Integrating IFS and 12 steps, with Robert Falconer
Robert Falconer has an undergraduate degree in cultural anthropology, with a focus on the history of religions.In the early 1980s he pursued his masters degree in psychology while balancing a career in construction and real estate investment.When Robert started as a therapist, he focused on the work of Milton Erickson and hypnotherapy. He then moved into working with Jack and Helen Watkins; who developed ego state therapy. In his career as a therapist, Robert spent considerable time at the Esalen Institute and decades involved in gestalt therapy. Robert has been familiar with IFS therapy for 20 years, but completely devoted himself to the model for the last 10 years. Most recently Robert co-authored with Dick Schwartz a book entitled “Many Minds, One Self:evidence for a radical shift in paradigm“
In this episode, based in his long experience with addictions, Bob integrates IFS and 12 steps approach.
You can know more about Bob and his activities at his website - https://robertfalconer.us
Today on IFS Talks, we are welcoming back Robert Falconer. Robert Falconer has his undergraduate degree in cultural anthropology with a focus on the history of religions. In the early 1980s, he pursued his master's degree in psychology. In his career as a therapist, Robert spent considerable time at the Esalen Institute and decades involved in gestalt therapy. Robert has been familiar with the IFS therapy model for 20 years, but completely devoted himself to IFS for the last 10 years. For more than a decade, he was the director of the Institute for trauma-oriented psychotherapy. He has published six books, co-edited four and most recently co-authored one with Dick Schwartz, entitled Many Minds One Self.
Bob thank you so much for joining us again. Welcome back.
Robert Falconer: I really enjoy talking with you two.
Aníbal Henriques: So welcome back, Bob. Last time we met it was April 2020, the early days in this pandemic. So, it's about seven months ago. How have you been throughout those pandemic days?
Bob: It's actually been amazingly easy for me. I live up on a mountain side and often in regular times I would only go into town once or twice a week. And at the beginning of the pandemic, I was engaged to a wonderful Korean woman, who's a couple’s therapist in Korea. And because she was here when the pandemic got really bad, so we got married and she did not go back to Korea because there was like this one-time change in the immigration law, because of the extreme danger of travel. So, I'm really one of those...I shouldn't brag about it, but the lucky few who's been blessed by the pandemic.
I've gotten married, which, and I work from home and I have more work than ever because so many people are so distressed.
Aníbal: So, wishing you the best.
Tisha: Yes, congratulations. So today we discussed talking about your work with addictions. Could you share a little bit about your background? What brings you to addictions work?
Bob: Okay. In the last podcast we did, I talked about my own background of severe abuse. Both my parents were addicts. My father drank at least a six pack of beer every evening. And that didn't count as drinking. You know, that was just like baseline. And mom was a binge drinker and a prescription pill addict. And when I was very young in high school, I was a binge drinker and pretty severe, but I got out of that in college. And through some blessing, I don't seem to have that addictive gene and I have used wine and I've smoked marijuana and I've done a fair amount of psychedelics, but I worked a great deal with Pia Mellody who I think is one of the real lights of addiction treatment.And I asked her, you know "P do you think I'm an addict?" And she said no. After giving me all these questionnaires and stuff. So, I don't think I'm in denial.
Aníbal: So, Bob, how should we see and understand addictions?
Bob: Well, not the way most therapists do. I think that this is one of the truly wonderful things about IFS, is it has revolutionized the way, the approach to addictions. Let's see, when an addict comes into your office, they're going to be probably two parts and that's all you're going to see, two parts fighting each other. One of which says "You're an idiot. Why'd you take that drink? I hate you, don't ever drink again." This would be a manager in IFS talk. And the other one, just giving that other part the finger and saying "I don't care, It feels good."
And the traditional thing in addiction treatment, and it's sort of the obvious thing to do is you want to join with that critical part that's trying to cut down the addiction, but actually what this does is it increases the shame in the system. It's spurs that firefighter part, the one who just wants to get out of pain to drink more and it accelerates the problem. So, in IFS land, instead of joining with that manager right away and trying to shut down the addiction, we try and get that manager part to calm down, not be quite so critical. Let us get to know the firefighter from a compassionate place. So that would be the big revolution that IFS brings, or one of the big revolutions that IFS brings to addiction treatment.
Tisha: What kind of challenges do you bump into in working with that, that polarization?
Bob: Oh, a lot. If that was all that was there, if all the, you know, when they first come into your office, that's probably all you're going to see, those two parts fighting each other. If that was all that was there, that the, it wouldn't be hopeless just as the people believe, but in IFS we know that's not all that's there. There's also a Self and there's also an exile somewhere down under there. And when we can get those other two aspects of the person up into the field, the addiction problem becomes quite soluble and fairly easy to work with. But these two guys are in major war, there's a big civil war here. They sometimes they don't want to listen.
Aníbal: Bob in the early 1930s, someone with addiction visited the noted swiss psychoanalyst, Carl Jung, for help with his alcoholism. Jung determined that this case was medically hopeless and that it could only find relief through a vital spiritual experience. Jung directed him to the Oxford group that would become the origins of AA's founded in 1935 by Bill Wilson and Robert Smith. So, Bob, can an IFS therapist nowadays do better than Carl Jung expected back then, or should we just simply direct those patients to AA?
Bob: [Laughs] I love these questions Aníbal. Hum, I think IFS is offering the same answer basically in a different language. Self is a gateway to spirituality. And Carl Jung said Spiritus Contra Spiritum, you need access to the spiritual realm to counter spiritum, the spirits, alcoholic spirits. It's the same thing we're offering in IFS in a very different language. We're offering Self, which is a doorway to spirit. And I think it's a doorway to spirit sort of, I don't want to...well, I'll say it dumbed down enough so that the most materialistic person can let it in. And just like in AA, you know, they use the God word a lot, but they also talk about higher power. And this is because there were a lot of atheists in early AA and they needed a language that allowed access to spirit that didn't evoke God and traditional religious imagery, so higher power and Self, I think both do the same thing. They allow access to spirit for people who have been poisoned against it by their experiences with religion.
Tisha: Are there other ways that IFS and 12 Steps or AA overlap?
Bob: I think they're all over the place. And it really saddens me that more therapists don't see this. You know, there recently was a big meta-study of all the studies that have been done on the effectiveness of AA. And the evidence is clear now, it works. It works better than almost every kind of therapy and it doesn't cost anything. So, it really saddens me that therapists are so down on it. And I think that's largely because the people who come into the therapist office are the ones who sort of couldn't work the AA program for some reason. So, they get a skewed population, but let me go back to your question. I got on my soap box a little, I apologize.
The very first step of the 12 Steps is, you know, we were powerless over alcohol and came to realize our lives were unmanageable. Now, that's exactly the IFS word - manager. What this first step is saying is our managers couldn't do it. This part up here in the civil war, you know, the manager who was trying to silence the firefighter, the manager cannot do it. That's the very first message we want to get through as an IFS therapist. The manager cannot do this, we have to turn to Self. And that's steps two and three, you know, came to believe a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. That's Self. And then turned our lives [inaudible] care of, and now the God word came in. God as we understood him. But basically, the first three steps, our managers can't do it, we need to bring in Self, which is exactly what an IFS therapist will be doing with an addict.
Aníbal: So, you find IFS particularly powerful to help with addictions. And let me just remind you this, that recent studies give the 12 Steps, increased rates and lengths of abstinence compared with other common treatments. So according to your experiences, 12 Steps, the best way to go when it comes to addictions?
Bob: It helps so many people. I would encourage anyone who came to me to at least try, try a meeting. I actually, you know, I'm training a lot of therapists now. I try and get every therapist to go to at least a couple of different kinds of 12 Steps meetings, just so they get a sense of what's going on. And 12 Step meetings they're not highly centrally organized. So, the different meetings can be very, very, very different. So, I think, you know, I really would like to see every therapist go to a few 12 Steps meetings. And it's not just alcohol. You know, there's, Al-anon for people who have alcoholic relatives, adult ACOA - Adult children of alcoholics, Co-Dependents Anonymous, Food Overeaters Anonymous. There's even Survivors of Incest Anonymous. I mean, there's...Oh, and there's a new one for people who talk too much, it's called on and on.
Tisha: Yeah, one thing I really love that's such, probably an important part of AA's effectiveness is the community. It's like another, another sea of Self.
Bob: It should be. What's his name? Johnathan Hari, who talks about the opposite of addiction is connection. Yeah. And we don't...in IFS that's one thing we don't have so effectively, there is not a, not an easy way for people like coming out of a Level 1 or a Level 2 to establish an IFS community. I try and encourage everyone to form some sort of ongoing group. And I'm in one with a couple other therapists I really like. But we don't have that built into our program and it's too bad. There is one thing I want to go on a little here on huge advance that I think IFS brings to the 12 Steps is the knowledge of exiles.
You know, both IFS and the 12 Steps, I would think the first job of an IFS therapist with an addict is to get both the manager and the firefighter relating to Self instead of fighting each other. That's number one. But the number two thing is to get permission from them to go to the exile they're both trying to protect. AA does not have a clear program for getting to an exile and for unburdening the exile when you get there. I mean, Mary Kruger, who is an absolutely wonderful therapist, especially with eating disorders, but all kinds of addictions, she sees the 12 Steps is basically a very elaborate and detailed unburdening pattern. And I think there's a lot to be said for that, but the explicit recognition of the exile and getting to the exile is something, I think, that comes from IFS that can really, really, really help the 12 Steps.
Tisha: I know it's probably not great to generalize, but are there common exiles that lead to addiction?
Bob: There's one word that's screaming at me, shame, shame. Yeah, because once these, you know, once the cycle starts, it tends to accelerate. That's, that's how, you know, an addict from somebody who's just abusing alcohol, right? The, the addict will just get going around this cycle faster of drinking and drinking and more self-criticism. And that's shame. What the manager is trying to do is to shame the firefighter into stopping. But the reservoir of shame is the exile. So, once any kind of addictive cycle starts, whatever the exile started with, they're going to be filled up with shame and just flooded with shame. So that would be the, the first thing I would look for.
Aníbal: Bob, Johann Hari, you have just mentioned him. Generally stand the best seller writer in his very acclaimed Ted talk called Everything you think you'll know about addictions is wrong. He claims that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety, the opposite of addiction is connection. Making the point that the addiction is just a reaction to disconnection that all we need is to bond. Would you agree? Or do you want to comment?
Bob: [Inaudible]. I love his work, Johann Hari, but I know connection's a huge thing. However, we need to get that exile unburdened and connection alone won't do that. So, that would be, I think, the part that IFS adds that the 12 Steps and other traditions don't know about, going to the exile, witnessing it completely where it's stuck, getting it out of there and doing a classic IFS unburdening. And then the manager and the firefighter can find new roles.
Tisha: How do you work with clients that have active addictions? Are those clients that you'll see when they have really strong firefighters that are up?
Bob: Yep. Yep. And I did a... I was on staff at a couple of trainings in an inpatient eating disorders clinic. Now there, you sort of have to collude with the managers because the people will starve themselves to death if you don't. So, it's very tricky. You know, Dick and... Talking about firefighters in general and addictions are a classic kind of firefighter activity, Dick always says, you know, there's a pyramid of them. You start with relatively easy things like, you know, an extra piece slice of cake or something and then you go up to, well, maybe a joint, then maybe cocaine and speed, and then maybe cutting. And you know, you go up this thing. But, at the top of everybody's pyramid is suicide, or pretty much everybody. Every time I make a generalization like that, somebody comes along and proves me wrong. Almost everybody, their number one top of the list firefighter is suicide. Now, you obviously, can't sort of, you have to sort of join with the managers about suicide, but you can do it from Self, as opposed from a managerial energy. You can say stuff like "Yeah, I can understand that you feel so terrible that you think the best thing you can do for this person is to kill yourself. And that makes a lot of sense to me. And I want you to know I'm going to do everything I can to prevent you from killing yourself and I get what you're doing and trying to do. And I really sympathize with you." That's a very different message than the classic shaming, no suicide contract. That's the same kind of attitude I want to take from the suicidal part and due toward the addicted part. You know, like the people in the eating disorders clinic. "Yeah. I get that you're in so much pain that this anorexia and this starvation feels good and healthy and all that and I really want to get to know the parts of you that are behind this, and I'm really sympathetic towards them and I'm going to do everything I can to keep your body alive and you may hate me for it, but..." You know, so it's a very different attitude from the classic sort of shaming managerial...Did that answer the question?
Tisha: Yeah, absolutely.
Aníbal: Bob, is there any link between addictions and legacy burdens or between addictions and unattached burdens, another topic of special interest to you?
Bob: Oh, you're asking some of my favorite questions Aníbal. Thank you.
Aníbal: You're welcome.
Bob: Yeah. Addictions are often legacy burdens and actually the guy who did one of the major studies of epigenetics, you know, how things are passed down outside of the genome, did it...Diaz. I'm forgetting his first name, but he noticed in that the ghettos of Georgia where he was, families would have multi-generational things of addiction. So, he thought "Hmm, Hmm. Could, could there be something biological behind this?" And he did the classic study with mice, where he would expose the male mouse to a smell while giving it a shock and it's sort of a smell with sort of like cherries or almonds, something in there, a nice smell. And then he would take sperm from the male mouse and impregnate a female mouse. And the children of the female mouse would have that same aversion to that same smell. Never having met the dad.
Bob: No, so it, yes, addictions and these kinds of things can be transmitted intergenerationally. And another thing I think is really important in this, and this is so classic in alcoholism, one generation will be alcoholics drunks, the next generation will be teetotalers. They won't drink at all and you think "Oh problem solved." But the generation after that it's drunks again. So even though the direct behavior isn't there, there's something that can get passed down intergenerationally, which in IFS we deal with as a legacy burden that does transmit addiction.
Aníbal: Bob, it looks like you find that IFS has many to offer to this field of addictions and IFS can be particularly powerful to help you with addictions. And if yes, can IFS lead to abstinence as well?
Bob: Yeah, I think so. Yeah. And you know, this is something that Dick and I disagree about a little bit. I think there's some people who can't never take another drink in their life. They just have this thing built in, whereas Dick gets really upset with the AA thing of people coming in and saying "Hi, I'm Dick. I'm an alcoholic." He feels that's labeling the whole Self from a part and all of that. But I believe there's some people who can never take another drink. And I think IFS can lead to abstinence, but people need an ongoing program. You know, just like I believe IFS people need to have some kind of ongoing program, some kind of daily check-in, some kind of continuing personal work. Otherwise their mental health tends to deteriorate, same with the addicts.
Aníbal: Portugal has been depicted as a good example, as a country that since 2002 decriminalized drugs and offered the victim an opportunity to reconnect and the amazing results we can witness now in Portugal, but no other country really followed in spite of the amazing results. How do you understand this Portuguese miracle?
Bob: I think it's wonderful. And I think the rest of the world ought to be adopting what you're doing in Portugal. There, I think there's one thing, there is a huge industry behind keeping drugs illegal. There are so many people in jail. This is all...there's a tremendous vested interest in keeping drugs illegal and also the government and this vested interest have spent hundreds of millions of dollars, issuing propaganda about how we have to deal with drugs in this certain way. And maybe they believe their own propaganda. But I think the Portuguese model is ideal and wonderful. And I mean, so blatantly, obviously better, it astounds me that people can stay blind to it, but people do.
Tisha: I heard recently someone say the war on drugs is over and the drugs won.
Bob: [Laughs] Look at this country where, you know, psilocybin and MDMA are now being recognized as very valuable medical...
Tisha: Will you share with us a little bit about your involvement in that?
Bob: Okay. Yeah, gladly. Like I said, when I was in high school, I was a bad binge drinker. I mean, you know, it wouldn't be unusual for me to drink a case of beer in a day. You know, when I got to college, it was in the sixties and I started taking LSD, I lost all interest in alcohol and I didn't, I wasn't, I was taking LSD in what I thought was a search for God and spiritual growth, but there was no therapeutic help. You know, it was just the kind of experience that psychedelics allowed me to just went "Why would I want to get drunk?"
Bob: You know, it's like, it just seems...So, in my own history, that was a big influence. And then after I got out of college, I quit doing them for a long time. But lately, these studies by Mithoefer on MDMA and PTSD are astounding. It's clearly way, way, way ahead of, you know, most other treatments and the stuff with psilocybin, especially around terminal anxiety, people who were dying and who were terrified to die, incredible results. And actually, Nancy Morgan and I are offering trainings to people who provide these medicines to get them the basics of IFS, because we believe that IFS should be the therapeutic model for the medicine assisted psychotherapy. And Dick is very much behind this, which is, you know, requires some courage to want to have IFS associated with psychedelic medicine, but...and Mithoefer himself was trained in IFS. So, and he is, he's the guy who started all the trials of MDMA and treating PTSD in case you guys aren't up on that.
Aníbal: We are. He's coming to the show, our show, next week, I guess.
Tisha: Tuesday, we're going to speak with him. Have you had a chance to use IFS with, with someone who's getting treatment with psilocybin or MDMA? How is it, what's it like?
Bob: This is a complex subject, but it depends on the dosing. The dosing Mithoefer uses and the MAPS studies are based on is relatively low dose, so that the people are available throughout the entire experience for therapeutic intervention. Many people use a much higher dose, which they would refer to as a breakthrough dose and then I think the IFS is so important in preparation. And the preparation is basically getting permission from the protectors to do this in the first place. Sometimes the protectors are going to say no, and then you say, no, we're not going to do this.
You know, and the integration. It's like the MDMA can flood a person's system with compassion and self-compassion, and that's basically what happens. And it opens up their whole, you know, the whole structure of how their parts interrelate. And then afterwards, that structure starts to come back together over that evening and the next few days, and I think that's the incredible therapeutic window, you know. Because a few little thing is that structure coming back together can change the whole way all the parts relate to each other. So especially with the breakthrough dosage of MDMA or quite a few people are using a combination of MDMA and Psilocybin, and it's the preparation and the integration and with Mithoefer's much lower dose very often the IFS works right throughout the sessions.
Aníbal: Amazing. Bob, what's coming up to you for the coming months, both as a teacher and as a writer? I guess you are. You keep writing, right?
Bob: Yeah. Yeah. I have a big book project I'm doing, which is...My tentative title is The Others Within. And you know, it's on guides and unattached burdens. When we go in far enough into our own system, we find things that are not parts and are not Self. And what in the world are these and how can we best deal with them? I had some cases that were very, very, made a huge impression on me about eight years ago and I've been researching this ever since, and I'm starting, I'm getting really close, I've got outlines and stuff. I'm getting really close to actually producing the book and I've taught a couple courses on it. I've got another one coming up through Michael Paterski in Poland and his group. But Dick wants these limited to people who have at least had a Level 1 because I think this material can be easily misused and misinterpreted. And then I'm doing another...doing a class for Derek Scott in January on addictions, but it'll only be like three and a half hours. And then I'm, I am doing more of these trainings for consciousness medicine, psychedelic medicine providers, and that's like really IFS basics to help to help them work with their clientele.
Tisha: How do people find your trainings specifically? Do you have a website or is it through the IFS Institute?
Bob: Yeah, I do have a website. I just got one https://robertfalconer.us.
Aníbal: We'll put it on our show notes. Yes.
Bob: And I'm really bad at promotion and all that stuff. And until this year, everything I've done has been purely word of mouth.
Aníbal: Yeah. It's a good way to go. So, Robert, it's such a joy to talk with you and learn from you. You have so much experience and wisdom to share and teach. So, thank you again so much for having us.
Bob: It's been a delight.
Aníbal: And happy Thanksgiving.
Bob: Thank you.
Aníbal: So, I hope we can keep meeting and sharing this model, our work and our lives. Thank you so much.
Bob: Me too.
Tisha: Thanks Bob. It's great to talk to you again.
Recorded 29th November 2020
Transcript Edition: Carolina Abreu