The IFS View of the Human Psyche

IFS provides a new and startling view of the human psyche. It sees human beings as complex systems of interacting “parts,” which are natural divisions of the personality. Suppose one part of you is trying to lose weight, and another part wants to wolf down a ton of sweets. When you crave that piece of cake late at night, it isn’t just a desire that comes up from time to time. There is an entity inside you that repeatedly needs a sense of sweet fullness. It has reasons why it feels it must have that dessert. It might need to push down anger or fill an unbearable sensation of emptiness. This part has memories that drive these needs—for example, feeling emotionally hungry as a child.

You may hear a different inner voice saying “Eat a piece of celery instead,” or “You should be a shamed of how you gorged yourself!” You may think of these as just thoughts that pop up, but they come from another part of you whose job is to control your eating. It could be concerned with your waistline or your health. It might believe that you won’t be loved if you aren’t thin. And it may have memories of being ridiculed for being overweight in grade school.

But these are simple concepts that only begin to touch on the richness and complexity of our inner life. Our inner family may include a lonely baby, a wise mentor, an angry child, a stern mother, a calm meditator, a magician, a happy animal, a closed-off protector, and so on.

The IFS View of the Human Psyche

These parts inside us are frequently shifting and changing. One of them takes over for a while, and we act and feel a certain way. Then we enter a new situation, and another character comes to the fore. Usually we view these changes as no more than slight shifts in mood or perspective, but, in fact, each shift marks the emergence of an entirely new subpersonality.

Each part gets activated at certain times. When I am in a large group of strangers, a part of me feels shy and wants to withdraw. When a supervisor criticizes you, a part of you may be thrown off balance and feel utterly incompetent. When Jill’s husband acts arrogant, a part of her wants to strangle him. When you get rejected by a lover, a part of you may feel devastated, like an abandoned child. When you feel threatened by a powerful person, a headache may come on because a part is clamping down on the muscles in your head to defend against terror. Any feeling reaction, thought sequence, behavior pattern, or body sensation can indicate the presence of a part.

Some of our parts are in pain, and others want to protect us from feeling that pain. Some try to manage how we interact with people. Some are locked in battles with each other. And all this is going on largely outside our awareness. All we know is that sometimes we feel content and sometimes we are anxious, depressed, frustrated, or confused, and we don’t know why.

Underlying this cast of characters, every human being has a true Self that is wise, deep, open, and loving. This is who we truly are when we aren’t being hijacked by painful or defensive voices. The Self is the key to healing and integrating our disparate parts through its compassion, curiosity, and connectedness. It is also the natural leader of our inner family, a guide through the adventures of life.

IFS can help you access your Self, and from that place of strength and love you can connect with your troubled parts and heal them. Your parts are naturally endowed with qualities such as joy, freedom, perceptiveness, and creativity, but these have been lost because of childhood wounds. The Self can help heal these wounds and allow these parts to reclaim their natural strengths and goodness. They can come to trust you to lead, if you do it from Self. They can learn to work together with each other as a harmonious inner family that supports your flowering in the world.

When you really understand this view of the psyche, you see yourself in a whole new light. You perceive your depth and beauty. You reclaim your true nature as a garden of healthy, effective, vital plants growing in the deep, rich soil of the Self.

 

The Seat of Consciousness in IFS

We each have a place in our psyche that determines our identity, choices, feelings, and perceptions. Using IFS terminology, this seat can be occupied by Self or by a part. Whoever resides in the seat of consciousness at any given moment is in charge of our psyche at that time. Whether it is a part or the Self, the occupant of the seat determines how we feel, what our intentions are, how we perceive other people, how we relate to them, and what our choices and actions will be. At any given moment, all activated parts have some influence over you, but the occupant of the seat of consciousness has the overriding influence. It determines your dominant emotion and your actions.

We aren’t necessarily aware of the occupant of our seat of consciousness at any given time. In fact, it tends to be invisible to us because it is the one who looks at other things. The occupant of the seat of consciousness is the one who is aware or conscious. We take it to be ourselves. It is the observer, or witness, and it wields the flashlight of consciousness. We are conscious of whichever part is illuminated by this flashlight, but it rarely gets pointed back toward the one who holds it. So we tend not to be aware of the witness. The witness sees but is not seen.

Ideally the Self is the occupant of the seat of consciousness.

The Self is the natural occupant of the seat of consciousness because it is who we truly are. It is our essential nature, our spiritual center. This means that the Self occupies the seat of consciousness unless a part takes over the seat and pushes the Self into the background. Then that part is in charge of your psyche for a while. This can happen in an instant and usually without our realizing it. However, as you will learn later, if you pay close attention, you can notice the shift and work with it. If the part steps aside, the Self will automatically occupy the seat of consciousness again.

At any given moment, you are identified with the occupant of the seat of consciousness. If the Self is in the seat, you are identified with Self. If a part has taken over the seat, you are identified with that part; that is who you take yourself to be in that moment. We don’t usually notice these shifts in identity; we think we are always the same unitary personality. However, they happen all the time, and IFS will help you become aware of them.

Self-Therapy

 

This is an excerpt from my book Self-Therapy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reasons to Stay with your Original Target Part in IFS

Let’s suppose that, in your IFS work, you have chosen a protector to work on, called your target part.

As you are getting to know it, another part may emerge. You want to make a choice about whether to ask it to step aside so you can continue with your original target part or whether to switch and make the new part your target part.

You Want to Finish with the Target Part

Sometimes, at the beginning of your therapy, it can be useful to get to know many different parts and understand their positive intent for you. However, once you start working with a part, it is usually best to finish the IFS procedure for healing and transforming it. For example, Dillon started working with a certain target part, a Depressed Part, and it is important for him to overcome his depression. So when another part arose, he asked it to step aside so he could keep working with his Depressed Part. He wanted to continue the IFS process with his Depressed Part by accessing the exile it was protecting so he could transform the Depressed Part and his depression would lift. This was especially important to him because he had worked with his Depressed Part before and not completed the work. Now he wanted to get results.

You Haven’t Finished with Any Parts

If you are still in the early stages of your IFS work and you haven’t yet completed work with any of your parts, your inner system won’t realize what is possible. Your parts won’t realize that exiles can be unburdened and that protectors can let go of their roles. Your protectors may be skeptical about your ability to heal your parts until they see it happen. Your parts may feel hopeless about change and, because of this, may try to keep you from engaging in IFS work or keep you away from your exiles. Therefore, it is important to complete at least one unburdening without waiting too long. The more your parts realize that profound change is really possible, the more they will cooperate with you.

The Target Part Feels Ignored by You

Some parts don’t trust you at first. They don’t expect you to really pay attention to them—perhaps because you haven’t paid attention to them your whole life. Now that you are learning IFS, you can give them the attention they want. If your target part is upset with you for not paying attention to it, it wouldn’t be wise to switch to a different target part. This would only increase the mistrust of the original target part. Stay with it so it can experience your interest in it. This will help the part trust you.

This article is an excerpt from my book Self-Therapy, Vol. 2.

 

Updating Protectors about Your Capacities

The following is an excerpt from Self-Therapy, Vol. 2. 

Updating Protectors about Your CapacitiesUpdating is a standard IFS technique which is used to help a protector to trust you so it will step aside or give you permission to work with an exile.

Our protectors are stuck in the past; they believe that we are little children who are vulnerable and have few internal or external resources for handling problematic situations. This is how we all were as children. Another way to say this is that the protector is protecting a young, vulnerable exile, and it thinks that you are the exile. It doesn’t realize that you have a Self with many more resources than when you were a child.

When you are preparing to do the process of updating, ask the protector how old it thinks you are. If it thinks that you are a child, tell the protector how old you actually are. Show the protector a series of scenes from your life that include growing up, maturing, accomplishing things, handling difficulties, and reaching your current age. This updates the protector as to your current capacities.

When you were young, you were vulnerable and under your parents’ power. However, now you are autonomous and in charge of your own life. In childhood, you didn’t have a mature Self present to help, so your protectors often had to handle painful situations on their own. Now that you are an adult, you have a competent, perceptive Self to help in difficult circumstances.

In addition, you probably have many strengths and capacities as an adult that you didn’t have as a child. For example, you are probably more grounded and centered. You may be more assertive, more perceptive about interpersonal situations, better able to support yourself financially, and so on. You have probably accomplished things in your life and overcome obstacles. You are an adult with much greater ability to handle yourself.

As part of the updating process, you can also show the protector your current life arrangements and the various people who will support you when needed. You probably have friends, family, maybe a spouse or lover, perhaps a community you belong to, or a support group you can rely on.

Even if you haven’t had much access to Self in the past, your Self is probably starting to become available because of your IFS work. However, the protector may not realize that your Self is now available to help, so you need to make this clear to the protector so it will be willing to cooperate with you.

Overcoming Depression with IFS

In studying how to work with depression using IFS, I have seen that a depressed part can be either a protector or an exile. In this article, I’ll just look at protectors.Overcoming Depression

Protectors That Block Hope 

One common cause of depression is having a protector that doesn’t want you to feel hopeful. Such a protector doesn’t actually feel hopeless. It makes you feel hopeless in order to keep you from feeling hopeful and then suffering the disappointment of not getting what you were hoping for. Therefore, it is more accurate to call it a Depressing Protector rather than a Depressed Protector. It is afraid of your feeling devastated if you are disappointed. It believes that if you are hopeful and your hopes don’t work out, or if you fail at what you are trying to accomplish, you will be devastated. It isn’t just worried about your being disappointed; it is afraid you will be devastated in such a severe way that you couldn’t handle it. Its fear probably goes back to times in childhood when you were hopeful and then your hopes were dashed and you were devastated.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that your hopelessness is realistic or that your Depressing Protector feels hopeless. It is purposely trying to make you feel hopeless to protect you from devastation. However, even though it is causing your depression, its heart is in the right place; your Depressing Protector is trying to protect you from pain. So you can get to know it and connect with it.

Of course, the pain this Depressing Protector causes you is far greater that the actual disappointment you might feel if your hopes failed to materialize. But your protector doesn’t realize that.

Protectors That Depress Your Energy

A Depressing Protector may squash your energy so that you can’t feel the underlying pain or trauma of your exiles. This protector believes that you can’t tolerate this pain. It is stuck at a point in your childhood when you didn’t have the internal or external support to handle such pain. So it keeps your energy low to prevent this pain from coming to the surface.

A Depressing Protector might also suppress your energy so you won’t assert yourself or take risks, which the protector believes will lead to failure or trouble. It thinks that if you took a risk and failed, you couldn’t handle the disappointment. Or it may believe that if you asserted yourself, you might be attacked or abandoned.

In most cases, the depression that such a protector causes is much more painful than what would happen if it allowed you to feel an exile’s pain or if it allowed you to assert yourself in the world, but the Depressing Protector doesn’t know this. It believes that it must make you depressed to protect you from overwhelming pain or from the negative consequences of being powerful and visible in the world.

Inner Critic Parts

Inner Critic Parts, which are protectors, can also create or add to your depression by attacking you so harshly and mercilessly that you feel bad about yourself. These Inner Critic attacks trigger exiles who already feel inadequate or worthless, and the attacks make the exiles feel even worse, which contributes to depression.

Self-Therapy, Vol. 3This article is an excerpt from Self-Therapy, Vol. 3.

Interactions Between Parts in Conflicts in Love Relationships

When a couples gets into a repeated intractable conflict in their relationships, it is usually because they are triggering each other’s protectors and exiles.

In fact, if you focus on the most frequent type of argument you have with your partner, you can map out the sequence of transactions that happens in which you trigger one of your partner’s parts, he or she reacts in a way that triggers yours, then you react again, and so on. IFS has an insightful way of explaining how these sequences happen, and I can make this even clearer using the Pattern System, a way of understanding personality that is oriented toward personal growth.

Let’s look at an example. Jean becomes upset at her husband, Todd, because she feels that he hasn’t been sensitive to her. She has been feeling despondent over her struggles at work, and Todd hasn’t been very supportive or attentive to her feelings. As a result, her Not-Seen Wound (a type of exile in the Pattern System) has been triggered. This wound comes from not being seen as who she truly was as a child.

However, it is rare that people interact directly from their exiles. Often they aren’t even aware that an exile has been triggered. Instead, people react from a protector that defends against the pain of the wound. So Jean says to Todd, “You are so cold! You never care about my feelings.” Jean has led with a judgmental protector (Judgmental Pattern), which reacts to pain by being critical of other people. This serves two functions. It tries to protect her from feeling her wound, and it is a misguided attempt to get Todd to be more attentive and caring.

Communicating from a protector (a pattern in the Pattern System) usually backfires. When Jean blames Todd in this way, it triggers his Judgment Wound, which comes from having been judged as a child, making him feel bad about himself. However, Todd isn’t aware of this wound and doesn’t show it. Instead, he withdraws from Jean and closes down his heart, which prevents him from feeling the pain of this wound and keeps him away from Jean so he won’t get hurt further. This is his Distancing Pattern.

Conflicts in Relationships

Todd’s withdrawal triggers a second wound in Jean; she feels abandoned by him (Abandonment Wound). Jean defends against this wound by criticizing Todd for withdrawing (Judgmental Pattern), which activates his Judgment Wound again. He reacts to this with more Distancing, so the cycle repeats itself. They often go around this cycle multiple times, escalating their level of anger and hurt in the process.

By exploring and understanding sequences like this in your relationship, and possibly working with the parts involved, you can break these vicious cycles.

Self-Therapy, Vol. 3

This is an excerpt from my book, Self-Therapy, Vol. 3.

Anger and Disowned Anger in IFS

AngryAnger is an emotion that is problematic for many of us.

With other emotions, the main question is usually whether or not to feel or show the emotion. With anger, the situation is more complicated because anger can be harmful and destructive when acted out.

Therefore, many of us have conflicting attitudes about anger. We live in a violent society, surrounded by examples of the destructive effects of anger, and some of us have been victims of it. Anger and violence are sometimes also celebrated—in war, gangs, sports, and criminal TV shows. Working with anger in therapy is therefore tricky and complex.

It is too easy to just assume that anger is always bad and disown it completely, while it actually has a positive role to play in our lives.

Anger can arise in various ways in IFS work, depending on which part holds the anger, what function the anger serves, and whether the anger is disowned. Each situation requires a different approach.

Protector anger that is acted out in your life needs to be understood so you can heal the exile being protected and the protector can let go. Expressing such anger is usually not a good idea. Instead, it is useful to learn how to express it in a skillful manner that isn’t likely to cause problems.

Suppressed anger needs to worked with in a similar way to anger being acted out, except that you must first work with the protector that is suppressing it.

Exile anger, on the other hand, needs to be welcomed and expressed in sessions in order to fully witness the exile and also as a way of helping the exile feel protected and safe from harm.

Disowned anger also needs to be expressed in sessions as a way of accessing and developing your strength and healthy aggression.

Self-Therapy, Vol. 3This is an excerpt from Self-Therapy Vol 3.

 

The Three Types of Perfectionist


There are a three kinds of Perfectionist Patterns.
Perfectionist Pattern

The Not-Enough Perfectionist

You always believe that you must do more on projects because they are not good enough yet. You work far too long on tasks because you are never satisfied. You often work right up until deadlines or turn your work in late. Your Perfectionist Part is afraid to finish projects because it believes this will expose your shortcomings and lead to your being judged, and—even worse—ridiculed.

The Creative Block Perfectionist

You can’t produce anything because it has to be perfect the first time. Your ideas are blocked because they aren’t good enough to put out. Your Perfectionist Inner Critic doesn’t allow you to be a learner or to experiment because both of those situations involve putting out work that is far from perfect at first. This frightens your Perfectionist Part because it is afraid of your being judged, shamed, or rejected if your work isn’t always perfect.

The Control Perfectionist

Your world must be perfectly in control and in order. You must get everything right. You must always do the right thing and make the right choice. Your home and family must look perfect. You must be perfectly groomed and behave impeccably. You exert rigid control over your behavior, which takes away your vitality and spontaneity. Your life must be perfectly in control and predictable in order for you to feel safe. And of course, this is impossible.

Eating Issues, Hunger, and Needs

Self-Therapy, Vol. 3This is a short excerpt from Self-Therapy, Vol. 3. regarding eating issues, hunger and needs.

We can’t begin to talk about eating unless we talk about hunger. Hunger is one of our most primary needs and one of the earliest ways that we interact with our environment. It is what brings us back to our caretakers and how we learned about the nature of the world. Through our hunger we learn if we are safe, if our needs will be recognized and satisfied, if our caretakers will respond to us appropriately, and what love is.

Bonnie says:

“In my years of working with people, I have noticed that the psychological hallmark of eating issues is the conflicts people have around their needs. If you have a food addiction, you may not recognize when you are really hungry, what you are hungry for, and when you are full. You may not realize what other needs you have that are masked by your obsession with food. When you explore inside, you may find that your constant thinking about food has distracted you from feeling other unmet needs.”

Our issues about hunger come from conflicts about how we care for ourselves, leading to low self-esteem and people-pleasing behavior. This includes the following:

  • Taking care of others instead of yourself
  • Feeling like a martyr
  • Denying your needs in favor of others’ needs
  • Believing that you don’t have the permission, time, or resources to pay attention to your needs

Online Book Party for Self-Therapy, Vol. 3.

 

WelcoOnline book party for Self-therapy Vol. 3me to my first online book party. This free party is for my newly published book, Self-Therapy, Vol. 3.

I am excited to try holding a book part by videoconference.

Tuesday, July 12
5-6:30 pm pacific time (8-9:30 pm eastern)
Free

The first book in this series, Self-Therapy, brought Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS) to both Self-Therapy, Vol. 3therapists and the general public. Vol. 3 shows how IFS can be used to transform a variety of important psychological issues. You don’t need to have read Vol 2. If you have been using IFS with your clients or in your own inner work, this book will help you to heal and transform eating issues, procrastination, the inner critic, depression, perfectionism, anger, communication, and more.

This online book party will be held by videoconference so we can all see each other. Come and have a fun evening!

It will include:

  • A discussion of the book and an opportunity to purchase it.
  • A guided meditation based on one of the chapters.
  • A chance to mingle and get to know the people attending.
  • A description of Vol. 2 and the upcoming Vol. 4 in the Self-Therapy Series.
  • Question answered about IFS, the content of Vol. 3, my books and other products, my classes and groups, Self-Therapy Journey, or anything else.

Click here to register for free.