successful. And the role model for Judge was your sister, Audrey. But Judge is confused about something very important: To succeed you have to be Ben, not Audrey. Audrey succeeds because she is doing what she does best and what she loves to do. I heard you say “I like other things” and as long as Judge thinks you have to be like Audrey, these other things are being ignored and this stirs up conflicting emotions like you find between the Party Animal and Angry.
You know, not all successful people were straight A students. Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison are good examples of men who did poorly in school when they were kids. And not everyone knows exactly what they want to do in life when they are only 16. For many it’s a life long process, a culmination of many experiences. And I know for a fact that your parents love you for who you are …And you are Ben, not Audrey. And you have your own talents and abilities and path to follow in this life. Sure your parents want you to do good in school, and sure they want you to succeed, but I really don’t believe they want you to be exactly like Audrey. They want you to be Ben. But maybe Judge doesn’t know that.
(Ben smiles and nods)
All artwork ©/™ Sharon Sargent Eckstein & Backwoods Press, 2012. Graphics and Web Site by Jane Eckstein.
Sharon: And we will talk about that more in a few minutes. Have these guys step back for a while. (I move the three cards to the side) Because now I’d like to get to know this part of you. (Peaceful Guy sitting on the rock). Tell me about this card.
Ben: That’s me when I go hang out at the creek. I’ve always liked it there. I like to go down there by myself and just watch the water. And there are birds and all sorts of wild life. It’s so peaceful.
Sharon: This sounds like a beautiful place. I can see you relaxing there and enjoying the beauty of nature. And I’d like you to close your eyes and imagine yourself there right now. Shift around and get comfortable if you need to and take a few deep calming breaths. Ask these other parts to step back for a while as you take a break, letting them know that we will come back and talk to them later. Let them know that they are safe, that you are safe, and it’s important for you to go to the creek to learn something important about yourself. Just imagine what its like to be at the creek; the sound of the water, the sights and smells, the way the summer air feels on your skin. And notice how calm and peaceful you are. All your worries and concerns floating down stream. I give Ben a minute to fully engage the scene. Are you there? (Ben nods) Good. Now have Stressed-out Boy show up. And tell me how you feel towards him. (Pause) Is he there?
Ben: Yes, he’s there. And I feel sorry for him, but he doesn’t try hard enough. He could do better.