Befriending your Inner Critic with Chris Burris
Chris Burris, LPC, LMFT, is a IFS Senior Lead Trainer for the IFS Institute. He has been an IFS Therapist since 1999 and is trained as a Marriage and Family Therapist. He utilizes mind/body approaches of therapy in alleviating traumatic stress, depression, and anxiety disorders. He has worked extensively with couples, families, teenagers, and children. He is currently in Private Practice in Asheville North Carolina.
In this episode Chris shares aspects of his journey as a therapist, and some of his special interest as an IFS therapist and lead trainer. A special focus on befriending your inner critic emerged.
Today on IFS Talks we're speaking with Chris Burris. Chris Burris is an IFS senior lead trainer. He has been an IFS therapist since 1999 and is trained as a marriage and family therapist. Chris uses mind-body approaches to therapy for working through traumatic stress, depression and anxiety disorders. He has worked extensively with couples, families, teenagers, and children, and is a licensed counselor supervisor. Chris is currently in private practice in Asheville, North Carolina.
Tisha Shull: Chris, welcome to IFS Talks, and thanks so much for being here with us today.
Chris Burris: Thank you very much Tisha. I appreciate it. It's great being with you guys.
Aníbal Henriques: Thanks much, Chris, for willing to sit with us. What parts come up today, hearing your bio?
Chris Burris: I think that some parts noticing we've been a therapist for close to 30 years, it's been kind of a long journey, kind of beginning learning IFS and, you know, learning about psychotherapy and learning IFS and, you know, and sitting with clients for, you know, close to 30 years now. So, I guess some parts are aware of the journey that I've been on.
Tisha: Can you share with us, Chris, a little bit about your journey? What got you into the world of therapy to begin with?
Chris: You know, for me, I was always kind of good at talking to people. I had a pretty severe dyslexia as a kid. Didn't really read very well until fourth or fifth grade, but I could do things orally, so I could, I could learn and could talk with people and have pretty good social skills. So, I sort of got by at school by watching, and watching people, watching and learning orally. And so, that was kind of what I was good at, was listening and interacting with people. So, I think I was a child that really noticed how people felt, noticed their emotions, was pretty aware of family dynamics, did a lot of caretaking for my mom. And so, I, you know, I didn't like it that people didn't feel well, that felt anxious or scared or didn’t feel connected. So, I was that kind of kid that paid a lot attention socially to how people felt, you know, so I grew up in a rural area of North Carolina and there wasn’t...psychotherapists didn’t exist or that wasn't that sort of thing. The closest we had was a school counselor. I felt the school counselor was pretty inept. A lot of my friends had a lot of problems that no one was there to talk to. I was looking back the other day, like all of my best friends had fathers or grandfathers had alcohol problems and really no one to speak with. So, you know, then I discovered psychotherapy and I thought “Oh, well, that's a great thing. You know, people should have someone to talk to.” The best I had was maybe you know, a youth minister that I could talk to a little bit, you know. So, wow make a living, talking to people all the time? That sounds pretty great. You know, so...
Aníbal: Yes, it's amazing.
Chris: So, you know, kind of got interested in psychology and here I am, 30 years later, still enjoying talking to people every day.
Aníbal: It's such a privilege, isn't it?
Chris: Yeah, yeah. Especially when it's something we can heal trauma. And I think a lot of our heals in society are related to trauma and how very little we actually recognize the impact trauma has on systems and communities and nations.
Aníbal: Yeah, and it looks like you were a sensitive child. Yeah. And you could feel what's going around.
Chris: Yeah. I had an early sense of what was going on emotionally for people.
Aníbal: Chris, we know you have been leading level 1 and level 2 trainings for the IFS Institute. And more recently you are leading level 3 trainings as well. So, congratulations.
Chris: Oh, thank you.
Aníbal: And how is it, Chris, leading different levels of IFS trainings? How does it feel to you those different levels?
Chris: You know, I still enjoy, I enjoy teaching all different levels. I enjoy teaching this sort of core skills. I still enjoy teaching people discovering their system for the first time. Sometimes in level 1 trainings, people are discovering what their parts are for the very first time. So, I still enjoy that. I enjoy the complexities of, you know, level twos and threes. I haven't taught level three yet, we're getting ready for that, but we can start to get into the more complexities of how systems operate and sort of share some of the nuances. So, I like that...The upper levels I get to be a little bit more creative around how we deliver the material and experiential exercises. So, you know, I enjoy teaching all of those different areas.
Aníbal: Different challenges.
Tisha: And how did you find IFS?
Chris: I met Dick Schwartz at a networker conference, I was working with a client that...I’ve studied a parts model before, I would studied with David Calof for a long time, he has a parts model and I was working with a client that probably was, could be classified as dissociative disorder. And we were kind of stuck and I'd done a lot of trauma work with her, loved her. She was a wonderful woman, but we were a bit stuck. And I went and did a consult with Dick and learned some things just in the consult that I went back to and she's like “Yeah, that's exactly how my system operate around harmony and cooperation versus integration into a singular personality.” And that was sort of the thinking at the time was that dissociative identity disorders were meant to sort of integrate back into more of a singular operation personality versus being one of harmonious cooperation. Yeah. So, I loved his presence. I loved to how accessible he was. We did a consult right there in the middle of a book signing, and he took 30 minutes with me in a book signing to help me with this client. And none of the other gurus, you know, at the time were willing to do that. You know, they were, it was very hard for them to even give you five minutes. So, I was really impressed with how accessible he was at the time,
Aníbal: Chris, we also know you have some specific topics of interest like working with inner critics, sacred activism and contracting, or the therapeutic setup treatment plan and how that relates to IFS. Can you share more about your topics of interest? Like why this one? The inner critics is really one of your specialties, I understood.
Chris: Well, I was trained as a family therapist first and trained in this center for marriage and the family. And so, I kind of apply like how, what you would do in a regular family session to what you would do in an internal session. So, if we were in a family session with maybe mom, dad, grandfather, two children, and one of the members were quite harsh, we would start working with that right away. We wouldn't ask the exiles or the young children to divulge their vulnerability, if one of the parents cared a lot of harshness. So, I think about real-world physics and how that applies to our internal system. So, when I started looking at IFS protocols, it didn't quite fit with how we would operate in a normal family therapy setting that we wouldn't work with sort of the harshness in the room first to create a safe environment for, to get to the, for the younger children to begin to speak. You know, and I saw a lot of damage in family therapy that was done by asking children to be vulnerable before we really kind of neutralize the harshness of their parents. And so, I didn't want to recreate that. And a lot of my work as a family therapy supervisor was to change some of those dynamics of the way people conducted family therapy. So, I started applying that to the IFS process of looking at...Let’s see if we can help a lot of the harshness in the room and critics are parts that carry harsh behaviors or attitudes. So, that's kind of what got me interested in working with those parts a bit first. So, see if we can get some shifts with those parts. So, they don't come in with harshness as vulnerability emerges.
Tisha: How would you recommend to our listeners to work with their own critics first, before going to other parts that might come up?
Chris: Well, I think that if we pay attention, I mean, critics is not new, you know, this is Alfred Adler was talking about this inferiority complex, you know, so it's been around a long time. So I think there's some part of us , I'm curious these days around...there's some part of us that tries to hold us accountable, that wants us to be accountable to what our potential is and see as a discrepancy between our ideal self and our real self, somehow these parts learn to try to mitigate that discrepancy by using a harshness, a harsh way of interacting with us. So, with all parts would look at what's the intention, how's the part trying to help, what's its goal, how's it trying to help? So, noticing a bit, the protective nature of it, does it mean to make us feel bad or shame, is trying to protect us in some way? So, validating the desire to protect is the first step to helping these parts. And then when my own system, I get curious around, okay, like, why do you need to be harsh? And what are you hoping would happen by being harsh? And a lot of times these parts don't trust that they can be heard and listened to, unless they have some intensity to them. And then as I got closer with the work, I began to question like, where did, where did you learn this? My father wasn't a harsh person. My father was a pretty gentle guy. Never really got angry. So, it wasn't really my dad, my grandfather, wasn't very harsh. He was a pretty gentle kind guy. My mom could be a little harsh, but this part didn't seem like my mom, you know, so as I got to listen to it more, it kind of took on these words coaches, my football coach, they'd taken on...And this was kind of a time where I needed to get more disciplined and be more disciplined. I went sort of being a kid to being, you know, more disciplined athlete and my football coach particularly, and he helped me be successful, but he did it by being quite harsh. So, getting curious, so “Who are you mimicking?” This is one of the questions, “Who are you acting like and where did you learn to act like this person?” And the other question I asked a bit is, “Is there anyone else that would actually do a better job at this, had a better way of doing this a better job in your environment, that would be a better person to mimic?” Some people don't have that. Some people don't have, you know, that empowerment person in their life. And so, they mimic the best they can kind of come up with.
Aníbal: This is why people do overidentify, I don't know if you agree with this, people use to overidentify with their managers, with their inner critics?
Chris: I think these parts, they play a major role in our system, so they're quite active. So, there's managers and inner critics, you know, tend to be quite active. And so, I think that overidentification as you're describing is a bit of the nature of how active these parts are in our systems. So, they're kind of meant to play a major role. Sometimes they're meant to help us survive. For my inner critic, you know, the option of, you know, I'd already sort of got cut from the baseball team, I got cut from the basketball team, you know, so getting cut from the football team, wasn't an option, you know, for this part. So, it became very, very overzealous to make sure that I was successful at football because to not have a sport, you know, in my day and time was not really acceptable to my part. So, it was quite active, it became quite active.
Aníbal: And usually those guys, these inner critics and smart parts of our system, they usually, in my practice, they say “This is me, the client says, this is not a part, this is me”, they really are big bosses and strong parts that believe can control our whole system and people overidentify in fact. So, usually it's hard work for me. How is it for you? I know that you learn and you teach how to embrace those parts, but let us know more.
Chris: I find that too. I, you know, I was fishing with a friend of mine and he was a doctor in med school and he was just kind of talking out loud and he said out loud, he said, you know, “I just think I am this scrutinizing critical person. I just think that's who I am.” And I found it kind of interesting because I had never felt him scrutinize me. He was pretty generous person. We're fishing in his boat, you know, and with his rod, his reel and all of this tackle and you know, and he had invited me to come on a regular basis. He was very generous. And I said, “Who's this generous person that's very kind and, you know, and caring towards me? Like I don't know that I experienced this, you know, in you.” And so, that little separation, that there's some, there's a separation between that part of us and there's something different, there's some other quality to our being, that recognition that there's something else besides that. It's kind of that crack, I think, where we began to get curious around like, you know, what else is there that there's more to our system then maybe this voice or these thoughts. It may be kind of predominant, but there's something more there.
Aníbal: So, besides that, how do you help clients to unblend from this part? And to find that they have Self? Usually they much more believe they are these inner critical or smart parts, rather than other thing. And it's the moment for us as therapists to help them to find Self in themselves. How do you help them?
Chris: Well, I think that what's a little different from maybe doing IFS for a long time and maybe learning IFS for the first time, you learn to really relax your agenda and your goals. And so, when I, I think the way that I tend to do IFS and the demos people watch is, I'm pretty good at just really sitting back and relaxing and getting to know whatever's there. So, listening really closely and getting really around. And I'm pretty comfortable just hanging out with a part, you know, so, it's like, we're just going to sit on the porch and get to know each other. So, the first thing I do is get comfortable, like, okay, we're just maybe the next 30 minutes all we're going to do is get to know this part of you and how it's protecting you and how it got its job. And what's afraid would happen if it didn't do his job and who was it mimicking and what's it, you know, what's it trying to protect and that there's not a goal to get beyond it or past it, or to get rid of it. And I think these parts can feel that type of curiosity. And the first step is to get to know them really well. And as you get to know them well, there's, there's a natural unblending happens. I don't have to force something. I don't have to make something happen. I don't have to do anything to anybody. You know, I just have to sit and be curious and get to get to know them well. And I found with IFS that's actually kind of what I was good at as a kid is just sitting back and listening. So, I don't have to do too much extra. Like I thought I had to when I was a younger therapist.
Tisha: Yeah. I really love that concept of really just being with the critic without agenda. This conversation is reminding me of a dynamic that I have with one client in particular, where we'll go through the model and have what feels like a lot of Self-energy. But then when we get to a vulnerable exile and I ask how they feel towards it, it always feels like a big critic comes up and really criticizes even the image of the exile. So, I don't know if you have any insight on working with that a little more.
Chris: Yeah. I think that I get curious around where did you learn that the vulnerability was so intolerable and such a bad thing, and that these feelings were so wrong and, you know, and there's certain things, certain parts, you know, I discovered a part not too long ago that just really dislikes, any helplessness, cannot tolerate helplessness in me. You know? So, if there's something that seems helpless, it's going to, like go into striving. I just can't tolerate it. You know? So, sometimes there's something that this part’s learned that is intolerable and, you know, maybe it could be some dynamic in there, you know, growing up or, but where did they, where did they learn that these vulnerabilities are so despicable or intolerable, or what are they afraid is going to happen? Who are they afraid? Who are they afraid off? You know, that sometimes the folks that are mean to us still live in our system and we are still anticipating that to happen again. So, getting curious about what's what feels so intolerable about these more vulnerable parts of us.
Tisha: Yeah. That's great. Thank you. Staying with the curiosity.
Aníbal: Chris, I'm going to quote you. I read somewhere; you say “your inner critic is a major player who tries to help you meet your ideals. It has learned how to use fear, shoulds, and harshness, but you can befriend your critic and it can transform as it learns there is another way to help.” So, again, what is this another way to help?
Chris: Yeah, you know, I was a director of counseling at North Carolina school of the arts, so I learned a lot with artists. We had really the most, some of the most incredible artists around in drama, visual arts, filmmaking, but they all tend to be driven by fear. So, fear is a major loud motivator in our system. We can feel it, it helps us survive and help us overcome, but it kills creativity. And so, because it's so loud, we learned to kind of rely on it and our parts are oriented toward helping us survive. So, fear it’s a survival instinct and with trauma, you know, trauma creates a lot of threat to survival. So, these parts get maladaptive and believe that our survival is at stake. So, they use fear to survive. The other motivation, which is the more the natural motivation is inspiration or creativity or imagination, enchantment, you know, intuition...This is a different energy. It actually comes through us when we're in Self-energy. And this is where we can imagine a different way of being in the world. And we can actually start to imagine a different world than the one that we're in, that we might be able to create. But we had to sort of turn off the fear, help the fear turn off in order to create space for that more creative energy to come through. So, IFS is a model where the Self emerges when the extreme parts can relax. So, it's an emergence model by releasing constraints. So, the parts have to have that negotiation to be able to know that the Self can emerge and there's a different energy that actually is more powerful, more creative and more productive than the fear. If you've ever tried to accomplish something just by being afraid, I remember staying at ride trying to write papers, being afraid of failing and just couldn't even hardly think straight. So, that's the other potential is the inspiration that Self-energy brings into the system.
Aníbal: So, exactly this term inner critic, I don't know exactly who coined it, maybe Jay Early or Sandra and Hal Stone?
Aníbal: So, this befriending approach is not new in our field, but what does IFS brings as new to this befriending approach?
Chris: I think a lot of cognitive-behavioral therapy is actually trying to mitigate these critical voices. You know, so the, I think what IFS brings...In a little bit, I see things a little different than Jay. I really appreciate his work, but I think, I think seeing that these parts are here to help us survive, they don't mean to cause trouble, they're maladaptive and there's more to them than this. So, critics have the capacity, all parts have the capacity to transform and change. So, when we use the inner critic, we actually kind of lock it in place as that's who it is. So, I try to even adapt our language, you know, to a part that uses harshness or a part that uses criticism to try to help you. So even if we change our language a bit, because we don't want to stagnate it into a fixed role or a fixed place, it's a part that uses harshness, you know? And so, as a way is a part that carries anxiety or part that carries fear, a part that has a burden of shame. So, the part is more than just its role and more than the energy that it carries. So, I think that's the one thing IFS brings is that it's more than that, as a player, as a major player in your system that has learned to use harshness as a way to try to help you. So, we don't want to, so in our language, we don't want to fix it into place and allow it to the space to be transformed as we allow other parts to transform.
Aníbal: Chris, we see such a booming in the IFS trainings and even the studies that turn IFS an empirical supported model. So, it's booming. How do you see the future for this model?
Chris: I think that's a really great question. You know, I think it's expanding into lots of other arenas and, you know, starting out as a psychotherapy model and then it kind of, it has...a lot of coaches have adopted it, bodyworkers have adopted it quite a bit, lawyers have adopted it. I just did a training with a group of trial lawyers on IFS and what really Self-energy brings to their credibility as trial lawyers. And so, there's a lot of expanding roles. Management has a lot of capacity to use IFS for business management, health, healthcare, and, you know, there's a lot of...I see it expanding into a lot of arenas and can be used a lot...education for children and teachers. So, there's a lot of arenas that it can really expand into and have a really important influence.
Tisha: What about for yourself, Chris? I know you're expanding into teaching the level threes, but do you have any personal manifestations that you'd like to share with us and things that you're bringing to the model or things that you're working on?
Chris: Yeah. I've been trying to work on finishing an IFS group therapy manual that was close to written and then COVID hit and then we all went online. So, I wrote everything to be able to use in an encounter group format, and then we've gone online and then our teaching has really increased a lot since then. So, I'm trying to complete this process and write a chapter for how to use it online. And so, with dyslexia, writing is not my favorite milieu. So, it's kind of, it's quite a slow process with lots of help. So, that's one of the areas that I am very interested in, I've been working a lot with activism and social justice and working with an organization called black therapists rock and doing level one trainings for them. So, I've gotten very active just with the spirit of our times in social justice and in my own work around bigotry and prejudice and racism. So, I've gotten very passionate about, you know, really the opportunity that we have to try to reimagine our institutions to be less systemically racist in the United States. So, we've got very engaged and involved in that process at best three years,
Aníbal: Very noble topics. And let us know, Chris, how about you in these pandemic times? How are you coping with?
Chris: For a while, in the beginning, it's kind of, we've kind of settled into another way of life, you know, that sort of the new normal in some ways, but the first four or five months were quite stressful. And I think we've kind of had a new rhythm here. For me, you know, I traveled a lot. I was gone from my family a couple of weeks a month, at least one week a month. And my children are still, you know, in junior high and high school. So that was really hard to be away from home. So, I've really enjoyed being home a lot and being able to teach at home. And so, it's been a bit of a respite for me in some ways and stressful in others. And teaching online has a lot of merits, a lot of benefits, as there's some challenges to it. I can't get up, move people around the room and just sculpt things the way I'd like love to. And so, I've had to design new ways of teaching, but so far, we've been healthy and that's been great.
Aníbal: Chris, thank you so much for having us. We really hope that we can sit again and go through those interesting topics that you are somehow deepening and hope that we can keep meeting and sharing this model, our work and our lives. Thank you so much.
Chris: Thank you very much for having me.
Tisha: Thank you, Chris. Thanks for sharing your wisdom.
Recorded 30th October 2020
Transcript Edition: Carolina Abreu