Getting to know your Internal Family System
Does it matter whether you get to know your Internal Family System – those parts of you that operate in different areas of your life or take care of the different emotions you feel? Won’t knowing there are many parts of us on the inside (again think of the movie Inside-Out by Pixar) just make life more confusing?
I would argue that the opposite is true. Once we really get to know our inner family, as it were, we can begin to make more effective decisions and choices in our life. As a therapist I notice my clients walk through the door with an outcome or objective in mind. Sometimes they want to change something, release something, get rid of something or make something new happen; you could say this is a ‘taking action” part stepping through the door. Other times they want to understand something, unpack something, work it out, make sense of it; this a ‘meaning-making’ part. Other times a confused part comes through the door, or an anxious part. And whichever part steps through the door that part is part of a larger system; both internal (inside of us) and, of course, an external system (out in the world). Together we need to find out more about both. Otherwise we are just listening to one perspective.
How might I recognise my parts?
So when I first hear an issue described I might hear the subtleties of couple of parts who are working against each other leaving my client feeling stuck, confused or frustrated asking “Why can’t I make up my mind or stick to decisions?” You could say the parts have become polarised. This is not uncommon – feeling the tension created by a decision which has equally opposing desires. Exercise or rest. Snack now or wait for dinner. Stay home or go out with friends. Change jobs for something exciting or stay in the current job for security. And each part sometimes gets their way at the expense of the other because they are playing tug-of-war.
I might also hear a Coalition of Parts or a group I know as “The Allies”. Groups of parts organised around the same purpose or outcome. For example, a group which discourages speaking one’s mind because it fears the consequences based on prior experiences – usually when young. Together they might make it hard to speak up; first the discouraging part comes in whispering in your ear: “Is it worth it, are you sure?” and it is backed up by the self-doubting part: “Have you got your facts right? How do you know what you think is …fair/true/real/normal?” If you are not discouraged by these two and still consider speaking up an Inner Critic might remind you of the times you have spoken up and made a mistake, got your facts wrong, misjudged somehow. If you are still not discouraged enough then an even stronger part might come and make you stutter or forget your words or lose your train of thought altogether. All the while they all really believe that they are trying to prevent something bad or painful happening to you! They deeply believe they are working in your best interest.
Equally, you might have Allies which have helped you achieve your goals – focused parts, motivated parts, goal-setting parts. Sometimes these parts find it hard to step back and you might notice you lead a focused, goal-oriented life but have little space or care for relaxing until you burn out or a health crisis steps in and stops you in your tracks.
You might have tried all kinds of self-help books, motivational for the unmotivated part, getting organised for the disorganised part. But these are really a way for one part to show another part how it wants you to live. The organised part wants the disorganised part to become more like it for example. This is why I think it matters that we get to know our inner family (or some people call it an inner team or inner committee). We can then listen to ourselves more fully. Understand why we do what we do and become more conscious of the choices we want to make. Sometimes parts take on a certain role or function. Sometimes they take care of us in a particular way – even those parts we are at odds with.
The part of me, for example, that gets snappy or short-tempered – is trying to help me in some kind of way. Maybe I am overtired and its trying to create some space for me to rest knowing I will keep on doing things, saying ‘yes’ to requests if people ask. My snappy part thinks that it can put people off asking if they see my body language or hear that tone of voice. I have another part that is embarrassed when I behave that way. It would like to think I can manage all my emotions and be kind, considerate and adult!! When I have listened to the ‘snappy’ parts concerns for me I can recognise her signals that maybe its time to say no or lie down or go for a walk and I can appreciate her efforts. As she feels appreciated she can also begin to trust I will listen to her. Often then she tones those signals down so that I am able to say no with assertiveness rather than feeling angry.
What about my Identity – surely I am one person?
Some people wonder if thinking about ourselves as parts means we are not one identity. This is simply not the case any more than we expect one organ in our body to do everything for us. Our identity is the narrative thread that makes sense of our lives and it changes over time not because we become different people but because we adapt, adjust, learn and shift perspectives according to the life we lead and the experiences we have.
And to come back to my first question: Why does it matter that we get to know our internal family system?
It matters because knowing our parts makes all the difference in how we treat ourselves, we befriend ourself, we become more open, curious and creative, we can heal ourselves from our emotional wounds and traumas. We stop trying to override, exhaust ourselves or berate ourselves. And as our inner relationships improve so do our relationships in the world.
Finally you might be wondering who is the “I” that is listening to the parts. This our Self. I will write more about Self in the next blog. But in a nutshell Self is an innate presence in each of us that can hold a space with calm, clear compassion for us to be with our experiences without judgment, blame or criticism. It is more like an energy that we feel flows through us when we feel balanced, at ease, or we are in a flow experience.
You might want to pause and just notice, from time to time, which parts are making decisions for you.
Eat the donut or leave it on the plate. You don’t need to judge either as good or bad. Simply notice and see if you can sense for their good intentions. Eat – “you have worked hard today and deserve a treat.” Don’t eat – “you get super-tired and foggy when you have a big sugar hit. Try something that won’t make you feel bad in 10 minutes.” Maybe they can work out a better than either/or option for you once you have heard the good intentions of both.
Just say hello to them. That’s the first step.