Dealing with Overwhelm in IFS Work


Dealing with Overwhelm in IFS

Your inner world can be a garden of riches, but at any moment it can also erupt in a chaotic confusion of intense feelings. Sometimes when a loaded issue gets triggered, instead of parts appearing one at a time, which would be more workable, they all become triggered at once, vying for control and attention, and fighting with each other.

Let’s look at an example.

You hear your lover threatening to leave, and many parts come up at the same time. You feel terrified, defensive, self-judging, angry, ashamed, and abandoned, all in one intense moment. At first, you may not be able to distinguish these individual feelings; you may just experience inner confusion, conflict, or chaos. You might feel overwhelmed and flooded with emotion.

In IFS, we want to welcome all our parts, but we don’t want to be overwhelmed by them. A good way to handle this is to slow down, take a deep breath, and feel your belly and legs. This will help to ground you. Then take your time and pay attention to one emotion (and therefore one part) at a time. Even if you are feeling them all at once, focus on just one emotion or experience at a time, just enough to recognize the part and access it.

For example, you single out the defensive feeling and hear that part say it wants to defend you against your partner’s accusations. Then you access the part that is terrified of being alone. Then you hear from the self-judging part, and so on. Give each one the microphone and let it speak. You don’t have to spend much time with each part—just enough to access it and get a sense of what it feels.

Once you have accessed all the parts, you will have an overall perspective on what is happening, and it will feel less chaotic. At this point, you can choose one target part and proceed to get to know it. If the other parts keep jumping in, listen to them but then ask them to step aside. This way you can avoid being overwhelmed and stay focused on a productive track of discovery and healing.

Do You Have a Defensive Pattern?

This is one of the patterns in the Conflict Dimension of the Pattern System. 

When a person challenges you, if you have a Defensive Pattern, you tend to defend yourself against their accusation instead of listening to what is important to them. Of course, if the person accuses you of something that isn’t true, it does make sense to straighten them out. However, if you come from a Defensive Pattern, you tend to assume that any accusation isn’t true or look for ways that it isn’t true rather than considering ways that it might be accurate.

Even more importantly, you don’t really take the person’s concerns seriously. It is most helpful to really hear the person and validate their feelings so they feel understood. Then, if necessary, you can explain the way they have misunderstood you and the way their accusation may be untrue. Because you have validated them first, they are much more likely to respond well to what you have to say.
If you have a Defensive Pattern, it may be very hard for you to admit your part in a problem that the person brings up. You may avoid looking at yourself and instead focus on defending yourself from criticism.

If the person is angry or harshly judgmental toward you, it does make sense for you to protect yourself from being treated this way. However, this is best done by setting limits on the person’s anger and judgment rather than by arguing that you haven’t done anything wrong. In addition, you may perceive someone as being very judgmental when they really aren’t because of your sensitivity to being criticized.

Visit Self-Therapy Journey to learn how to work through patterns of yours that get in the way of healthy relating. Learn how to deal with your partner’s patterns.

Please Visit  The Pattern System®  website for more information.



Your Interpersonal Patterns: Looking for Reviewers

I have also written a second book on the Pattern System, which covers five of the interpersonal dimensions-

  • Intimacy,
  • Power
  • Conflict
  • Care
  • Strength

This book covers these dimensions, and their patterns and capacities, in enough detail that you can use it to work on any issues you have in these areas.

It covers the following patterns:

  • Intimacy-Avoiding, Dependent
  • Conflict-Avoiding
  • Judgmental, Defensive
  • People-Pleasing
  • Passive-Aggressive
  • Controlling
  • Rebel
  • Self-Absorbed
  • Caretaking
  • Disowned Anger
  • Angry

Right now I have a rough draft of this book, and I am looking for people who would be willing to read it and give me detailed feedback on it in the next month. I don’t need editing per se. What I need is feedback on the content, the organization of the book, and anything else that grabs you.

If you are willing to put in the time to do this, email me at Let me know something about who you are and your background that would make you a good reviewer. Thanks.

Here’s an excerpt from Your Interpersonal Patterns.