Many of us live with anxiety, depression, fear, shame, guilt and hurt from the past, often unaware that we’re still carrying it. We develop patterns in relationships that repeatedly lead to negative outcomes. This is true for most of us because we don’t really know who we are, are unaware of the sabotaging beliefs we carry, can’t understand why we get stuck and feel unhappy or dissatisfied with our lives. For those who are aware of their beliefs and know where certain feelings or behaviors come from and how they are maintained, many don’t know what to do to change what's no longer helpful.
Perhaps you’ve had an experience of wanting to do something and not wanting to do it at the same time, of having difficulty making decisions because you have different thoughts or feelings about a person or situation. Internal Family Systems (IFS) understands these thoughts and feelings as belonging to different “parts” of us. So you might have a part that withdraws in the face of conflict, or doesn’t say what he wants or needs in a relationship or at work, a part that becomes angry when she isn’t heard or acknowledged. Many people have a part that feels responsible for others and always puts the needs of others first at cost to one’s self. Most of us are familiar with an internal critic or a part that tells us we must be perfect or it’s not safe to get close to people. You may have a part that is drawn to relationships that are unsatisfactory, even harmful. Parts can be depressed or anxious, impulsive or inert, and many problematic behaviors are actually the attempts of parts to try to protect something in the internal system.
If you pay attention to your inner conversations, especially during moments of indecision or confusion, you will learn to discern the voices of various parts. Most often the function of these parts is to protect in some way. For instance, a critical part that tells you you’re worthless, or not smart, or that things you have no control over are your fault, may carry the belief that if it keeps reminding you of these things you’ll stop making the same mistakes that are in some way harmful to you.
When you begin to become curious about your parts and understand them as aspects of you that took on certain roles to protect you at some point in your life, usually though not always in childhood and adolescence, a huge shift begins to take place in your understanding of yourself. As you learn to speak directly to and listen to your parts, they will tell you their individual stories and you will come to understand why any part behaves as it does (its belief about you or the world) and appreciate each part as a truly well-intentioned aspect of you that believes what it is doing is necessary to avoid some negative outcome such as being judged, not liked, criticized, rejected or hurt in some other way.
You also have a present-day adult Self (PDAS) who is separate from parts and has the capacity to care for and help parts heal. As you learn to listen from this PDAS with open-hearted curiosity, you will come to an understanding of the beliefs and behaviors that weave through your life, and begin to feel compassion for those parts that have worked so hard, often for many years, to protect you. As you acknowledge these protector parts they begin to soften and learn to trust you. Behind these protectors are vulnerable parts that have been exiled because they carry the shame, guilt, pain and fear from the past. Protectors help you move through your life without being overwhelmed by the feelings of these vulnerable parts, and they protect them from being further hurt. Or at least that is their intention.
Granted, the ways protectors do their jobs is often fraught with problems, so it is their intention, not their behavior, that you will learn to appreciate and acknowledge. When these protectors feel that you truly understand why they do what they do and that your intention is to help, they will work with you to access the vulnerable parts so you can bring those parts out of the places they are stuck in the past, to heal and move into the present with you. As these parts heal and unburden themselves from whatever they’ve been carrying, the protectors no longer need to do what they’ve been doing. The energies of all these parts becomes freed up to become creative, assertive, productive, joyful aspects of you.
To live authentically from our own truth we must turn inward with compassion and curiosity toward those exiled parts of our psyche that carry the beliefs, emotions and wounds of the past and those parts that protect them or protect us from them. As we open ourselves to the possibility of having conscious relationships with the parts within, we learn to listen and understand why we keep going over the same territory in our relationships with others, with life, and that is when we truly begin to change.
And here’s the thing about change. Many of us spend a great deal of time and energy wanting others to change and trying to make that happen. We’re often not even aware we’re doing it and that we’re only adding to our own unhappiness, frustration, general dissatisfaction with life because we don’t have the power to change others. When we ourselves change, though, we find an inner peace and others begin to change in response to who we have become. When I am more grounded and functioning from my Self rather than a young wounded part, my behavior is less likely to trigger others which creates space in which I am more likely to be heard and my relationships with others become more rewarding and easier to navigate.
When you think about your life you probably think about relationships with people, places and things. IFS is about developing relationships within yourself. I believe the main reason we follow unhelpful and harmful patterns in our lives is because we’re taught to listen to voices and use tools outside of ourselves. We push protector parts out of our awareness so we don’t have to deal with them because we and/or others don’t like their behavior. The result is that parts at best just keep doing what they believe they must do, at worst become stronger because they feel they’re not being heard.
Presence, or mindfulness, is vital to living authentically, however, in itself presence is not sufficient to heal and transform internal beliefs parts of us have carried, often for most of our lives. Presence is the space within which we have the opportunity to develop internal relationships that transform fear into safety, guilt into understanding, shame into compassion, and wounds of the past into love.
This is a brief overview of parts work and the examples are simply meant to help you understand the possibilities of focusing internally. You are a unique individual with your own experiences, beliefs and parts. I don’t have any answers for you. I do know that you already have all you need to move beyond the limitations of your past into a fully realized present and that I can help you listen within to find your path.