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May 28, 2021

Healing Through Breathwork and Somatic Internal Family Systems Therapy

Healing Through Breathwork and Somatic Internal Family Systems Therapy

Right after I wrote my last post, "I Wish We Could Grieve Together," I participated in a breathwork session held by Breathwork Healing. Breathwork is a healing technique where you intentionally activate your sympathetic nervous system (the fight-flight response) through a specific breathing technique in order to bring up and release stuck emotions or traumas.

We are guided throughout the process in a very loving way, and while it can definitely feel challenging to be with the heavy emotions and uncomfortable physical sensations that often arise, profound healing can indeed occur.

During the session, as I breathed my subconscious into awareness, images of loss, abandonment, shame, and feeling utterly alone floated into my mind's eye one by one:

Sitting paralyzed on the couch, distressed, glass of wine in hand.

Boarding the plane alone, in tears.

My teenage self hiding away in her room, feeling angry, unaccepted.

Loss of self. Loss of love. Loss of trust and belief in others and the world.

Shame. Grief. Abandonment.

Despite all the grieving I had already done, and as much as I didn't want to think about certain people or experiences and face the pain, I knew there were still more layers to sift through. Because no matter how much we try to block out certain things from our conscious mind, if they haven't had their due, they continue pervading our everyday experience of life like unsettled ghosts.

And so I freed what was asking to be tended to, and stayed with the tears and emotions and physical sensations that now buzzed all over my body.

As we moved into the second, meditative part of the session, where we activated our parasympathetic nervous system to come down to a more grounded state, I met with my "abandonment part," which I had come to identify through the Somatic Internal Family Systems Therapy work I've done.

Somatic IFS sees an individual as having various parts or subpersonalities that make up that individual's internal "family." We have our vulnerable parts, which have typically been exiled to some cavernous corner of ourselves due to being rejected and shamed, and are thus lonely and desperate to express their hurts and unmet needs.

Our protector parts attempt to protect our vulnerable parts from experiencing any further hurt by using the body and the body's energies in defence, which can ultimately result in addictive or self-harming behaviors, weight loss or gain, dissociation, etc. But while these protectors are well-intentioned, by refusing to relax their grip they unwittingly continue to wound our vulnerable parts and block their access to the care they need to heal.

Our "Embodied Self" is "our true nature." In this state, we are able to be in the present, experience our internal sensations, and feel grounded in the earth. We are in connection, responsive, and resilient. We are separate from our vulnerable and protector parts instead of being blended with or overwhelmed by them. And in being so, we as our Embodied Self can tend to those parts as the regulated and unconditionally loving presence we may not have had guiding us in our earlier years.

So there I was, breathing and observing the spontaneous images that entered my mind. I saw me as my Embodied Self sitting in the middle of a lush green field. Beside me was my vulnerable abandonment part, who resembled the me in my grade one school photo – with bangs, a grey dress, and string of fake pearls around her neck.

My "x-rejection" protector part then sat with us too. She looked resigned, the exhaustion on her face palpable from all the defending she had done for years to "save" abandonment part from ever having to face the pain of rejection again. She too was given permission to just be held in a safe space and finally let go of the heavy burdens she had been carrying around with her for so long.

And then "my Captain" – essentially, my "higher self," who I had "met" through a visualization I did with a previous life coach (I talk all about it here) – appeared beside me. Her grounded presence allowed me to let my tears flow too.

The angry, hopeless teenage version of my abandonment part appeared as well. Then my young adult part who had been drinking in distress on the couch joined in too.

And we all sat there together, in a circle in the grass, holding hands. We were in our own communal grieving – some of us crying, some of us holding space for the others, my Embodied Self doing both – and beyond us was the Breathwork Healing community, holding this container for us to meet together and heal together.

In a past breathwork session, my desire to be in community had also come up. And I realized that while I do need love and acceptance to come from myself, it doesn’t mean I need to do all of this on my own. That I can emerge from my hard shell with those I genuinely trust and feel safe with, so I can allow myself to be loved without the fear that I'll inevitably be dropped.

In that previous breathwork session, my Captain and I met in our nature sanctuary – the same green field where my "parts" and I met in our grieving circle. We sat next to each other, hand in hand. Olive, one of the dogs on the farm I live on, sat with us too, sharing her loving energy. Then, one by one, the people in my life who have been closest to me – the farm family, my longest-standing friends, my family – joined us, some marvelling at the naturescape, others laughing, dancing, and finally letting their own burdens go.

We all sat there in one long row, on the edge of the lookout, staring out at the mountain ranges that loomed far away in the distance. A huge, deep chasm spanned between us and those grand, grey, chiseled mountains. We couldn’t see what was below in the murky depths, but it didn’t matter. Butterflies and birds fluttered about in the soft breeze, and everything was beautiful.

It may not be faces around a bonfire, and it may never completely replace the power of in-person connection, but I am grateful for what communal grieving and gathering we can do during these times – even if it's through Zoom, and even if it's through these profoundly healing imaginings in my mind.