The Psychology of Depression

Image of a person with a Depressed PatternThere are many different underlying psychological causes of depression. This short article covers the most common one of them.

You may have a protector that is afraid of allowing you to feel hopeful. If you have such a protector, it doesn’t actually feel hopeless. It makes you feel hopeless so you won’t be hopeful and then suffer the disappointment of not succeeding at whatever you are hoping for.

Your Hopeless Protector is afraid of your feeling devastated if you are disappointed. It believes that you couldn’t handle that. This probably goes back to times in childhood when you were hopeful and then your hope wasn’t realized and you were devastated.

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

Of course, the pain this protector causes you by blocking hope and creating hopelessness is far greater that the actual disappointment you might feel as an adult if your hopes failed to materialize.

But your Hopeless Protector doesn’t realize that.

Overcoming Procrastination using IFS



Do you find yourself avoiding important tasks? Is it hard for you to make decisions and take action to move your life ahead? When you are faced with a project you have decided to work on, do you get distracted or busy with other tasks? Is it difficult for you to discipline yourself to exercise, meditate, eat well, or something similar?

If you answered yes to some of these questions, you are one of the many people struggling with procrastination.

Procrastination usually happens out of awareness, except for those situations where you sit down to do a task and can’t bring yourself to get started. If you are a procrastinator, you probably don’t decide not to do a task that needs to be done. You just go along with your life, and after a while you realize that you haven’t done the task. You may get distracted with other things. You may get lost in thought. You might spent time online, relaxing, partying, having fun. You might work hard doing things that are less important than the task you are avoiding. Or you may simply forget about the task.

This avoidance is caused by a Procrastinator Part, which is a protector, but you may not be aware of your Procrastinator. Therefore, the first step in doing IFS on procrastination is to discover this part and access it (see Chapter 4 in Self-Therapy). Here is one way to do this. Remember what it feels like when you are procrastinating. I don’t mean what you feel when you realize that you have been procrastinating. That usually comes a different part—a part that is upset with you for procrastinating. I am referring to the feelings you have when you are avoiding a task—when you are getting distracted, or doing non-essential tasks, or putting off the important task, or feeling stuck and unable to get started.

Tune into that experience of avoidance. You may feel an emotion, an impulse, a fear, or a sense of wanting to avoid. Feel what this is like in your body. Get a sense of the part of you that experiences that avoidance; you might see an image of that part.

You work on this part just the way you would with any other protector in IFS. First you unblend from it if necessary (Chapter 5 in Self-Therapy). Then you unblend from any concerned parts (Chapter 6 in Self-Therapy). It can get dicey during this step, so let me explain further. When you check to see how you feel toward the Procrastination Part, you may realize that you are judging the Procrastination Part and wanting to get rid of it. This indicates that you are blended with a type of part that I call the Taskmaster, which may be angry at you (and specifically at your Procrastinator) for procrastinating. The Taskmaster is a type of Inner Critic (see Freedom from Your Inner Critic) that pushes you to work hard and judges you if you don’t. When you are procrastinating, your Taskmaster will work very hard to get you to take action.

In order to fully resolve your Procrastination, you may have to work with both your Procrastinator and your Taskmaster.

For help with Procrastination, see the Procrastination Pattern in Self-Therapy Journey or my book Taking Action. I also teach about how to work with Procrastination in my Advanced IFS Classes.


Exploring Yourself Using IFS Therapy

IFS and the human psycheInternal Family Systems Therapy(SM) (IFS), developed by Richard Schwartz, is based on the understanding that our psyches are made up of different parts or subpersonalities, and it provides a powerful methodology for working with and healing our parts.

One aspect of this is how we explore our parts.

In most forms of therapy, when we want to work with a psychological issue or reaction, we either analyze it intellectually or dive into it emotionally. Let’s look at each of these in turn: In some forms of therapy, you figure out each reaction or feeling using what you know about your psychological makeup and what you can sense or guess about the part. For example, if you have a part that feels hurt and upset whenever you get judged by people, you might remember that you were judged a lot by your father and figure that this part’s sensitivities come from that history. Or you might know that you carry a deep belief that you aren’t worth anything and guess that this part’s reactions happen when that belief is triggered.

This intellectual approach is a good first step, but it is too much based on guesswork and theory and so it can’t give us a full, nuanced understanding of a part. And even if our guesses are right, we aren’t in direct contact with the part or its feelings, so it is difficult to really heal it.

Other forms of therapy take the opposite approach. You become the part and attempt to fully embody it and feel all of its feelings fully. In the above example, you would inhabit that part experientially, feeling it in your body and delving into the depth of the pain it feels for being judged. This approach recognizes that you can learn most about the part by allowing your insights to flow from your experience.

This can work as long as you don’t avoid the part’s feelings. However, many of us have parts that are holding a lot of pain, and we tend to defend against feeling this pain. This makes it quite difficult, in some cases, to fully inhabit the part. Before I discovered IFS, I was unconsciously avoiding dealing with many of my parts that were in pain, though I didn’t realize this at the time. I just directed my work into other areas that kept me away from my childhood pain. I had already done quite a bit of work on the pain from my childhood and thought that I had already worked through most of these issues. I subtly used this as an excuse to avoid them. IFS changed all this, as I explain below.

In addition to the problem of avoiding pain, some parts have pain that is overwhelming or traumatic. It wouldn’t be a good idea to dive into these feelings even it you could. You could be flooded by pain in a way that is harmful. You could be re-exposed to trauma rather than healed. You need to remain centered and in touch with your inner resources while you are approaching pain like this. IFS Provides of method for achieving this.

In IFS, we inhabit our true Self, which is a place of groundedness, curiosity, and compassion. From this place we get to know each of our parts by asking it questions and listening to its responses. These may be in words, or in images, body sensations, emotions, or direct knowing. We aren’t just using intellectual ideas about the part; we are truly listening to what it has to tell us. But we also aren’t just diving into its feelings. We are learning about the feelings experientially, but from the safe vantage point of the Self. If the part starts to overwhelm you with intense feelings, IFS recognizes that you are no longer in Self but have become blended with the part. It provides a variety of techniques for returning you to Self so the situation remains safe, while still keeping you open to the part’s feelings. This way you won’t be harmed or retraumatized.

In addition, by approaching your parts from Self, you are much less likely to be frightened about getting to know parts that are in pain. Therefore you are much less likely to avoid those parts. Once I learned IFS, I no longer had much fear of my painful parts because I knew that I wouldn’t have to endure any more pain than I could tolerate. Whenever the pain becomes too great or too threatening, I simply return to Self. This has allowed me to feel safe in approaching my painful parts. So I have stopped avoiding them, and this has allowed me to engage in some powerful healing.

IFS walks a middle ground between analyzing our parts intellectually and immersing ourselves in their pain. This allows us to explore out parts experientially without the problems of avoidance or retraumatization.


The IFS Advantage

Read how using IFS Sandy would learn how to access her true Self, a port in the storm, a place of strength and compassion which is the source of internal healing. 

Sandy wanted to take on a creative video project, but she couldn’t seem to get started.  First she had to clean up her office, and that seemed to take forever. Then she found herself working out on the treadmill.  Okay, she thought, now I’m ready to go.  But instead of going to her office, she headed for the kitchen.  A half hour later she was preparing a 3-course meal.  After a few days like this, she acknowledged to herself that she was avoiding the project. This procrastination made her feel vaguely bad about herself, lethargic, and stuck. Sandy’s long-standing pattern of procrastination and depression was back.

If she picked up a self-help book, it would give her tips on mobilizing herself, rallying support, making decisions, and thinking positively. But these approaches ignore the crux of the problem. There is a part of Sandy that doesn’t want to work on her video project. That part is unconscious but nevertheless has the power to stop her. Actually the part has such power because it is unconscious. Since Sandy doesn’t know about it, she has no way to interact with it. A hidden part has extra influence because it can’t be addressed. It is like someone speaking ill of Sandy behind her back. Rumors would begin to fly, but Sandy wouldn’t know where they came from. She wouldn’t be able to confront the source.

If Sandy went into conventional therapy, she would probably uncover the avoidant part that keeps her busy with unrelated tasks. Then she might try to convert it or overcome it, seeing it as her enemy. However, this approach won’t work very well because it ignores the very real fears and motivations of this part. Sandy might explore where the avoidant part came from in her childhood, but this usually involves analytically understanding her history, and real change rarely comes from intellectual insight alone.

If we ask why the avoidant part operates the way it does, we see that several parts of Sandy are involved in her procrastination, and these parts have important relationships with each other. There is also a child part of Sandy who was criticized harshly by her father and made to feel incompetent. Whenever she attempts to accomplish something difficult, a task that she could fail at, that child part is triggered, like an echo from her past.  The avoidant part is not really Sandy’s enemy at all.  On the contrary, it is trying to protect this child; it is afraid she will be hurt again if Sandy tackles her video project.

There is also another force at work here.  A third part of Sandy pushes her to work hard and criticizes her when she doesn’t. It is constantly on her case to get working and be productive. All this self-criticism is grinding Sandy down, making the child part feel hated and worthless. Therefore the avoidant part is rebelling against this pushy/critical part. It doesn’t want Sandy to be dominated by harsh judgment, so it distracts her with other activities. But she can’t enjoy them because the demanding part keeps yelling at her in the background.

These parts are all extreme and are in serious conflicts with each other. Sandy feels like a ship in a storm, buffeted here and there, without a center from which to understand herself and move forward. What she needs is a way to integrate those parts into a caring, cooperative whole so she can feel good about herself and function well.

Even if all three parts were uncovered in psychodynamic therapy, the change would need to come through Sandy’s relationship with her therapist, which can be expensive and time-consuming to establish. Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS) is an approach that helps you find your center, pinpoint the parts of you that are causing difficulties, heal them and unify them. Furthermore, IFS is not only a powerful form of therapy, it can be used for self-therapy. My IFS courses show you how to do that.

Using IFS, Sandy would learn how to access her true Self, a port in the storm, a place of strength and compassion which is the source of internal healing. Her Self would connect with each of Sandy’s three parts in a loving way that allowed them to trust her.

Following the IFS procedure, she could help them release their fears and negative beliefs, allowing their natural strengths to flourish. They would learn to cooperate with each other and support the unfolding of her life. She could then move ahead with her video project passionately and without reservations.


The IFS View of the Human Psyche

IFS and the human psycheIFS provides a new and startling view of the human psyche. Mostly we think of ourselves as having sensible emotions and taking practical, rational actions. Of course, we recognize that occasionally irrational feelings like rage or fear pop up. We realize that sometimes we don’t act in our own best interest, like when we can’t discipline ourselves to live a healthy lifestyle. This kind of behavior upsets us because we see it as a deviation from what should be a unitary, sensible personality. When these aberrations happen a lot, we think there must be something wrong with us.

In fact, human beings are not so simple and straightforward as we would like to think. We are complex systems of interacting “parts” with a variety of emotions and motivations. Parts are natural divisions in the psyche, sometimes called subpersonalities. 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.

You can think of parts as little people inside you. Each has its own perspective, beliefs, feelings, memories, and motivations. You may have heard of the “inner critic” and the “inner child,” the most famous of our parts. 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.

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. We hold a simplistic view of ourselves that can’t penetrate to the richness and turmoil within.

Many people spend their whole lives thinking that this surface view is all there is to them. They never taste the juice or sit with the pain, and they don’t plumb the depths of themselves.

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.

Yet if the Self is truly at the center of each of us, you may be asking, why don’t we know it better? Because over the years we have experienced hurts, trauma, and grief, which have burdened us with shame, fear, and negative beliefs. These events have prompted some of our inner characters to take over in a desperate bid to protect us from harm. They blot out our pain, and, in the process, the light of the Self gets dimmed or lost. We don’t see what’s really happening because they cover over much of their activity as they construct a conventional life for us.

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. This perspective also changes how you see other people and the world. You realize that even the most destructive person is driven by parts that are doing their best to protect him or her. You see that everyone has a loving Self, even if it is deeply buried. You understand that at our deepest level we are all connected, and peace and harmony may indeed be possible in the world.



Jay Earley, Ph.D.

Polarization is an important concept in IFS. We often find ourselves in conflict about how to respond to an issue in our lives. One part of us feels one way, and another feels quite differently. One part wants to take a certain action, and another wants to do the exact opposite. Polarization can show up in our lives in a multitude of ways. It can cause us to procrastinate, be indecisive, have “mixed feelings,” or vacillate about what action to take. We may judge ourselves and then defend against our own judgments. In these situations, if you really listen inside, you will hear arguments going on between different parts of you. Even experiences like depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem, which at first glance don’t look like inner conflict, are often rooted in polarization.

IFS understands that inner conflict results from two parts being polarized, which means they are opposed to each other, feeling and acting in ways that are contrary, like reaching out versus holding back. One part might want something, and another might be afraid of it. One might work hard toward a goal, and the other might sabotage this effort. Each part is convinced that it must take an extreme stand in order to deal with the destructive actions of the other. For example, a Dieting Part becomes very strict to counter the indulgent tendencies of an Eating Part, and the Eating Part feels that it must rebel against the rigid control of the Dieting Part. Polarized parts are often locked in an unending struggle that causes intense emotions and counterproductive behavior. Usually, both polarized parts are protectors that are guarding exiles, and sometimes they are even protecting the same exile using opposite strategies.

With IFS, you get to know each polarized part and develop a trusting relationship with it, just as you would with any protector. This helps you to realize that you don’t want to get rid of either side because each of them has something to offer and each is trying its best to help you. Then, you can guide the two parts in having a dialog instead of fighting each other. This helps each part to stop seeing the other as an enemy and to recognize its positive qualities. They learn to cooperate with each other instead of being at war. In some cases, you may have to heal the exiles they are protecting before cooperation is possible. However, since they both want the best for you, this is always achievable. The key is for each protector to trust that the Self understands and cares about its mission. Then they will let you help them learn to collaborate with each other on your behalf.