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Embrace Your Self-Destructive Impulses? How People Can Connect with Dark Parts of Their Psyche for Personal Change

As people relate to their disturbing inner experiences, they can become more accepting of the aspects of themselves with which they’ve been struggling.

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Attachment Theory assumes that healing occurs only when one person becomes a healthy attachment figure for another—a therapist for a client, one spouse for another, or a parent for a child—exhibiting the kind of engaged, active mindfulness we’ve been discussing. However, Self-leadership opens the possibility of a different kind of attachment-based healing within a person, which can lead to a deep sense of personal empowerment.

The observer type of mindfulness meditation can reinforce the effects of this inner attachment, so that therapy and meditation complement and feed each other. I’ve encouraged many of my clients to practice the observer type of meditation between sessions, and have found that their progress is hugely accelerated. The meditations help people practice separating from and accepting their parts, while accessing and trusting the mindfulness state, which increases clients’ ability for self-healing. The healing done in therapy, in turn, allows for deeper and less interrupted meditations. As clients become increasingly able to notice, rather than blend with, the wounded parts of themselves that are triggered as they go through their daily lives, they become clearer about what needs attention in therapy sessions.

The Therapist’s Role

With all this talk of self-healing, I don’t want to downplay the importance of the client’s relationship with the therapist. What does shift is the focus on the therapist from being the primary attachment figure to serving as an accepting container of awareness who opens space for the client’s own Self to emerge. To do this, therapists must embody their own fullest Self, acting as a tuning fork to awaken the client’s Self to its own resonance. To achieve this kind of embodiment, therapists must learn to be mindful of their own parts as they work with clients, recognizing that transference and countertransference are, at some level, a continuing behind-the-scenes dance as therapists and clients inevitably trigger each other. The inescapable reality of therapy is that, if we do our jobs well, clients will do all kinds of provocative things that repeatedly test us. They’ll resist, get angry and critical, become hugely dependent, talk incessantly, behave dangerously between sessions, show intense vulnerability, idealize us, attack themselves, and display astounding narcissism and self-centeredness.

Some of this is because they have parts forged by relationships with hurtful caretakers that are stuck in the past and, as they sense our open-heartedness, all that gets ignited. The Self-led therapist is basically issuing the client an invitation: “All parts are welcome!” From the darkest corners of their psyches, aspects of clients that others never see emerge in all their crazy glory, and that’s a good thing. When we aren’t overwhelmed by our own parts and can remain Self-led, clients can get to know what’s going on inside them, and healing emerges.

But therapists aren’t Buddhas and regularly get triggered by the intensity of their interplay with their clients, whether they wish to acknowledge it or not. Fortunately, as you become increasingly familiar with the physical experience of embodying this mindful Self, you’ll be better able to notice the shift in your body when a troubled part hijacks you (you have a “part attack”). With that awareness—and lots of experience doing this kind of clinical work—comes the ability to calm the part in the moment and ask it to separate and let your fuller Self return.

If I had a microphone in my head when I was treating certain challenging clients, you’d hear me saying repeatedly to myself things like: “I know you’re upset, but just let me stay and handle this. Remember it always goes better if you let me keep my mind open. Just relax and trust me, and I’ll talk to you after the session.” On my good days, those words produce an immediate shift in my level of Self-embodiment—my heart opens, my shoulder muscles release, or the crowd of negative thoughts in my head disperses. My client suddenly looks different—less menacing or hopeless, and more vulnerable. Between sessions, I’ll follow up by bringing the parts that my client aroused to their own therapy, to give them the attention they need. In this way, our clients become our “tor-mentors” —by tormenting us, they mentor us, making us aware of what needs our loving attention.

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