Alexia Rothman on The Therapeutic Dose of Empathy in IFS
Dr. Alexia Rothman is a licensed psychologist and Certified IFS therapist in private practice in Atlanta, GA. She is a United States Presidential Scholar who completed her doctoral work in Clinical Psychology in 2003 at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she was a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow. She has formerly held adjunct professor positions in the Psychology Departments of Emory University and Agnes Scott College. Dr. Rothman was drawn to the IFS model through her therapeutic work with trauma survivors, and she began her formal training in the IFS model in 2011. Over the past 11 years, Dr. Rothman has served as a Program Assistant for many Level 1, 2, and 3 experiential IFS trainings. In 2016, Dr. Rothman combined her passion for psychotherapy and her love of teaching and began offering full-day workshops to introduce the IFS model to clinicians. She now regularly teaches both introductory and more advanced IFS workshops throughout the United States and abroad, and she serves as an IFS consultant, helping clinicians to deepen their knowledge of the IFS model while working with their own systems to facilitate maximal access to Self-energy in their professional and personal lives. Dr. Rothman is married to an IFS therapist and is the mother of two human children and three Tonkinese cats.
You can find more about Dr. Alexia here at her website
Today on IFS talks we're speaking with Dr. Alexia Rothman, Lexi. Lexi is a licensed psychologist and certified IFS therapist in private practice in Atlanta, Georgia. She has her doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of California, Los Angeles. Lexi has held a junk professor position in the psychology department of Emory university and Agnes Scott College. She was drawn to the IFS model through her therapeutic work with trauma survivors, and she began her formal training in IFS in 2011.
Over the past 11 years, Dr. Rothman has served as a Program Assistant for many IFS trainings. She's combined her passion for psychotherapy and her love of teaching, and she's begun offering full day workshops to introduce the IFS model to clinicians. She now regularly teaches both introductory and advanced IFS workshops and serves as an IFS consultant, helping clinicians to deepen their knowledge of the IFS model. Lexi, welcome to IFS Talks, and thank you so much for joining us today.
Alexia Rothman: Thank you so much for having me. I'm excited to be here, a little nervous and excited.
Aníbal Henriques: Thanks much, Lexi, for joining us. What parts come up today hearing your bio?
Lexi: What I was noticing as I was listening to the bio is a really deep sense of gratitude, and this comes up for me, actually, anytime I think back over my professional journey, just gratitude that I have gotten for so many decades now to spend my time doing what I really love doing and what I'm interested in and what I feel comes really naturally to me. So, being a therapist, teaching IFS, it doesn't feel so much like a profession as much as it feels like me just being me in the world. And, as I'm saying that, I'm feeling this joy coming up within me and right next to that, I'm aware of a part that is acknowledging that this is not the, this is not the story for everyone. You know, that things like your interest and your curiosity and being yourself can always be the guiding forces in your professional life. So, I have an acknowledgement that it is a great privilege, that that's been the case for me. And really also I have a sense of a desire to share whatever has been helpful for me along the way in my journey with others and I have gotten to do that as a therapist. I think for all of us, the more that we learn and grow, the more that we can really offer to our clients. But in recent years, I've found that I can do that on an even larger scale by teaching the IFS model to clinicians.
Tisha: Can you tell us about your journey as a psychotherapist? Was there something that was predeterminant in you becoming a therapist?
Lexi: Yeah. When I've thought back over my life, I think there are really two main starting points for my professional journey. So, my journey as a therapist started in high school. When I was 14, my mother and I were trained to work on a crisis hotline six hours a week. So, I was only 14. They were not putting me on the calls with the people in crisis because I was too young, but I was actually allowed to attend all of the trainings and the supervision sessions and assist the counselors. So that's when I really started to first learn some of the skills that are involved with being present with someone who is in acute emotional distress. And by a few years after that, actually at my university, I actually had become the head of the crisis hotline at the university. So, I was able to put some of those skills into practice. So that's my training as a therapist, I guess it informally started at 14, but my journey as a psychologist, I think as a student of human behavior and of the human mind and that desire to engage with people with interest with curiosity started much younger than 14. And I really attribute this to my mother because her story, she grew up very poor, she lived in a housing project in New York city near the Queensboro bridge and didn't really have money, so, she didn't really have toys to play with, so, people were her entertainment. She's always had a fascination with how people think, how they behave, their habits, their verbal and nonverbal communication styles, their impact of their cultural background on their life experience. And she transferred this curiosity to me. And I actually remember distinctly, I was five or six years old. This is the earliest memory I have of her kind of transferring this curiosity about people to me. I was coming back from school on the bus and I saw a boy on the bus bullying another child and I wasn't in tremendous distress about this. So, I didn't really need anything very much emotionally, but I had some confusion about it. So, I came home, and I told my mother, this is what I saw. And I didn't really think much about the nature of her reaction at the time. But when I became an IFS therapist, it became really interesting to me how she had chosen to react because her response was one of pure curiosity. So, she said “I wonder what's going on in his life that's making him act out that way.” And then she turned the question on me “What do you think some of the reasons might be that he's bullying this other child?” And we talked together, we thought about the different things we knew about his life and possible stressors and the function that the bullying behavior might be playing for him, what it might be doing to help him. And I remember the next day, because I was only probably six, I actually proceeded to tell this boy all of the different reasons why he could have been bullying the other child. And I don't think it went over very well, but he didn't do it again. But what was important, I think, for me about the fact that she had this interest in people and this curiosity about what made them tick was it gave me the sense that human behavior really does have a logic to it. It makes sense in some way, even if it's confusing at first, that it really does make sense, even when it's awful. So that really supported my natural curiosity, I think.
Tisha: I hear so much compassion in that too.
Tisha: Right? She didn't jump to being in a judgmental manager, which I think would be so easy, you know, and then it kind of brought out your compassion to have that enlightened perspective.
Lexi: Yeah. I appreciate you saying that because that is how it felt to me. And I'm grateful for that because she could have put different perspectives in my head that would have been about her and her parts. And she didn't, there was openness, there was interest, there was compassion. I guess those were the more informal beginnings of my journey. And then when I was a teenager, my mother actually went to back to graduate school. She earned degrees in Social Work and Marriage and Family Therapy. And so, she was trained in family systems therapy and gestalt therapy. So, then her perspective in our discussion started to be flavored by these approaches. And when it was time for me to start my formal studies, I moved from New York. That's where I had grown up. I moved down to Atlanta, to Emory University and I'm still actually sitting across the street from that university right now in my private practice office. And I had a wonderful mentor for my undergraduate studies, Dr. Stephen Nowicki, who is clinical psychologist, master professor, wonderful public speaker, researcher, author, all of this. And I still have a close relationship with him to this day. And we did a lot of research together on nonverbal communication. And that still, I think, informs my clinical work, but of all the things he did for me, and there were many, what stayed with me the most is something he would repeat to me over and over again which is, he'd say “Lexi, remember relationships are everything.” And it was excellent advice. But I used to only think about it in terms of external relationships. So my relationships with my family or colleagues or mentors, my clients, and once I started learning IFS, it just took on such a deeper meaning for me, because almost everything that we're trying to do as IFS therapists is to facilitate the development of these internal relationships between the Self of our clients and the various, you know, individuals that make up their internal systems. So, the importance of that is a big theme for me.
Aníbal: So, it looks like your graduation in psychology started home. But how did you become involved with the IFS model?
Lexi: I finished up my doctoral training. I was out in the University of California, Los Angeles for about five years. I came back to Atlanta. I opened a practice in 2004 and I was using at the time a very integrative approach to therapy. So, I had been trained in CBT a little bit of DBT, some psychodynamic approaches, interpersonal therapy. I was kind of blending everything together and I really felt strongly if I was ever going to work primarily from one theoretical orientation, it needed to be one that I guess included or integrated all of the elements that I had found really useful or helpful about the other models I had learned. And around 2010, I was working with three different clients that I started learning where survivors have much more severe and extensive childhood trauma than I had actually realized before. And part of why, even though we had worked together for a couple of years at this point, part of why I hadn't realized the full extent of their trauma was because a lot of the traumatic material was actually walled off within their own psyches for protection, which makes sense. So, we had spent a couple of years working on other material, other traumas that they had access to. And as the work progressed, they started to reveal more about what had happened to them early in life. It became more accessible to them. They started to talk about it. And unfortunately, and I know many other clinicians have been in this position too, as this happened, as they got more access to the traumatic material that had been buried, their suicidality increased, their self-injury increased, addictive behaviors, dissociation, all of this. And I, two of them actually also had full blown DID, so we'd be in sessions and they might switch and suddenly become four years old and not have any idea who I was. And that felt new to me. I felt really out of my depth, I guess. So, I went up to the international trauma conference in Boston that Bessel van der Kolk hosts, and I met Dick and I went to his introductory workshop on IFS and I really fell in love with the model because IFS did integrate everything I had loved about the models I had used before. So, there's this list that I made for myself about five years ago when I started teaching IFS about all the things that I felt that IFS included about the models I had used before. And so, I'd love to just say that list for you because it matters to me, it was one of the reasons that drew me to this model. But what I say is that I feel like IFS included the mindfulness component and the emotion focus, the cognitive behavioral elements, the attention to the body and what is held there, the importance of the therapeutic relationship and specifically the presence that the therapist can hold to facilitate healing; the merits of attachment theory, both externally and also taken internally between the clients’ Self and the parts of their own systems, the wisdom of systems thinking, the power of the hypnotic trance state, or a similar type of state for healing and connection, reprocessing of traumatic memories, techniques for emotion regulation, effective ways of working with transference and countertransference, spiritual elements, if desired. So, I have this whole list of things that I felt that IFS did. And what I loved about the model was not only that it was so comprehensive that it has all of that, but that it manages to wrap it in this package that looks so simple on the surface.
Aníbal: Yeah. We can find it all.
Lexi: And so, it's important. It's felt important to me when I'm introducing this model to clinicians to tell them about how much is actually there, because it's really surprising how much power is in this model when you really can fully start to get it and start to apply it from some degree of Self. So, I guess I ended up doing the different levels of training, and I was really fortunate that Dick offered me a spot in his personal monthly supervision group. So I was with in that for over three years, and it was great because not only did I get to learn more directly from him, but he also, primarily what he did with us was actually have us work with our own systems, with the parts of us that come up when we're working with our clients to do some healing work and so that we could have more access to Self-energy as therapists. So that was important for me.
Aníbal: So, you started with the master.
Lexi: Yeah. And I really started off with him because he was one of my lead trainers, even for my Level 1. He and the amazing Paul Ginter, they shared the weekends, it was a wonderful way to be introduced to the model. So, then yeah, I did a lot of PAing and still do. But about five years ago, I realized that nobody in my home state of Georgia, five people maybe had ever been trained in the IFS model, and two of them were myself and my husband. And so, I decided to start offering full day, continuing education workshops, introducing IFS to clinicians and Dick had given me permission to do that. And at this point there've been over a thousand clinicians just in Georgia that have been to one of these workshops. So, IFS is really spreading here. And then Dick actually asked me if I'd like to teach more broadly. So, he arranged for me to work with PESI, which is a large continuing education organization. And I started traveling all over the United States, you know, three to six cities per month doing these full day IFS workshops and got the chance to do this in the UK as well through PESI UK. And of course, we've been virtual now for over a year, unfortunately, but I'm looking forward to returning to teaching live at some point.
Tisha: I can really hear how much passion you have for the model and I'm curious to know how you're enjoying teaching and what that brings up and what it's like for you to teach IFS.
Lexi: It's really, even hard for me to actually put it into words how important it feels to me, how much I love it to be teaching this model, how much joy there is for me in doing this. Before the pandemic one of the things that I really loved when I was in live workshops was being able to look out, you know, into the faces of the participants and see different things, I guess, in their facial expressions that were so touching to me as they were first introduced to this model. So, you can see that moment when a piece of the material would really land with them and it made sense, and they started to make all these connections in their minds to things they had observed over decades of clinical practice and suddenly it was making sense in this whole new way. And, and I would imagine that that's what they were feeling, but they would come up to me on the breaks and tell me that that's what was actually happening for them, just like fireworks in the brain.
Aníbal: So rewarding.
Lexi: Really, really rewarding. And another thing that I guess, personally, that's meaningful for me about teaching IFS it’s teaching is an activity that really connects me to my father. My father is a college professor, actually in New York. He's been an educator for many decades now. And he is the most Self-lead teacher that I can imagine. There's a palpable Self-energy surrounding him when he's doing what he loves. So, he loves his students, he loves the material and more than anything, he has a tremendous respect for the role that he gets to be in. As a teacher, as a professor, he grew up, these are his words. He describes himself as a peasant boy. He grew up on the little Island of Lemnos in Greece and he was the son of the village shoemaker. And his father eventually became the village priest, but he, they had no electricity. They had a one room schoolhouse. So, the eight children in their school would share one school book, 30 minutes each, each evening and they had to study fast because once the sun went down, that was it for their studying. So, learning time was so precious. And he came to this country when he was 26, no knowledge of the language, no money, nothing. So, he started by cleaning the bathrooms in the church and singing in the church. And he slowly learned the language and he worked harder than anyone I've ever known. At one point in my childhood, he literally had 15 jobs, my siblings and I wrote them out for him because I don't think he realized how much he was doing, but he eventually got two master's degrees and a doctorate in political science from NYU, from New York university, which blows my mind. It was hard enough to get a PhD in my native language, I don't understand how he did what he did, but so being a professor to him, it just means something so deep. I mean, and you can tell that it's just deeply meaningful for him to be doing this. And I can understand that because even though my journey to becoming a teacher is so different, when I'm doing it, it feels so meaningful to me, my parts give me so much space to be there in a way that's really engaged, really connected, playful, I enjoy it. I love connecting with the participants in the workshops. So, I feel a connection to him and to how much he loves being in this role and offering whatever he has.
Tisha: So, there's really a legacy heirloom that comes up. Yeah, that's really...
Lexi: Yeah, definitely.
Tisha: A beautiful illustration of how that can happen.
Aníbal: Lexi, IFS is also an experiential model, and I'm curious if you, when you teach the model, you also go experiential?
Lexi: That's been actually very tricky for me because when I'm doing these large workshops, I mean, I can have up to 300 people in them. So, it feels very much like a risk for me to do too much of the experiential work in that format in case somebody gets activated. So we'll do a brief, like a 15 minute internal exercise that's designed to help them notice when a part gets activated and what it would be like to notice that and to try to have some interaction with a part, but I keep it pretty light. So, what I do love to do in terms of the experiential, because I think you're absolutely right, there's something so different about cognitively grasping concepts versus experiencing, learning through experience. So, I work individually actually with clinicians and in small groups to help them learn the model through having it done, you know, within their own system.
Aníbal: Is there a particular IFS related topic that is of special interest to you that you'd like to expand on a bit for us today?
Lexi: Actually, yes. I'd love to. One of my favorite topics to teach about is actually the presence of the therapist in IFS therapy. So those of us who practice IFS, we know that the presence that the therapist holds in each session can either really facilitate the client's ability to access their own Self-energy and connect in a healing way with their parts or it can actually interfere with that ability by maybe activating, causing more activation in some of their parts. So, as I talk about this, I do want to make clear that in no way do I want to put all the responsibility on us as clinicians for how much our clients are able to access Self because I think there are a lot of factors and some of them have nothing to do with us that play into whether or not a client can access Self-energy in their sessions. But with all other things being equal, I do think that the presence of the therapist has a significant impact. So, just to be more specific about the piece of this that I'd like to share here, there's something, there's an aspect of our therapeutic presence that I personally like to call the therapeutic dose of empathy. And so, before I give a couple of my ideas on this, I just think it would be best if it's okay with you if I give a little bit of background, just to make sure that everyone who's hearing it can start on the same page.
Aníbal: Yeah, please do that.
Lexi: Just having been trained as an academic, it's very important for me to give credit where credit is due. So, this background that I'm saying comes primarily from two sources. So, the research of Dr. Tania, who's a psychologist and a neuroscientist who studies compassion and empathy. And also, the brilliant mind of Dr. Frank Anderson, you know, most of us know he's a psychiatrist, a senior lead trainer for IFS, and he teaches about, among other things, IFS and neuroscience. So, Frank was actually the first person that I heard start to translate neuroscientific concepts into IFS terms several years ago. And I heard him talking back then about the way that he understands empathy and compassion through an IFS lens, and I found it so helpful. So, to paraphrase Frank here, he says “We can understand empathy in IFS terms as a blended state.” So, when we're feeling empathy for someone else, our parts that hold feelings or hold burdens that are similar to theirs, they're feeling with them in that moment. So, for example, if we're sitting with a client, who's talking about the grief that they're experiencing around losing a parent, and if a part of us holds that same type of unhealed grief, it may get activated such that we are feeling the grief held by our part while the client is feeling the grief held by their parts. So, then we're empathizing. So, Frank sums this up kind of in a funny way, but he says empathy is, you know, I'm feeling mine while you're feeling yours. So, we're feeling with the person, but we're feeling our own material when we're empathizing. And where Tania singer's research comes into play here is, she found that, neurobiologically speaking, empathy and compassion are not only not the same thing, but they actually involve different neurocircuitry. So, when we're empathizing or feeling with someone or in IFS terms, when we are blended with our own parts, that can resonate with the distress of others, there's circuitry involved in feeling pain and negative effect that's actually activated inside of us. So, we're actually suffering to some extent when we're empathizing with someone. So, it's a state that could drain us, it could lead to burnout. But compassion on the other hand is what we can understand in IFS terms as more of the unblended state of Self, it's one of the characteristics of that unblended state. And in that state, you know, we certainly care about our clients and we're engaged with them, and we have that motivation to help them, but we're not in a state of distress or pain as we're sitting with them. And Tanya singer found that in fact, neurocircuitry related to reward is activated. So, there is an aspect of being compassionately present with someone, even when they're in distress, that's rewarding to us on a biological level, which I thought was amazing. So, I have this part, you know, who hears things like this, and it likes to translate everything I hear into IFS terms and figure out, you know, how might this research and the way that Frank translated empathy and compassion into IFS language, how can this help us in practical ways as IFS therapists? So, I'll give you a few of my thoughts on that. So, first, people might be thinking “Well, okay, based on what you just said is empathy a bad thing then? Do I not want to experience empathy when I'm with my clients?” And actually, that's not the case because some degree of empathy has a lot of therapeutic value. It can actually be necessary in therapy. So, in fact, the right dose of empathy seems to enhance the process, you know, in the sense that it can help client parts feel felt and feel deeply understood. So, this applies externally, you know, how much empathy do we as therapists want to have going on and want to be conveying to our clients. But it also applies internally in the sense that when our client is with one of their parts, you know, we know that some degree of separation is necessary in order to form that Self to part relationship, but some degree of blending or empathy is actually really helpful so the part feels felt, and really connected to, and really met in their experience. So here I'm, in the interest of time, I'm just going to talk about the external, the therapist and how much empathy is going on for us and how much we're conveying it. And how do we know, you know, how much empathy would be ideal? Is there some secret ratio of empathy to compassion that would make us maximally effective as therapists?
Aníbal: Yeah. We need both.
Lexi: We need both. Absolutely. We need both. And the question to me is what is the therapeutic dose of empathy? How much do we need? And, you know, I've got a manager that loves to know all these things exactly, you know, and would love to have an answer like, well, it's 80% compassionate and 20% empathy, and then you're at your best. But, you know, this is where we're really talking about the art of psychotherapy, you know, and not, not one size fits all answers or protocol type answers because the level of nuance like with anything else clinically is incredible here. So, I've found that the ideal mix of empathy and compassion since we do need both, but the ideal ratio not only varies from client to client, but also within each client, depending on the part of them we're working with. And also, over the arc of working with that part, it can vary. But since Dick tells us, you know, and it's true that our parts are capable of adjusting the amount that they blend with us in any given moment, we do have the ability to sort of play with that ratio in real time, you know, how much empathizing we're doing internally, how much empathy are we conveying, you know, through our nonverbal and verbal behaviors to our clients. So, that's why in my mind, I was thinking about this concept of the therapeutic dose of empathy, because I believe that in any given therapeutic situation or moment, there's a range of empathy that would facilitate the process and going outside of that on either direction can hinder it. So, I have this series of considerations that I take into account. I have somewhere in the back of my mind when I'm sitting with someone about this, and I do realize that because I'm laying out these considerations, you know, for you in like a list form, kind of a cognitive process, that it can make this sound like a very managerial thing, but that's not actually how it unfolds in the moment. So, fortunately for us, when our parts allow us enough space to be present with our clients from at least a critical mass of Self, we have access to something that is far more powerful than managerial decision-making, which is our intuition, you know, our capacity to be deeply attuned to the person we're with and to all of these subtle energetic shifts and these signals that they're giving off. And we can flow with this in a very fluid way. So, when I'm actually with clients, I'm not often consciously thinking about how to manually adjust my empathy to compassion ratio, it just sort of flows up and down, but it can, I've found, and especially teaching IFS to beginning clinicians, sometimes it can be helpful to break down this concept and have just a few key considerations in the back of our mind in case we actually need in a given moment based on what we're picking up from our client, that's something about our mix isn’t working, in case we need to do a manual adjustment in the moment, which really means to unblend. So, I'm just going to, you know in IFS unblend means get more space if we need to.
So, for me, I've got there about maybe six or so client level considerations that I think about. And one of them that's very significant, I think, is if I'm doing it insight work with a client, they're inside, they're connecting with a part of them. You know, the client has enough access to Self, so that the part they're working with feels really met in their experience, feels really felt by the client's Self, then too much empathy on my part, too much of me feeling and conveying what I'm feeling can actually pull them out of connection. You know, so as Dick says, you know, if our clients are in a tuned connection with their parts and their parts are getting everything they need from them, we need to get out of the way. So, that is one indication to me to unblend a bit just to ask my parts to allow me to stay quiet and just hold Self-energy from them as they do their work. Second consideration is something that Frank offers and he says, think about, is the client physiologically hyper aroused in this moment? Are they panicked or rageful, very keyed up? And if so, we actually want to dial back on the empathy. So, they don't need us to add any of our energy to the mix, either our anxious energy or be overly warm and overly nurturing, because it can actually cause increased activation in their system. So, with these hyper aroused clients, we pull back on the empathy, we ask our parts to give us a little more space so we can be calm and clear and confident, hallmarks of Self. You know, so compassion is there. The third one is also from Frank and it's about clients who are physiologically hypo aroused. So, do they have very low energy, maybe a bit disconnected from their experience? And if so, sometimes it could be helpful to allow a little bit more empathy in, adding a little bit of our energy to the room. Our parts energy can be helpful sometimes here because there's so little of their own energy available. So, it's nice to feel a little resonance with us. For me, the fourth consideration is really important, and it involves working with clients with highly developed caregiver parts. And I work mostly with therapists, nearly all of my clients have these hardworking, really skilled, highly developed caregivers. So, these caregivers are very used to being out front and scanning everyone else to make sure that they're all okay, because if everyone externally is okay, that means their system will be safe. So, since these parts are out front all the time, they may not even know that a greater power exists within the client. So if you finally get one of these caregiver parts to relax back a bit, your client accesses some Self-energy, they're inside, you know, they're working with an exile and you're empathizing too much or in too obvious way where the caregiver starts to sense that something's going on with you, you know, that you're resonating with their system's pain, such that now you're actually in a little bit of distress, they'll pop right out of connection to make sure you're okay because that's how they make sure the system is safe and they're not going to be able to step back and allow the client to take care of their own system in that moment, because now that no longer feel safe to do right now. So especially if I'm with clients who either have highly developed caregiver parts, or other types of hypervigilant protectors who are always scanning and seeing if everything's safe, I want to actually ask for a lot more space in my system to be present more from a compassionate place, more from Self, rather than having that flavoring from my own parts or conveying that too much. And I realize I'm laying these things out as though I'm some sort of expert, but the reason I, the reason I know some about this is because I've learned the hard way a lot of times, you know, where some, some blending on my part or a bit too much empathy on my part has caused reactivity, you know, in protectors, or has broken the connection between the Self and the parts. And I've had to, and I continue to do, you know, a lot of personal work around that. You know, when that happens for me. So, the fifth client level consideration for me involves the issue of systems where too high a dose of empathy on my part might, in some way, unintentionally bypass their protectors and violate the pace of the system in terms of allowing premature access to exiles, meaning access without permission. So, sometimes we only know if this is going to happen through trial and error because I've seen it happen both ways. Sometimes when we offer very heavily protected systems, a dose of empathy, sometimes for the first time, it actually helps them connect with some of the feelings of their exiles in a way that opens the door for future healing. But as I've also seen the opposite to be true. So I've learned to watch for this, for example, some of my clients who have had protectors who keep a very tight lid on their exiles, when I've shown higher dose of empathy, as I'm listening to a protector narrate something in a very disconnected way, when they can see in my eyes or in my body language, that I'm really resonating a bit with what they're saying, and they feel a lot of warm, sometimes the exiles have just stormed the gate. It's trickled all the way down past the protectors, the exiles are getting a sense that someone's here who's really, really connecting with, with what they're feeling. And then it's like the exiles are trying to get past the protectors to me and they want to share their story and they want to attach to me, and the protectors get very upset by this. And the person says things like, I just want to run out of the room, or I don't know if I want to come back for the next session because so much got stirred up within them. And so, from having some things like this happen for me, with clients where maybe, I don't know at first, which way is going to go, and then I see which way it went, and it went this way, I tend to air now on the side of really asking my parts for space across the board when I'm working with systems where the protectors are really, really, really concerned about access to the exiles and flooding, so that I'm coming very much from a lot of whole lot of Self. And I guess the final client-related consideration that I'll say something about is that sometimes where I found it could be helpful to offer a little more empathy is when you're doing Direct Access. So, this is because, by definition, if you're doing Direct Access, the client doesn't have access to Self in that moment. So, the part is blended with them and is not feeling met or feeling felt by their Self. So, since their Self is not available to connect with the part, and you're the Self in the room in that moment, it can really help if the part sees that you don't just understand what they're saying intellectually, but that you actually feel it to some degree as well. You can appreciate it on a visceral level. So, some of your parts energy here can help the part feel met and feel felt by you since their Self isn't available to do it right in that moment.
So, in terms of therapists’ level considerations for, okay, when what might we unblend a bit, when might be we adjust this ratio, it boils down to two questions I think for me. So, one is that I ask myself, right, “Is my level of blending here helping or hindering my ability to facilitate something therapeutic happening in this session?” So if my level of blending is so great that it's obscuring my clarity or my access to my intuition, my ability to be attuned and present with my client, then it is too much, no matter what the client may prefer, it's too much because I'm not helpful. So, I ask for some space there. So that's more relevant to our effectiveness as therapists in the moment. And then there's the other question of, “Is the level of empathy that I'm experiencing so significant that it's negatively impacting me as the therapist, you know, do I feel drained after sessions? Am I dreading sessions because more gets stirred up in me than feels, okay?” So, those are all indications for us as therapists to try unblending. And thinking, you know, there all these considerations, but if we had to go with a general rule, fortunately we have one in IFS, which is that if you're in doubt at all, if you're not sure, unblend, because I can't say that I've ever gone wrong with too much Self onboard or too much compassion, but I absolutely have gone wrong with too much empathy. And so, if, you know, if I'm in a good place and I've got access to my intuition and I'm really attuned to my clients, then that ratio is going to go up and down as needed. I don't need to do much, but if I'm not in that space, as much as I'd like to be, I may have to actually do a manual adjustment and ask for more space from my parts until I can get back in that rhythm.
Tisha: I really appreciate your ability to illustrate the nuances here in the art of being an IFS therapist. I find this incredibly helpful and really appreciate also your enthusiasm about it. A unique topic.
Lexi: Thank you.
Tisha: I'm curious about your, you know, what's going on currently for you with IFS and a little bit about your plans for the future. How would you like things to unfold?
Lexi: That's interesting question, because most of the time I don't really think about how I'd like things to unfold, they seem to just start unfolding and I catch up, but I guess over the past five years what's been happening it's been a natural transition and it's been lovely for me is that my private practice has transitioned to the point where about 80% of my clientele is now made up of clinicians who are interested in what Aníbal was talking about before learning the model experientially through working with their own systems. So, I'm really loving that work and looking forward to continuing that. And at the moment I'm doing that individually, I have some small groups of IFS clinicians who do this sort of experiential consultation, but I have had requests for more consultation groups. So that's something that if I can make the time in my schedule, I would like to do, so I'm going to make that effort, and if those offerings become available, I can post them on my website if someone's interested. I'm continuing to teach my IFS workshops, introductory, and more advanced. I've got some more in progress that have started to form in my mind, so, hopefully by June, I'm going to have the next one out. And then I'm finally, actually in about two weeks Aníbal and I are launching a new podcast called Explorations in Psychotherapy. So, we're going to be exploring all kinds of topics that are relevant to psychotherapy, including IFS, not limited to IFS though. And through interviewing authors of books of articles and engaging in discussions with therapists who are reading really valuable material and integrating it into their clinical practice, into their IFS practice. And that's an entirely new venture for me, one of those examples where I didn't plan it or go looking for it, but it's here, I'm terrified...
Aníbal: Me too.
Lexi: But also, very excited. So, it will be a giant learning curve for me and I'm looking forward to really learning alongside everyone from the people that come to speak with us.
Aníbal: Lexi, I understood you are married to an IFS therapist?
Aníbal: How is it being married with someone belonging to this community where you can use parts language? And I am asking this from a part feeling some envy...
Lexi: Oh, I'm telling you it is such a blessing to be able to have someone who does speak the same language, to be able to have someone who can, both of us, we do this for each other, where we can look at whatever's going on for the other person through this non pathologizing lens and through this lens of the natural multiplicity of the mind. So, if one of us is sort of in a part in some way, there is that underlying certainty that their Self is still in there and that it will reemerge as that part unblends and that if we can bring Self to the interaction, that it will facilitate the unblending and we get our partner back faster, and it's been a godsend for being a parent, I've got a 13 year old, almost 14 year old daughter and an almost 11 year old son and being able to view their systems that way it has been incredible. And I know I'm a better parent because of having this perspective and some of the skills that go along with it. So, I'm incredibly grateful.
Aníbal: So, you can use this parts language with your kids as well?
Lexi: I can, I can actually, and sometimes I don't always use it explicitly in terms of referring to parts, but the perspective is underneath everything I'm saying, I don't really know how to explain that much better, but it's whether or not I'm specifically talking about parts with them about them, it's how I'm viewing them and how I'm interacting with them from that place. But I will use parts language with me so that I'm modeling, that so that, you know, when I'm talking about something I'm doing, like they knew I was coming on here today to talk to you and they were asking me about it in the car last night, we were driving home from my office where they do their homeschool, and I was able to talk about, you know, parts of me that were really excited to be here and parts of me that were really scared, because I haven't ever been a guest on a podcast before, you know, and sort of the blend. And they can hear that, and it helps them, I've noticed, think about their own systems that way. So, they can talk about things from reflecting their own natural multiplicity, rather than getting blended with one thing and overwhelmed.
Aníbal: Exactly. Such a gift.
Tisha: It reminds me of your story that you shared with your own mom looking at the bully from a lens of multiplicity.
Lexi: Yeah. And it blows my mind that she did that because she didn't know IFS, she wasn't even trained as a therapist then, she was a music teacher. I mean, this was just who she was naturally...
Lexi: From very young, very curious, very curious person.
Aníbal: So, Lexi, thank you so much for having us. It was a joy to be here with you and Tisha and we hope we can keep meeting and sharing this model, our work and our lives.
Lexi: Absolutely. It was wonderful being with both of you and thank you for what you both have done over the past couple of years for the IFS community and beyond. Thank you.
Tisha: You're so welcome. And I just wanted to say for our listeners that might want to do some consulting with you or learn more about you, that you have a website.
Lexi: Thank you. Thank you.
Tisha: We’ll put it on the show notes.
Recorded 26th February 2021
Transcript Edition: Carolina Abreu