Recently I listened to a Podcast called "The Self-Led Journey Through Addiction Recovery and Trauma." It was about something called Internal Family Systems, which is an inner healing modality that I had heard of but had never explored.
I often turn on a podcast to listen while I apply myself to household tasks, as an incentive to get on with them. Sometimes that backfires because the podcast conversation is so interesting that I keep dropping the task at hand to take notes. This was one of those times, and this post came out of the notes I took and the related ideas that added themselves on as I went along. To make for a less interrupted reading experience, I've listed most of the references at the bottom rather than linking to them in the text.
DISCLAIMER: I’m not a therapist. This is entirely my own interpretation, part of my personal search for what works for me.
What is an internal family system?
We think of ourselves as a single entity, “I.” We say, “I am [____].” You can insert whatever labels you want in the space, and that supposedly defines you as an individual.
But sometimes we also say things like, “There’s a part of me that wants [____].” Or,“There’s a part of me that wonders if [___].” Or,“Part of me wants [____] but another part of me doesn’t.”
Turns out, from an Internal Family Systems (IFS) perspective, all those "parts" are real.
Parts in exile
According to IFS, in our "internal family" we have two kinds of “parts.” The first kind are called exiled parts.
Exiled parts are lost fragments of you that went into hiding when you were a little child or even a baby.
These parts “split off” and went into hiding when you had the experience of feeling emotionally dis-regulated (over-stimulated, threatened, overwhelmed, unloved, unwanted, shamed etc) and there was no calm, attuned adult available to help you get back into a state of emotional regulation.
Whatever age you were when this happened, that lost part of you got "frozen" or stuck at that stage of development. It gets locked away to wait until you as an adult can reach back into yourself, rescue it, and help it grow and develop as it would have if it hadn't had to go into hiding.
A state of emotional regulation: home base
Before I introduce the second kind of "part," I want to say more about what I mean by “a state of emotional regulation.1
I think of a state of emotional regulation as a state of unconditional love and trust. I also think of it as being the natural state of well-being for a baby, a child, and actually, any human being.
A baby or child expects to receive help from a trusted adult anytime they lose that state, for support and guidance to get back to it.
A mature human knows how to lead themselves back to a state of emotional regulation as needed. (An adult who can’t get herself back into a state of emotional regulation after an upset has been taken over by one of her parts; she’s temporarily unable to access or inhabit her resourced, adult self. More on that in a bit.)
In a sense, the trusting, open state of complete emotional regulation is “home-base,” from which a child can safely explore the world and from which an adult can effectively relate to others, create worthwhile things, or do meaningful work.
Now stay with me. I’m going to give you an analogy for what it's like to be emotionally dis-regulated, and unable to calm yourself.
As a child when you had experiences of coming un-moored from home base and finding that there was no calm, loving adult to lead you back and re-attach you, it was like being an astronaut floating in space whose attachment to the mother-ship has broken.
The astronaut drifts away helplessly, knowing she is going to die. There's no-one to bring her back and help her get re-attached.
When this happened to you in childhood, it was as if you said, “Never again. I will never allow myself to feel pain and terror like this, ever, ever again.”
So to achieve that aim, you sent the vulnerable parts of you, the parts that felt that pain, into exile. And you formed “protector parts” to make sure the hurting parts would never ever come out to have their pain felt again.
Your protector parts express themselves via behaviors/coping strategies/patterns that you formed to protect your child self.
They might be things like your “controller,” who tries to keep everything under control. Or your “avoider,” who scans the horizon and people’s faces for hints of danger and moves you away from things it thinks are a threat. Your “procrastinator” might be doing something similar. Or perhaps your inner family includes an “over-achiever” or “perfectionist” who tries to get everything right so you’ll be beyond criticism.
You get the drift. There are endless variations.
And remember, all these parts are functioning at the level of a small, lost child or even a baby. (No parent can ever be perfect. All of us get touched by experience like these, although of course the details, the frequency, and the intensity vary.)
When your “buttons are pushed”
Most of us are familiar with the expressions “my buttons were pushed,” or “I was triggered.” It’s when you find yourself having an extreme over-reaction to a situation or person. Its also when you find yourself unable to let go of it – hours or days later you’re still stewing over it and/or losing sleep over it.
Those two things—reacting out of proportion to the situation and/or being unable to let it go and return yourself to emotional regulation—tell you that one or more of your parts has been triggered or activated. The activated part has taken over. And sometimes, two or more parts all want to take over at once, each convinced it can do a better job of keeping you safe than any other part can.
With these immature child parts warring within us, it's no wonder our outer landscapes (which faithfully mirror our inner landscapes) are littered with misunderstandings, conflict, avoidance behaviors, and pain.
A resourced adult Self - the parent
Fortunately there is one more component to your inner family that we haven’t talked about yet. Allow me to introduce your Self, with a capital "S."
Your Self is the part of you that is not a part. One way to think of it is to call it your “core Self.” This is your resourced, rational adult Self, who has full access to everything you’ve learned and all the life skills of the adult you are now.
This is also the part of you that’s connected to the Divine, in whatever ways you want to think about that. Or, if you prefer to think in more scientific terms, your Self is connected to what 20th and 21st century science might call “the underlying field of Intelligence.”
When you’re grounded in your core Self, from that place you can observe the behaviors of your parts, you can be the witness – as opposed to getting caught up in one of your parts and allowing that part to hijack you and become all of who you are.
Observing your parts—paying attention to all the feelings, emotions, sensations, imagery, etc, inside of you—is a way out of the trap of thinking and acting as if you are those feelings. It's a way out of feeling that an activated part is all of who you are.
Your core Self, whom you could also think of as the Observer or the Witness, brings compassionate awareness to all that you are made up of. This is awareness without judgement. It’s acceptance, curiosity, openness towards all your parts.
Why your parts act out, and how to help them realize they don't need to do that any more
It's helpful to get very familiar with this practice of giving attention to your parts, because this is what your parts have been begging you for. This is why they "act out" -- become activated and try to take over. It's to get your attention.
Your undivided attention and unconditional acceptance is the soothing, healing attunement that they missed out on back when the trouble started. Giving it to them now--no matter how many decades have passed--helps them begin to feel safe enough to relax their obsessive grip on the steering wheel of your life.
Your observing Self asks of your inside parts, “What's up?” and,"Really? And what else?" and then really, truly, pays full attention to the answers that come. The answers may not come in words -- remember you're talking to a baby or a child.
(When I do this exercise, which I'm learning can be done in almost any situation and can take anything from a second or two to an hour or more, I pay attention to things like:
- feelings or emotions like fear, anxiety, confusion, resistance, opposition, rage, grief
- physical sensations like tightness, shortness of breath, or pain
- imagined colors, shapes, or textures that I can sometimes find inside myself.)
The point is to pay attention and become aware of and attuned to whatever is happening inside you, even briefly. It will get easier with practice.
Then, from that place of compassionate attunement, your adult Self can begin to lead your child parts back to the mother-ship. Through attunement and non-judgemental presence, your adult Self helps your child parts re-attach to the home base of acceptance and belonging.
As you practice this, ever so gradually your child parts will learn that they can relax. Exiled parts can come out of hiding, and protector parts can let go of the controls a little bit. They'll never disappear--you wouldn't want them to--but they'll soften and allow you to lead them. They''l develop into a cohesive, cooperative, functional family.
The term "inner healing" can be misleading, because your parts don't need you to heal them. Your parts are not sick or broken, so this is not about fixing them. It’s about observing them, holding them, seeing them and loving them exactly as they are. When you turn your attention inward and ask without judgement, “What is it like in here?” you step into the role of Witness or Observer. Through that portal you can step into your adult Self.
It’s not easy, no. It may be the hardest work you'll ever do in your entire life. It certainly is for me. But it’s also not complicated.
It's worth it
Accessing your core Self, the parent for your inner family, is like building a muscle or learning a skill. It takes time and repetition.
It’s worth it.
When you do the work to develop your core Self and to inhabit it, and from there to bring the whole of your inner family into emotional regulation, you are developing the capacities that our wider world requires of us now.
The clarity and accuracy of this as a paradigm for what is happening in the outer world is very clear to me.
Your parts are not broken. They don’t need to be controlled, changed, or fixed. Its just that the system they are part of has gotten out of balance and twisted them into what they are. When you can inhabit your larger Self more often and more fully, you can lead all the parts back into balance.
Then each part can make its unique contribution to the whole, and there can be peace inside you and power flowing freely through you.
And so it is with the outer world too. Collectively we are being invited to inhabit a larger understanding of who we are. We're being invited to bring compassionate awareness to the impulses we feel to judge, condemn, and control the “other,” so that we can help all the different and diverse parts re-align, re-connect, re-balance, and invite them to contribute their gifts to the whole.
Welcome your parts
As an adult who was wounded and fragmented by the absence of attuned carers at critical points during your infancy and childhood, you have the potential now to tend to your inner family and evolve it toward wholeness. In the process you will be practicing how to do the same thing for whatever is wounded and fragmented in your outer world.
A wound is a portal, I read somewhere. Open to your pain, turn inward, bathe your inner parts with attention, acceptance and compassion. Feel the release, the relief, the energy that is freed up when your inner parts feel safe enough to soften. Let the tears wash through you. And repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
Your parts are immature and inexperienced. They've been trying to keep your pain under wraps because they don't know that feeling pain is one of the processes that matures us into the kinds of adults who can do the work that needs to be done.
Welcome your parts, pain and all. Yes, even THAT part. Especially that one.
References and resources, including "shadow" stuff
Besides being interested in this concept of an "inner family of parts," I’m also very interested in the concept of the “shadow.” "The shadow" is a name sometimes given to unconscious aspects of our personality that don't conform with our conscious ideas about who we should be, and so we repress and deny them. (We also unknowingly project these aspects of ourselves onto others.)
As I listened to the "inner family" concept I realized that the "parts" hiding away inside of ourselves are part of what makes up our shadow. I've mentioned the shadow and the things hiding in it, in these posts:
- "What Will the Full Moon Reveal For You?" a post on journaling prompts to use around the time of the full moon, to help reveal whats hidden "in the shadows."
- "3 Ways to Bring Ourselves Home"
- in "Difficult Emotions Are Allies In Disguise," I share some personal journal entries and ideas on how and why to turn toward uncomfortable emotions -- parts of our shadow -- when they arise.
The podcast I listened to that started this post off was "The Self-Led Journey Through Addiction Recovery and Trauma"
Some resources about Internal Family Systems:
- The book, No Bad Parts, by Richard Schwartz, PhD.
- Internal Family Systems Training Australia
- About Internal Family Systems
- Internal Family Systems Institute
Two articles I enjoyed that further explain inner family and shadow work concepts:
- "The Most Effective Way to Practice Shadow Work"
- "How To Access Greater Healing Through Internal Family Systems"
The Path is Everywhere and other work by Matt Licata, PhD. (Note: I really enjoy Matt Licata's short posts. But I recommend The Path is Everywhere with a feeling of reservation because although it did contain some jems, it was a very difficult book to read. That may partly be because I was barely ready for it, and also because it could have done with a good going over by a better editor than whoever edited it. I can't speak for his other books, which I haven't read.)
If you made it all the way down here, what's coming up for you?
would you like to receive new posts in your inbox?
after clicking subscribe, sit tight for a confirmation message