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Helen got the opportunity to do a creative video project to market her business. She was excited. Yet, instead of starting to work on it, she cleaned up the entire house first. Then she started cooking a meal. Then she thought she should return some phone calls. She realized she was procrastinating. Does this sound familiar? She didn’t understand why, because a part of her really wanted to do this video and that part could see the benefits of it.
When she started going inside to explore, she found she had a protective voice, another part inside of her, that was trying to keep her from doing the project because it was afraid what would happen if she did. She called this protector the “Busy Housewife Part” because it kept her busy with other tasks. It had a fear that if it allowed her to do this project, she would end up being embarrassed.
When she explored this further, she discovered that there was yet another part which was a younger child part that was holding embarrassment and shame. As a child, she had a couple of experiences where she made herself visible and was ridiculed and embarrassed by the other kids and teacher. The busy part was protecting the “Embarrassed Child” part in her. Realistically, it wasn’t likely that Helen would embarrass herself and be laughed at for making the video, but our parts are stuck in the past. They interpret current life situations based on what happened in childhood and act accordingly.
from Self-Therapy workbook by Bonnie J. Weiss
Helen used Internal Family Systems Therapy or in short IFS to explore this issue of procrastination and to shift out of it. IFS works with parts or subpersonalities. They are called parts in this model because that’s the word we naturally use. We say for example, “There is a part of me that wants to lose weight but there is another part in me that really wants me to eat pizza and chocolate cake tonight.” Or we might say, “A part of me wants to find a new job that’s less boring but another part of me feels it’s better to stick to what is familiar and safe.” Or, “A part of me wants to commit to this relationship but another part of me is afraid I’ll get hurt”.
Illustration by Karen Donnelly
We all have many different parts. Some of the famous ones are the Inner Child, the Inner Critic, the Perfectionist, the Pleaser, the Pusher/Driver and the Controlling Part, but there are many more. Each part has its own perspective, its own feelings, even its own memories and especially its own goals and motivations for us.
In IFS, there are two main categories of parts: protectors and exiles.
Our protectors have two roles. One is to handle the world, or rather to influence the way we handle the world, for example the way we interact with people. Their goal is to protect us from painful experiences. Protectors also directly try to keep us from feeling the sadness, grief, shame or pain that we are already carrying inside from past experiences.
Illustration by Karen Donnelly
Those protective parts are dedicated to safety and homeostasis. Unfortunately, protectors also attract what they are trying to avoid. If I, for example, have a fearful protector, or a mistrustful protector, or an angry protector which are trying to help me to avoid situations that could hurt me, their behaviour often is part of creating the anticipated hurtful situation. However, in order to give up their role and transform into a more beneficial role, they need to be honoured, respected, reassured, appreciated and understood. They need to learn to trust us when we are in Self, a concept I will elaborate on more below.
Mangers are proactive protectors. They try to keep us in control to prevent feelings of hurt or rejection. There motto is “never again”, based on a painful experience in the past which they are trying to avoid from happening again.
Examples for these proactive protectors are a Controlling Part, a Planner, an Analyzer, a Judgemental Part, a Pessimist, a Caretaker, a Pleaser, a Worrier, a Perfectionist, a Rational Mind, a Responsible Self or our Inner Pusher or Driver.
from Self-Therapy Workbook by Bonnie J. Weiss
Firefighters are responsive protectors. They instinctively react when our vulnerability is triggered. Just like real firefighters, they are focused on stopping the “fire” a.k.a. the problem or pain. They don’t care about consequences.
Examples for firefighters are an Angry Part, an Attacker, a Vengeful Part, but also parts that retreat, hide or stone-wall in response to what another person does or says. The third type of firefighters are distractive parts that convince us to engage in an addictive behaviour.
These firefighting parts often feel lonely, rejected, isolated and shamed because nobody likes them. Nobody in the world likes to see them come out, but also internally they are judged. The other parts don’t usually like the firefighters either.
The second main category of parts are call “exiles” in IFS. Exiles are usually young wounded inner child parts that carry pain, occasionally from adulthood, but mostly from childhood. They might feel inadequate, ashamed, afraid, lonely, sad, scared and so on. Or they carry limiting beliefs, for example that they are not good enough or that people are dangerous and so on.
Helen’s exile, which she ended up calling the “Embarrassed Child”, felt ashamed. Helen wasn’t aware of this most of the time because her protectors kept her wounded child shut away or “in exile”, so that she didn’t have to feel the pain that it was carrying around, in this case, shame.
Illustration by Karen Donnelly
A third and really important concept in IFS is the concept of the Self.
The Self is your Aware Ego, your true self, it’s your spiritual centre, your essential self, your core self or your soul. It is who you really are when you are not taken over by your parts. If you are not overidentified with an exile or a protector in a given moment in time, then you are in Self. The Self is the healing entity you already hold inside. It is meant to be the wise leader of the inner system of parts. The Self is eternal, knows all and is not affected by any trauma. The Self energy connects us to all there is in the world. It is characterized by the 8 C’s of Self-Leadership: calmness, curiosity, clarity, compassion, confidence, creativity, courage, and connectedness. It manifests as being present, heart-open and consciously aware.
“A person who is leading with the Self is easy to identify. To rephrase a joke, you get the impression that ‘the lights are on and someone is home.’ Others describe such a person as open, confident, and accepting—as having presence. You feel immediately at ease in a Self-led person’s company, sensing that it is safe to relax and release your own Self.” (Richard C Schwartz, Internal Family Systems Model)
Richard Schwartz, the founder of IFS, who is one of the most authentic and unpretentious people I have ever met, points out that very few people are “constantly and fully Self-led” (Schwartz) and he modestly includes himself in that statement. We all carry to a varying degree burdens of feeling rejected, abandoned, humiliated, shamed or traumatized. Naturally we put on masks to protect these inner wounds.
IFS is a path towards moving into increased Self-leadership by degrees. The more we access our Self and heal our inner pain, the more we can relate differently to our own parts and also to the people in our life. When we understand and practice that we are more than our parts, that we are Self, our relationships become more harmonious, we are less reactive in crisis and less overwhelmed by emotional situations. We are able to let our protective masks come down and give others permission to do the same.
If you are curious about finding out more about working with your parts contact me for a free phone consultation.
Join me on Sunday, August 12 for a workshop in Mississauga from 9:30 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. You will learn how to work with your parts, especially the critical inner voices and transform them, how to parent your inner child parts and heal them, and how to acquire the ability to lead more and more from Self. For more information or to register, please call me.
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