Updated: Mar 7
Like many thirty-something moms, I have been catching up on Grey's and Station 19 this week (you know, in between chasing kids, making dinner, and working full time). So here I am, casually watching while I complete progress notes from my own client sessions while simultaneously trying to nail down spring break plans that I should have made four months ago, when I start hearing a dang actual IFS therapy session taking place on the screen!
For those who don't know what IFS is, it stands for Internal Family Systems, and is an incredibly powerful trauma processing therapy modality which far too few therapists have been trained to utilize (yet). I can barely find other IFS therapists in our area to refer to - I definitely didn't expect to see it portrayed in a nationally broadcast television series.
In the show (SPOILER ALERT, btw), we see the character Maya Bishop struggling intensely after a demotion and presenting with a slew of mental health concerns including anger, shutting down, isolating/withdrawing, and overexercising to the point of landing herself in the hospital. Her reactions are 1000% relatable, as most of us have at one point or another found ourselves subconsciously coping with life in unhealthy ways such as these.
Character Diane Lewis, a psychologist, is asked to assess Maya's readiness to return to work, and it is immediately clear that she is not buying all the masking going on. She expertly helps Maya learn how to sit with her pain (mindfulness), and uses a timeline drawing technique to help Maya trace back her negative beliefs all the way to age 3 (I use a very similar approach as part of the EMDR therapy process). This is called making a "past-present connection", and is foundational to trauma therapy.
You see, we therapists also talk about this thing called the 80/20 rule, which says that 80% of whatever you're feeling triggered or activated by actually relates to things that happened in your past, and only 20% has to do with what's going on in the here and now. True story. Your brain? It's kind of amazing. It keeps track of every feeling, every experience, and creates neural pathways around beliefs, whether positive or negative, such as "I'm never enough", "I'm unlovable" or "I can do anything I set my mind to!"
3-year-old Maya learned that if she wanted her father's love, she had to WIN. Failure was not an option. This belief was reinforced by many, many other experiences throughout her lifetime, and most of the time she DID win. Even the Olympics! Even a promotion to Captain! Even an incredible partner in life! But...when one of her "wins" became a "fail", her inner system crumbled. 3yo Maya began to panic.
What the episode did not detail is that in response to the inner child's panic, older "protector" parts of Maya stepped in to assist. That part of her that was shutting down and isolating? It had a goal to protect her from well-meaning loved ones who might try to get her to slow down, because it saw going balls-to-the-wall as the only obvious solution to helping 3yo Maya win. That part that kept running harder, and harder, and harder? Gotta keep going, gotta keep getting stronger, gotta prove that I'm the best....to keep 3yo Maya safe.
We see a beautiful breakdown as Maya begins to realize that in order to feel safe and whole in her present, she must extend compassion and comfort to her inner child. By loving herself, she is made complete.
While I can't seem to find a youtube link of this clip yet, here is someone's tweet that shows the session: https://twitter.com/gbtwn/status/1631469834314698752?s=20
THIS is great therapy! So many women carry these burdens for SO LONG and most often have no clue that things are rooted that deeply. Or that they can be un-rooted, so to speak. Because yes, with continued work within your internal family system, your parts can begin to shift and find their way to new, healthy and healed roles. YOU can become healed and whole.
I am eager to see how Maya's external relationships begin to shift as she continues to nurture her own needs and understand herself better. I'm even more eager to see how many women are inspired by this episode and take their own first steps into deep, life-changing therapy work. Find yourself a great therapist (especially one trained in trauma work!) and go for it! You deserve it.
Sarah Czopek, LCPC, is the Owner and Executive Director of Grace & Gratitude Counseling, PLLC, a specialty women's anxiety and trauma practice in Downer's Grove, Illinois. Sarah is EMDR trained and Level 2 trained in IFS, with Level 3 expected in April 2023. Sarah leads a team of trauma informed clinicians in practicing IFS informed therapy with teen girls and adult women struggling with overthinking, toxic perfectionism, people-pleasing, anger, panic, and relationship concerns. To book a free consultation and match with a GGC therapist, visit www.graceandgratitudecounseling.com/freeconsultation