Below is the edited transcript of the playlist ‘Internal Family Systems, Explained’ by Tori Olds.
Right under our distressing ways of being there’s a version of us that has amazing capacity and care. Unlocking that capacity and care, and using it in our healing work, is what IFS therapy is all about.
One thing that is amazing and very unique about Internal Family Systems therapy or IFS is that it teaches us, as the client, how to become our own therapist, our own healer. They might use the term leader.
It does so through putting us in contact with a somewhat hidden potential self, what you might think of as our best self or our deeper self, right from the beginning, without taking years to develop.
Getting in touch with that deeper part of ourselves is so invaluable and is an amazing part of the IFS model. In other words, it doesn’t just undo a disorder and help us come to function at a baseline, it goes beyond that to this really resourced state.
I think of it as an enlightened version of ourselves.
If you’re thinking “Believe me, I’m not an enlightened person. I drink too much, I have a really hot temper, I’m really insecure. That’s just who I really am, that’s the only me I’ve ever known”, it’s not like in IFS we would say, “No, all those problematic behaviors are just an illusion”.
In fact, we really start with direct focus upon the parts of ourselves that we struggle with. The difference is, we approach those parts as just that, as parts, not the whole. But before we really explore why it is absolutely more accurate to think in terms of parts, I just want to start with appreciating why it is also more respectful.
I teach my students to think in terms of parts even if they never use parts language with their clients. I’ll tell them, please don’t say “My client is a drinker”. No they are not a drinker, they are a complex human being who has a part of them that feels compelled to drink.
A part of them. That part is not the totality of their selfhood or defines who they are. But what does this concept of parts have to do with that enlightened version of ourselves I was mentioning?
Well in IFS, when we can understand these aspects of our identity that we struggle with, the moment we realize they are just one facet of ourselves, it allows us to step back in a way and to be able to finally, actually see this part more clearly and more importantly to approach it with compassion and curiosity. That’s what we’re going to talk about in these videos.
Most people are aware that we all have different parts of our personality. What most people don’t fully appreciate is how distinct these parts can be. So much so, that we aren’t just one person, in a way. Not that we have multiple personalities in some pathological sense, it’s just actually normal and adaptive to have various aspects of our personality or parts that take the lead at different moments.
As in, a part of me wants to go for that promotion, but another part of me wants to turn it down and is pushing me to stay invisible. Or a part of me does believe I’m a good person but another part is always telling me I’m bad, or I feel this inner sense of badness.
You may even be aware that you have some parts of yourself that you like, others you hate and internally scapegoat, like “I hate the part of me that overeats or rages”. Some parts you might even be scared of, like your inner critic. Like “I really better not make a mistake because I don’t want that to trigger my inner critic, I’m really frightened of that part”.
The idea of parts is pretty intuitive and user-friendly for most people, but there are a small group of people for whom the idea of having parts sounds really hokey, or newagey, or just hard to take seriously, as if it’s not scientific or something. But I can tell you there’s nothing more scientific than the concept of parts. It’s not a question of whether our brain works this way, it’s a proven fact that the brain works this way, in terms of multiplicity. If you wanted to put it into computer language, you would say our brains are parallel processors.
Let me give you the quick science download of that. For a moment it will seem like I’m changing the subject because I need to speak with you about implicit memory.
Most of our psychology, from how we experience the world, to how we respond to it, is really based on learning, but not conscious explicit memory type learning, like one plus one equals two, but the learning that exists in what’s called implicit memory.
In implicit memory, particularly the type we might call procedural memory, we learn how to be, how to do. It’s not remembering facts, it’s embodied memory. In fact, often I hear people use the word muscle memory, but of course even muscle memory isn’t actually stored in our muscles, it’s just that deeper parts of our brain are able to do such sophisticated calculations really quickly and feed that information to us for immediate use.
It’s the most obvious in the case of learning physical movements because we really can feel how it’s as if our muscles are remembering what to do and can execute those commands without intervention from our conscious thoughts or logic. But honestly, that’s just how most of our brain works in regard to most of our learning around not just physical movements but what I think of as our psychological movements.
In the same way you wouldn’t be able to return a tennis ball or ride a bike through logical calculations, you wouldn’t be able to be a successful human through logical calculation either.
We need most of our psychological movements to happen automatically in a manner akin to muscle memory. In the riding a bike example, a slight little vibration that hits me in this exact way may cue me to lean almost imperceptibly to the left with the goal of helping me stay upright.
Well psychologically we’re trying to keep upright as well. Really our brain’s main job is to make sure we survive, so upright means well fed, well rested and connected to the group. The connected to the group one is where our psychologies really come in.
If we try to go for something, but we get a shaming look from our mother, we pull back because we need that relationship to be back upright. Or we go this way and get abuse, we come back. Or this way and it seems to hurt somebody else, we might pull back. And in fact, we learn in an almost muscle memory way, don’t do that again.
I know I just gave a lot of examples of pulling back or inhibiting, and the truth is most of our conditioning is around inhibiting ourselves, but we could also learn that the only way to get any attention in our family is to demand and scream and yell. Maybe leaning in is what is learned.
I’m also realizing I’m giving a lot of examples of what we might learn around stress but of course there are things we might learn having to do with safety. Like maybe I’ve learned that if I lean in with some vulnerability, my wife will help me feel safe and understand what’s going on, and we bond and learn and come back together in a better place than even before I felt shaky, right? That’s a more healing type of learning.
But either way, whether more traumatizing learnings or healing learnings, the bottom line is, our brain learns through experience how to survive, what will return me to homeostasis and then we repeat that, that thing we learn to do, almost in an instinctive way in the future.
This is doing through memory, not through logic. That’s why most of what we do isn’t conscious or cognitive. We don’t sit there and try to cognitively figure out how to ride a bike, we remember how to ride a bike. It isn’t about rationality.
This is a really important point because I know we all think we’re making choices based on rational thought, but honestly, most of the ways we move through the world is really just psychological muscle memory. I know I give examples from our interpersonal world, but equally through our inner world, like “Oh, I felt this sadness but then I got overwhelmed, so I better not feel that again”.
If you get the idea that we develop these instinctual ways of being, where we really aren’t even that conscious sometimes why we are driven to respond like we are responding, the next thing to realize is we don’t just develop one way of responding or being, one personality.
We develop different ways of being in different contexts, or around different needs, or around different dangers. Even around different types of people, for instance. Like “How should I be around an authority figure?”
Why? Because different contexts might require a different strategy.
Let’s just take time to walk through a very clear example of that so this can really hit home.
Let’s say your parents are divorced and when you would go stay with your mom as a child, she was very critical, so your whole body learned to tense up in that house, as if reminding you to walk on eggshells and hold things in. Maybe she was also threatened by your intelligence and needed to be the one who knows more. So your brain learned, around mom, I should drop 20 IQ points.
While your mom was critical, let’s say your dad was very relaxed and unthreatened by you. You could just be yourself. So at his house your shoulders would relax more. You were standing taller. You just felt different in your body and certainly in your emotions. Maybe your dad actually enjoys your witty humor and you find that playful part of you really coming online and being developed.
Now remember, these are learnings, learned ways of being and they aren’t learned in order to be forgotten, they are learned in order to be remembered, in implicit memory. Why do we need to remember them?
So the next moment you walk into your mom’s house you won’t forget how to be. The smell, the sights, the sound of her voice and BAM that learning kicks in to protect you and suddenly when that muscle memory is triggered, which is really just a pattern of neural firing, that’s what a memory is, it’s a pattern of neural firing, when that pattern fires it’s really as if you are a different person because you need to be a different person with mom.
For instance, even if you made the conscious choice I’m going to be funny around mom, nothing funny would come to mind. That funny playful part of you, that net that knows it’s safe and remembers how to be funny, is not online. It exists somewhere else still because it will come on in dad’s house, remember the brain’s a parallel processor, but in that moment, it’s not the track you are on neurologically.
Hopefully this example gives you a sense of how we develop different “parts” of our personality that are really pretty different. The person you learned to be or were allowed to be with mom was pretty different than the person you learned to be or were allowed to be with dad.
And hopefully it is clear now why these patterns would need to be stored in memory, in the same way you might have a “how to ride a bike” memory file. That kind of file comes online without even trying to remember, for instance, how to ride a bike, the way you’d remember “What did I have for lunch yesterday?”, no, it’s muscle memory. It just opens automatically with a sensation of getting on the bike or walking into mom’s house.
Now the next thing to understand is that the person you learn to be with mom, it generalizes to other similar contexts. It isn’t just learning how to be around mom, it’s really learning how to be around people like mom. Even when you’re an adult when you are with someone who is critical, that part of you will come out to protect you.
Maybe your boss kind of reminds you of your mom and when she’s around, you suddenly do that thing where you drop 20 IQ points. Which is obviously not ideal and that is the next point to make, and that is, that there is a cost to the fact that our brain works this way.
The fact that we develop these parts or patterns contributes to a huge portion of human suffering.
Not all suffering comes from parts. If your child dies you will suffer. But that suffering that comes from what we think of as “our issues”, that is really explained mainly by the fact that we are wired to have parts. There’s a certain inflexibility and even lack of control that comes into play when our parts take over.
That leads to what we call being “triggered”. To have that cascade of thoughts, or feelings, or behaviors, just open up like that in an automatic way, that can be very disempowering, particularly if those parts have learned to protect us by drinking, or raging, or starving ourselves, or attacking us through an inner critic.
That being said, while parts can produce suffering for us, which is of course why we work with them in therapy, there’s a very foundational, philosophical, but I would also argue scientific, stance that IFS takes toward parts, and that is the statement: “there are no bad parts”.
In fact, in IFS, they call this particular type of part I’ve been describing today: “protectors”, because these parts come online or learn to do what they do, the roles they take on, in order to protect us, remember, to keep us upright.
Even parts that seem self-sabotaging, like our inner critic for instance, really have learned that we will be better off with that criticism than without it.
Every part of us is just trying to do its job to keep us safe. If we combat any part of us, even a part that hurts others, like maybe yells at our kids, it’s just gonna be more confused and scared and probably fight back harder.
But if we respect every part of our mind, slow down, listen to it, speak with it, mentor it, relate to it with compassion, things can actually change.
When our parts can feel the more conscious adult version of our mind taking notice of it and kindly trying to help it, they can step out of the leadership position because they finally feel there is something greater to surrender to. And it allows the parts to finally be a bit free of the burdensome job they had to protect us, and that is what IFS is all about, learning to slow down and mindfully track, explore, and converse with, aspects of our personality that we find troubling, really thinking of them as parts, not the whole of who we are.
They took on their unique way of being in order to help us survive, and while on the surface we might not understand why they needed to do that particular thing in order to protect us, if we track it down and actually listen to the part, the story can unfold. How it learned what it learned, the history of that, and I used the word history here purposely because Schwartz talks about how each part has its own secret history.
And he’s drawing from a poem by Longfellow, that reads: “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life, sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility”.
I think that is such a powerful line, in terms of not judging others because we don’t know how they suffered. But in truth, we often don’t really know how we’ve suffered and how we had to adapt in order to survive. We haven’t let ourselves put the dots together on it.
Internally, each part of our heart, whether a jealous part or scared part, has its own secret history, one that only our parts can truly reveal to us, and when we can discover those histories and approach our parts with compassion, it changes everything.
Why? Because when understanding and compassion are given to our parts, it allows for some really deep healing work, some real transformational work, where our parts can finally feel safe enough to relax, to come out of this almost trauma drive to control us and instead let our inner adult take charge.
Through our love toward them, they can realize they aren’t in the trauma scene anymore.
The science-y way of saying this is that we are working to change implicit memory. I do believe that IFS is one of the therapies that works because it changes implicit memory through the process of memory reconsolidation.
That being said, while I think that’s intellectually interesting, there’s something important about not only thinking about or approaching our parts as neural firing patterns, or conditioning, or schemas, but rather visualizing them as human, because there’s a way we are dealing with human consciousness. It’s a human story. It’s not a “what”, it’s a “who”.
When I have a client who is depressed, I’m not thinking “What is this depression? Is it a chemical imbalance, is it a coping strategy, how do I get rid of it?” I’m thinking “who in there is depressed? Who in there gave up hope and why? Who in there got so punished for their anger that they learned to shut down instead.”
That part needs someone to find it and build a relationship to it, to listen to it, because just like with humans, a part will only be able to change, be able to learn and shift, once it feels heard first. Once its secret history is known and its fears addressed that’s how safety is established, right? Just like with all of us.
Feeling heard, especially around our fears, is the first step, always. You know I hope in this way of talking with you, I’ve begun to capture some of the ethos of Internal Family Systems work.
That being said, there are actually a number of interesting pieces in IFS that we haven’t addressed yet that I think are worth exploring, which is why I chose to make this series, a whole series, rather than just one video, because if I were you watching this one video, I might be left wondering “If I’m just a collection of various learned ways of being, then which part of me is the real me? Who am I then?”
It turns out that IFS has a very clear and very inspiring answer to that question and that answer is a key piece of what is so healing about IFS, so let’s go there next.
One of the deepest questions any of us can ask ourselves is “Who am I?” When I hear that question the science loving part of me says, “my true self is the mind that emerges when my brain is integrated”. At the same time, the poetry loving part of myself says, “my true self is the mind that emerges when my brain is free”.
Those are actually the same way of answering the question “Who am I?” and I hope by the end of this video both the science of that and the beauty of it will feel very clear to you.
I just made the statement that my true self is the mind that emerges when my brain is free, but let’s backtrack because if we are going to talk about a brain that is free, we first have to acknowledge the fact that our brains or minds are very often not so free.
There are many places and ways we can become stuck or constricted, where our consciousness is really narrowed because our brain is only allowing us to be aware of certain things or to open certain information channels to flow. There are many ways to talk about those trapped places.
For this video I would like to use as our framework, a form of therapy called Internal Family Systems or IFS. That is because IFS deeply studies these places where we can get stuck and narrowed and how in working with these places and finding our way past these places, we have a chance to bump into a type of flow where our brain is more freed up, creating an inner larger space, where more complexity and aliveness can unfold.
A place that I would like to propose we think of as our true self. Now when Dick Schwartz who invented IFS was developing this way of working in therapy his mission was not to discover any kind of freer or truer self. In fact, he was first really solely putting his attention on these more narrow or stickier aspects of our personality or in this case the personality of his clients.
He, like many other therapists, took to calling these stuck patterned ways of being “our parts”. As in, a part of me is very confident, maybe even overconfident at times, like in my role as a boss at work. But then a part of me is really insecure and that part comes out at home when I’m really clingy with my partner and needing them to validate me all the time. It is in fact not uncommon to have very opposite parts like that.
He also discovered that underneath these parts of our personality, is something more intact, something more whole, something more essential, which he began to call the self. We are going to follow his path. We will start with the concept of parts and in the same way that Schwartz and his study of parts stumbled upon, “Here’s a part that’s not a part. Here’s the actual self”.
We too will eventually answer the question of what the true self is, by first identifying what it is not. In the previous video of this series, I took us through a fairly deep dive of the science of parts.
I’ll give just the summary now of what a part is. There are really two basic types of parts, but in the last video I really focus on what is called a protector part, whose main job it is to protect us.
Turns out we humans need lots of protection but we aren’t pre-wired at birth with how to do that, how to move through the world in a safe way. There’s a lot to learn around how to avoid dangers, how to get our needs met and perhaps most importantly for our survival, how to make sure we are loved and accepted by the group.
And it just so happens that that learning does not take place in our conscious mind, mainly, but in what is called implicit memory. The most famous kind of implicit memory that most people know about is muscle memory. In the first video I was really explaining how most of our psychology is set up as these sets of self-protective movements, whether the reflexive movement is to be really pleasing, or be really dominating, or to self-attack, or whatever.
These psychological movements exist in what I think of as psychological muscle memory. These are learned ways of being, designed to protect us, that when they get triggered can really hijack our mind and body a bit just in the same way if you were falling over, your muscles will brace like that, whether you want to or not.
When these psychological movements, or you could say parts of us, take over, they can override what our logical mind says and drive our thoughts feelings and behaviors. So that even when we have the best of intentions to be self-compassionate, or to stay non-defensive with our partner, or whatever, we find ourselves suddenly flipping back to that reflexive way of behaving, or thinking, or feeling, or perceiving things, just as suddenly is when our arms come up and it’s hard to control.
Additionally, there is not just one way we learn to adapt, we adapt differently to different dangers. Like maybe in one type of stressful situation, we’re very pleasing and submissive and then some other kind of danger comes along and BAM we are raging.
And in that moment it’s like we’ve become a different person, in a way. Like “Hey, I’m usually a pretty nice guy but then sometimes I’m not and it really freaks me out and I feel crazy and ashamed”.
You can see in that example how we have multiple parts and when they take the lead, we can feel confused as to why we’re suddenly acting like a different person.
I know I just gave an interpersonal example, but it also could be how we relate to ourself, and what parts of our inner world we’re threatened by, whether an emotion or a need, and therefore maybe we learn to intellectualize around all the time.
Some parts like our intellectualizing part might be running most all the time, others might be called or triggered into action, that’s what people mean when they say they were “triggered” and that process of having these parts take over command it can be very frustrating and disempowering.
In IFS they call that moment when parts are in the lead being blended with the part, and the first thing you learn to do in IFS is to unblend. The fact that it is possible to unblend is really good news. We truly can step back from our parts, but that first requires that we are aware of them so we can get a little observing distance.
The moment we can slow down, become a bit more intentional and pivot into curiosity about what part has taken over, and a real desire not to fight with it, but to understand it, in that moment we have unblended. It’s movement from being the part, to observing the part.
Sometimes there is more than one part that we need to unblend from and it’s a bit like peeling back the layers of an onion, like, “At first I’m speaking from this part that reflexively blames my husband but when I step back and I’m freed up from that headspace I’m suddenly aware of another part that’s mad at me for blaming my husband, and calling me names about it, etc”. And that is not so helpful either. So then I have to unblend from that.
We will talk more about the unblending process in the next video, but the point here is more about what Dick Schwartz learned in developing the unblending process. He found that after a few layers, when he would ask them, the person he’s working with, okay so what part do you find next? And again and again, the client would say, without prompting, “Well, what I’m with now, it isn’t a part, it’s just myself”.
And Schwartz began calling that self, that part that isn’t a part, he began to call it “the big S Self” like a Self with a capital S.
We also might call it our “true self” or our “deepest self” or “higher self.” Some therapies call it the “adult self” or “wise mind”, but whatever you call it, the underlying point here is that it is always there and it is always amazing. It is always there and it is always amazing.
This is really profound so I want to slow down here. When we step back from our habitual mindsets, or unblend from our parts, a deeper part of us, which isn’t actually part, it’s ourself, just naturally comes forward. And that’s an amazing moment. You see, while each of ourselves may be unique in some ways, there are some qualities or capacities that we’ve discovered the big S Self possesses universally and those were catalogued and summarized as the eight C’s.
There’s nothing sacred about this list, but it does capture what the true self is all about. So here it is and listen to this list because whether you believe it or not your deeper self is:
You can begin to see that there is a spiritual feel to this and I know a lot of people are taking IFS as part of their spiritual growth work, bringing it to their religious journey. It somehow manages to access this brain state or this mental state that one would think would require 30 years of meditation to achieve, and yet what we are finding is, there it is.
Compassionate, connected, calm, creative, clear, curious, confident and courageous.
I have seen this again and again in my work. This is not a trick. This is not just me being inspirational with something that sounds good. At our core we all have tremendous goodness and capacity. That’s just the nature of the human mind. We are innately curious. We’re innately compassionate. We are innately creative.
The reason we don’t always have access to those qualities is because we’ve overridden our natural state with conditioned ways of being. We’ve basically been trained not to live from our true self. Our child self had to figure out other ways of being that maybe didn’t include being curious, or connected, or whatever, and if we learn that shutting down our curiosity, or compassion, or whatever, was necessary to protect ourselves, we will keep doing it.
Like a job almost. It’s a job of our protector parts to make sure we keep doing that thing. It’s like a soldier doesn’t leave its post. But we want our inner soldiers to finally be able to leave their post, not because they’re bad, in fact, really often they saved our lives at some point and really should be treated like these little heroes, but when they come online they do narrow us.
Remember in the last video we talked about how parts are associated with a particular neural firing pattern because they’re based on memory and that’s how memory works. It’s an encoding of a pattern. When that happens, I must do that. They call that a “neural net”.
But do you see how that’s simple? When it’s running we only have the information that is inside that net. It does not bring to bear everything the brain knows, so when we are blended with a part, we aren’t using our full cognitive and emotional intelligence.
Using our full intelligence looks like using everything we’ve learned, not just what that one part learned, but everything we’ve learned. It would look like taking in all the information from the outside, not just focusing on what that part tells us is important, or we need to focus, or we’re only seeing through its biased perspective, but looking at things in a way that’s fresh.
Allowing our whole brain to come online, to fully process the information. That means using our full logical, rational intelligence, as well as our emotions and intuitions, so that we can be creative and flexible and deep. The science word for that is neural integration.
But that is a brain that is working, full throttle. It’s a brain that is integrated and in that moment of integration, it is also a brain that is free. Free to be its true self.
Picture a wild stallion trapped in a barn and then you open the gates and finally it can run at full speed, that’s the freedom we’re talking about. And in the same way the stallion will use all four of its legs and its back and its neck and its lungs and eyes, when our brain can use everything it knows, and all ways of knowing from thoughts to feelings, because nothing is off limits, and all that information streams in an integrated way to create a much more complex understanding and response, there is a power to that.
Remember earlier I said that our true capacity emerges when we are both integrated, allowed to bring everything we have to bear and free, and that those are really the same thing. And I think that integrated brain and all the potential of that, it’s only fair to think of that as our true self. It’s like if you want to know what that stallion is truly all about, you’ve got to let it out of the barn.
When we are hemmed in by a part, we aren’t integrated. All that information isn’t flowing. We are just stuck with what that part knows or is, which is like a smaller psychological space. It’s when we can unblend from our parts, that we find they can be free.
Before we end this video, I just want to make one final point.
The mission to uncover our true self could sound frivolous. Like “Oh, I’m such a snowflake and I just want to be the real me”, but the truth is there is nothing frivolous about this work. It is actually essential for our survival as a human race. Yes, in our distant past, it might have made sense for us humans to rely on parts, that means using less glucose, sending less glucose to our brain, and food was scarce and that kind of thing, and it was enough to rely on memory. In other words finding our highest potential wasn’t the top priority for survival a million years ago.
But now it is. The problems we are facing today are so complex, to face today’s challenges we must have our full brains online. In other words, we must all find a way to access our full potential, our actual true self or big S Self. That’s what it means to be an adult. But we don’t need child parts pretending to be, or trying to be, adults.
What the world needs are deeply wise, loving adults, who can see the world as complex, rather than black and white, and who can face it with some equanimity, creativity, and gentle strength. In other words, we need to access our true selves.
So in the next video, we will more deeply explore how to unblend from our protector parts so that our true self can emerge.
If you’ve ever been human before you will know sometimes we don’t have complete control over ourselves. Let’s talk about why.
One of the tricky things about being human is that we all have behavioral patterns we don’t like, emotional reactions we don’t understand, or interpersonal dynamics that we’re finding it hard to break out of. In the first two videos of the series we explored the science of that.
We talked about how most of our ways of being in the world are driven by something I call psychological muscle memory. In other words, we had to do that certain movement to survive. Whether that’s having rigid boundaries or attacking ourselves, we store those responses in memory so they can come forward to protect us the next time we meet that same danger again. They are our adaptations.
We also talked about how once our brain learns to do that thing, it doesn’t really second guess it moving forward or even ask permission from our conscious mind. Our brain just goes ahead and launches that set of emotions or behaviors almost like a reflex. That’s just how muscle memory works. It’s like when you’re riding a bike, each muscle isn’t asking permission from your conscious mind. In a similar way, most of our movements through the world are automated.
The problem comes when we have automated responses to very important aspects of our life or our psychology, namely how we treat others and how we treat ourselves.
We don’t want those responses to be automated, at least not when we hit up against difficulty. That is why learning to shift the brain’s responses in these areas away from automatic learned ways of being toward using our more full intelligence and capacity, what I was calling in the last video our “true self”, is key to a good life.
Fortunately, that switch is also absolutely possible and while there are many ways to make this pivot and that is why there are also many types of therapy, today I want to talk about how this shift, this pivot, away from automatic responding, is achieved through Internal Family Systems therapy or IFS, which this video series is all about.
And the first language I want to bring in is that in IFS they call these automated ways of being our “parts”. Why? Because while they are true to us, they are a part of us, they are not the whole. They don’t rely on our full capacity, our full intelligence, our full brain to be online. They exist within preset patterns of firing in the brain or what we might call neural nets.
The other reason we use the term “part” is that it reflects the everyday language we use to get at this phenomenon. Like “My best friend really brings out the best part of me”. Or “Gosh, some part of me is holding me back”. We have this in our lexicon because we all know that parts are real.
We also know that they can cause us trouble, like in the example I just gave, “some part of me is holding me back” or “a part of me is always judging myself”. One of the first disadvantages of having parts is that they only know what they know.
Remember we’re talking about memory here which we talked about as a neural net it only has within it what is within the neural net. So unlike the present oriented awareness where we are taking in new data and processing it in a fresh way, when we are moving from a part or from memory there’s kind of simplicity and rigidity to that.
These places also don’t tend to evolve or change so they produce a lot of stuckness for us. Now all that being said, the fact that implicit memory is both simplistic and sticky is not even the biggest issue here, I mean heck, if your early learning was that you will do better if you are very kind and compassionate to yourself and so you just automatically do that moving forward that’s lovely.
The problem is most of our memory based ways of being, or our parts, tend to produce behaviors that are really not that mature or sophisticated. Why? We can’t wait until we’re adults to figure out our strategies for being human. That means our adaptations were developed by a child.
I like to tell my clients, remember that pattern you were stuck in now was the strategy that was invented by the unconscious part of a terrified six-year-old’s brain. Of course it’s not that brilliant or kind or whatever! I mean yes a six-year-old brain probably did not develop the specific strategy of over drinking, for instance, but it might have learned to do whatever necessary not to feel, because maybe feelings in my family were punished and then when drinking became an option, great, let’s do that.
By the way, to say that most of our automated responses are immature, I do not mean that as a judgment. In fact, I hope thinking in this way will actually help us feel compassion toward ourselves and our parts. I think it really does help bring compassion to think of our parts as children.
I know a lot of people make fun of the idea of having an inner child, but I think that’s just because they don’t understand the science behind it. Whatever neural firing pattern got established when you were a child, when it opens again, it’s like your brain is firing in a similar way as it did when you were young, because that pattern got templated. So if you can think about it it’s like in that moment we become the child again.
So what is the solution? To learn not to become that child, but rather observe it. In IFS they call this step unblending from our parts. In other words, getting some observing distance.
There really is a way when our parts take over, they’re taking charge, they box all the other aspects of our consciousness out. That is called being blended with our parts. They are spreading out and kind of taking up all the mental space.
So if you think of being blended as the part taking more space, the goal is to collect the part back into its right size so that it still exists inside us but with a little boundary around it. A little containment. It’s like I can bring it together and pull it here, that’s called unblending.
But how do we get that space? Well interestingly, the simple act of asking our brain to observe something initiates a movement to get a little distance from it. Sort of collect it together, notice it as its own pattern, not as the whole and pull it out a bit.
On a neurological level it’s almost like in that moment suddenly the neural net is not the only thing that’s firing, our observing self or our middle prefrontal cortex is firing as well. It’s like tapping on the door of the larger brain and saying, “I know you’re in there can you come online please. We need to be curious, we need to look at something, we need to reflect”. When we do that, it’s like the medial prefrontal cortex is saying “oh that’s my job, I guess I have to join the conversation now”.
And it’s that part of the brain, particularly when being asked to look at something, that is able to help us get a little distance from it. Think of it like if I were holding something really close up to my face and you asked me to take a look at it, I would naturally pull away from it a bit. Without even thinking, it’s just part of the act of observing is to bring something into focus.
So the moment the IFS therapist does two things, really introduce the concept of parts, it’s like “hey let’s consider that this is a part of you and not the whole”, so already the brain is beginning to shrink it into its right size, and then the therapist asks “can we be curious about it and perhaps take a look at it?” Then the natural movement is this. Once we’ve got some observing distance from that part, the second step is always to notice how we are feeling toward it.
In IFS the therapist always will ask, “now that you see the part and notice it, how are you feeling toward that part?” And if our adult self is now online, the answer will be something along the lines of I feel curious or compassionate or interested, friendly. If that type of wording is used, we know that we are perfectly positioned for some lovely healing work to unfold.
Why? Well remember in the last video we talked about whenever our full intelligence, from everything that we know, to all ways of processing information, when all that is permitted to awaken, we are by nature pretty enlightened friendly creatures. We talked about the eight c’s of that: calm, confident, courageous, etc.
We just suddenly have a lot more capacity the moment we unblend. It’s almost like when we pull back from that child state, we can regain access to our inner adult.
Okay, so here we are, we’ve just unblended from many parts that have wanted to jump in, which has given us access now to clarity and compassion, and not only that, but we’re holding with that compassionate awareness around the part because it needs our attention for healing work to unfold, and when all that has been set up, a big doorway for healing has opened.
Why? Because now we have a resourced wise self to use to help that part learn and grow. But by help that part, I don’t mean to move into teaching it right away. Rather we start with listening. That’s because any movement toward connection and opening of a conversation always begins with listening.
So, we follow our curiosity and begin to ask questions. Like if we’re exploring a part that pulls us to drink, we might ask it, “Why is it so important to drink? What are you afraid would happen if we didn’t drink?” and it’s almost like in that moment through our questions the part can notice it’s no longer alone. Even better it can sense there is a calm, compassionate, consciousness that is truly wanting to listen and understand its reality. Because it’s now in the eye of an observing, loving, compassionate, strong adult, it will open up to that adult and speak its truth.
When we learn to unblend, we are both bringing a child part that needs support into consciousness and focus, while simultaneously, through differentiating from that child part and identifying it as only a part, freeing up our inner adult. And then we can bring the adult to the child in a way. In that moment it’s like we become our own healer, so that the work not only happens in therapy but we’re learning a way of being that we can carry our whole lives.
That being said, there’s another direction this can go, at least temporarily, and that is when we unblend from our part, instead of that simply opening a space for our true self to take the central hub of consciousness, the space will instead be filled by another part.
I hinted at this in another video and the example I gave was, let’s say I’m a client and I come in, in a stance of really blaming my husband for all our problems. I might be so blended with that part of me that learned maybe, I need to blame others in order to survive, that I fully buy into the idea that it’s his fault.
Let’s say my therapist helps me step back and get curious and locate that part as a part. Okay, so the therapist will of course ask, “How do you feel toward that part?” Now in the first scenario, maybe with some distance, I can really feel for that part and see how it had to work so hard my whole life to protect me, and maybe I can even begin to hear its voice saying like “I’m alone, you know there’s no one else here to protect me, I have to fight tooth and nail”.
But it’s also possible that in that space that was just created when the mind gets freed up from the first part, that instead of our true adult self filling the space, another part will step in instead. So that when I’m asked how I feel toward the blaming part, I feel myself blaming it saying, “Gosh, I hate that part. I’m so ashamed, why do I have to always be so hard on my husband?” Does that type of response sound like the full compassionate, wise self? No, it’s just another part.
So in that moment we have to slow down, turn our attention to this new part that’s jumped in and unblend from it before we can move forward. By the way, I hope it makes a bit of sense why we’d have the second protector part, just ready to jump in, as if linked or in relation to the first part, that is because all the examples I gave of how protectors are there to protect us, they were in relation to outer threats, but when we have a protective part come on, it can become its own threat to our well-being.
I know that sounds strange because protectors are there to protect us, but as we can all understand the ways they protect us can create new problems. So it is very common to have parts that are there to protect us from other parts. So we can begin to see how inner conflict is created. I just want to give you an example because in case what I just said sounds a little bit confusing.
I had a client one time who grew up in a family where she learned she had to be perfect. So her protector part was a perfectionistic one. Very driven, very serious, working so hard, but that pressure eventually was really taking a toll and her mind was wanting an out. So she found herself occasionally flying off to Las Vegas and doing a bunch of really risky behaviors that weren’t like her at all.
So she came in feeling a bit ashamed, a bit crazy, but when we could slow down and see: okay so this perfectionism protected you in this way but then this wild and crazy part had to naturally arrive on the scene to balance things out or you would just want to die.
This is always just really important for the brain. It stabilizes us when we can understand things and see them clearly. So for my client even just being able to say okay here’s the protector part and here’s the part that protects me from my own perfectionism by occasionally going wild, just that piece of being able to organize things, which speaking in parts also helps us do, has this wonderful benefit of making things feel less chaotic internally.
Plus now that I can see it all objectively, I can work with it and if I keep these parts a bit separate, where I’m looking at them, rather than becoming them, it leaves my mind available to be compassionate and helpful and really bring in some healing energy toward these parts.
As you might have picked up, not only is it important to unblend from our protectors so that they aren’t in control of our thoughts and behaviors, it’s just as important, in as much as it leaves space for our true self to take the lead. In IFS they call that stepping into “self leadership”.
We are moving out of old and ingrained ways of protecting or taking care of ourselves, toward deeper, fuller ways of taking care of ourselves, that really only our inner adult can do. When our protectors feel understood and their fears have all been addressed, they will hand over the reins to our true self.
Okay, so we’ve talked about unblending through believing that our current way of being is just a part, maybe creating a bit of mental space between us and it by bringing on some mindful observation.
We talked about how there might be more than one part, but once you’ve peeled back the layers of the onion, this amazing adult has space to take the lead.
And finally we talked about how when that inner adult really listens to and addresses the fears of the part a sense of security is fostered. The parts pledge their fate now to the true self in a way.
Now you might think our work is done! Now that this adult is present we can just live from there and face the work we want to do in the world from there. And that’s partly true, but, before we ask our inner adult to face the outer world in a new way, we ask it to face our inner world in a new way. We find those inner places first that need the adult’s attention.
Now that this inner adult or this greater capacity is online, where should its attention first be localized? Well on our own hurt places. We all have wounded places in our heart so we take care of those first. We all have parts of ourselves that never received really high quality attention and care, maybe that really hold pain or have been wounded and have been waiting to finally be taken care of. Until we have done that piece of work, the healing really hasn’t been completed.
By the way, you might not be surprised to discover how we think of our wounds in IFS, we think of them as parts, they just aren’t the same type of part we’ve been discussing so far, which we call protectors. They are the parts that were being protected.
While it’s great to bring some observing curiosity and attention to our protectors, the next step is to ask them who are you protecting? If you’ve done enough to earn their trust, the protectors will step down and point you toward your deeper heart.
I’d like to explain the profound healing that occurs when our protectors finally give us access to our wounded places so that we can show up and help those places to heal.
First however, it is important that we understand what these wounded parts are. So that will be the conversation we will have in the next video.
During moments of extreme stress or trauma the part of our brain that encodes memory is impaired such that when the trauma is recalled it feels like it is happening again. That is why when we are triggered we can suddenly feel overwhelmed. We are having what I call an emotional flashback.
The good news is we can learn to step back from, or unblend from, these experiences which allows us to come back into the present. We all have parts of ourselves that were wounded and never had a chance to heal.
Now I use the word “part” here purposefully because even those of us with the most wounding or with really painful internal places we can fall into, we are not defined by our wounds. They are not all of who we are. Yes, hurt places are a part of us, parts that deserve care and attention, but they are not the totality of our selfhood.
We have more inside us than just our pain. This is really important and why there’s always reason for hope and that hope starts the moment we are able to separate enough from the parts of us that hold our pain to make a little space for the deeper or higher self. Which in the last video I was calling the true self or adult self, to step in.
That is a process that is called unblending and it is at the core of a type of therapy called Internal Family Systems or IFS which this series is about. More specifically, in this video we will talk about how the process of unblending can help with emotional overwhelm.
Now you might be thinking we already talked about unblending in the first three videos, but in the previous videos we really only talked about unblending from what in IFS are called “protector parts”, which are our habitual ways of protecting ourselves like drinking or putting up walls or overworking. When we unblend from a protected part it gives us a bit of space to step back from our powerful impulse to relate to others or ourselves in a certain way.
But in IFS there’s a whole other part of our mind that we need to step back from at times as well, or to use IFS language, a whole other type of part to learn to unblend from, and those are our wounded parts. Unlike our protector parts which are there to protect us from the pain, our wounded parts hold the pain itself.
In IFS they actually call these parts our “exiles” because so often we try to push them out of awareness or exile them. We bury them somewhere so deep that we aren’t always even aware that they are there. In fact, usually the main job of our protectors is to protect us from being aware of our wounded parts or to exile them.
But why do we bury them in this way? Well because when they do come up and when we become blended with our wound instead of our protector, what we experience is emotional overwhelm. That is why learning to unblend from our wounded parts, whether we call them the wound or the exile, is key to learning to come out of states of overwhelm.
But before we go on let me just make sure we’re on the same page. The wounded parts remember the ways we got hurt and still hold that pain, while the protector parts remember the ways we learn to protect ourselves and still hold the job of protecting us in that way.
So when we are blended with our protectors, when it is they that are taking over, it feels like compulsiveness to act in a certain way. And when we are blended with our wound or exile, it feels like pain or fear or emotional dysregulation.
We already talked about the science of protectors in the last video so let’s now talk about how we might bring that science to our understanding of our wounded parts. That will really help us understand how to approach the unblending process which will be so important for those of you who experience emotional overwhelm.
Like our protector parts, our wounded parts live in implicit memory as well but they hold information around what we experienced, not just what was happening, but also how did that feel in my body? Did I feel safe or connected? Was I alone or being threatened? Did I feel a sense of worth, or rather, shame?
Interestingly, most of the time when we remember our lived experience that is considered a form of explicit memory, specifically autobiographical memory. It’s explicit which means we can consciously draw it up and remember it like remembering what we had for lunch yesterday.
But our memories around traumatic or overwhelming experiences are stored differently by our brain. That is because when we are in a moment of extreme stress or fear or trauma, our way of encoding memory changes.
Why? Because stress hormones reduce the working of our hippocampus and it’s the hippocampus that creates explicit memory. And one of the hippocampus’ most important jobs is to take what is happening, the thing we are coding into memory and put a time stamp on it.
Like when I think about graduating from high school, I can say “yeah, that happened in 1999, that seems like a while ago”. I mean it seems like yesterday, but not really, I can tell the difference between the memory that actually happened yesterday and one from many years ago.
But that is different from our experiences that are held in implicit memory, where it’s almost like they’re always in the present tense. This type of memory isn’t so much like, “oh dad used to shame me and it was painful,” it’s more like it feels like dad is shaming me right now. I mean, I might not have those words, but I once again will feel that sense of worthlessness and aloneness.
And why is it in the present tense? Well again, because the hippocampus fails to do its job of time stamping very painful or traumatic memories, and this means something very important. It means that when that type of memory is triggered it feels as if we are reliving that experience again. It is happening now.
By the way, this phenomenon explains why people can have flashbacks. Flashbacks are sort of an extreme version of what we were talking about, but it captures the idea. Maybe you’ve heard of a war veteran returning home and hearing a loud bang, like from a firecracker and suddenly diving under the table.
It’s even possible for them to actually see the trauma scene or battlefield again, like it’s really fully reliving. But I like using that type of flashback as an example because most people know about them for one, and flashbacks are a great example of how memory can come up in a way that the mind thinks it’s happening again now because the time stamp isn’t on it. It’s like the past isn’t in the past.
So to summarize, if the hippocampus is offline when the memory forms, when we have that memory there isn’t the sensation of remembering. Usually this doesn’t create as an extreme of a situation as visually hallucinating that we’re back somewhere else, but it’s more of a somatic memory. So when our brain is reminded of a very painful emotional moment and those same emotions I had are being triggered, it’s like they’re called up in my body again.
These are interesting and tricky emotional moments for people because the experience of emotion is happening, but really it’s the emotion from the past. In other words, we are remembering an old emotion, but because it doesn’t have the sensation of remembering, it just feels like we’re having that emotion in the present. It feels like it’s our current emotion or experience.
This is very confusing and makes people feel crazy. Like “Why am I overreacting in this way? What my husband said wasn’t that bad but suddenly I feel so sad and alone or scared or angry.” Sometimes just to make sense of our emotions we will tell ourselves that “what my husband said must be pretty bad or else I wouldn’t be feeling so bad”, so it can color our perception of what’s going on, but usually we blame ourselves and just feel like “Gosh, what’s wrong with me. Why am I being so sensitive or so crazy”.
But there’s nothing crazy about it. It’s just the way the brain is wired.
So what I tell my clients when they are very triggered is “Don’t even think of this emotion as your real emotion in a way. Think of it as your emotional memory. I’m remembering a previous emotion. It’s like your body is reliving what happened before because something reminded you of the past.”
It’s a strange thing but it really is just as simple as having a memory. Something reminded you of the past and now you are reliving it. We could be overwhelmed about something happening in the moment, if some horrible situation is unfolding or someone is being abusive to us, well then it’s just our emotions in the moment to be scared or hurt.
But if someone maybe is just slightly challenging to us and suddenly we feel terrified or shamed, then it’s a good bet that we are going into what we might call an emotional flashback. The good news is even just knowing about this phenomenon gives us better footing for dealing with emotional overwhelm when it comes up.
Why? Because in the moment your brain is categorizing this experience as it being in the present but with confusion maybe exactly where in the present this threat is coming from, you want to help your brain out a bit. It’s like, “hey brain, you’re having a memory” and your brain will listen to you or at least have a better chance to begin to reorganize around how it is interpreting what is going on and clarity does a lot in terms of helping our nervous system settle.
The difficult thing about these emotional flashbacks is not only are we having to deal with the pain that came from the past but maybe we can’t understand what’s going on, like “Am I really in danger? I don’t think so, but I feel like I am, am I crazy? What am I missing?”
It’s like there’s no solution because we don’t even know what the problem really is. I just feel bad. And that type of confusion and chaos makes the brain very anxious. The moment we can ever begin to step back from our reactions, see them clearly, organize them, put them into words, anything like that which brings a little order, will help our brain and body to settle.
That’s called “name it to tame it”. That’s really more a general teaching point about psychology versus a point about IFS specifically, although IFS works beautifully with this. But I just wanted to get the general science out around that first.
Pretty much any form of trauma therapy has some tools around this piece, this helping the brain categorize the past from the present and step back from and organize the reactions, just getting a little distance from them, so we can come back into the here and now. A friend of mine recently told me she even has her clients look at their hands and notice how old they look, maybe touch their wedding band, things that remind them that they’re an adult now.
One of my favorite techniques is from Coherence Therapy called the “I’m in memory” exercise. But whatever approach you use, if I can borrow IFS language, you could almost think of it as unblending from a memory. That being said, IFS doesn’t talk about unblending from a memory, they talk about unblending from a part.
Why? Because while calling it an emotional memory is descriptive, it doesn’t hold that when we relive something, it’s more than just a moment in our life we’re remembering or even an emotion or experience we’re remembering, we are in some ways becoming the person that lived that experience. We’re not only remembering what it felt like to be neglected, we’re remembering what it felt like to be neglected as a five-year-old.
Maybe with the same sense of smallness perhaps or helplessness. You know, possibly even with the same beliefs or way that our child self interpreted what’s going on like, “I must not be worthy of love” and when we relive all those aspects at once like that, we really almost are becoming that child again.
So I think that is why in IFS they use the word part, or being blended with the younger part, because if we just say we’re having a memory, even an emotional memory, it perhaps doesn’t capture the complexity and really tenderness of what we’re talking about.
Remember when we were talking about protector parts and exploring the difference between calling them “behavioral adaptations” or “learnings” versus calling them “parts”, and how in using the word “part”, it allows us to think of them as mini minds or little people, in and of themselves, because we’re dealing with human consciousness.
The same is true with the parts of us that remember the pain. That neural net holds a pattern that is more than just emotion or more than just the memory of what happened in the trauma, for instance. It’s rather like a pattern of a living, breathing human experiencing that trauma, the thoughts, feelings, visual input, how their brain was processing it on every level in that moment.
Also when we visualize not just the memory but rather tune into the human inside that memory that in some ways still exists, it makes it easier to have compassion for our wounded places. Feel the difference from just thinking, “Oh, I’m feeling the pain that I felt as a child” and saying, “Oh, I’m being with my child self. I’m looking into their eyes or seeing their posture or noticing the pain on their face.”
When we can visualize ourselves as a child, or really whatever age we were when the trauma happened, the impulse really naturally emerges to help them and take care of them, and the truth is, most the time we do the opposite, we stuff our wounds, we put them in the closet never to bother us again. But that’s like neglecting a child, it doesn’t allow the deeper healing to happen.
We don’t want our wounded parts or our exiles to be exiled forever. However, we don’t want to become blended with them either.
Why? Because not only is it painful for us when our exiles take over and we become flooded, that’s very destabilizing, not only is it a problem for us, it’s not so great for the exile either.
Why? Because while the wounded places in us flood us because they’re tired of being in the closet and being ignored and want us to feel and hear their pain and address their needs, to get our attention, the second they actually fully come online like that, at least in that taking over or blending way, they’re only once again alone.
That’s because these memories are so powerful they really can box out or overwhelm our other adult capacities. We’ve talked about this in relation to our protector parts before, where they, when we’re blended with our protectors, we have no longer access to our true self, or what IFS would call our “big S Self”, but the same is true with our exiles.
When we are blended with any part of us, it makes it impossible to access our full capacities and compassion and wisdom. And that is a problem because our exiles need our full capacities and our compassion and our wisdom. Which means they need to be here with us, not in the closet where we are ignoring them, that’s not healing, but also not up so close and screaming at us that we can’t stay present.
So we have to unblend first in order to put them in a position where actual relationship can happen. That way they are no longer alone. But let me pull this point out just a bit because we started this video really talking about unblending for the sake of regulation, right?
But in truth, once we have unblended, we’ve opened the possibility for something so much deeper than simply regulation to occur, and that is actual healing.
Why is healing possible from this position? Because we can connect, we can listen, we can undo this part’s aloneness, which is really the aloneness of some deep level of our heart. We can address the fears and the pain and let that part know what happened wasn’t his or her fault.
That is our goal and intention. And if we want our exiles to unblend it helps if they understand that goal and intention. So when you’re overwhelmed, you might begin by speaking with your wounded part.
You might try saying “You’re flooding my body because you want me to hear you and yes, I want to hear you and find you, but when you flood me I actually go away. So I’m going to ask you to step back a bit, because only if you give me a little distance, can I actually show up for you.”
Or you might say something like “Hey overwhelming sadness, I see you. I need you to give me just a little space though, not because I’m trying to push you back into the closet, but because I want to be with you. I know you need me so please let me show up for you.”
That’s actually all our inner child part wants, so when it hears that intention from us, it will step back and give us some breathing room. So when you’re overwhelmed you can talk to your exile like that. If you’re having trouble doing this alone then you might need someone to sit with you and lend you some of their true-self capacity, so some safety can come online through them first and then that allows a bit more settling, so you can find your bearings and take the next steps.
But whether alone or with someone else, just like with other unblending work, see if the part will let you locate it in your body or have an image emerge, maybe of a certain age or a certain scene. Either a metaphorical scene, like “I see a little girl alone in some black space or in a corner.” Or an actual scene, like “I’m alone in my bedroom because my parents never paid attention to me.”
As the image emerges it can shift from reliving being alone in that bedroom, toward visualizing it or sensing it in some other way, it doesn’t have to be visual. But the moment you have some way of tuning into it it’s like if you visualize the bedroom, you see how you’re no longer in the bedroom. It’s not on the screen of your mind’s eye.
So you can be watching the part that’s there, rather than being the part. Even if you decide to enter that bedroom and connect with that part, you’re still there to offer support to your part, rather than becoming your part.
And that is the next step that needs to unfold. It’s an important next piece where you can allow yourself, when your part is ready, to actually connect to support the exile like the girl in the bedroom. And how you know if you’re ready is you ask yourself or your therapist will ask you, “How are you feeling toward that part?”
Remember that’s always the question to ask to make sure unblending has fully occurred, because once you’ve unblended from a part and no other parts have jumped in to fill with space, the answer will be something along the lines of loving or compassionate or I just want to help. And by the way, if another voice does jump in like, “I’m scared of that little girl. I just want her to stop crying”, that just means another protector has stepped in and you just need to do the work around unblending from a protector first.
That’s all the work we talked about in the last video. And you do that because you don’t want to try to heal an inner child part from another protector part, because those protector parts can’t really bring healing energy, maybe managing energy, but not anything that’s actually going to be healing.
Healing can actually only come from our true self. And again, we know we’re in true self and we check how we’re feeling towards the wound and there’s just some sense of strength, compassion, empathy. In that moment, when our deepest self is finally in connection with our deepest pain, that is a powerful moment.
Why? Because love and resource and connection are what heals, and that is what our adult self can give to our child self.
When the young part of us can feel the adult inside begin to come into her world as a safe other, everything changes. Typically wounds happen when we are alone and don’t have sufficient support, particularly when we are dealing with childhood wounds. Those parts lived in a world where there was no kind, strong adult, sufficient to protect them or help them understand what was going on or to offer care and compassion.
But now there is. Why? Because we are that adult now. Our adult self can go toward and listen to and rescue and really heal our childhood wounds. So now that we’ve unblended, clearly the next step is to have in a healing encounter with our wounded part, what might that healing look like or feel like?
Some of us have pretty deep pain but we are more than our wounds. There is simply more there, most notably our deeper capacities. And when our deepest capacities, for care and compassion, can touch our deepest pains, profound healing occurs. This is why there is always reason for hope.
In the last video we talked about the science behind what we might think of as our wounded parts or hurt inner child. We talked about how only when these wounded places are willing to not flood us but rather step back and allow us to connect, how that opens the doorway for tremendous change and healing.
Why? Because when our adult self is finally present with the child states that live inside us or the places that are most scared and hurt, a deep security and safety is fostered. If you’re familiar with attachment theory, you can think of this moment as attachment taken inward, at least that is the way it is described by Dick Schwartz who developed a form of therapy called IFS, which this series is all about.
The ultimate mission of IFS or Internal Family Systems is to pave the way for this inner relationship between what IFS would call our “big S Self” and our exile. But you also might think of it as our adult self or a child self so that one can heal the other. That is the deepest and most profound moment in the whole therapeutic journey and it is what this video is about.
Now interestingly, the most difficult work we can do is not what I’m about to describe, where our deepest love is given to the part of us that most deeply needs it. That part is actually easy and natural. The hard work comes in setting up that moment to occur. And the process of paving the way for that moment is really what the last two videos were about.
Those two videos covered the two major ways this healing relationship can be blocked. In other words, two ways we can be blended, and how to deal with those blocks. And to just pull it all together for a second let me summarize it again in one image.
Basically, when we are psychologically suffering or stuck, we can exist in either one of two sort of stuck places.
Either the exile or our pain is too far away, because we’re overcome with a protector part or our defense that is not allowing us to observe it at all, or it is too close, in other words, our exile or wound is taking up all the inner space.
And what we need for healing is for our pain to be situated at a good distance. Not so far away that we can’t support it or know it and not so close that it is overwhelming all our capacities.
Incidentally, all experiential therapies, including just mindfulness in general, are about establishing this distance, this position, which is a stance of true relationship where healing can happen.
In the last video we talked about this motion, how to lovingly ask our wounded places to step back and let us breathe so we can effectively be with them, and in the video before we talked about how to move from too close to good distance the awareness of our exile.
Now the point of this video is how to help our heart to heal.
So I just want to pull all the things we’ve talked about so far because they’re part of this whole picture and while there are moments like the one we described in the last video, where you need to pivot from feeling overwhelmed, so it’s coming from too close to good distance so we can actually support our places and their pain, more often than not, the shift that needs to happen to step into healing is from too close to good distance.
In other words, most of the time we’re in our defenses or blended with our protectors. So if you are wanting to heal your old wounds, the most likely place to start is to suss out your protectors by noticing your neurotic or less than ideal behaviors, like criticizing yourself internally for instance.
Start with that, assume it’s a protector and begin the steps of unblending from a protector. After you spent some time connecting with that protector, ask it what it fears would happen if it stopped criticizing you, for instance. Once you’ve really listened to its fears, you can then ask “Who are you protecting?” And in all likelihood it will show you.
Now the defense or protector may not in that moment be willing to step aside, to allow you to actually bring the exile or the pain into focus. So what do you do then? Ask more deeply about its fears. Ask what it fears would happen if you were allowed to speak to the exile and then address those fears. Make a plan.
For instance, if the protector says “Oh no, if I let you feel that pain we will become flooded and overwhelmed”. Then tell it, “Okay look, the exile just wants to be seen. Would you allow me to get an agreement with the wounded part not to flood us? I’ll explain to it that if it takes over then I, the loving adult, disappear and I’d like to actually be present in order to support it. If I’m able to get its agreement ahead of time not to flood us, then will you back off just a bit and allow me to step up and be with the exile?”
I use that as an example because in IFS that agreement is actually made all the time because the fear of being overwhelmed is so common and amazingly when an exiled part makes that agreement, it keeps it. That’s why there’s so little need for breathing and grounding and emotional regulation work in IFS because it’s baked into the dynamics of what is unfolding. Which makes IFS a very gentle and non-threatening process.
Why? Because we aren’t pushing past any of our defenses. We are slowing down and really hearing out their fears. We’re negotiating and listening and only moving forward when our defenses or protectors are ready.
And remember our defenses or protectors are just children in themselves in a way. They never asked for the job they took on. It’s just that no one else around was protecting our heart so they had to jump in. But once they feel like a larger, more wise and loving presence, that is being patient and listening to all its fears, trust is earned.
That is a much more gentle and caring way to treat ourselves and to move toward growth compared to just pushing ourselves toward it, like forcing ourselves to open up emotionally or stop drinking or whatever. Instead, we slow down and listen to the fears that drive the behavior.
So now we’ve talked about two directions from which we can approach this position, either we’re asking our exile to step back, which we do when we’re emotionally overwhelmed or we’re asking our protector to step back so that the exile can actually step forward.
But no matter which direction we’ve come in from, ultimately we end up here, where we can truly see who inside most needs our attention. In other words, the part that is holding the pain. And then, we simply be with them.
In the previous video we gave the example of seeing ourself as a child, sitting in our bedroom feeling isolated and alone. Perhaps we imagine going into that bedroom, very slowly and only when we can sense the child feels safe with us there. We allow the part to really feel us, enter its world. A world where we didn’t exist before. Because we literally weren’t there when the memory was formed, not in our adult form. Then we ask it to tell us about its experience, to help us understand how it suffered.
Why? Because, remember, listening is the deepest act of love and the deepest way to foster a sense of safety. We really want to spend time with this moment, really listening, really showing our care and compassion. Perhaps we visualize that part of us that was five years old and alone and imagined taking him or her onto our lap, really allowing the love and compassion to flow.
This is what some part of us has always been waiting for. What our pain has always been waiting for. For connection, support, love, simply acknowledgement. These are qualities of care we can actually give to ourself.
There’s no reason we can’t be that wonderful adult that can finally locate and care about our child self.
It’s like the saying it’s never too late to have a healthy childhood because we can go back and redo that memory or at least how that memory is stored in our mind, because we can enter that file, that neural net, where the memory exists and bring in experiences that are about connection, right? The undoing of aloneness and the creation of safety.
In fact, perhaps we go beyond just imagining holding the child and maybe visualize taking them to a safe space like a tree house or cave or cabin in the woods, as a client of mine visualized this week. When the child can really feel it’s no longer in the same place and it’s no longer alone, it’s like we’ve changed that neural net forever.
So for those of you who have watched my memory reconsolidation video and just want me to quickly connect the dots, from the science perspective, you could say in this process you’re activating the old neural net destabilizing it with information that disconfirms its predictions so that when the memory is reconsolidated, it is updated with present day information around safety. That would be the sciency way of saying it.
But I’d rather end this video series with a more poetic way of pulling it all together, and that’s to say, when our inner hurt child lives in a safe place in our heart, where it finally is being cared for and no longer has to feel scared and alone, it can at that moment finally be at peace and let go of its pain. Again, this is not just imagery for the sake of imagery, it’s reality.
Like, “Hey I’m safe now. I’m no longer in the trauma scene.” That’s true. “I’m heard. I’m loved.” That’s also true, because we can hear and love ourselves. “I never have to experience that again, at least not as a five-year-old.” None of that is wishful thinking, it’s all very real and truth-based.
And before we close I want to make one final point and that is that once our wounded parts or exiles are brought out of exile and actually healed, then let’s appreciate what that does for our protector parts as well. The ones that have been trying our whole lives to protect our wound, not really knowing how to heal it but feeling burdened with a task of keeping it safe.
Well, once those parts feel that the parts we are protecting are safe now, well then, they themselves are free. Which means, no more compulsion to drink or to cling to others or reject others or to be perfect. All those exhausting ways of protecting ourselves can finally relax, not just in a moment but forever.
In an earlier video, we talked about how the true self, that part that isn’t a part, how when we are with that self, our brain is finally free. We’re talking about this moment of freedom that happens in the moment of unblending. But once we have done the deeper healing work, what was first a moment of freedom becomes a lifetime of freedom.
Why? Because when our inner adult takes on full responsibility of caring for us and our pain, then our protectors have no more need or desire to take over. Because they now know there is a greater resource available. When our parts feel safe our true self can become the leader of first our inner and then our outer world.
Welcome friend, come inside. You’ve come to me with your heart so soft and wide. Let’s begin. Maybe there is something sacred that you need someone to listen.
I appreciate you joining me on this journey through the human mind through the lens of Internal Family Systems. I wish you well.
So we sit in the quiet of evening, till the night and into the quiet we’re reaching for the words and the words bring along the meaning of this life when they come to be heard.