Awareness of Parts in Interpersonal Interactions

This article is an excerpt from The Interactive Group Experience. It discusses the different levels of awareness of our Group Interactionparts that are possible when relating to another person. It also shows how to learn about yourself through interactions in a group.

“Awareness” is the ability to notice and label what you are feeling and experiencing at the moment it is happening. In most instances, this is no easy accomplishment!

Of course if you are experiencing a very strong emotion, you will be aware of it.

However, many of the feelings that are important are more subtle and harder to grasp. It is especially difficult to be aware of your feelings when you are in the middle of an intense interaction with someone, yet this is the time when it is most needed.

Awareness is a skill to be developed over time. There are many levels of awareness; the first feeling you notice in a situation is only the beginning. As you become more adept at awareness, you will begin to be aware of subtler and deeper experiences, and you will begin to be able to identify the parts of you that are having these experiences.

For example, suppose Sandy tells Mike that she thinks he talks from his head too much and is out of touch with his feelings. At first Mike thinks about whether this is true. He is focusing on the content of what Sandy said, not his feelings. I suggest that Mike talk about his feeling response to Sandy.

Then Mike becomes aware that a part of him feels resentful about what she said. At my suggestion he looks further and becomes aware that a different part of him feels hurt by Sandy. As he explores deeper he discovers that he likes Sandy and wants her to like him, so his hurt part is especially vulnerable to hearing something negative from her.

Even deeper, he might realize that he was criticized a lot during his childhood, so his hurt part is an IFS exile (a wounded inner child part) that is sensitive to criticism. Now hearing criticism makes this part feel inadequate. Notice how many levels of awareness are possible. 

If Mike tells Sandy that a part of him is angry at her, he might get an angry response back and then the two of them would work on resolving the conflict. If he tells Sandy that a part of him is hurt because he wants her to like him, she might explain that she does like him, and that she was just responding from one part of her that has trouble with his being intellectual.

Mike would have to decide if he believes her–if he thinks she really meant it when she said she liked him, or if he thinks she was just smoothing things over. If he tells Sandy that a part of him feels inadequate because of childhood messages, she might be sympathetic and caring.

No matter which feeling Mike expresses, he and Sandy will then engage in a dialogue to see if they can work things out between them.

In addition to working out his feelings with Sandy, Mike might also decide that he is interested in the question of his being too intellectual. He asks Sandy to give him examples so he can understand what she means. He asks the other group members if they also think he is too much in his head and if they can give examples.

If Mike decides that he is being overly intellectual and that he would like to change that, he might ask Sandy and the group to let him know the next time he seems to be in his head. Then he could practice expressing himself in a more emotional way.

He could also explore his intellectualizer part and learn what it is protecting him from.

Free Drop-In Interactive Group

Interactive GroupWould you like to experience an Interactive Group? Join us on Tuesday, October 20 for this free drop-in session.

What do you go through emotionally when you are meeting new people? Most of us feel some nervousness and also some excitement. There are a variety of ways that people deal with this. Some people hang back and say very little. Some tell entertaining stories so they will be liked. Others act friendly and caring to make other people feel comfortable. Almost all of us try to hide our discomfort.

In a Drop-In Interactive Group, you can be totally honest about your feelings. Everyone is encouraged to share their moment-to-moment experience with the group. It’s a big risk but very exciting!

A small group of people meets to practice awareness, honesty, and connection. Using IFS (Internal Family Systems Therapy), we practice speaking for our parts rather than as our parts. This means being in Self (a calm, caring place) and talking about how a part of you is reacting in the moment, as opposed to dumping your feelings on other people. This helps you to communicate in a more effective manner, and it also makes the group safe for everyone.

I facilitate the group, helping you to tune into what you are experiencing and speak your truth. You may tell others honestly and directly how you are feeling toward them. We create an atmosphere of caring and trust so that this can be done in a safe, connected way. You also have a chance to get honest feedback from people on how they are responding to you.

The group meets by video-conference, so we can all see each other.

Tuesday, Oct. 20
4:30-6:30 pm pacific time (7:30-9:30 eastern)

Click here to register for free.



Guarded Parts and Self-Compassion in IFS

This is an excerpt for my upcoming book, Self-Therapy, Vol. 2.

When you are working with an exile that has shown you some of its pain (Chapter 11 of Self-Therapy), if you are truly in Self, you will feel compassion for the exile. Compassion is the natural response of the heart to someone who is suffering, whether it is another person or your own exile, as long as you are in Self. It means that you care about the person or the exile, and you especially care about the fact that they are suffering. Compassion is lovingkindness, which is a form of love. Your heart opens with love for the person (or part) who is in pan.

For the IFS process to be successful, it isn’t enough to be curious and open with an exile the way you would with a protector, because compassion is vitally necessary for healing an exile’s suffering. An exile’s pain can be so formidable and tortuous that it may be hard for it to open up to you without this tender, gentle quality. And your compassion is part of what is healing for the exile.

When you check to see how you feel toward the exile, sometimes you may just feel “neutral.” You may feel separate from the exile but not particularly caring or connected. If the exile hasn’t yet shown you any of its pain, then you might be in Self even if you aren’t feeling compassion for it. Since compassion is a natural response to pain, if you haven’t experienced the exile’s pain, then a neutral, curious stance is fine.

However, if the exile has shown you some of its pain and you still feel neutral, then you aren’t in Self. You may not be feeling anything negative toward the exile, so it is easy to assume that you are in Self. But you aren’t. You are blended with a Self-like part that feels guarded about opening up to the exile. It wants to stay distant from the exile or to remain intellectual. It is crucial to be aware when this happens and not proceed with the exile work until you are truly in Self, which means feeling compassion for the exile.

Ask the Self-like Guarded Part to relax and allow your natural connectedness and compassion to arise. If that doesn’t work, ask the Guarded Part what it is afraid would happen if it stepped back and allowed you to feel compassion for the exile. Often it will say that it is afraid that you will be overwhelmed by the exile’s pain. It doesn’t realize that Self is there, so it thinks that if it allows you to be open emotionally, you will become blended with the exile and overwhelmed by its pain, which may have happened in the past. Explain to the Guarded Part that if it steps aside, you will be in Self and feel your natural compassion for the exile. You won’t be drawn too much into the exile’s pain. And if the exile starts to flood you, you will negotiate with it to contain its feelings so you can heal it. This will probably help the Guarded Part to realize that it is safe for it to relax.

Once the Guarded Part steps back, check to see if you now feel compassion for the exile. If so, then you are probably in Self, and you can proceed with the work because you will now be a healing presence for the exile. If not, check to see if there is another Guarded Part or some other protector that is blocking your compassion. Sometimes a Guarded Part blocks compassion because it is afraid that if you feel compassion, you will be soft and vulnerable to being hurt. It may think that feeling emotion is a sign of weakness. You can reassure it that Self is both strong and compassionate so it would be safe for it to step aside and allow you to be in Self. You can even let it know that if it thinks you are in danger, it can jump back in to protect you.

Introduction to IFS Parts Work Video Series

IFS Parts Video SeriesIf you are new to parts work or IFS, this is the perfect introduction. For those of you who already know IFS, this video series won’t contain anything new, but if you have friends whom you would like to introduce to IFS please share with them.

Do you struggle with…

  • Low self-esteem
  • Procrastination
  • Anger
  • Depression
  • Shyness
  • Eating issues

Or other psychological issues?

Do you want to have..

  • Self-confidence
  • Assertiveness
  • Intimacy
  • Aliveness
  • Success

Or other healthy capacities?

In my 40 years of practicing psychotherapy, I have discovered that, for most people, the best way to make these changes and achieve these goals is by working psychologically with your “parts.”

Click here to get the Parts Work Video Series.

Agenda-Driven Self-Like Parts in IFS

When you are exploring yourself using IFS, you may discover that some of your parts think that they are the Self. This means that when you are blended with such a part, you think that you are in Self, and you don’t recognize the limitations of the part you are blended with. These are called Self-Like Parts.

In an upcoming book on IFS, I have identified eight different types of Self-Like Parts. This article covers one of them–Agenda-Driven Parts. 

When you are in Self, you aren’t attached to an agenda for where the session should go. You aren’t completely goalless, because you do want to heal and transform your parts to resolve the issues that are important to you. However, this goal is in the background. You trust the IFS process and the natural healing powers of Self and your parts. You don’t push things in a certain direction.

You may know what you want to work on to get the changes you want. You may have an idea of where you think a session should go or where you think it will go, but you aren’t attached to these ideas. You recognize that a session may go in an entirely unexpected direction. In fact, some of the very best IFS session are complete surprises. You are content to begin at a trailhead of your choosing and see what unfolds. At times in a session, you may need to make a decision about which part to focus on, but you don’t do this with a rigid idea of what is supposed to happen.

This doesn’t mean that you allow your IFS work to just bounce from one part to another. It is useful to choose a target part and then ask other parts that arise to step aside so you can continue to work with that part. However, if one of them won’t step aside or if a part arises that clearly needs to be worked with, you are OK with switching your focus. You don’t become rigidly stuck on staying with your original target part no matter what else is happening.

There is some subtlety in terms of distinguishing between, on the one hand, the natural goals of Self and the need to stay on track with your session and, on the other hand, being driven by an agenda. Therefore it is sometimes not easy to recognize when you have become blended with an Agenda-Driven Self-like Part.

When an Agenda-Driven Part has taken over, you think you know where the session should go and you try to make it go there. You ignore indications that something else is more important. You may think you know why a protector is playing its role rather than being open to learning from it. You may think you know what happened in childhood to wound an exile rather than learning about this from the exile. You may think you know what reparenting an exile needs rather than asking it, and the same for retrieval and unburdening.

If you are Agenda-Driven, there are a number of things that can go wrong. One of your parts may stop talking to you. A part might get angry at you or rebel against you. One of the steps in the IFS process may grind to a halt. The session may proceed but feel flat and disconnected.

Watch out for these clues, and if you find them, look for the Agenda-Driven Part. Ask it to step aside and allow you to be in Self so the IFS process can unfold in its natural healing way.

How to Heal Exiles in IFS

Healing the ExileHow do you heal exiles in IFS?

Once you have gotten to know a protector and developed a trusting relationship with it, you have made important progress toward helping it to relax and let go of its protective role. Until then, the protector will be worried that the exile will be harmed or that you will feel the exile’s pain.

Think of it this way. If you felt protective of a younger sister who was in danger from bullies at school, you wouldn’t be able to relax your guard until you were certain the bullies were neutralized and your sister could take care of herself. It is the same with a protector. It may relax some, but it can’t fully let go until the exile it shields is healed.

It might actually be destructive to try and push past the protector or to convince it to drop its role entirely. This could set up an adversarial relationship with the protector in which it feels that it must resist you instead of cooperating with you. Therefore, we don’t spend much time trying to induce the protector to change. We simply ask permission to work with the exile it is guarding and then move on to healing that child part.

Once this has been accomplished, we come back to the protector. At that point, it is more likely to release its protective role because the exile is no longer fragile and in need of protection. Thus there is a trajectory to this process; we move from protector to exile and back again. This is in contrast to many therapies that just try to get past protectors to heal exiles. They don’t respect and connect with protectors,

IFS has a series of steps for healing an exile of the pain and burden it carries. This is the heart of the depth work with exiles in IFS. We don’t just explore our underlying pain—we transform it. After obtaining permission from the protector to work with the exile, you listen to the exile’s pain from a compassionate place. Then you witness the childhood origins of that pain, reparent the exile in the way it needed back then, take it out of that oppressive situation, and help it to release the pain or negative belief it has been carrying.

This allows the exile to transform and begin manifesting those positive qualities that are natural to it. Once this has happened, you return to the protector, which recognizes that its “ward” is now safe, and you help it to let go of its protective role and choose a new job, if it wants to.

IFS Work with Parts in Real-Time

In IFS work, we mainly focus on working with our parts in sessions, but it can also be very useful to access a part in real time, at the moment when it is activated in your life.

I use the term “real time” to refer to working with parts during the flow of your life as opposed to a scheduled IFS session. The following is an excerpt from Self-Therapy:

At any point in the day when you notice that a part is activated, you can briefly access it and pay attention to how it is affecting you. This gives you information about how often it is triggered, under what circumstances, and how it affects your emotions, your behavior, and your life. For example, suppose your boss calls you into his office. Before he even says anything, you notice that your palms are sweaty and you feel anxious in your chest. This lets you know that a nervous part has been activated. You can briefly access it and find out that it is afraid of being judged by an authority figure. Or suppose you have to make an important phone call, yet an hour goes by and you realize that you’ve been busying yourself with other tasks instead of making the call. This lets you know that an avoidant part has been activated. You access it and find out that it is afraid of sounding stupid on the phone call.

Directions for this practice: Choose a part that is activated with some frequency in your life that you want to learn more about. Over the next week, practice noticing when this part is activated. It will help to know what cues will tip you off that it is activated.

  • What body sensations, thoughts, or emotions will let you know it is up—for example, a tight stomach, revenge fantasies, or feeling teary like a child?
  • What behavior will cue you that the part has taken over—for example, withdrawing from your partner, taking over a conversation, or eating too much?
  • What situations or people tend to activate this part—for example, meeting someone you are attracted to, giving a talk, or being disobeyed by your son?
  • When are these likely to occur during the next week?

Accessing Parts Activated in the MomentSet an intention to be especially aware of whether this part becomes activated during those times.

Each time you notice the part is triggered, access it briefly and take down notes about it.

If you can’t stop at the moment to make notes, do it at your next break or as soon as you can. You want it to be fresh in your memory. At the end of each day, take a few minutes to review the day for moments when the part was activated. Add to your notes at this time. This daily review will also help you to keep this exercise in mind the next day.

Don’t expect perfection. You probably won’t catch all the times this issue is activated or be clear about what is going on each time. That is very difficult to do. You may be driving or trying to get a project finished or talking with someone, for example, so it may be difficult to be aware of much else. That is fine. Just do the best you can.

This is one of the practices we will discuss in the

IFS Real-Time Practice Webinar
Thursday, Sept. 18
4:30-5:30pm pacific time (7:30-8:30 eastern)\

Click here to register


Negotiating for Self-Leadership Now in Paperback

Negotiating for Self-Leadership Paperback
Jay Earley, PhD


I am pleased to announce that Negotiating for Self-Leadership is now available in paperback as well as Kindle.

This professional booklet describes a method of helping an IFS protector to let go of its role that doesn’t depend on first healing the exile it is protecting. You negotiate with the protector to allow the client to lead from Self in an upcoming life situation. [Read more…]

Roles for Parts in IFS

Internal Family System Therapy is a powerful, cutting edge approach created by pioneering psychologist Richard Schwartz. It recognizes that our psyches are made up of subpersonalities, called parts in IFS. This short article discusses the roles that parts play in our lives.

Each part has a role to play in your life; it brings a quality to your psyche and your actions in the world. Each tries to advance your interests in some way (even if sometimes it has the opposite effect). Some parts govern the way you handle practical tasks in your life. Some protect against external threats or internal pain. Some are open and friendly with people. Others hold unresolved fear or shame from your childhood. Some are performers; others solitary thinkers. Some care for people, while others affect the way you feel about yourself. And so on. [Read more…]

What is Polarization?

Polarization is an important concept in Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS), developed by pioneering psychologist Richard Schwartz. I have just published a book on polarization which spells out Schwartz’s ideas in detail. Here is an excerpt from the first chapter of Resolving Inner Conflict.

Human beings are frequently in conflict. We procrastinate, we are indecisive, we have “mixed feelings,” we vacillate, we judge ourselves and then defend against out own judgments. We repress parts of ourselves, which seek to be expressed. If we really listen inside, we can often hear arguments going on between different parts of us. Inner conflict is a major factor in the human psyche. [Read more…]