Robin and the Cloud Man: One Person’s Journey to Healing

Robin had worked for a number of years as a freelance artist, but when tough economic times came, she got a job in the design department of a major corporation to tide herself over. She came to see me when her new-found job started to make her incredibly anxious and stressed. Robin told herself she ought to be glad she was working at all, but as the job went on she felt more isolated and trapped, seeing herself as “the weird artsy girl,” at the office. And it didn’t help that she was being picked on by her supervisor, who seemed almost to resent her creative talent. It all came to a head when Robin started having panic attacks in the elevator and on the train to work, draining her self-belief still further and making her wonder if she was going to fall apart on the job and be fired.

Robin did an inner-directed kind of therapy with me that’s called Internal Family Systems therapy (IFS). In IFS you see yourself as an internal system, or “family” of parts. Our parts act pretty autonomously – each one has its own world view, and its own fixed beliefs about what is best for us. If you’ve ever been on a diet or tried to control your eating, you will know all about this. While one part of you gets totally behind the diet, maybe even obsessing about things like calorie counts, serving sizes and what you weigh on the scales, another part – one that is much more murky and compulsive – wants you to eat your way out of your pain and your sense of deprivation. Its world view might be summed up in the words, “Food, good!”

In regular life, parts like these fight to be in the driver’s seat of your intention, leading you in directions you don’t want to go and using up enormous amounts of your energy in the battle for control. IFS is a reliable road map into our most private and interior realms, where we can heal the wounds of this inner warfare. In IFS, you don’t talk about your parts, you directly encounter them, learning how to negotiate with them and how to help them integrate and heal. One thing you learn is that all of your parts intend good, even the ones that, on the face of it, seem scary or destructive. At heart, their mission is always to protect you, no matter how misguidedly they carry out their mission. Cloud Man, in Robin’s work, is an example.

Cloud Man Appears

After Robin talked about her anxiety, I invited her to “go inside,” and find the part of herself that was carrying these anxious feelings. Robin composed herself and focused in on the mixture of anxiety, dread, and helplessness that came with her panic attacks. When she was in touch with those feelings, I asked her to find where they lived in her body, and if any visual images came to her.

In her mind’s eye, Robin saw a huge amorphous white monster. It was unclear around the edges, appeared to be made of clouds, and had its arms raised threateningly over her. Robin called it Cloud Man. I asked Robin a crucial question in IFS therapy, “How do you feel towards that part?” It’s an important question because the answer defines your relationship to the part, and how easy it will be for you to open up and relate to it. Robin felt afraid of Cloud Man, so I asked her to remind her fear that she was in a safe place now, she was away from the subway and away from work, and that if the fear could quieten just a little, we might be able to understand Cloud Man better, and eventually make him less scary.

Robin’s fear was able to step back after this, making it possible for her to become more open towards Cloud Man. Cloud Man obliged her by showing her his home, a cloud office in the sky. Cloud Man sat working busily at a computer surrounded by screens and monitors on the wall. Robin could not see what they were showing, but she knew that they were important. When she looked more closely at Cloud Man, she could see that he was no longer scary at all. In fact, although his expression remained impassive, there were tears streaming down his face that he seemed totally unaware of.

Robin asked Cloud Man to tell her more about his job. He was a little vague with us, acting busy and preoccupied, but said that the work he did was terribly important, and that Robin should not keep him from it. IFS theory tells us that a part like Cloud Man is seldom just a representation of free-floating fear; it’s normally in the business of protecting some other, more vulnerable, part in the internal system. So, we asked Cloud Man if he would be willing to show us who he was protecting.

After expressing his doubts and reservations, Cloud Man took a chance with us and tentatively agreed. He showed Robin a memory from eight years old, when her third grade class was getting ready to practice a singing performance in the auditorium of her school. Robin, being smaller than most of the other children, wanted to be in the front row so she could be seen. Too shy to ask for herself, her parents had made the request for her. Her teacher must have been put out by this, because on the day of the performance she scornfully announced to the whole class, on stage, that Robin was to stand at the front because she thought she was so special, and had made her parents ask for this. Robin felt humiliated, betrayed, and terribly exposed.

Of course I’m not saying one memory was the cause of Robin’s current sense of alienation and panic attacks. But her internal system had given this image to us as a key to working with the issues of fear, isolation, and being picked on. Next stop in the healing process: The Little Girl.

The Little Girl in the Auditorium

Robin went into the auditorium memory so deeply that it seemed palpably real to her. We asked the Little Girl version of Robin to show her adult self just how badly she felt during this experience, how alone and singled-out she felt, and how unfair it seemed. As the listener/viewer of this story, Adult Robin was able to convey her compassion for the lonely and shy Little Girl, and offer her the first adult comfort about this that she had ever gotten. In her mind’s eye they hugged, and the Little Girl greatly enjoyed this comfort and connection. For all these years, she had been frozen in painful reenactment of her confusion and humiliation.

Next we asked the Little Girl what needed to happen so she could start feeling better. The Little Girl immediately showed us a way to transform the memory into an empowering event. First, she had the teacher and all the other children leave the stage. Then, after collaborating with Adult Robin, she changed the performance from a singing show to an art presentation. A projection screen popped up behind her, ready to start a slide show of Robin’s art work from across her life.

We then considered who we should bring in to fill the auditorium. The Little Girl brought in family members who were especially sympathetic to her, while Adult Robin brought in all the people who had encouraged her in her career and given her moral support. Then, with the enthusiastic audience in place, the Little Girl gave a confident presentation of all Robin’s achievements as an artist. It was a very satisfying experience for both Robin and her Little Girl part.

The Unburdening

Empowering as this was, the healing was not all done. Strange as it may sound, parts like the Little Girl often still carry the burden of their bad experience in a literal way somewhere in or around their bodies. Like an infection, this burden will stay inside the part until it has been released and cleaned out.

We asked the Little Girl to scan her body and see if there were any places that held something bad, uncomfortable, or in some way not part of her. Young, hurt parts often find the burden as dark muck on their bodies, or as a wound. What the Little Girl found was a magnet inside her head. Adult Robin asked the Little Girl if she was ready to let go of that burden and live without it. These parts sometimes need time to process things before they can let go of their pain, but the Little Girl said she was ready.

We asked the Little Girl what she would like to give her burden up to – fire, water, earth, air, light, or to anything else that seemed right to her. True to form, the Little Girl did it her way. She gracefully arched over backwards, connecting her head to the auditorium floor. The magnet spilled out onto the floor and then melted away into the earth below. This inner ritual can only work when the part feels totally listened to and understood by the adult self. Only then can the toxic residue of the bad experience be finally discharged, through the agency of something big and primal, like one of the elements.

In the final step of this process, Robin asked the Little Girl what qualities she would like to bring in to herself to fill the gap left by the magnet. IFS practitioners have found that if you don’t fill that empty space with something positive, burdens have a habit of sneaking back in. The Little Girl though, chose not to fill the physical space where the magnet had been. Instead she intensified the aura of talent and confidence that had been growing around her during her presentation in the auditorium.

After the aura of confidence reached full intensity, Robin asked the Little Girl if she wanted to leave the auditorium, because now there was nothing tying her to that place any more. Quite often, the part will choose to come into the present and live with the adult self, but once again, Robin’s Little Girl had her own way of doing things, and she took herself to a park, where she played happily, and paraded up and down in a pair of invisible high heeled shoes. The Little Girl never told us exactly why these shoes had to be invisible, but she did let us know that she was happy in this park, and Robin could check in on her whenever she wanted. She was very glad to be away from the auditorium.

Back to Cloud Man

Healing one part of our internal system does not automatically translate into healing other parts, so we checked back in with Cloud Man. In fact, he was quite alarmed at what had just happened, and was in a panic over the possibility of “losing his job.” Together, we assured him that he would always be part of Robin, no matter what. But now that Robin might be strong enough to take care of the Little Girl on her own, what would Cloud Man do instead of his “monitoring” work if he were free to leave his post?

Cloud Man considered for a while, and then told a poignant story of his own. Before he had become this busy person in the clouds, with his computer and monitors, he had, long ago, been a bird. If he were really free, he said he would return to his original bird state and fly wherever he wanted, far away from human control. But before he could do that, he would need to know that the Little Girl was totally safe, and he was very skeptical that we could ever guarantee that. And that is where that session ended.

In our next session together, Robin went straight back to the Cloud Man. He was in his Cloud Office working away as usual, but when he turned his face towards Robin, the tears were streaming down his face so heavily that they sprayed all over her. Robin suggested to Cloud Man that we do some healing work with him, just as we had with the Little Girl the week before.

Cloud Man responded with, “Let’s talk.” Apparently for him the place to have this talk was in a diner, over a cup of coffee! Robin’s ability to enter her internal worlds was so strong that when Cloud Man ordered the coffees (from a Cloud Waitress) she became confused and embarrassed, because in regular life Robin does not drink coffee. She took the tiniest sip from the imaginal coffee cup, and hoped that Cloud Man would not notice or take offense. Robin was also a bit unsure about how to start talking, so I suggested she update Cloud Man on what she was doing these days. Quite often our internal parts are so stuck in the past that they don’t know that we have grown up and made lives for ourselves.

It turns out that was very much the case here, so Robin showed Cloud Man a condensed movie of her life from childhood on up to the present. The movie showed Robin’s maturing, developing a career, having her artistic talent blossom, and realizing many of her dreams. Cloud Man became immensely proud of her, and relieved. All along, he had been thinking of her as a young and vulnerable early teenager.

With this new information, Cloud Man was able to open up to change, and went straight to the unburdening phase of the work. If the Little Girl’s burden had been a magnet in her head, Cloud Man’s burden was, appropriately enough, a filing cabinet of every bad memory and every bad image he had stored, as a sort of buffer, so that Robin didn’t need to fully experience it. The file cabinet, so stuffed that its contents were in danger of bursting out and spilling all over, was located inside his body down the middle.

Cloud Man explained that he had stored these memories and images inside himself to shield Robin, because she had been too sensitive to handle them on her own. Acting as a loyal protector, Cloud Man had absorbed all the negativity he could, so that Robin could have a happier childhood. Over the years the Cloud Office had evolved around him. As the bad memories and scary images accumulated, Cloud Man vigilantly scanned his monitors for any danger and possible attacks on Robin.

After childhood, Cloud Man stayed at his post, absorbing bad stuff as best he could, and sometimes inadvertently putting Robin on red alert if danger even seemed to threaten. By being too good a protector, Cloud Man had prompted Robin’s panic attacks and her fears that she would be stuck forever in her temporary job. Just like the Little Girl, Cloud Man had some healing to do.

Cloud Man Unburdens Too

Cloud Man’s sacrifice had been so loyal and selfless that it brought tears to Robin’s eyes. She had no idea that this part, which had originally shown itself as some kind of a monster, had really been quietly working in her service all along. It was perhaps Robin’s heartfelt gratitude that helped Cloud Man so quickly let go of the burden he had been holding for many years. Before her eyes, the entire file cabinet emptied itself picture by picture, and all of its contents were consigned to a bright multi-colored fire.

The fire suddenly glowed brighter and transformed into intense white light, as the final contents of the file cabinet were consumed. All that was left was a strange residue that Robin called “goblin ashes.” The goblin ashes might have had some potential to spring back into life, so Cloud Man covered them with pretty colored stones that were his few good memories. Then the ashes were absorbed into the earth, just as the magnet had been absorbed into the earth for the Little Girl.

Once he had performed this internal ritual, Cloud Man began to spontaneously change. From the top of his head on down, the clouds began to fall away, revealing a rather dapper man, dressed in a 1950s style suit. He was now in a sort of park, where a large balloon in the shape of a bed was tethered to the ground beside a tree. He laid down on the bed and fell asleep. Gradually the bed lost gravity and feathers began to sprout out of Cloud Man’s suit. The bed floated him up to the top of the tree, and still sleeping, Cloud Man completed his transformation into a bird, becoming the robin he had once been before, so many years ago.

At the end of the session Cloud Man was still asleep. In her mind’s eye, Robin tied some balloons in the branches beside him. She knew that when he woke he would recognize them as tokens of thanks and friendship from her. It was then that Robin recalled the story of how she had been given her name. On the day of Robin’s birth, her mother was still considering what to name her. Her mother looked out the hospital window and saw a bird – a robin – and decided to name her daughter after that. Now at last, the part that had been Cloud Man was free to return to his original and spontaneous existence.

About an hour after this session was done, Robin sent me a text message saying on her way home she had passed through an outdoor market where someone was selling crystals and stones. She bought some that looked like the ones that covered the goblin ashes, and was now arranging them in her home as a tribute to her old friend, guardian, and companion, the Cloud Man. In the next session, when Robin checked in on him, Cloud Man was gone from his perch in the trees, and had re-entered the forests and fields of Robin’s imagination, more free from worries and cares than he had ever been.

Conclusion

Robin’s powerful imagination served her well in approaching her internal “family” of parts. She was able to reach feelings, insights – and healing – that otherwise would have been hard to reach. But consider two things: first, Robin’s powerful imagination would have done her no good if she hadn’t brought to it the involvement, compassion, and grounding that made change and healing possible. It’s very easy for a vivid imagination to spin from one pretty picture to another. Secondly, a surprising number of us have a similar degree of access to our inner lives, but have absolutely no idea that we do. Even those of us who are not visually oriented can just as easily reach that place of healing through a “felt sense” of our parts. It can all be done.

For Robin herself, the panic attacks and the fear of possibly being stuck forever in her job faded after our work together. She became far less easily alarmed, and the Little Girl in her was much more resilient and confident in her ability to duke it out with adversity. The intense hypervigilance of Cloud Man was gone. Soon after, several life events further relieved the stress on her, and Robin was able to see out the tenure of her corporate stint without much heartache. Then she moved on to a far more fulfilling phase in her life.

All of us have a Little Girl or a Little Boy inside us, waiting to be released from old experiences that lock us into a painful and limiting present. Often, it’s not so much an Inner Child that we have to deal with, but an inner daycare center, where class is waiting to be unburdened and let out to play. And running the inner daycare are parts like Cloud Man, who at heart are scarcely more grown up than the children they work so diligently to protect. It’s our job, in our adult selves, to help out all these parts, and free them from the frozen, traumatized places where they live. As Dick Schwartz, the founder of IFS therapy said, “We are all here to learn, and we can help each other learn together.” Thanks Robin, for the courage, patience, and clarity of your work. It will help us all learn together.