Divisions make headlines. Conflicts draw attention. Every now and then bridge-building makes the news, but… not for long. I think many of us realize that whether or not something makes the headlines, we need bridges these days.
I have been drawn to the metaphor of bridging for decades, in different domains. In this short reflection I’d like to focus on bridging within the field of counseling. In a follow-up blog, I’ll explore bridging within the framework of spiritual guidance.
So how is the notion of bridging relevant within the field of counseling?
Exploring inner division
Perhaps we can find our way into that question by beginning with another question: in what ways do we feel divided in our lives, experiencing inner or relational conflict? Some possibilities:
- feeling divided between our personal or family life and our work life
- experiencing conflict between our allegiance to different values, beliefs, or commitments
- feeling torn between our love for two different people
- experiencing different emotional states “at the same time,” such as joy and sadness, fear and trust, anger and love
One way that we often talk about these “divides” is in the language of parts: “part of me feels this, but another part feels that,” “part of me believes x but there’s another part that believes the opposite,” “part of me thinks this, but something in me knows that’s not true or real.” We often have divided allegiances, divided selves. I’m not talking here about the old concept of a divided or multiple personality: we all experience these inner conflicts to some degree. We may even recognize a discrepancy between what the mind believes and what we feel we know “in our bodies/in our heart/ in our gut.”
The metaphor of the Great Divide
It helps to begin by recognizing this division, becoming more aware of its presence and how it operates in our lives. Some inner conflicts run so deep that I’m tempted to use the metaphor of the Great Divide, another term for the Continental Divide (in North America, in any continent). This is a natural boundary that separates a continent’s “precipitation systems.” On one side rivers flow into one ocean or major body of water. On the other side water drains into a different ocean. To explore the metaphor a bit further, we might say that our energy often flows in opposite directions, creating a sense of strain or confusion.
If we stay with the Great Divide metaphor for a moment – for deep inner conflicts – we can probably agree that there’s no “bridge” that will resolve this division. Our energy, attention, and commitment are focused on one side or the other – or we have the painful sense of being pulled back and forth.
A Divide like this typically consists of a mountain range or a series of mountain ranges. If we return to the experience of feeling divided, in conflict, then I want to explore the idea that what is needed is a capacity to “stand in the center.” Only in the center can we view both sides at once and open ourselves to a new perspective.
This may sound as if we are required to make a strenuous climb up to the mountain tops: that is sometimes how it feels. Developing the capacity to stand in the center calls for a new skill – learning how to “bridge.” And yes, it takes practice. We feel we are making progress and then we feel ourselves “falling back” a few steps, slipping onto one side or the other.
When our inner parts are in conflict
In counseling/therapy, one approach that fosters the development of this centering/bridging skill is Internal Family Systems. To simplify, we can listen for and recognize when a “part” of us is having particular thoughts, feelings, and actions. This develops naturally when we start with the awareness that we have these inner divisions – some small, some Continental Divides. We say the words…”part of me thinks/feels/wants/etc..” And before long we may also become aware that “another part” has a different perspective and commitment. It eventually becomes evident that there are many inner parts, some of whom seem to be allies while others feel like enemies.
We can learn to pay attention to these parts, get to know them, listen to them. Often we begin with strong feelings about the ones “we” don’t like them – until we begin to realize that the “not liking” comes from another part! Eventually we may develop some curiosity about their origins and stories, and even feel compassion for them. This process may feel effortful, like climbing a mountain. But with practice we may surprise ourselves. We find we have room for many parts of ourselves: we can see and hear them from a clearer, more spacious perspective – in the Great Divide metaphor, from the wide open view of the mountain peaks.
The healing process involves more (that will need to be left for another time), but this capacity to be present with (even welcome) our divided parts is the essential beginning…
Experiencing the Self/Observer
This larger, wide open awareness may be known by various names. In IFS, it is simply called the Self. The metaphor I’ve used here suggests that the Self is somehow located “up high.” Let’s not get too concrete about that, or take my metaphor too seriously, because this compassionate awareness may be experienced (in a “felt sense”) deep within – in the heart, for instance. Whatever metaphors we choose, we are simply pointing to the possibility of learning to “bridge” some of our inner divisions, to approach life from a larger, more inclusive and spacious perspective. Not all the time, or automatically, but enough to make a positive difference in our lives and relationships.
Practice helps. Compassionate guidance and support help. As we practice bridging our inner divides, perhaps we will have more capacity for bridging the divides in our world…