We have to go slow to go fast

We come to therapy when we want to change. Sometimes we are desperate to change, and that urgency makes complete sense; we feel awful and we want to feel better, or we can see the downsides of our moods and habits and are worried about getting into more trouble.

If our whole system was ready to change, we would have already changed and we wouldn’t need to be in therapy. We are a mixture of feelings and habits - we all have many different aspects. We come into therapy and some parts of us want us to change, and some parts of us are afraid of change.

Why are we reluctant, wary, and resistant to change?

The patterns, moods, and habits that bring us into therapy all have our best interests at heart. This can be hard to believe when we can so clearly see the downsides of those patterns, moods, and habits, and yet it is true. Anxiety that keeps us from leaving the house feels that there is something desperately risky about going outside, and so it keeps us inside. What might that risk be? It might be that the anxiety is afraid of something bad happening to us that we have already experienced in the past, or it might be that the anxiety is protecting us from powerful feelings that it fears would be triggered if we went outside.

Compulsive behaviour might work in the same way, feeling that it’s keeping us from harm, or from potentially overwhelming feelings. Those protective parts think that they are doing crucial jobs, even if other parts of us can see that going outside will be okay, or that we’ll survive not completing our compulsive behaviour.

For those protective parts, coming to therapy can feel like a big risk. We come to therapy to stop doing those things or having those feelings, but those habits and feelings are convinced they are keeping us safe. No wonder they don’t want us to change.

It is possible to push past that reluctance and resistance. In fact, sometimes it feels great to do that. Perhaps we get behind the anxiety, or underneath the compulsive behaviour, and come into contact with a deep wounding - the source of those powerful feelings that the protective parts didn’t want us to feel. And then we do feel them in the therapy room; we punch a pillow the therapist provides, or cry so much we use up the box of tissues. What catharsis!

Then we go back home and the anxiety kicks in even worse than before, or we find ourselves plunging more deeply into our compulsive behaviour. What’s happened?

That anxiety and compulsive behaviour has been working hard to keep us safe for years, maybe since we were little. They’ve been doing that because they don’t trust that we have the capacity to be safe, either with powerful emotions or in difficult circumstances. Pushing past that resistance might get us to the wound, but it doesn’t let those protective parts know that we do have the capacity to process what needs to be processed. From their point of view, the worst thing has happened - the overwhelming feelings arrived - so they come back even more strongly.

For effective therapy, we go at the pace of the whole system, which means going at the pace of our most reluctant parts. Working with these parts not only reassures them - it begins to give us access to the capacity that we do have for being with powerful emotions and difficult circumstances. As the fears are met and addressed, and we begin to trust that we do have that capacity they grant us access to the wounds that need healing. When the whole system grants access, the healing sticks.

We have to go slow to go fast

Working in this way meets both the needs of the parts of us that long to change - as it produces real healing - and the parts of us that are afraid of change, as we go at a pace that not only suits our reluctance but introduces it to our capacity for healing and for easy, spacious ways of being.

Sometimes the reluctant, wary and resistant parts are easily reassured and happy to provide access to our deeper levels. Sometimes there is a lot of fear in the system, and we spend more time working with the protective parts.

Even if the only work we do is working with the protected parts, this is already healing and good for the whole system.

I heard the phrase you have to go slow to go fast from a friend, who heard it from Osnat Arbel. Osnat Arbel is the lead trainer of internal family systems in Israel, and much of this article is inspired by that model of healing. So, thanks to Osnat, and thanks to the IFS model.

If you are interested in working with a counsellor trained in this way, search for IFS or internal family systems on the Counselling Directory.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Malvern, Worcestershire, WR14
Written by Kaspa Thompson
Malvern, Worcestershire, WR14

Kaspa Thompson is a psychotherapist and Buddhist teacher. He works from Malvern, Worcestershire, and via Skype, and is a BACP registered therapist.

He helps people with anxiety, depression, unhelpful habits and painful feelings heal and become free.

He integrates mindfulness, internal family systems, body psychotherapy and wild therapy.

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