Do you ever let yourself down?
Do you ever react in ways that later embarrass you?
Do you ever want things you know you shouldn’t want?
Or do things you said you’d never do?
Those are such common experiences, but they’re also quite strange experiences if you think about it.
How can “you” let “yourself” down, when you and yourself are one and the same?
How can you argue with yourself, when you and yourself are the same person?
No, this isn’t the prelude to a philosophy lecture. 😉
Rather, it’s the foundational principle behind IFS, or internal family systems…
A type of therapy that can help us understand ourselves and our relationships better.
Exploring Our Many Parts
Great thinkers throughout history have tried to explain this paradox by dividing the mind into parts such as the conscious and subconscious, or the id, ego, and superego.
But for Dr. Richard Schwartz, those divisions are much too general.
He believes our minds are made up of many unique parts or subpersonalities.
Those subpersonalities can be quite different from one another. One might be crazy and reckless. Another might be shy and secretive. Another might be bossy and judgmental.
They are all you. They’re just different sides of you. And there’s no limit to how many you might have.
(For my Pleasure Principle insiders, your #innerbadgirl is a part!)
In an ideal world, your parts all get along. Your Self (compassionate, calm, clear, and creative awareness) runs the show.
But in real life, parts can take over and cause a lot of harm.
Ever got triggered or overreacted? You can blame that on a much younger part of you, known as an Exile.
Ever dealt with a hard day by numbing yourself with screentime or food or alcohol? You can blame that on another part of you, known as a Firefighter.
Ever drove yourself past your limits because you thought you needed to do everything yourself? You can blame that on a part known as a Manager.
The most important thing to know about parts is that they all believe they’re helping you survive.
Most parts are very young. They were adaptations to the family and environment you grew up in. Without them, you would have had a very hard time surviving.
Unfortunately, what worked then isn’t working so well now.
The part of you that, say, learned to survive by people-pleasing can’t switch off.
If you are going to be better with boundaries, you need to be able to talk to that part of you that feels like you’ll die if you don’t make others happy.
What is beautiful about IFS is that there’s no shaming.
Every single part of you served an important purpose once. Even if its behavior embarrasses you now, there was a time in your life when it helped you.
Through parts work, you can help that part step aside and let your grown-up Self run the show.
Can You Spot These 3 Types of Parts?
There are three kinds of parts: Exiles, Managers, and Firefighters.
Exiles are our vulnerable parts.
These parts often split off in childhood, when you encountered experiences that were too overwhelming or traumatic to process.
If you were shamed for being too sensitive, for example, that sensitive part of you may have gone into exile. You hated being called out for being too sensitive, so you denied you felt anything at all. You may have done things to prove to others you didn’t feel deeply. (This is a common experience for men!)
But nothing you did could destroy that sensitive part of you. It became an Exile.
Exiles can hold extreme beliefs, such as, “Being too sensitive makes you weak and powerless and pitiful.”
It can feel incredibly important to keep that part out of sight and out of mind. You cannot risk being associated with it. You don’t want to be weak and powerless and pitiful; you want to be strong and resilient and unaffected by pain.
So how do you keep that sensitive part of yourself in exile?
You call on your firefighters.
Firefighters come to the rescue when the intense feelings aroused by our Exiles become overwhelming.
They sweep in with coping mechanisms that discharge the energy and soothe you.
For example, you may have learned that drinking alcohol helped numb your sensitivity. You just couldn’t bear to feel so much. You came to rely on numbing substances and activities to keep that sensitive part of you locked away.
Do you have any common habits that help you discharge or lock away your feelings when you feel triggered?
For some people, being triggered activates rage. That raging part is a Firefighter.
For others, being triggered activates a part that doesn’t even want to be here. That part prefers to disappear into the imaginary world of books or devices. It’s a Firefighter.
We don’t get much choice when our Firefighters coming roaring into action. Their response is automatic. They believe they’re saving us from having to feel the unbearable.
But there’s another group of parts that try to keep the Exiles and Firefighters from running rampant.
They’re the Managers.
Your Managers are the parts of you that are always cracking the whip.
They’re strict. They like to be in control and have everything organized.
At their best, they keep your life running smoothly. At their worst, they come down on you like a ton of bricks when you slip up.
Your inner critic? That’s a Manager.
Managers are still quite young, however. They’re kids who had to take on adult roles because the adults in their lives weren’t handling things.
Managers hate feeling out of control. They can’t handle spontaneity or going with the flow. They’re not very playful. They’re so focused on doing that they forget to be.
Just like the Firefighters, who believe you’ll die if you have to feel everything you’ve buried, Managers believe you’ll die if you’re not in control.
As you can imagine, that’s toxic in romantic relationships. No one in our lives likes to be controlled.
Making Friends with Your Parts
Every single one of us has Exiles, Firefighters, and Managers.
You have them. Your guy has them.
Chances are, they cause quite a bit of conflict and stress in your relationship.
Maybe you come home and your guy is zoned out in front of the TV with a beer. You feel angry, because the house is a mess and there’s nothing for dinner.
But perhaps you can feel more compassion when you realize that your Manager is confronting your guy’s Firefighter. The part of you that needs to have everything under control is reacting to the part of him that needs to numb the stress of a long day at work.
Your parts aren’t wrong. Both those needs are valid.
How can you help your Manager and your guy’s Firefighter get their needs met without blaming or shaming or attacking?
You might say something like:
“That looks awesome. I wish I could sit down next to you and chill out, too! But I’m a bit worried about what we’re going to do for dinner. Could you help me out with some ideas? I’m feeling overwhelmed by all the things I still have to do.”
When you understand the role that your parts are playing in your relationship conflict, it can help you take a step back and respond from a place of connectedness, curiosity, creativity, and calm.
That, according to IFS, is your True Self.
Can you recognize any of your own parts?
If so, do you now feel more compassion towards those parts of yourself?