Listening to the Many Parts of Ourselves

A few weeks ago I was contemplating schooling options for my daughters for next year.  Even though my daughters currently attend a wonderful, progressive school that is a block and a half from the home where we are living, every so often I hear a little voice that tells me that I should enroll my children in a Montessori School.  Lately, I have heard so many wonderful things about Montessori schools, that I decided to ask my older daughter, Maya, if she would even be interested in attending a Montessori school.

When I discussed the idea of Montessori schooling with Maya, she expressed what I like to call “side by side” feelings about the idea of changing schools.  She expressed excitement at the prospect of having more autonomy in a Montessori School as well as fear about the prospect of leaving her friends at her current school. 

That same evening that we had had the Montessori discussion, I found out that the home that we are currently renting is going to be put up for sale.  My mind started to swirl with possibilities because our lease only goes through the end of the month after next.   During dinner that night, I shared with my daughters that there was a possibility that we might be moving in the future, and we had a little discussion about that idea as well.

When it was time to put Maya to bed that night, she was so full of feelings about the idea of a new school and the possibility of moving that I realized that we would need to do a little “integration” work before putting her to bed.   Luckily, inspiration supplied me with an idea that involved clay, a flashlight, and a little “feelings” imagination.

I asked Maya to name the feelings that she had in relation to the possiblity of potentially changing schools and moving.  Together we named and created clay characters for the “amygdala” (Maya’s idea–colloquially known as STRESS), excitement, balance, the “leaper,” sadness, fear, denial and joy/love. 

After we had created all of the figures that represented the different feelings and voices that she had in her mind, we took turns shining the flashlight of awareness on each figure as we listened to what it had to say.  The leaper was excited about the prospect of changing to a Montessori School; denial said that nothing would change….ever.  Balance suggested a balanced approach and sadness talked about the feelings that Maya would have if she no longer went to school with her best friend.  Love and joy reminded us that our family would be together no matter what, and that throughout any change or absence of change, love and community would be a constant.

As we took the time to listen to each of the many voices, Maya began to feel calmer and more ready for bed.  Instead of pushing down her fear or sadness, we had taken the time to listen to and integrate their voices.  Maya went to bed peacefully that night, and I found that I, too, had benefited from our feelings integration session.

Indeed clay figures are not just for children.  In the weeks that followed the announcement of our home going on the market, I created additional clay figures (the voice of the dollar, the nurturer, the curmudgeon) and spent time listening to and contemplating the input from the many voices.  Even though part of me (the “leaper”) is still excited about the prospect of Montessori schooling for my daughters, I am also listening to the quiet voice of wisdom that encourages me to have them continue to attend the wonderful school down the street that they love.  Similarly there is a steady voice that is advising me not to move yet and to instead explore the possibility of purchasing the home that we are currently renting.

Ultimately, what is important is not the decisions that our family makes-to change schools or not, to move or stay put. What is important is that I am listening to the many voices with openness and curiosity and listening still further for the steadiness beneath them all.  What is important is that I am asking the questions, “What do I need?”  and “What do my children need?” and listening carefully to the answers to these questions.

This poem by Mary Oliver, entitled The Journey, illustrates some of the truths that I am finding on this journey of questioning and listening (click on the title of the poem to read it).  Thank you for sharing in this journey of rediscovering wholeness with me.

Embracing the Man Behind the Curtain

“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain….”  I awoke this morning with that quote and image from the Wizard of Oz in my mind.  Wizard of Oz fans may remember this part of the movie toward the end when Dorothy is requesting to the Great Oz that he provide her with a return journey back home while the Great Oz flashes scary images and threats onto the screen and tells her to go away.  But while this is happening, Toto has found the hidden room where the man is controlling the images projected onto the screen, and Toto is exposing the man behind the curtain to Dorothy.  “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain….” the man behind the curtain desperately implores.  To me, this image of the projection screen and the man behind the curtain is a metaphor for what we all can sometimes do with ourselves as we project the image that we want others to see into the world.

“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” we say while we hide the parts of ourselves that we think might be displeasing behind the curtain.  We shove the scared one, the vulnerable one, the loud one, the big one, the controlling one, the needy one, the one who thinks we could never be lovable as we are…we shove them all in a little room in the back—behind the curtain.  And we place our hands on the controller for the projection screen, “I am the great and powerful Oz!” we say.  Hoping, just hoping that others will buy into the image on the screen, perhaps that even we will buy into the image on the screen….under the delusion that the projection will enable us to finally experience the love and acceptance that we so desperately crave.

But it will never work.  It will never work to lock parts of ourselves in the back room or hide parts of ourselves behind the curtain.  It does not allow us the opportunity to see and embrace ourselves in the fullness of our humanity, nor does it allow us to be truly seen and connected with others.  We cannot learn to truly love ourselves or one another unless we can allow in the fullness of our humanity–the light and the darkness.

What we are looking for in this journey of life is right relationship with the parts of ourselves that could wreak havoc on our relationships if not healed and attended to.  I don’t want to BECOME the controller, the needy one, the fearful one, the irrational one, but I also don’t want to deny those parts of myself either.  Through the many tools available (including, but not limited to prayer, meditation, therapy, contemplation, mindfulness, self-compassion, patience, time, intention and wisdom), I want to learn to embrace and hold, touch and heal those deeply human parts of myself and my psyche that all humans share. 

At a Mindful Self-Compassion training that I attended last year, our cohort attended a lecture on a  model of psychotherapy called Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS), which suggests just this approach to embracing the many parts of ourselves.  I am currently reading Jay Earley’s book on IFS, entitled, Self-Therapy, and I wanted to share two illustrations from his book.

This first illustrates our psyche when we are hiding certain parts of ourselves from ourselves (and the world) and defending against the pain of being fully exposed.

In this first illustration (above) the love of the heart is obscured by its protectors, and the parts of ourselves that deeply need healing are obscured from the light of consciousness.

The second illustration shown above illustrates the psyche when it has become Self-led—when it has learned to embrace and integrate the man (and women and children) behind the curtain.

And I would like to share with you how deeply freeing and healing it has been to learn to embrace ALL of myself.  I used to fear that if I embraced the “dark” parts of myself, that they would grow bigger, but instead I am finding that the “dark” (aka human) parts of myself become “right sized” when I hold them in the spacious light of loving awareness.  Yes, the needy one, the controlling one, the fearful one, the irrational one…they are a part of me.  But they are a part, not the whole, and when I relate to them in a healthy way they enhance my compassion and ability to relate with others.

As I shift my focus away from hiding from my dark parts, I am starting to allow in the light of self-appreciation.  I am intentionally cultivating an awareness and appreciate for the fact that I (like you) am amazing, courageous, inspired, open, authentic, encouraging and creative.  The miracle of this integrative work is that as I learn to embrace the wonderful parts of myself, I am simultaneously learning to behold and appreciate the amazing parts of you, too.  And there is an awareness growing in my heart that who I am and who you are is much, much bigger than the sum total of our parts.

So it is my wish that you and I—sisters and brothers on this journey of life—may cease to put our energy into hiding and controlling the images on the projection/protection screen.  It is my wish that we may cultivate the strength, grace, courage, love, resilience and connection to embrace and integrate the many uncomfortable and amazing parts of ourselves. For it is only from a deep place of self-love, self-appreciation and self-acceptance that we can truly love, embrace and appreciate one another.