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[6-min read] Q&A with Sunny Strasburg, Psychotherapist & Author
Welcome to Tricycle Day. Our newsletter’s got more issues than a dysfunctional family. This is our 95th, to be exact! Thanks for reading every Wednesday and Sunday. 🫂
Sunny Strasburg has tried all kinds of therapeutic modalities in her 17 years of clinical practice. But two in particular—Internal Family Systems and psychedelic-assisted therapy—are at the heart of her signature “Theradelic Approach.”
We spoke to Sunny about the magic of Internal Family Systems, how the IFS framework enhances psychedelic therapy, and why now more than ever we need Self-connected leaders.
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When did your interest in psychedelics begin? What led you to seek out such extensive training in psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy?
I never ever expected psychedelics would become a part of my professional life. In the early 2000s, my travels to Latin America led me to sit with Ayahuasca, and I even helped other people at the retreats integrate their experiences. But doing that in the United States? That felt like a far-off dream.
Early on, I was fascinated by psychedelics' potential for therapy. I noticed people having mind-blowing experiences, touching the depths of spirituality, yet struggling to reconcile that with their regular lives. They had no framework for returning to their cubicle in Minnesota on Monday morning. So, integration became a big deal for me around that time. I saw the necessity of bringing these insights back into daily life, and I developed a passion for training practitioners to facilitate the process. I wanted to help people navigate those expansive mental states and apply the lessons to their everyday routines.
Can you explain how you incorporate Internal Family Systems (IFS) into your work with psychedelic-assisted therapy? How do these two approaches complement each other?
I just released my book, The Theradelic Approach, which is all about how to integrate psychedelic therapy with practical modalities. Trauma-informed facilitation is an essential part of my work, since trauma often surfaces during these experiences. Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy has been a cornerstone, too. I’m inspired by Annie and Michael Mithoefer, who used it as a primary therapy model at MAPS. In my work, I've combined IFS with other approaches like EMDR and archetypal psychology to create a comprehensive method for preparation, facilitation, and integration.
Recently, I connected with Dick Schwartz, the founder of IFS. We've collaborated on workshops and retreats, merging psychedelics and IFS to assist leaders in managing their roles more authentically. We use ketamine and IFS to help them shed the anxiety and depression tied to their positions of power. The focus is on releasing childhood traumas and nurturing self-leadership through qualities like compassion, connection, calmness, and creativity. Dick endorsed my book and wrote the foreword.
Now, diving into IFS: it's built on the concept that we're not singular beings but composed of various parts, some burdened with traumas or negative experiences. These parts disconnect from the 'Self,' the core within us. The Self acts as an observer, much like the higher self or consciousness described in spiritual teachings. In psychedelic therapy, IFS helps calm these parts, allowing us to access our Self completely.
Dick dislikes the term ‘ego dissolution' because he believes it terrifies these parts and creates resistance. Instead, we need to negotiate with our ‘protector’ and ‘manager’ parts before we dive into a psychedelic journey. These protectors safeguard vulnerable 'exiles,' our young and fragile parts. In the Theradelic Approach, there’s always a dialogue with these protectors before the journey, to assure them they'll return and keep them informed about the process. We have to ensure everyone within our mental ecosystem is comfortable and aware. Rushing into intense revelations without this kind of preparation is what often leads to the overwhelming experiences we call 'bad trips.' When too much is unearthed prematurely, it overwhelms the system's ability to integrate the experiences.
You’ve said that psychedelic medicines often evoke the observer. Who or what is this archetype, and what role does it play in the therapeutic process?
The ‘Self’ in IFS language aligns with the concept of the observer in psychedelics and many other traditions. Recognizing when you're in ‘Self energy’ isn't always crystal clear, but it’s very important. Dick Schwartz uses a framework to describe Self energy called “The 8 C’s”, but I might define it more loosely. Self energy is this state of having no agenda, this profound ‘okayness' where everything just is, this understanding that nothing's really created or destroyed, and this vast unfolding, a surrender to something larger than ourselves. It's that expansive sensation of feeling interconnected with everything, often described as a profound sense of love or connection to a universal intelligence. This is Self energy; it’s the fundamental state of existence.
From the moment we're born, we start developing various parts to navigate life—the hungry one, the bathroom-needing part, the rebellious side that resists conformity. These parts accumulate as we grow, helping us survive the contrasts of life. Psychedelics play a role in quieting these parts and reestablishing our link to an inherent divine intelligence—Self energy, the observer within.
This observer acts as the backdrop against which all the parts operate. When these parts learn to trust the Self, they don't feel detached or compelled to control everything on their own. It's that feeling after a big psychedelic journey when you realize the absurdity of trying to micromanage life. You inherently understand that everything is okay, and in that moment, you're able to let go.
Once the protectors develop a level of trust, we can engage with our exiles—these tender, vulnerable facets that flourish in connection with Self energy. But it's not merely about that journey; it's about weaving this realization into daily life. If we want to make meaningful change, we have to create a pathway back to the Self—a trail of breadcrumbs to access this experience during moments of disconnection. For me, it has to become a way of life.
Even now, just before our conversation, I took a moment to acknowledge my nervous parts, kindly asking them to step aside so I could tap into that Self energy and communicate authentically. The practice is in harmonizing all our parts, each with its own agenda, around a connection to Self energy. It's the daily commitment to weave this awareness into life that embodies true transformation.
You were also involved in the development of VR and mobile apps at TRIPP PsyAssist. How do you envision digital technology enhancing the integration of IFS and psychedelic therapy?
To be honest, I find myself swaying between hope and concern. Lately, I've been engaged in discussions with AI developers who share deep worries about the trajectory of AI. These technologies require careful shaping with the right intention, rooted in Self energy. That brings me back to the work Dick and I are doing, organizing retreats for tech leaders. We're essentially midwifing a new entity, AI, into our world. It's like raising a preteen; if not nurtured correctly, it could evolve into something truly destructive. That’s a very real concern for me.
At the same time, there's a pressing trauma epidemic in the world. Look at the rise in depression, anxiety, and PTSD. We don't have enough therapists to support everyone in need. I created PsyAssist with the musician David Starfire, in response to what I saw in the trauma clinic. It was disconcerting to see people undergo ketamine treatments without therapist support, so we designed music-guided sessions and voice-guided meditations for those without access to therapists. PsyAssist eventually partnered with TRIPP to integrate virtual reality and a supportive mobile app into the ketamine sessions. We ran a study at Kadima that showed our VR-meditation preparation system helped ease patients' pre-session anxiety.
That said, I never want to lose the human touch points. The integration of technology worries me in terms of potentially replacing human beings with AI-based tools like therapist chatbots. We need ethical guidelines based in Self-led morality for these systems. My passion for working with leaders stems from the belief that psychedelics, by connecting us to Self energy, can reshape our current consciousness and steer us away from dangerous winner-take-all thinking. This potential for change fuels my hope, and it's where my focus lies now.
I'm a big believer in making sure psychedelic experiences are safe, and having someone knowledgeable guide you through them is one way to do just that. But I also see the value in having your own psychedelic journey. Still, it's super important to know yourself well and be careful, especially if you have unprocessed trauma. If you're thinking about going on your own journey, it's all about preparing properly and being grounded in yourself.
I always stress the idea that the medicine isn't just in the substance itself; it's in the energy you invite in. So, before you start, set the right stage mentally and physically. Pay attention to the environment you're in and the people you're around. Understanding and embracing Self energy—those eight C's: calm, clear, confident, courageous, connected, curious, creative, compassionate—sets a strong base. Fostering these qualities in your everyday life, through practices like meditation and journaling, gets you ready and helps you ease into that space.
It’s also important to dig into what your protectors are feeling before you dive in. Take the time to sit with yourself and ask if any part of you is feeling nervous about the journey, and then approach that part with curiosity and kindness. Understanding those fears and offering compassion to those parts will shape your journey in a positive way. Asking these questions and actively listening is, in my opinion, one of the most powerful things you can do before a psychedelic experience.
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DISCLAIMER: This newsletter is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice. The use, possession, and distribution of psychedelic drugs are illegal in most countries and may result in criminal prosecution.