For me as an individual to be free, I have to confront myself with questions about who I really am, and this is done in large part by examining the layers of false identity that I mistakenly call me. -Deepak Chopra
On and off, over the past nine years, I have connected with a very special woman. Her name is Sherry and instead of a therapist, I like to think of her as a teacher. Yes, I began seeing her to get “therapy” for “depression” and “anxiety.” Or, that’s what I thought I needed. Sherry however doesn’t work like that. Sherry introduced me to a way of caring for myself that had nothing to do with meds, with diagnoses, or with criminalizing my own thoughts or feelings. The approach she used to get me to that level of self-care is called Internal Family Systems.
Internal Family Systems Therapy is based on an integrative model and believes that each sub-personality of the mind possesses its own characteristics and perceptions. This therapy technique sees each level of consciousness as having these sub-personalities, or “parts,” and each plays a distinct role in achieving self-preservation for the client as a whole. Every part within a person is responsible for warding off any behaviors, actions, or reactions that can result in dysfunction or disharmony within. In this type of treatment, each part is validated and recognized as significant because of its primary function. Parts can be identified as having either healthy, productive roles or extreme roles. The latter category is made up of parts that require transformation or alteration through the therapeutic process. – Mona R. Barbera
In my own words IFS allows different sub-“parts” of a person to express themselves and receive the care and compassion that they need from the higher Self. These parts are like little personalities that we all have and ultimately they are all good. There is no “bad” part of you. Sometimes our parts just get a little extreme because they need some help.
There are three distinct types of parts in this model:
- Managers: These parts are responsible for maintaining a functioning level of consciousness by warding off any unwanted or counterproductive interactions, emotions, or experiences resulting from external stimuli.
- Exiles: These parts are most often in a state of pain or trauma, frequently resulting from childhood experiences. Managers and firefighters exile these parts and prevent them from reaching the conscious level so that preservation is preserved.
- Firefighters: These parts serve as a distraction to the mind when exiles break free from their suppression. In order to protect the consciousness from feeling the pain of the exiles, firefighters prompt a person to act on impulse and to engage in behaviors that are indulgent, addictive, and often times abusive. In addition, firefighters redirect attention to other areas such as sex, work, or food.
To understand “parts,” consider this hypothetical scenario. One day you wake up feeling so excited to do a particular thing but then you get a little nervous and don’t do it then you get mad at yourself for not doing it then you begin to fear that you’ll never be good at doing anything and you’ll always procrastinate then you start resenting someone else for how they used to procrastinate then you hate yourself for resenting them then you begin to listen to music that makes you feel more angry because in a weird way you kind of like it then you tell yourself to regroup and to stop beating yourself up and you make a list of reasons to not beat yourself up then you find yourself getting all excited about something again and on and on…..
Ugh! It’s like “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie” except the dark adult version where an ending of self-destruction instead of happily ever after is a very real possibility. But consider for a moment all the instances of the word “you” in that scenario. There are at least a dozen, right? Can all those “you”s really be YOU? Could it be possible that there is another way of looking at it besides calling all of that “you?” Try to consider that you are perhaps a multiplicity of fears, needs, dreams and comping mechanisms. It would make sense then that these fears, needs, dreams and coping mechanisms might be in an ongoing struggle to be heard. Once we take out the word “you” and give these other parts some identity, then the scenario isn’t quite so muddled. For the fun of it, let’s do just that. In the scenario above, let’s exchange “you” with a cast of parts. Introducing,
Let’s say these are the inner parts of the person experiencing the scenario. Now, the story goes something like this:
Your Adventurer feels so excited to do a particular thing but then your Insecure Child gets a little nervous and refuses to do it then your Inner Judge gets mad at your Insecure Child for not doing the first thing then your Fatalist begins to fear that she’ll never be good at doing anything and she’ll always procrastinate then your Bodyguard tries to protect Inner Child by resenting someone else for how they used to procrastinate then the Inner Judge hates yourself for resenting them then your Fatalist begins to listen to music that makes you feel more angry because it wants to keep being fatalistic then the Judge tells you to regroup and to stop beating yourself up and your Mechanic who wants to fix, fix,fix makes a list of reasons to not beat yourself up then your Adventurer gets all excited about something again and on and on…
Once you see that “you” isn’t specific enough and that what is really going on is a complex dance between competing fears, needs, and dreams, not to mention managers each trying to step in and choreograph the dance in their own style…well once you see that, the situation is easier to manage! Then the healing can really begin. How does that happen?
First, believe that you have a higher Self. Remember that YOU are not ANY of these parts. YOU are something higher and wiser. You have a Self with a capital S that can approach these parts with genuine calm and confidence. Your higher Self has the ability to lovingly and confidently take care of these parts like you might imagine a good parent extending unconditional love to their child, or god extending unconditional love to us if that comparison suits you.
Second, get as connected with and embodied in your higher Self as you can. If you’re not sure how to do that, maybe this will give you some ideas: 6 Soulful Steps to Get Reconnected With Your Higher Self. For me, I like to take steps like these:
1. Sit still on the floor.
2. Take a series of deep, slow breaths.
3. Imagine all my cares and worries on shelves behind me. I can get to them later. They’re not going anywhere.
4. Turn my attention to god without making it into a conversation. I just sit with god and recognize my connection to it/him/her.
5. Imagine that I feel completely at ease, completely strong, completely confident, and completely peaceful with myself and others. It doesn’t matter if you really feel that way. Remember, how you “feel” is a reflection of your parts. The NATURE of Self is to be at peace. So you ARE at peace.
Once you have found yourself resting in your higher Self that is the time for the next part of the process.
Third, turn your attention to your parts and have a conversation with them! One at a time, invite them to sit with you and tell you their needs and their motivations. Don’t judge them, don’t hurry them, and don’t put words in their mouths, just let them tell you about themselves. This is where you DO have a conversation. When I am doing this, I get an image in my mind of what this part looks like…maybe it’s a person (man, woman, child,) maybe it’s an animal (like my dove,) or sometimes it’s an object. Let it show you what it is. Don’t force it.
Fourth, if you feel like to have been able to hear and understand what a part of you needs, invite that part to trust you to love and protect it. Ultimately, the idea is that all the love that they need—or whatever it is they need, only they can tell you—will come from your higher Self where there is no shortage of love and compassion. Invite a part to rest. Promise it that you will listen to it with love from now on.
This is as good a place as any to emphasize that I am NOT a trained IFS therapist. Obviously there are theoretical depths behind IFS and steps in the therapeutic process with which I am not familiar. But, IFS is known as being a “user-friendly”approach so go for it and start exploring yourself! If you really wanted to go deeper with this kind of exploration you could start by reading Jay Earley’s book or by searching for an IFS therapist.
As for me, little by little I began to operate in life from my higher Self. Now, my parts are more at ease as they continue to trust that their needs will be met. I can quickly recognize when one of my parts is spiraling into an extreme again and I can help restore it back to harmony. There are no meds. There is no more weekly therapy (though I would happily go if I needed to!) There is no sense of being destined to be defective. No, it is not a perfect process every time, but it has become so much easier for Me to take care of the me’s. 🙂
So why did I write this very long post? Because I want all of us to be free! I want all of us to be happy. Together. And recently I’ve had a lot of conversations with people who can’t seem to untangle themselves from all the thoughts and feelings swirling around inside them in a battle for attention. Hell, I am that person too from time to time and I am so grateful for the person who comes around and reminds me of my true identity so I can sit myself down and let the inner work take place.
If you are at the whim of every thought and extreme action of your parts you are like a plane being flown by the passengers. They don’t know how to fly that plane! Where is the pilot for this thing?? Your Self is the pilot. YOU have a license to fly that plane and it was given to you from the day you arrived. Only YOU have the ability to help each part find its seat, sit back and enjoy the flight. YOU. I don’t know about you, but I want to take my plane to wonderful places. I want to love my passengers so much that they can’t even believe how lucky they were to get a ticket on MY flight. Maybe we can all caravan in the sky….you get your higher Self in the pilot’s seat and come join me. We’ll see where we can all go together.
Be well. Always, with great gratitude for each of you,