My many parts and I - an introduction to 'Internal Family Systems'
I really want an ice-cream cone this afternoon. Well, that's partially true. One part of me wants the ice-cream, another part of me doesn't. I have a dairy sensitivity. I know that if I eat the ice-cream it will give me a belly ache, but still, there is a part of me that wants it. Which part of me will I listen to? Which part will 'win'? I might begin to wonder if the part of me that wants the ice-cream is 'bad' or 'wrong', especially if I know that eating ice-cream is something that is not inherently great for my body in the long run. But what if I am able to look a bit deeper and begin to engage with and ask questions of the ice-cream eating part of me? What if, instead of condemning it and making it wrong, I befriend it and ask it what its motives are, what it's looking for and what needs it is attempting to meet? This, my friends, is the basics of 'Internal Family Systems' otherwise known as 'parts work'.
Our psyches are so incredibly amazing. I used to feel like I had an entire community existing inside of my head - it turns out, I do! We all do. It's just that few of us actually realize it. Have you ever had an experience of saying something to someone impulsively or doing something that you were surprised by only to say afterwards 'I don't know why I did/said that?' It almost feels as though you are 'taken over' by something other than your self out of habit or reaction or impulse. Perhaps you found yourself feeling extraordinarily sad about something and being entirely unable to rationalize your emotion, despite knowing on a more logical level that nothing was currently happening that warrants you being so sad. One part of you feels the sadness, another part of you berates you for feeling it. The berating part might do something in order to push the sadness down or try to exterminate it in some way, but the sadness remains, feeling abandoned and neglected. (Hint: it won't go away until it's seen, heard and soothed).
Dr. Richard Schwartz, the creator of Internal Family Systems, developed the model while working with clients with severe eating disorders. He found that the more he pushed his clients to stop their self harming behaviours, the more these behaviours continued to take over and dominate their lives. After much learning, he began to realize that the individuals he was supporting would say things to him like 'a part of me wants to eat, another part doesn't'. He began exploring his clients' parts, asking them questions about their feelings and their motives. The dialogue told him a lot about their development and experiences and he began to learn that their thoughts, behaviours and impulses always came from one place - protection from feelings, thoughts and experiences that were stored inside his clients' systems. He learned that his clients had 'sad' parts, 'lonely' parts, 'angry' parts, 'aggressive' parts, 'self -harming' parts, 'bulimic/anorexic' parts, violent parts and the list goes on and on. At first, he wondered if this meant that his clients had more severe pathology than he initially realized. But with time and self reflection, he began to notice that he, himself, also had different parts inside of him that would compete for attention and that these various parts existed inside of everybody.
When you think about it, how often does this happen to us in our every day lives? We perceive someone is berating us, enter an aggressive part. We perceive someone is abandoning us, enter an anxious part. We are having difficulty figuring out how to move forward in a relationship - enter various parts telling us different things about what we should do and how we should proceed. Our parts are constantly being activated by reminders of experiences and events that have occurred at various times in our lives. Often, these parts take on the roles that they initially were created for, as 'protectors' that developed when we had no other defences, were powerless, in danger, or threatened in some way.
Looking back, my experience of this has been quite evident over the past two decades of my life. Without realizing it, internal parts would become triggered and would show up as extreme anxiety, depression, acting out, self medicating, isolation and pretty much any self soothing behaviour that was available to me at the time. Often these parts would arise from a perception of threat that I wasn't even conscious that I was experiencing.
The body remembers, you see, even when the mind does not.
Of course, without this understanding, these 'symptoms' of mine were very pathologized. I tried to suppress them, stuff them down and numb them with pharmaceuticals. My parts bypassed that - the strength of my inner protective system far surpassing any strategy that was offered to me to deny it. It never, ever gave up until I heard what it was trying to tell me.
Learning about parts work has completely transformed my life. The reason that I feel so passionate about sharing this knowledge is because, well, when you have multiple internal parts competing against one another at any given time and don't understand why, it can feel (forgive the expression) quite crazy. I would long for closeness with a partner, move towards it and then pull back when an extremely anxious part would emerge. The more I tried to suppress and ignore the anxiety and push forward anyways, the more extreme it would become and the more confused and trapped I would feel. Ignoring the battle cries of my system did nothing for me aside from putting me into a state of deeper dysregulation and distress. It wasn't until I learned how to recognize and interact with my internal parts that I started to be able to manage what was happening inside of me. I had to learn that that anxious part was trying to tell me something. It was a sacred clue. Almost always, it was trying to remind me of something that had happened to me in the past - something awful or unpleasant that I had suppressed in some way. Entering into a dialogue with these parts is what has enabled me to understand better what I've experienced, and has allowed me to process it and move forward. In essence, my triggers are a gift - information that I can use on my healing path to better understand my body, my mind and my experience.
Here's how it works: my psyche contains three different 'types' of parts. Managers, firefighters and exiles. My managers' job is to manage my distress and internal feelings on a day to day basis. This includes strategies like perfectionistic behaviours, people-pleasing, controlling etc. Then there are my firefighters. These parts come to the rescue when I experience a trigger that reminds me of a threatening past event or circumstance. They are called firefighters because they are activated in ‘emergencies’ and function more impulsively, through behaviours like aggression, self harm, critical internal dialogue, substance use etc. These parts are on-call around the clock. Their main goal is to act swiftly when there is a threat of pain arising to the surface. Lastly, my psyche contains my exiled parts. These are the very young, wounded, inner child parts of me that are carrying the pain and distress of what I have experienced in the past. My exiles have been deeply ignored, silenced and neglected and simply want to be seen, heard and soothed. The problem is that they are often suppressed by my protector parts, who fear that the pain of recognizing what happened and the intensity of emotion carried by the exiles would be more than my being could handle. My protectors are so well intentioned - thanks protectors!
Acknowledging and soothing my exiled parts contains the key to my healing. It is through connecting with them and processing the pain that they are carrying that I am able to free myself from my past experiences. When I go deep and ask them questions I will often be able to find out how old they are and what happened to them. This is not as easy task as my protective parts have created such a strong, intelligent and brilliant shield around my exiles. It's hard work to access them - but it can be done. I have the capacity to actually allow and invite my protectors to step aside, once I've engaged with them and asked them what they need. I have to ask for their permission. They are there for a reason, after all. They have to know that it is safe and that I've got them. They have to know that 36 year old Reilly (otherwise known as my higher or larger SELF) can hold the pain of the exiles and will not abandon them the way they were abandoned in the past.
The power of recognizing the strength, resilience and intelligence of my protective parts has been transformative for me. How often are we taught to 'fight', numb or ignore symptoms?
For twenty years in therapy I was taught to 'reframe', 'change' and make wrong the thoughts that were going on in my head, not recognizing that the thoughts existed for a very important purpose. I have learned that there are no mistakes in our systems - everything happens for good reason and needs to be honoured and respected.
An example of this would be my inner critic. To the untrained eye, this part might be viewed as something to silence, be angry with and try to make go away, because it’s wrong, right? Not necessarily. With time and awareness I have come to recognize that part as a highly intelligent protective system, originally designed to try to make me 'better' when I was not getting me needs met in my early development. Of course now, it doesn't realize that it is not needed to the same extent as when it initially was created. The way through this is to recognize what it's trying to do, listen to it, and redirect my attention. I can compassionately say to it 'I know how hard you're working right now. I see you. Thank you for trying so hard to keep me safe'.
Understanding my parts has allowed me to come more to peace with them vs. fighting a losing battle that only increased my sense of shame and 'out of control-ness'. The simple, yet profound paradigm shift from 'something is very wrong with me' to 'everything is completely right with me' is what has made all the difference. What we resist persists. I can now see symptoms as meaningful messengers, rather than painful inconveniences to get rid of, which makes them so much easier to tolerate and work with.
I know now that my body and my being haven't betrayed me after all - all this time, they have completely been on my side. They have never left me. I am not broken as I was lead to believe.
I now understand that while my exiles carry the pain of being harmed and neglected, I have the capacity to care for them in the ways that they once needed. I have the power to be my own loving parent, caretaker, guardian, saviour and healer. I have the power right inside of myself to do this work. How amazing. Of course, help is always welcome and wonderful, too. The right help. And safe connection with others is paramount. It is what has allowed me to gradually and effectively show those exiled parts that they are not in danger anymore and they will be held. They are loved. They no longer have to hide. They are not alone. Relationships are safe now. They are not where they once were.
I will continue to live with my internal family of parts because they're not going anywhere. They are parts of me, after all. And I do believe that with time and attention, they will become more harmonious, integrated and agreeable with one another with the support and compassion of my loving higher self - the parent they have always needed, the one running the show and holding space for their disagreements, conflicts and contrasts. Isn't psychology and neuroscience just SO fascinating??
From my brilliant internal family to yours,