Boundaries and Bridges



Healing, Inner Self, Uncategorized

How to build self-awareness


Building conscious awareness is foundational to healing. We cannot heal if we do not know what is going on inside our minds and inside our bodies. When we become stuck, we must lift up the hood to our inner selves. We must shine a spotlight on what is going on there.

Becoming stuck in unhealthy thoughts and behavioral patterns is common. We become stuck when there are parts inside us that just don’t work well together. We feel this in our negative emotions like shame, guilt, anger, resentment, etc. We also feel stuck in our bodies with sensations like headaches, fatigue, chest tightness, trouble breathing, muscle soreness, chronic pain, etc. To heal, we must rejoin the disconnected parts inside of us. To do that, we must first become aware of what is going on.

In this article, we will learn how to become more self-aware. We will explore the different components of our conscious and subconscious selves. We will begin to separate out concepts like witnessing, feeling, thinking, values, behavioral patterns, needs and suffering, discomfort vs. pain, emotional reactivity, boundaries vs. expectations, stories, and history. We will explore blind spots that become barriers to raising self-awareness. We will learn how to process these concepts in different parts of our mind and in our bodies.

Improving self-awareness goes by many names such as conscious practice, building consciousness, mindfulness, self-reflection, being present, being genuine, self-listening, witnessing, and emotional intelligence. While many of these terms are similar, there are some differences.

Here we will focus on listening to one’s inner self. We are shining a spotlight inward. Shining a spotlight inward is the first step to moving from a helplessness mindset to empowerment. Listening to oneself is the complementary practice to listening to others. Both are critical to healing. To explore listening to others, see my article Active Listening.

This Article Contains:

The first step to healing any relationship: Bearing witness
Observing our autopilot
Step 1: Recognize thoughts and feelings
Step 2: Recognize feelings in our bodies
Step 3. Setting boundaries, distinguishing pain and discomfort, finding a window of tolerance
Step 4. Recognize needs and suffering
Step 5. Differentiating expectations from boundaries
Step 6. Awareness of our behavior and the impact on others
Step 7. Awareness of our behavior and the impact on ourselves
Step 8. Values as tools to maintain boundaries and satisfy our needs
Step 9. Recognize relationship patterns
Step 10. Recognize 6 levels emotional reactivity
Step 11. See our identity roles
Step 12. See the stories we tell ourselves
Step 13. Unfold your history
Step 14. See the traumas in our stories
Step 15. Blind spots
Step 16. The blind spot of perspective
Conclusion and Next Steps
8 Home exercises for building self-awareness

Bearing witness: the first step to healing any relationship

The first step we must take to healing any relationship is to observe what is happening. We must bear witness to what is going on for us. We are not worried about what may happen or what has happened. Put aside what the other person is thinking, feeling, or saying. We first want to know what is happening to us right now.

Most people find this practice of conscious awareness challenging. It takes concentration and effort. It can be uncomfortable or even downright painful. We risk the possibility of unearthing difficult, traumatic, or explosive emotions. We have to prepare ourselves for this possibility.

In the past, we may have thought that we were fully aware of what was going on for us. I know that I’ve fooled myself before into believing that I was already “self-aware” when, in fact, I was only seeing the surface. My survival instincts kept me from looking under the hood. They kept me from seeing the many layers of my inner self. And yet, when we become stuck in the same old patterns, we know that we’re missing something. Confusion presents an opportunity for learning and growth. Identifying that we are stuck is simply the realization that we’re still at the surface. We have to dive deeper.

Bearing witness is a skill that requires practice. The first step is to be intentional. We are going to shine a spotlight inward. We are not going to worry about someone else right now. All our other stressors and worries must be set aside. We are going to focus on ourselves. The spotlight is on us. It is time to care about us right now.

This practice of intentional self-care is foundational. We cannot help someone else if we do not have a solid foundation to stand on. When flying an airplane in crisis, the first thing we do is to put our own oxygen masks on. The same is true when pulling someone out of quicksand. We need something solid to stand on. Bearing witness to ourselves, in the present moment, is that foundation. We need to know where we are at right now before we can begin to help others. With practice, it may only take a moment to do, but it does take practice.

After deciding to care about ourselves, the next step is to separate from ourselves. This is a type of intentional dissociation. We must step outside of ourselves. We do this to create calm. We cannot properly observe something while being emotionally reactive. We need to become the calm, curious scientist who is determined to study ourselves. We need to be a neutral, nonjudgmental observer.

Intentional dissociation is different from the unintentional dissociation that people experience in trauma. In unintentional dissociation, people subconsciously become paralyzed to conserve energy and spare themselves from intense pain. This is not something that people do voluntarily. They do this automatically as a survival mechanism. Here they are separating away from the pain. They do this to lower the pain intensity, which has become overwhelming.

In intentional dissociation, we are being intentional. We are purposefully separating to create calm. We can voluntarily reconnect at any time. There may be parts of us that are highly emotional or overwhelming. We are separating from those parts and actively looking back upon them. We are not doing this out of fear. We are not paralyzed. We are not running away from pain. Instead, we are trying to understand what’s going on. We cannot understand something that we cannot see. We must learn how to listen to our injured parts. We must see our wounds and observe our suffering.

Being self-aware is an ongoing, daily practice. This will take time. We cannot master this in a day. There are many different techniques designed to master this practice including mindfulness meditation, yoga, counseling, and Internal Family Systems therapy. We will explore some simple home exercises at the end of this article.

The importance of intentional witnessing cannot be understated. I once was able to calm and resolve suicidal thoughts within a few minutes simply by bearing conscious witness to them. I could have treated them as intrusive, unwanted thoughts and let them spiral out of control into fear. Instead, I witnessed the thoughts. I approached them with curiosity and compassion. I heard what they wanted to tell me. I understood there was purpose in those thoughts, despite how intense that may have been. There is purpose in all of our feelings and thoughts. By understanding this, they eventually settled down. As I worked towards calm, I was able to take action. I used the energy of those thoughts towards a productive purpose.

This was not easy for me to do at the time. I don’t offer this story to be dismissive of other people’s intrusive thoughts. Some people live with intrusive thoughts every day. The causes of intrusive thoughts can be incredibly complex and difficult to unwind. The longer they’ve been going on and the greater the intensity, the harder it is to settle them down. And yet, understanding those thoughts is possible. Bearing witness is always the first step.

Observing our autopilot

Once we begin this process of conscious witnessing, the first thing we will notice is that we spend 95% of our existence in autopilot. In autopilot, our subconscious mind is doing the work for us. It is like we are flying in a spaceship. Our conscious Self–the captain of the ship–isn’t doing much. Most of the time, the captain is dozing or daydreaming. The ship is flying itself.

Anytime we are acting out familiar routines, we are in autopilot. We might be driving, listening to music, or performing a job that doesn’t require much conscious thought. If it is a habitual behavior, this is our autopilot.

The more habitual the task, the less conscious we are. For instance, often times when I am driving, I might suddenly “wake up” and realize that the past 20 minutes just disappeared. I can’t remember any of it. My conscious self was completely asleep.

Even when we are doing something that requires a lot of thought, our autopilot is still doing the majority of the work. We might be playing a sport. How much of that effort is instinctual as opposed to being thought out step-by-step? Or we might be trying to solve a complex puzzle. Our autopilot is constantly suggesting ideas and solutions. It draws these ideas and solutions from learned experience having previously solved similar puzzles. Our consciousness, if activated, is then choosing from among the suggestions given.

When we argue with others, most of what is said is spoken by our autopilot. The more emotional we are, the more our autopilot is in control. Think back to the last argument you had. How much of what was spoken was a deliberate choice? How much was thoughtful? Then ask yourself how much just rolled off the tongue, like word vomit or like a volcano exploding? Our consciousness may have been watching the words come out, but it was more like watching a movie of other people arguing rather than exercising conscious choice.

When we get stuck in negative patterns of thought, our autopilot has become stuck. Our autopilot has become like a glitchy computer that is now stuck on a continuous loop. To get unstuck, the first thing we have to do is bear witness. As we begin to bear witness, we have to recognize we are on autopilot. How much of what we are doing feels familiar? How much of it is an old routine? Which of our behaviors have we done before? This is our autopilot in action.

The next step is to wake up” our consciousness. This isn’t much different from when I woke up while driving. This is an intentional practice of stepping outside our habits and routines. This is not easy. Learning how to effectively interact with our autopilot is the subject of another article: How to influence your autopilot.

Our autopilot is part of us, but it is not something we have control over. It is our subconscious self. In the moment, it is like the weather. It does what it wants to do. It is free to act as it desires, despite whatever our conscious self would want it to do. It believes it is acting in our best interest, even if it is doing something we don’t want it to do. Over time, we can influence our autopilot. We can learn new habits and routines, which will become our autopilot. This takes time and practice.

Our autopilot is critical to functioning as a human. Managing our bodies and our minds is incredibly difficult. The ship requires a crew. But it also needs a captain–our conscious selves. Most of the time, the ship moves along just fine. But problems inevitably occur. To manage those problems, ultimately, the captain needs to learn the jobs of the rest of the crew. The captain can never do all of their jobs and certainly can’t do them all at once. But to figure out what’s getting us stuck, the captain needs to know those jobs. This means that our consciousness needs to become aware of the many different tasks done by our autopilot. The more tasks we learn, the more we move from a state of helplessness to empowerment. When a crewmate is struggling, the captain can offer support. When we become stuck, our awareness will know precisely where to look to find the source of the issue.

We will spend the rest of the article shining a spotlight on the different moving parts of our autopilot. We will examine our Identity, thoughts, feelings, values, beliefs, behaviors, stories, histories, traumas, and blind spots. We will demonstrate that there are aspects of each of these components that can be manually controlled by our captain–our consciousness. There are also aspects that are outside of our immediate, direct control and are the sole prevue of the autopilot, our subconscious. We will learn how to distinguish what is in our direct control and what isn’t. This distinction can move us from helplessness to empowerment.

Through the process of observation (bearing witness), we are stepping outside ourselves. We are creating a space of separation from other aspects of our minds and bodies. We then come to exist in this separate space. We strive for emotional neutrality within this space. We want to be objective observers. To reduce bias, we must have calm. We must avoid seeing only what we want to see, and thereby cherry-picking those aspects of ourselves that are most palatable. Our goal is to see as much as we can objectively. We want to avoid being pulled into our narrative. Instead, we stand outside the narrative. We are no longer a character in our stories. We are no longer the narrator. We are the reader.

Step 1. Recognize thoughts and feelings

Thoughts and feelings are the basic messages of our subconscious. The first part of becoming self-aware is to hear our thoughts and feelings clearly. We must recognize them. From there, we can break them down and understand them.

Thoughts and feelings carry an important purpose. We may not understand that purpose until we’ve gotten to the deeper layers of self-awareness. Here are a few basic tips to hearing them:

  1. Separate your Self from your thoughts and feelings. Remember always, “You are not your thoughts and feelings.”
  2. Label your feelings. If needed, write them down to see them clearly. Try to untangle them into distinct feelings. Often there are many jumbled together.
  3. Lay out all of your thoughts. If needed, write them down to see them clearly.
  4. Honor your thoughts and feelings no matter what they are.
  5. Learn not to be overwhelmed by your thoughts and feelings. Work on maintaining separation of the rest of your Self from difficult thoughts and feelings. Pause to rest, if needed.
  6. Pay special attention to intrusive thoughts and feelings like shame, guilt, resentment, suicidality, cynicism, etc. These thoughts and feelings are complex. They require considerable unpacking before they can be understood. They are often rooted in deeper layers of the subconscious that will require exploration.
  7. Some thoughts and feelings contain hidden messages, especially those mentioned in step 7. These hidden messages can be challenging to discover. It may take a lot of reframing and self-discovery to decipher them.
  8. Remember that thoughts are ideas and conclusions suggested by your subconscious. Keep in mind that thoughts are hypotheses to be tested. Thoughts are not automatic conclusions needing to be adopted by your whole Self.
  9. Persistent negative thought patterns like addictive cravings, self-criticism, self-loathing, desires to hurt others, and cynical thoughts come from deeper layers of the subconscious. You can discover the roots of these difficult thought patterns through Internal Family Systems work. See We’re all multiple: Internal Systems of the Mind.

For a more detailed look at finding the purpose of feelings and thoughts, please read Feelings have Purpose.

Our thoughts and feelings will guide us through the rest of self-awareness. Some may be easy to understand and trace to their origins. Others will be far more challenging. We will take our time along this journey. Avoid getting sidetracked and stuck by these difficult thoughts and feelings. Many of them are not what they seem. This includes addictive cravings, self-criticism, self-loathing, desires to hurt others, and cynical thoughts. We can reframe these later to discover their hidden messages.

Step 2. Recognize feelings in our bodies

We cannot heal unless we reconnect the mind, body and soul. Reconnecting to our bodies is the next step. Despite being critical, this is an often-overlooked step when it comes to self-awareness. Our feelings are tethered to a place in our bodies. Feelings come from some of the more primitive areas of our brain and brainstem. These areas of our brain and brainstem are also tied to places within our bodies. Our bodies can act as a bridge between those feelings and the rest of our Self.

These bridges are different for each person. Some people feel joy as a tingling in the toes or in the spine. I personally feel my anxiety and stress as a tightness in my chest. I’ve had patients experience their own feelings in many different ways. I’ve seen them show up as pain, warmth, burning, squeezing, bladder fullness, intestinal irritability, nausea, heartburn, difficulty breathing, muscle twitching or cramping, joint pain, a rash (hives), dizziness, headache, visual phenomena, and numbness. I’ve even had patients experience their emotions as rhythmic body movements that mimic a seizure. Or I’ve seen patient’s where large parts of their bodies will go weak and numb, mimicking a stroke.

Start by recognizing feelings in your body. Where are your feelings located? When you feel anxious or stressed, where do you feel this in your body? How does this show up?

There is a powerful connection between our minds and our bodies. Western culture has the bad habit of seeing the mind and the body as separate entities. Western medicine often treats illness as being the domain of either the body or the mind, not both. We segregate treatments into one domain or the other. Even western hospitals are divided into separate medical and psychiatric wards, a practice that is detrimental to healing. This practice probably comes from a type of fear and ignorance of how the mind works to interact with our bodies.

Thankfully, we are starting to break this misconception and see that most medical issues of significance cross over into both domains. We realize that traumas to our bodies become amplified by our minds. When we fail to heal the mind, the physical trauma and disability persists. We are held back. The body cannot heal itself.

To heal, we must reconnect the body to the mind. The mind-body connection helps explain why rhythmic physical movement and breathing exercises can bring calm in a time of emotional reactivity. It also explains why we can interrupt difficult emotions with touch, massage, a warm bath, or a cold shower.

Step 3. Setting boundaries, distinguishing pain and discomfort, finding a window of tolerance

The next step is to identify and separate two different types of uncomfortable feelings: pain and discomfort. Separating these two feelings is critical to establish a window of tolerance. Healing occurs inside that window. We cannot heal if we stay in a place of comfort. Neither can we heal if we are continuously inflicting new traumas, which compounds our injury.

Pain is the feeling we have when someone violates a personal boundary. Pain can be nontraumatic, such as when someone accidentally hurts us. For instance, a person could accidentally bump into us. Or we could get into a car accident and experience an injury. Alternatively, pain can be traumatic. When an injury is traumatic, there is an emotional component to the injury that doesn’t heal automatically via our autopilot. If someone hurts us by intentionally violating a personal boundary, this injury is traumatic. We will have an emotional reaction.

Pain is an indication of harm. To understand pain, we must become aware of the boundary that is being violated. We must see the boundary for what it is. Boundaries are invisible barriers that keep us from harm. Boundaries prevent injury. We can have physical boundaries, like our skin and the personal space around us. We can have psychological boundaries, like the right to be free of threat or insult. When someone violates a psychological boundary, this can hurt just as much as if someone injures us physically.

When we experience pain, we need to locate the boundary. Boundaries are different for each person. They change over time. They can be flexible or rigid. For instance, a person can have a boundary that they do not work after 4:30PM. This boundary exists to maintain proper work-life balance. As the person’s values change, that boundary may change.

Boundaries define our personal space. For instance, I might say that I will not allow others to hit me or curse at me. Boundaries prevent others from doing something to us. Boundaries deter actions that would otherwise be harmful. We may choose to invite other people inside our boundaries, but we maintain the right to show them the door should we change our minds.

When it comes to boundaries, it is important to distinguish discomfort from pain. Pain is a violation of a boundary. Discomfort is the stretching of that boundary that doesn’t result in any direct violation. Healthy boundaries balance strength and flexibility. We do not want a boundary to be rigid. A rigid boundary is more like to break than a flexible one. Of course, a boundary can become too flexible so that it loses strength and also breaks.

Attunement is the practice of discovering our window of tolerance. How far can we push our boundaries before we cause pain? How much discomfort can we bear? We develop attunement by stretching our boundaries. How much can they stretch before they start to tear? Attunement also involves working our bodies and minds. How much work can we perform before we cause injury?

When we are injured, we instinctively tighten up. This is done to protect ourselves from repeated injury. In the short term, it is advantageous as it makes the boundary stronger. In the long term, this instinctive tightening is detrimental. Instinctively, we work our boundaries less. As a result, our boundaries atrophy. They become weak and brittle.

Healing requires that we stretch an otherwise brittle boundary. Consider an injured muscle that tightens up. We have to strengthen and stretch the muscle to restore it back to health. We have to convince it that it is now safe to relax again. The same is true for psychological trauma. To heal, a person needs to go back and reexperience enough of their traumatic memories until they fully understand and reintegrate with the trauma experience. This process is accomplished slowly. There may be intense psychological discomfort in resurfacing old memories. Go too fast and we might tear a brittle boundary and cause additional harm and injury.

It doesn’t matter if we’re healing a physical, psychological, or spiritual injury. To heal, we must be able to tell the difference between discomfort and pain. We must accept discomfort while also working to avoid pain. Developing attunement helps us know the difference. Time and hard work are needed. Through this rhythmic practice of stretching our boundaries and strengthening them, we become more attuned to what our bodies can tolerate.

Step 4. Recognize needs and suffering

Humans have many different needs. We have the need to feel safe. We have needs for belonging. We need connection to the environment. We have physiological needs for nourishment and shelter.

Many of our needs cannot be met by remaining inside our boundaries. To meet them, we need to go out into the world. We must go into common spaces. Unlike personal spaces, common spaces are shared with others. No one person owns them.

When we experience a negative emotion, this can be the result of harm being done to us by the violation of a boundary. Or negative emotions can come from suffering. Suffering occurs as the result of a chronic, unmet need.

We cannot possibly meet all of our needs at all times. So, there is a rhythmic process of meeting a few needs at one time, then changing our attention to focus on other needs. We fill each bucket of need. When we turn our attention elsewhere, that bucket gradually empties before it is refilled again.

When a need goes unmet for a long time, the natural craving we have transforms into suffering. Different people experience suffering in different ways. Suffering can manifest in a person’s mood as irritability, emotional lability, or as a type of depression. Suffering can manifest somatically, meaning that it shows up in our bodies as a physical symptom like fatigue or headaches. Often people will distract themselves from suffering as a coping mechanism. The person may experience cravings for other substitutes. For instance, they might replace their true needs with a craving for alcohol. With enough time, these alcohol cravings may turn into addiction. To stop drinking, this person cannot just focus on quitting alcohol. Nonholistic alcohol treatment is likely to fail. Instead, the person must find their unmet needs. They must see where they are suffering. They must find a healthier way to meet their needs and alleviate suffering. Only after doing this does escaping an alcohol addiction become possible.

Step 5. Differentiating expectations from boundaries

To get our needs met, we set up expectations for ourselves and others. Expectations are often confused with boundaries. Boundaries are barriers that we create for ourselves to protect our personal spaces. We own our boundaries and personal spaces. Others cannot decline to respect them. We alone carry the burden of enforcing these boundaries.

Expectations are burdens placed on others in shared spaces. We expect others to do something for us. Unlike boundaries, expectations are negotiable. Other people have every right to decline an expectation that we might place upon them.

All relationships require participants to separate out shared and personal spaces. Within shared spaces, people in relationships commit to working together to help meet each other’s needs. These shared commitments need to be fairly communicated and negotiated. People need to all agree. Then they hold each other accountable for living up to their commitments.

Once we understand the difference between boundaries and expectations, we can start to see the difference between pain (harm) and suffering (unmet needs). We reduce pain when we work on setting and enforcing healthy boundaries. We reduce suffering when we develop healthy bridges to people and places that can help get our needs met.

When we are stuck in a contentious relationship, one strategy for getting unstuck is to lower expectations and focus on enforcing healthy boundaries. We can avoid placing expectations on people that they would not otherwise accept lovingly from us. Keep the expectations low enough such that the other person feels free to love us. As everyone involved begins to feel free again, then we can work to renegotiate our commitments.

Step 6. Develop awareness of our behavior and the impact on others

Another key aspect of self-awareness and emotional intelligence is to be aware of the impact of our behaviors on the people around us. Even as we are learning about ourselves, we must develop social awareness of those around us. This is a complex topic that goes beyond the scope of this article. Here are a few key points when assessing behavioral impact on other people:

  1. Learn to pick up on the mood in the room of those around us.
  2. Learn how to hear what the other person is “really” saying. Practice Active Listening.
  3. Continuously assess how our behavior impacts others. This requires intentional observation of others and how they respond to our behaviors. Be flexible enough to change mid-course if something isn’t working.
  4. Monitor for behavioral patterns (or cycles) that connect us to others.
  5. Assess the impact of behavioral patterns on us and others. See my Guide to Positive Cycling.

In building self-awareness, we keep the focus inward on ourselves. But as we are now realizing, we cannot completely remove other people from the equation. We will inevitably impact others with our behaviors. In turn, they will impact us through their behaviors. Those impacts will generate new feelings and beliefs inside us. When the behaviors repeat themselves, they generate cyclical patterns. See my Guide to Positive Cycling for a more in-depth explanation of how this can occur and the impact of these patterns.

Step 7. Develop awareness of our behavior and the impact on ourselves

Returning our focus inward, there is still a lot of work to do in examining our behaviors. Here are some key points when assessing behavioral impact on ourselves:

  1. Practice witnessing our own behaviors. This requires stepping outside ourselves and becoming an emotionally neutral, nonjudgmental observer. We should become an observer who has no stake in the game. We are only being curious about what is happening. Practice this type of curiosity.
  2. Separate out our intentions from our behaviors.
  3. Clearly outline what our goals and intentions are.
  4. What personal needs are we attempting to satisfy through our behaviors?
  5. Observe our behaviors for what they are, not for what we want them to be. Learn to bottom-line our own actions. What are we actually doing?
  6. Where do we put in the most effort? Look at effort as involving four personal resources: time, emotional energy, cognitive energy (non-autopilot thinking), and physical exertion. For example, running four miles while listening to music involves physical exertion and time while it conserves emotional energy and cognitive energy. Having a political debate with a friend conserves physical energy while expending time, cognitive energy, and emotional energy. Working on a complex math problem would only involve time and cognitive energy.
  7. How much of our behavior is being done by our autopilot? Anything that follows a repetitive pattern, derived from learned experience, is done by the autopilot.
  8. How much of our behavior is not being done by our autopilot? How much is intentional, thoughtful and new? This is our conscious behavior.
  9. What is the impact of our behaviors on us? Are we satisfying the personal needs we intended to satisfy? Which buckets of personal need is becoming less filled over time? Is this simply due to the passing of time or a direct result of our behavior? Did we (unintentionally) poke a hole in one of our buckets, causing it to drain faster?
  10. If we failed to satisfy certain needs, have we become stuck? Is this something that has happened before?

Now that we’ve seen where our efforts are going, we next need to ask where they are not going? What aspects of our lives are we not putting in a lot of effort towards? What needs are we not satisfying due to lack of effort? Have we ignored those needs or suppressed them? Have we become complacent? Have we become dependent on others to satisfy them for us? If so, how does the other person feel about that? Is our relationship with that person still growing, or has it stagnated as a result of co-dependency? See my Guide to Positive Cycling for a deep dive on this topic.

These are the key steps to assessing the impact of our behavior on ourselves through the eyes of an emotionally neutral, nonjudgmental observer. This takes a lot of practice.

There are other lenses by which we might view our behaviors. Each lens can offer important insight. For instance, we might view our behaviors from the perspective of our “future selves.” What would an older, more mature version of us say about what we are doing? Or we might view our behaviors from a perspective in our past, such as our inner children, our inner critics, or our inner rebels. For a more detailed explanation on how to do this, see my article We’re all multiple: Internal Systems of the Mind. Each of these perspectives brings important experiences and biases to the table and can therefore generate valuable insight.

For the remainder of this article, we will focus on our present selves. We will continue use our neutral, nonjudgmental observer. We will go a layer deeper by looking at the tools being used in our actions. These tools constitute our moral values.

Step 8. Values as tools to maintain boundaries and satisfy our needs

The next step in building conscious awareness is to become aware of the values we are using in our everyday behavior. We all have needs. Our behaviors are the actions we do in the world to try to satisfy those needs. Values are the tools we use in our behavior.

Values are moral tools that help us make choices. They are moral tools because they tell us what we ought to do. They are simple judgements. For instance, “We ought to eat a salad to satisfy our hunger.” These judgements help advance us in the direction that we will go.

When most people think of values, they jump to complex issues like marriage, abortion, politics, etc. Values can certainly be used to answer these complex questions. But what we should realize is that we use our values everyday, countless times a day, to solve far more routine, mundane issues. Values help us through our routines at work and at home. They help us decide what to eat, when to eat, when to be intimate, when to be alone, how to interact with our children, etc. Most of the time, we are not thinking about these decisions. We are simply doing. Our consciousness is unaware of the values being used. Instead, our autopilot is automatically exercising our values for us.

In building consciousness, our goal here is to observe the values being used by our autopilot. We are not trying to change them at this point. We only want to step outside ourselves and observe.

We have many different values. Our autopilot is choosing, on our behalf, which value should be used for which situation. It is using past experience to guide it. For instance, let’s consider an argument with a spouse. Let’s say that at the beginning of the argument, our autopilot decides that we should be exercising listening and compassion. It tries to be flexible. It knows, from experience, that we get more sugar from honey. However, let’s say the argument doesn’t go as expected. Our spouse doesn’t react as expected, and our autopilot is feeling increasingly negative. It is afraid of where the argument could go if it is allowed to continue. Our autopilot then decides it has lost patience and becomes reactive. It flips a switch over to a self-preservation mode. In becoming reactive, we might now exhibit anger or defensiveness. Alternatively, we might withdraw from the argument or begin to stonewall our partner. Then the autopilot convinces us that it was the other person’s fault that we had to make this switch. All of these actions are simple judgments the autopilot is making. Exhibiting anger, defensiveness, stonewalling, self-preservation, withdrawing, and self-deception are all tools that we use. These tools are all values just like listening, compassion, and patience.

At this point, we’re not prepared to determine if our autopilot is doing the right thing or not. We only observe. We try to connect the dots between our needs, feelings, and values. We begin to see how one drives the other. In the previous example, we felt fear and anger. We can now see how this drove our change in posture. We changed from using bridging values like listening, patience, and compassion. With increased reactivity, we switched to using self-protective (boundary) values like defensiveness, withdrawal, and stonewalling.

Understanding which values should be used when is a complex topic that I will explore in later articles. At this stage, we are only observing. Which values are we using? How effective are they at helping us reach our goals?

There are two types of values that are equally important. Boundaries help protect our personal spaces. A personal space might be a physical space, like your home or your body. Or a personal space might be invisible, like a personal right. For instance, we might say that we have the right not to be insulted or treated aggressively in the workplace. We might set a boundary on our time or the amount of physical effort we would use at work. An injured worker might be given a 25 lb. lifting restriction.

Boundaries are meant to preserve our physical, mental, and spiritual wellbeing. They keep us safe. We use many different tools to enforce our boundaries. We may use aggression. We may withdraw behind additional layers of protection. We may create physical space by leaving a common room that no longer feels safe. We may create temporal space by contacting a person less often. We may withdraw inwardly into self-protective places within our minds. We pause or sever connections with someone who threatens us, thus becoming less open and emotionally available to them.

The second broad category of values are our bridging values. Bridges help define how we will function within share spaces. Shared spaces are common places for connection. A shared space is defined by the group’s relationship. There is an agreement amongst the group on what is shared and what is personal. Members of the group may join together in their shared spaces at any time. Each member has equal right to the shared space. Outsiders, nonmembers of the group, do not have rights to the shared space, but they may be invited guests. Members, however, cannot violate another member’s personal space.

For instance, a family might share their home. A home will have different rooms. Some rooms are common spaces, while some are personal (private) spaces. Guests may be invited over. Respect for these different spaces is critical to relationships. This helps a parent understand that they should never chase a child, during an argument, into the child’s room. The child’s room is their own personal space that should never be violated. The child must feel safe going there. It also helps the parent understand why sending the child to their room as a form of punishment will backfire. The child’s room is a place of safety and should never be treated as a jail, which transforms it into an unsafe place. The child feels trapped there. Instead, a parent should instruct an aggressive child to find a place of calm. Give the child the option of going to their room or a different shared space in the home. So long as they are able to work towards calming their aggression, the child has every right to make the choice. If the child makes the choice of staying in a shared space and remaining aggressive, the parent can then say, “It looks like you’ve chosen to go to your room. Feel free to rejoin us in the family room after you are calm.” The parent may then be forced, by the child, to send the child to their room. But the child understands, intuitively, that their room remains a place of safety, not one of punishment.

There are many different types of bridging tools. These include all the rules and behaviors that are used within our shared spaces. A few of the common ones include: empathy, patience, curiosity, active listening, asserting oneself, acceptance, honesty, tolerance, benefit-of-the-doubt, courage, play, and imagination.

To learn how to have difficult conversations within a shared space, see my articles Active Listening and Telling Your Story.

Every behavior we engage in has an underlying value. As we start this exercise of becoming more self-aware, practice finding that value. Give it a name. Is it a bridging value or a boundary?

People often disagree over values. During this exercise of becoming self-aware, practice being our neutral, nonjudgmental observer. Are we using our values too much despite lack of efficacy? Are we using certain values with too much or too little intensity? Is the chosen value appropriate? Could we have chosen a different value than the one we used?

Keep in mind the importance of being nonjudgmental. We do not judge ourselves for the value we chose. Think of our values as tools. Each of our values has a purpose. Each one has a role. Even the less mature ones like aggression, defensiveness and stonewalling have a potential purpose. Think of ourselves as carpenters with a toolshed. We wouldn’t fault a hammer or screwdriver. A hammer can be misused. It can be used in the wrong situation. A person can decide that all problems should be solved with a hammer. A hammer can be used unskillfully, resulting in accidental injury or negligence. A hammer can even be used as a weapon to deliberately hurt someone.

Our values are no different. Becoming self-aware is about seeing the values we are using. We can learn to use these values more effectively. We can also dust off values that we haven’t used in a long time. It’s like finding that lost screwdriver that fell onto the floor rather than continuing to beat the screw with our trusty hammer.

Start to observe how effective our values are each situation. There are probably situations where certain values are highly effective. Then we may find other situations where those same values just don’t work. They don’t achieve the desired result. Pay attention to how people react. Their reactions, together with our own feelings, will tell us how things are working.

Step 9. Recognize relationship patterns

We know that 95% of our day is spent in autopilot. This means that for the vast majority of our existence, we are engaged in familiar patterns. We are doing something similar to how we’ve done it before. It turns out, as we are in autopilot for much of our lives, so is everyone else. And so, this means that 95% of relationships involve one person’s autopilot interacting with another person’s autopilot. The relationship becomes, to a large extent, a familiar pattern.

This isn’t a bad thing. We all have our routines. Families have routines. We have routines at work. We establish routines with friend groups. These routines allow us to feel safe and connected. The good news here is that the vast majority of those routines serve their purpose of providing us with safety and connection. They fill our needs.

When a group joins together to complete a familiar pattern, we call this cycling. One person feels the needs of the group, and they act to fill those needs. Others within the group respond. Further responses are provoked down the line.

Attunement occurs when the rhythms of a relationship line up into harmony. Our individual patterns (or cycles) harmonize together. Group needs and individual needs are all being filled in a balanced way.

Certain relationship patterns stand out because they do not work. There is a lack of harmony. These patterns create negative emotions for individual members. We do not hear the hundreds of parts of our car that are quietly humming along doing their jobs effectively. But we can hear that one part that is clunking every time we turn the wheel.

Becoming self-aware is about identifying those relationship patterns (cycles) that are no longer serving us. We can then use IVR self-therapy as a method of correcting those patterns to better serve our needs.

The first step is identifying that when you are in a relationship, you are engaged in a cycle. Try to put together the pieces of that cycle. Look at how needs, emotions, and behaviors align. When do needs become drained, and how do they refill again?

Next, look for attunement within members of the group. Attunement involves harmony, rather than conformity. Each individual is making their own music. However, when combined, the rhythms of their music create pleasing chords and progressions. What aspects of the relationship are attuned? What aspects aren’t? Where is there disharmony? Try to be fair and honest when making the assessment.

Negative emotions will instruct us that something isn’t quite working. They tell us we are stuck somewhere. It’s our job to identify the issue. Be sure to remain an emotionally neutral, nonjudgmental observer. Remember that bearing witness is always the first step.

A relationship should grow over time. Growth involves adapting to meet new challenges from the outside world and also adapting to change within individual group members. Growth involves working towards achieving a high level of attunement.

Positive cycling is the term used to define a relationship that is engaged in positive growth. Attunement increases over time. The group adapts successfully to meet new challenges. Needs are generally being met.

Negative cycling is the term that describes a relationship that is rapidly deteriorating. This is the divorce where two people are trying to ruin each other. The house is on fire, and everyone involved is holding a gasoline can. Negative cycling is more common than we think. Unfortunately, we see it all the time on the news and in American politics. We only see a piece of it at a time, so it can be challenging to but together the full cycle. Many of my patients become engaged in negative cycling after they are injured on the job. They get caught in cycles of blaming, guilt, resentment and shaming.

Codependency describes a stagnant relationship. The relationship has ceased to grow and adapt. Members are out of tune. Unfortunately, just like anything in life, without maintenance and growth, a stagnant relationship will fall into decay. The entropy of life slowly deteriorates the relationship. This process is similar to negative cycling except that it is slowed way down. Negative cycling will destroy a relationship in hours, days or weeks. Codependency will destroy it slowly over months, years, or decades. In codependency, the house isn’t on fire. From the outside, everything appears normal and healthy. But you really don’t want to go in there. You don’t want to peel back the layers of the rotting relationship.

For a more detailed look at positive cycling, negative cycling, and dependency, see my Guide to Positive Cycling.

Our emotions will instruct us in which cycle we are involved in. Codependency can be difficult to spot if we don’t know what to look for. Codependents spend lot of time learning how to suppress negative emotions and mask their situation. Chances are we have all been involved in multiple codependent relationships in our lives. To try locate those. Find those subtle, hidden negative emotions. Look for behaviors that just don’t make sense. Make an honest assessment of attunement. There may have been attunement on basic needs like safety, food, and shelter. But what about deeper needs like emotional intimacy, physical intimacy, and spiritual intimacy. Life is too short to deny these needs.

Step 10. Recognize 6 levels emotional reactivity

When becoming self-aware, it’s important to become aware of what emotions we’re feeling. We want to label those emotions. The next thing we should do is evaluate their intensity. In fact, the intensity of our emotions may be even more important than the label itself.

Emotional reactivity is the intensity of our negative emotions, especially negative emotions related to safety. This is an important to concept for building self-awareness (emotional intelligence). Positive emotions are a binding force that connect people together. Think happiness and laughter. These emotions consolidate an existing connection to make it stronger. In contrast, negative emotions are a destructive type of energy that bring about change. This may sound bad, except that negative emotions are just as important as positive ones. Negative emotions are simply used for a different purpose. Negative emotions bind through destructive change. They change the very nature of a connection into something else.

Negative emotions are akin to heat. Reactivity is the temperature in an oven. You need the right amount of destructive energy to cook your dinner. The right amount produces a chemical reaction that changes our food into something tasty and edible. But too much heat becomes dangerous.

With reactivity, we are concerned with stress emotions that aid in safety. Stress emotions are regulated by the amygdala. These include anxiety (fear) and anger. Stress emotions activate the fight-or-flight response. They produce adrenaline that help us fend off an intruder.

When talking about reactivity, we are not concerned with other negative emotions like sadness, shame, and guilt. These emotions are signs of disconnection. Although necessary for survival, these emotions aren’t involved in minute-by-minute threat detection. A person who has chronically high levels of disconnecting emotions may indeed be highly reactive. This is because we need connection to buffer reactivity. Think of a time when you were angry and then let out some steam getting together with friends. People who lack healthy connections will often be highly reactive.

Reactivity is important. Stress and anxiety, in the right proportions, allow us to learn and grow. We wouldn’t get off the couch without these impulses. However, in American culture, our problem generally isn’t having too little stress. Most of the time, we have far too much. Our reactivity is too high and we get burnt. Very often, we don’t know how to manage our reactivity. We don’t use it in the right away. We are like children playing with fire.

Even the best relationships can deteriorate quickly if members don’t learn how to manage their reactivity. Just like an oven needs a thermometer, we need to recognize how reactive we are. We need to understand what we can accomplish based on the level of heat present. What can we cook at a given temperature?

Here is a chart that divides reactivity into levels 0-5. At level 1, we are calm and generally in our best position to be helpful and nonjudgmental. When we give advice, such advice comes out of a place of compassion, active listening, curiosity, and imagination. There is no hidden motive to our advice. Level 1 is desirable in most workplace conditions as it allows people to exercise their cognitive abilities to the highest degree. Level 1 maximizes collaboration and inventiveness. In level 1, we are in our best position to turn off our autopilot and exercise our awareness. We can be mindful and intentional about things we do and say.

At level 2, we start to feel some increased stress and irritability. We allow instinct (our autopilot) to take increased control. Our consciousness is no longer in the driver seat, but our consciousness still monitors things from a short distance away. Level 2 may be desirable for athletes and professions that rely on instinct and where over-thinking can be problematic. Think police officers and firemen. These professions may involve higher levels of competition, stress and even some degree of danger. For most general workplace environments, where there’s minimal physical danger, level 1 is superior. When we find ourselves in level 2, try returning to level 1 by lowering reactivity. We can do this by actively increasing our conscious awareness. Shine a spotlight on how we are feeling and find a way to let out some steam. We can also use humor to deescalate tensions that might arise.

As we progress through the levels, we trade thoughtfulness for survival instinct. We also trade out consciousness and control, deferring more and more to the autopilot. Eventually, the amygdala takes over complete control of our behavior and actions. Survival becomes paramount. The amygdala will not trust other parts of our brain (including our consciousness) to interfere with our fight for survival.

Reactivity levelFeelingsThoughtsBehavior
0Flat, unemotional, disconnectedPure logical thinkingNot attuned
Robotic behavior
1CalmHow can I help?Patience,
Active listening
Nonjudgmental support
Builds connection
Minor urgency
Minor stress
Optimistic with reservations
A small ulterior agenda
Urgent listening
Applies (subtle) pressure
Minor irritability
3Uncomfortable (stressed),
Annoyance, frustration
Anxious, apprehension
Unsure which way the conversation is going to goReciprocal listening and assertiveness
Will not tolerate a lecture but happy to give one
4Overwhelming stress
Intense anxiety (fear)
On the edge of the precipice
Fears rapid deterioration of the relationship
Only tolerates being listened to
Highly irritable
Panic attacks
(volcano erupting)
Complete loss of control
Relationship is rapidly deteriorating
Needs space

In level 3, our stress turns up even higher. Level 3 is the last position at which we can still have a productive conversation with someone. We are annoyed and frustrated, and these emotions are difficult to hide. We do not know if things will improve or turn ugly. Here we become more transactional. We are only willing to listen to the other person to the degree that they are willing to listen to us. We will only extend other people the degree of respect that they extend us. Our instinct is to lecture, but we should avoid doing this. Lecturing is likely to increase the other person’s reactivity to match ours. And we are not in a position to receive a lecture back. Instead, our goal in level 3 should be to avoid allowing the encounter to slip further towards level 4-5. We do this by creating healthy boundaries that pause or end the encounter the moment it starts to deteriorate. We can say, in a nonjudgmental fashion, “I’m uncomfortable with the way things are going. I would like to pause for now.” Establishing effective guardrails should be done first before trying to work out a solution. Once we have effective guardrails in place, reciprocal listening and assertiveness can be attempted.

If things slip further, we enter perilous level 4. In level 4, we are facing overwhelming stress, fear, and/or anger. We are on the edge of hostility but have not yet crossed over. The most important thing to do here is to recognize that are in level 4. We also need to realize that in level 4, we are in no position to solve our problems. We lack thoughtfulness. We are simply too reactive. Our oven is way too hot. Avoid making the mistake of grasping for a solution. Such attempts will backfire. Instead, our goal should be to reduce the heat. We need to get back to level 3. We can do this by raising our consciousness. Simply becoming aware that we are in level 4 is a critical step to escaping it. We can also look for a way to withdraw from a triggering environment. Find a place of calm. If we can’t physically withdraw (we are stuck in a crowded airport, for instance), we can imagine ourselves in a calming place, like on a beach. Once in a calm environment, we can burn steam through exercise, yoga, meditation, music, distraction, journaling, repeating calming phrases, etc. Only when we’ve returned to level 3 can we resume problem-solving.

Level 5 is an escalation of level 4 into a place of complete loss of control. Here, the amygdala, the survival model of our autopilot, believes we are in grave danger. It has assumed full control and wrestled that away from our conscious self. Our consciousness is helpless to watch the next set of events unfold like a movie. Here we will do things that we will regret later.

There is no predicting what a person might do or say in level 5. We should learn to recognize the signs in ourselves and others. We will see hostility if we get close to someone in level 5. Or we might see a person in level 5 simply say things that don’t make any sense. They may be accusing someone of something. The last thing we should want to do is argue with such a person. Logic will be ineffective. Remember that their conscious self, the part of their mind that can interpret logic, is completely disconnected from the amygdala, the part of them that has assumed full control. They will realize what they’re saying isn’t right later, after the rest of their brain has “woken up” and reconnected. Instead, we should give this person space. Allow them to take out their hostility on an inanimate object of minimal value, such as squeezing a pillow.

If we’re the one in level 5, the best thing we can do is to recognize this. Simply recognizing a loss of control gets us halfway back to level 4. Look for a flood of aggressive and/or violent thoughts and impulses. We may have the desire to hurt ourselves or others. We may want to be destructive. As we become aware of these impulses, we need to find space to let out some aggression. Intense physical exercise can work. Or we can find an inanimate object of minimal value and take out some aggression on it (squeezing a pillow). Avoid doing this in front of others who might find us threatening. With practice, a person can learn how to meditate out of level 5. Simply learning how to feel the anger in our bodies is a way of releasing it slowly and safely. We can also feel parts of our bodies that aren’t angry, such as our hands or the weight of our bodies in our feet. Or we can focus on breathing. Avoid anyone who is also emotionally reactive. We don’t need any more heat. Seeing someone else sad, angry, anxious or happy will only trigger our reactivity. The only person who can help us is someone who is perfectly calm (someone at level 1). Usually, it takes a professional to bring someone out of level 5. Lay people find it difficult to not become reactive themselves when confronting someone at level 5.

At some point in our lives, everyone will find themselves in level 5. This is a scary place. After it’s over, reflect back on what was happening. Level 5 should be a rare occurrence. Consider seeking professional help if you find yourself in level 5 on more than the rare occasion. Also consider professional help if you found it difficult to get out of level 5. For instance, if you took out your aggression in a destructive way (punched a hole in wall). Or if you acted out your aggression in full view of others, causing them to feel threatened. Or if you destroyed something of real value or actually hurt another person. All of these would be reasons to engage a professional.

As we begin to develop awareness of reactivity, we should examine our baseline state. A person with secure, healthy attachments will live at levels 1-2. But there are a lot of people out there who live in levels 3-4. This means that they are hypervigilant and prone to anger / aggression. Someone with a high degree of baseline anxiety might find their baseline to be a level 3. When they get panic attacks, they experience a sudden escalation into level 4.

Finally, there is a reactivity level 0. This is a person who is emotionally flat. The person may try to be helpful, but they lack the ability because they are not attuned to the environment in the room. They cannot feel others and therefore lack the empathy needed. They appear robotic. Such a person will also struggle to help themselves through emotionally charged situations. In these situations, such a person will likely jump from reactivity level 0 straight to levels 3-5. They will skip over calmer levels 1-2. Why does this occur? Think of how hard it is to start a fire from scratch with cold materials. It is much easier to control an existing fire that is already burning calmly. We can easily add or subtract heat when needed. When starting a fire from scratch, we instinctively pour too much fuel. When it gets going, it explodes. When facing a reactive environment, a person starting at reactivity level 0 will typically become highly anxious. Their anxiety goes from 0 to debilitating levels very quickly. They never achieve that sweet spot of having just enough stress to be helpful.

How do we get out of level 0? Again, the answer requires first that we recognize it. Once we see ourselves as acting robotic or not being attuned to others, we can work on this. This is a lot like trying to start a fire by rubbing two sticks together. It takes patience, practice and skill. Start by focusing on feelings coming from our bodies, whatever they may be. Put our spotlight there and allow our feelings to gently swell. Once we’ve kindled this, next look for signs of feelings in others. Ask other people how they feel and see if what we thought they were feeling matches what they say. Next, try to match our feelings to theirs by remembering a time when we felt that way in your past. Practice this enough and we will easily be able to kindle our own reactivity, when needed, to escape times when we are feeling flat. We will go from level 0 to helpful level 1 and avoid the unhelpful anxiety of levels 3-5.

Step 11. See our identity roles

When developing self-awareness (emotional intelligence), the next step is to be cognizant of our Identity. We all have a capital-I Identity that is the sum of many smaller intersecting pieces. For instance, a person may be a runner, a spouse, a parent, a son, an electrician, a friend, etc. We can be all of these things at once. But generally, at any one moment, we are only acting the role of one of these (lower case i) identities.

Each one of these identities has its own purpose, beliefs, outside connections, needs, values, hopes and dreams. That is because each identity has its own story complete with past history and learned experiences. Each one is like its own version of us. These different versions are all connected, but they are in many ways separate.

Here is where it is helpful, especially in difficult moments, to recognize which identity we have assumed. See that identity for what it is. See how its past experiences shape our present feelings and behaviors.

Each identity is like putting on a pair of colored glasses that changes how we see the world. Building awareness involves seeing which pair we are wearing in different situations. Why do we do that? What if we changed to a different set of glasses? How would we look at the world differently? What if we extended a coworker the same compassion that we would give to a family member? What if we cared as much about ourselves as we did our own children?

We are all multiple because of our diversity of different internal identities. By understanding this, we can start to see how a person might appear disjointed or hypocritical. As their identities change, their values and behaviors change also. To an outsider, they appear confused. They may be labeled as “bipolar.” And yet, this is something that we all do.

We can see how a person might easily become stuck if their identity roles are not attuned to one another. Consider a person who’s work life puts considerable strain on their family responsibilities. These types of identity conflicts are incredibly common.

To take a look at the elements of Identity, see What is my Identity?

For a deep dive on common inner identity roles, see We’re all multiple: Internal Systems of the Mind.

Step 12. See the stories we tell ourselves

Each of our identities has a rich story. Each of these stories has its own world, characters, mood, starting point, history, momentum, and trajectory. The protagonist, one of our identities, is but one character of many. Things happen to our protagonist. Our protagonist responds to events. Mistakes are inevitably made. We have opportunities to learn from our mistakes and grow.

We humans are creatures of narrative. We want our stories to be simple and neat. We want to align people into neat categories of allies and enemies, good and bad. We want our stories to have an arc towards some type of positive resolution. That resolution should involves meaning, growth, and happiness. We want to be the hero bending events in that direction.

As we begin to gain self-awareness, we need to stitch together the stories we tell ourselves. We need to pull them out into the open and dissect them. How is our autopilot weaving the story for us? How does our conscious self then participate by translating that story into language? How are our stories shaped by the way they are told?

The next big question is to figure out who is the narrator in our story? We know the narrator is part of our inner self. Is the narrator the same as the protagonist? Often, they are different. The protagonist may be an inner child (us at the age of 6), while the narrator may be an inner critic (us at the age of 16). Sometimes I will speak my story aloud and surprise myself when I hear my mother’s words spoken in my voice.

How might our stories be different if someone else were the narrator? This can be a different identity inside us or another person outside us.

This practice of hearing our story is especially important when we become stuck. When our story seems to be spinning in circles but going nowhere, then now is the time to open it up and question it.

Questioning involves recognizing the characters in our stories and the roles they play. Look externally at how we view others in our lives. How do we cast them into certain roles? Remember that we (or more accurately, our narrator) are the ones doing the casting. We are the ones putting expectations on people. Inside our stories, we determine if they fail or succeed. We determine if they are good or bad. Are their efforts valued or not valued? We decide how they will be connected to us. Will they be one of us or will they remain outsider? We interpret their behavior through the lens of our narrator. We stop questioning their actions when they behave as expected. We stop exploring their motives once they fit the roles we assigned.

We also need to look inward at the cast of characters living inside us. Inside the deeper contours of our story are a whole host of behind-the-scenes characters. Here we will find our internal judgers, critics, cheerleaders, firefighters, rebels, and more. We can shine the spotlight on our inner children that have been traumatized and exiled. We can pull them out into the open. Find out what they have to say.

Finally, we also need to see how our stories may be limiting us. The stories we tell create a framework for our lives. We then go about living inside that framework. This framework comes with beliefs and values. Values are the tools we can use to reach our goals. These values may be useful, but they can also be limiting. Beliefs are a set of invisible walls meant to keep us safe. While they do keep us safe, they can also box us in.

Sometimes we have goals that lie beyond. Sometimes our goals don’t fit within the framework of our stories. This is what happens when we become stuck. We feel like we’re trapped inside an invisible box and we just can’t reach anything on the outside. Our minds do a great job of convincing us that someone else is to blame for our entrapment. When in fact, often, we are trapping ourselves.

Consider how often we tell ourselves that we can’t do something. Or we may resign ourselves to being a certain type of person. We incorporate these details into our identity and our stories. They become us. This may happen consciously. Most of the time, these invisible walls are established by our autopilot. Sometimes they are given to us by medical providers. We are labeled as being a person with chronic pain or chronic mental illness. Instead of simply accepting our current circumstances, these disorders become core pieces of our identity from which we cannot escape. Healing is put aside, and the focus is put on managing our problems. Often, we expect others to do the work of managing for us. We become disempowered and helpless.

To escape being stuck, we have to see how our own beliefs are holding us in place. We also have to realize that we are equipped with far more tools than the ones we’re currently using. Ultimately, we have to transform our stories.

Step 13. Unfold your history

Each of our stories began somewhere. Quite often, that beginning is buried deep within the layers of our subconscious. The place where we think our story began is not the actual beginning. Only our autopilot knows where things really began. Discovering that true history is critical to understanding our stories. Our stories just don’t make sense otherwise.

It’s common for people to not be fully aware of this important background. Our autopilot may be protecting us by keeping difficult memories hidden. Or our autopilot may simply not think that it’s important for us to know how we got to where we are. Our autopilot wants to keep us grounded in the present instead of overloading us with information from our past. In most cases, the autopilot is probably correct. However, when we become stuck, we have no choice but to unwind the past.

Here is another opportunity for exploring ourselves. Here is where we take the story we think we know and begin working backwards. Here is where we look at all those pieces of ourselves. We ask where did they come from? We are primarily concerned with the critical people who shaped our childhood and young adulthood. These are the people who taught us the tools we now use in life.

Here are a few questions to help us get started. Remember, we are using curiosity and compassion as our tools for unwinding our past. We remain a neutral, nonjudgmental observer. When we start to feel judgmental towards ourselves and others, that is simply a sign that we’re going too deep too quickly. Slow down or pause until we can regain our place of calm compassion.

  1. For emotional reactivity, what important individuals in your life modeled the different states of reactivity for you? How do you use those models in your own life?
  2. Consider how you treat your feelings. How do you communicate them to others? Which feelings do you feel safe communicating? What individuals in your life treated their feelings in a similar manner? What events in your past taught you which feelings were safe (or unsafe) to communicate?
  3. In terms of body awareness, what important individuals in your life modeled this for you? Were there important people in your life who seemed to be out-of-tune with their bodies? Were there people whose bodies seemed to control them, rather than the other way around? For instance, were there people with poor health, chronic pain, headaches, seizures, mental illness, or other disabilities that played an important, often unpredictable role for people in your life? If so, how might you have carried some of what you saw forward in your own story?
  4. How did people in your life react to unmet needs and suffering? Did they put unfair expectations on others? Did some people sacrifice their own needs to keep the peace? How have you emulated these strategies in your own story?
  5. How did people model boundaries for you in your childhood? Did your family maintain safe and healthy boundaries? Were some people’s boundaries routinely violated? How has this shaped your life going forward?
  6. For the important people in your life, how did they listen to you when you had something to say? What listening techniques were most effective? Which techniques didn’t work? Which techniques do you use most often today?
  7. What values are most important to you today? Who modeled those values for you in childhood?
  8. What are the patterns of your relationships? Who modeled those patterns for you in your past?
  9. What identity roles are most important to you? Who modeled those roles for you in your past?

Step 14. See the traumas in our stories

In building self-awareness, we will need to identify several types of traumas. Once identified, we can start to see the lasting impacts of trauma on our lives. Consider taking the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) quiz. This quiz can be a starting point for identifying and treating childhood trauma.

We will look at four different types of trauma: abuse, chronic suffering, neglect, and abandonment. Each of these involves a degree of helplessness. The person suffering from trauma feels helpless in their situation. This leads to a chronic, maladaptive change. Their autopilot adapts to reduce helplessness. These adaptations provided relief in the short term but become detrimental over time.

Abuse occurs when someone violates our boundaries. Boundaries exist to protect our personal spaces. Someone who violates our personal spaces is abusing us. Personal spaces include our bodies, our homes, our property, our time, our Identity, emotional energy and availability, our self-esteem, psychological safety, perception of reality, religious preferences, and more. Personal spaces are those physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual domains which we enjoy complete sovereignty. No one else, including bosses, parents or partners, have a say over our personal spaces. While it is ok to invite someone into our personal space, they must depart when requested. We can also agree to loan out parts of our personal space to others, such as our time. However, this is a type of invitation which can be rescinded. Anyone who intrudes upon our personal spaces is committing abuse towards us. Abuse includes insulting someone or degrading someone’s self-esteem. Certain types of abuse are particularly impactful. Physical abuse will often make a person feel perpetually unsafe; they can find it difficult to achieve calm. Sexual abuse can make it very difficult to feel safe while being intimate with partners going forward. Gaslighting can cause a person to be unable to trust their own instincts and perception of reality.

Chronic suffering occurs when we have particular needs that go unmet for long periods of time. This becomes traumatic when we adapt to those chronically unmet needs. For instance, a child who is often hungry will learn to steal food; later in life they may develop obesity or an eating disorder. Or if we have our emotional needs go unmet, we may suppress them and become robotic.

When chronic suffering occurs to a child or dependent, then we call this neglect. Their needs are being neglected by their caregivers. The child is helpless because they are entirely dependent upon their caregivers, the individuals causing the trauma. The child is trapped in an impossible situation. This type of trauma is highly impactful as it will dramatically alter the course of a child’s life. They will adapt to a difficult situation to survive. These adaptations provide temporary survival benefit. However, they become maladaptive later in life. They are difficult to overcome as the person matures into adulthood.

Abandonment occurs when adults make commitments to each other and later rescind those commitments in an unfair or dishonest manner. In every relationship, there are commitments to support and help fulfill the group’s needs. Commitments are negotiated. All relationships inevitably change over time. Many relationships are destined to end. Abandonment occurs when one partner doesn’t fulfill their obligations in the relationship. Instead of holding an honest conversation to renegotiate commitments, they act in a dishonest manner. They may lie or pretend to be still living up to their obligations, when in fact they are not. Abandonment and neglect are similar, except that neglect occurs to dependents. Dependents don’t have the power to change or end the relationship. In abandonment, the people involved are not dependents. All individuals have a fair say in negotiating commitments and ending the relationship. Infidelity is a common type of abandonment. So is not supporting a spouse through a mental or physical infirmity.

Step 15. Blind spots

As we fill in the details of our stories and progress towards self-awareness, we need to be cognizant of our blind spots. Blind spots are inevitable. We all have them. They can never be completely eliminated. But we can improve our awareness of them. We can mitigate the detrimental effects of blind spots through active listening.

There are two main types of blind spots. The first blind spot involves the type of lenses that we wear that alter our vision. Imagine that we are all wearing our own unique colored glasses. These glasses change the way we see the world and ourselves. Without these glasses, we couldn’t see. Yet with them, the world is inevitably changed. We cannot help it. Anything we see will be changed.

There is an important principle in physics known as the Observer Effect. The Observer Effect says that we cannot observe something without simultaneously changing that thing. This means that whichever instrument we use for observation will inevitably create some change. It doesn’t matter what we use–a microscope, a telescope, etc. We will produce change in the object being observed.

Some people view this Observer Effect in a negative light as a bias or a distortion. In that light, it can be seen as a bad thing. I prefer to look at it as a cost of observation. We can never see things “exactly” as they are. We will always change what we see. This change will create blind spots.

As we weave together our stories, our narrator becomes the primary agent of this type of change. Our narrator brings his or her own experiences and judgements into the telling of our stories. We give our narrator incredible power in this way. We have no choice but to look at things through the lens of our narrator. It doesn’t matter if we’re looking at events, at people, or at ourselves. We can only see people and events through this lens.

And yet, we can change narrators. Each of our identities is a different lens. Each one can serve as a new narrator. We can change these lenses and therefore see things in different ways. We can look at things through the perspective of a father, a child, a hobbyist, a worker, etc. We draw upon different sets of past experiences to change up which or lens we will use.

Becoming cognizant of the many ways that our lenses alter the way we perceive the world is the subject of Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow.

Step 16. The blind spot of perspective

There is a second type of blind spot to be aware of. For this blind spot, it doesn’t matter what type of glasses we wear. Our Identity and past experiences have no bearing. This blind spot is entirely determined by our vantage point (or perspective).

Any time we perceive something, we look at it from a particular direction. That vantage point will affect what we see. For instance, if we are standing on the Earth, it will appear flat. Or if we are located on a spaceship out in space, the Earth will appear spherical. This change has nothing to do with the type of glasses we are wearing. It is dependent upon perspective. The Earth is, in fact, both round and flat. Both perspectives are valid. We could even move to a place well outside our solar system, and the Earth may appear as a dot. The Earth becomes a single-dimensional object from that vantage. Or we could speed up time and the Earth will appear as a ring due to its orbit around the sun. Depending on how we configure time, the Earth may create a smear on our screen. As a smeared image, it appears to take on wavelike properties of movement and of being in several places at once. Alternatively, we could look at the Earth from the perspective of a worm underground. Suddenly the Earth becomes the shape of the universe!

Each of these perspectives teaches us something about the Earth. Each one has its own blind spots. If we only look at one perspective, we might make assumptions about the Earth that turn out to be false. We gain a better understanding of the Earth by observing it from many different perspectives. But we can never know it from all perspectives. We will never be able to fully “know” the Earth. Believing that we can come close is arrogance. After all, we still have yet to discover the vantage point that will allow us to understand the Earth’s gravity.

In physics, there is a concept known as the Uncertainty Principle. There is always uncertainty when we attempt to look at things. This uncertainty depends upon our vantage point. Uncertainty was originally discovered when Werner Heisenberg realized that you cannot both measure a particle’s position and momentum at the same time. Simply by measuring one aspect, you lose the ability to measure the other. Uncertainty is not eliminated by improving the quality of our measuring instrument (reducing bias). Uncertainty is a fundamental aspect of the thing being studied.

In psychology, we see uncertainty everywhere. All people have inherent uncertainty. This uncertainty exists as a type of blind spot for the observer. For instance, when we are acting out the role of a parent, we are not acting out the role of a coworker. If we are locked in survival mode, we are not exercising compassion and curiosity. Uncertainty can be resolved, momentarily, by choosing a particular vantage point. But in the resolution, we create a blind spot. We fail to see what else could have been.

All of nature shares in this uncertainty. Nature can be one thing at one moment, then it can turn around and be something completely different the next. When held together, the two things appear to be mutually exclusive. How can the Earth be flat and round at the same time? It feels absurd. It’s only absurd because of the way we simplify our concept of the Earth inside our minds. Even now, most human beings simplify their model of the Earth and think of it as “only round.” We fail to appreciate that it is also flat, all-encompassing, ringlike, wavelike, single-dimensional, and more. Believing that our vantage point is the “correct one” and that the Earth can only be round is hubris.

Uncertainty is fundamental to matter. It is an inherent property of all things. People are no exception. To understand being, we must appreciate our uncertainty. There are aspects of human nature that we can never know. It’s not that we lack the knowledge. There will always be things that are unknowable. There are always more perspectives we’ve failed to appreciate. This type of uncertainty can be daunting if we carry with us the expectation that we can know everything. Once we drop that expectation, we can gaze upon the awe and wonder of being. Paradoxical uncertainty is an attribute of being that is freeing. Just like the Earth is never just the Earth, a mother is never just a mother. A murderer is never just a murderer. An addict is never just an addict. We are all more than what we seem. The addict doesn’t have to shake their addiction. They are already more than their label. We are all multiple. We are all more than the self-created models that box us in. We are all more than the roles we give ourselves. We are all more than the self-told stories that trap us.

We all have incredible freedom in our lives. Actualizing that freedom is self-empowerment. The cost of freedom is profound uncertainty. This uncertainty constitutes a type of blind spot that can never be fully known. We can never see inside these blind spots. We can never unfold our paradoxical nature, look inside, and determine that we’ve figured it all out. There are always more perspectives with which to see things. There are always questions what could have been? and what can be?

Whenever we look at someone, the person being seen is not the actual person. We only see a simplified version that we’ve created for them. The person always has inherent uncertainty. This effect is independent of any glasses we may be using. Rather, perspective is key. The perspective we use will determine which aspects of the person we will see. We might see a mother, a nurse, a runner, etc. We must remember, however, that this person is always more than what we see.

Our paradoxical nature goes far beyond genetics, upbringing, and personal idiosyncrasies. There is paradoxical uncertainty in human connection, moral values, our identities, our feelings, our beliefs, our behaviors, our intentions, our histories, and the way we interact with our environment. Each of these paradoxes gives us freedom at the cost of uncertainty. Added together, the degree of freedom is extensive. We can do a lot with the immense volume of choices that we have. But also, we must recognize that what we don’t know far exceeds what we do know. The uncertainty heavily outweighs what we actually know about people. This holds especially true when trying to understand ourselves.

We all like to overestimate our ability to “know” others and ourselves. Our minds are great at hiding our blind spots. These blind spots cannot be eliminated simply by changing the lenses through which we see things. Neither can we simply alter our vantage. The minute we attempt to close one blind spot, we inevitably create another. For instance, we can dive into understanding what it’s like to walk in the shoes of another person’s motherhood. As soon as we do, we lose perspective on what it may be like for that person to be a sister or a professional. We lose the ability to see that they may have been abused as a child. We forget that this mother still carries, inside her, her own inner child.

We can get to know other people, but we can never close all our blind spots. Our ignorance will always exceed our knowing. Because of this, curiosity and compassion should always be our most-used tools on the journey toward understanding.

A big part of becoming self-aware is developing an understanding of our own blind spots. Even if we may not be able to fully see past them, we can still learn an incredible deal. We can locate them. We can feel their shape and size. We can develop methods of working with them, rather than avoiding them. We can recognize the incredible harm that occurs when we pretend they don’t exist.

Even if we cannot “know” everything about ourselves, there is still incredible benefit in striving to know. We can work to fill knowledge gaps through consciousness building and listening. We can work towards understanding. But there will always be uncertainty. The project of understanding will never be “completed.” Yet, we can accomplish much in our efforts.

Conclusion and Next Steps

Building consciousness is the foundational practice for healing. Becoming self-aware is really just a fancy way of saying that we are listening to ourselves. The complementary practice to this is listening to others (active listening). These two practices together make up the Reflection piece of Identity-Values-Reflection self-therapy.

This article is merely a starting point to building self-awareness. There are many layers to our inner selves. Just when we feel like we’ve become fully aware of one layer do we discover a tunnel down to another. Healing is a daily commitment. The project of growth is never completed. We can never stop striving towards understanding.

The goal of healing is not to change other people in our lives. We do not heal by bending the world to our own designs. Instead, we must change ourselves. We must accept the world as it is. Then we can change how we show up in the world. To do that, we need to first better know ourselves.

Now that we’ve learned the difference between our autopilot and our consciousness, we can start to explore how these two interact. How can we utilize our consciousness, with all the choices available, to affect the autopilot over time? See How to influence your autopilot.

Next, I will provide a few basic exercises to help build self-awareness.

8 Home exercises for building self-awareness

We don’t become self-aware overnight. We must practice it. There are many possible exercises that can help build self-awareness. Each of these exercises can be done alone or with a therapist, coach, or friend. But if we involve others, we must remember that we are doing 90% of the work.

  1. Timed Daily Check-in. Borrowed from Dr. Nicole LePera, this is an excellent exercise to get started. Set your watch alarm to go off at a certain time in the middle of your workday. When it goes off, stop what you’re doing and take 1-2 minutes to assess how you are doing. What are you thinking? What are you feeling? What identity role are you acting out? Are you suffering right now (what needs aren’t being filled?) What reactivity state are you in? Just prior to starting the exercise, were you being present in the activity you were doing, or were you distracted by something?
  2. Daily check-in with another person. Similar to above, this time you ask another person close to you to assess what they observe about you. What would they say you are feeling or thinking? How reactive do you seem? In what ways are you being flexible? In what ways are you being rigid?
  3. Conversation recheck. Immediately after finishing a conversation with someone, replay the conversation in your mind. How present were you in the conversation? Were you doing something else? Were you thinking about something else? Feel free to ask the person directly how present they thought you were to see how well your impressions match.
  4. Recognize reactivity. Similar to the Conversation recheck, this time assess yourself after an argument or difficult conversation. Focus on assessing your reactivity. What reactivity level were you feeling? What reactivity level were you at based upon your behavior? How much listening were you doing compared to speaking? Did you go into lecturing, judging, comparing, or fixing? How did you get to your reactivity level? How might you have shown up differently in the conversation had you been at a different reactivity level? What level did you start at? Did you allow yourself to be pulled into a state of greater reactivity? Feel free to check in with the other person directly on what they think about these questions. Otherwise, you can gauge their body language. Were they backing away from the conversation or were they leaning in? Did their reactivity level go up or down as things progressed?
  5. Where am I suffering? Whenever you are having negative feelings, practice exploring them further. Ask “Where am I suffering? What needs do I have that aren’t being met?”
  6. Is this pain or discomfort? Whenever you feel pain, explore that feeling further. Are you feeling pain or discomfort? Discomfort occurs whenever we feel something uncomfortable, yet we remain inside our window of tolerance. Pain occurs when we are pushed outside our window of tolerance. Pain is what we feel when our boundaries are being violated.
  7. Speak your story out loud. Practice telling your story in front of a mirror. Say it out loud. “This is what I used to believe. This is what I believe now…” Telling your story out loud is a way of allowing your whole Self to hear the story, dissect it, organize it, and integrate it. See if it stands up to personal scrutiny. Then do the same thing with another person.
  8. Future self journal This worksheet by Dr. Nicole LePera is incredibly helpful.

There are many other ways to build consciousness. Journaling or creating a collage of magazine pictures can help us discover things about ourselves and answer difficult questions. Consider mindfulness meditation practices. Also consider yoga as a way to build up body awareness.


How to do the Work
No Bad Parts: Healing Trauma and Restoring Wholeness with the Internal Family Systems Model
Permission to Fee: The Power of Emotional Intelligence to Achieve Well-being and Success
Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience
Thinking, Fast and Slow
The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma

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Inner Self

We’re all multiple: Internal Systems of the Mind


Healing from trauma requires building self-awareness of how the mind works. We need to look under the hood. We need to find out how the different parts of our minds integrate and work together. Internal Family Systems (IFS) is a model of seeing our inner parts as unique subpersonalities. These subpersonalities interact much in the same way that family members might interact. Sometimes there is harmony. Other times we see drama and conflict.

This article will explore the complex characters that make up our inner worlds. These can include our inner critics, judges, coaches, firefighters, cheerleaders, parents, children, and rebels. When these characters play nice, we become happy, high-functioning beings. When they fight, this can lead to problems. Here we will explore methods of resolving inner conflict amongst our different parts.

Trauma disrupts the relationships between our inner characters in a dramatic and lasting way. We can understand trauma by exploring these inner characters. We can learn about their motivations, feelings, values, and desires. We can begin to repair the broken relationships inside of us and reintegrate them into a whole, healed Self.

This Article Contains:

Our inner worlds are complex
The elephant and the rider
Herd of elephants
What are some signs of multiplicity?
What are some signs of disharmony among our parts?
What is the purpose of multiplicity in System 2?
How do we get stuck?
What are the roles of our inner parts?
4 common roles to understand
Why our unhealthy parts are no longer acting genuine?
What are the burdens that we carry?
Can parts have their own parts?
What are rebel parts?
What is the harm of treating people without understanding multiplicity?
How do we learn to parent ourselves?
What is the Self?
How do we begin to parent a harmful inner part?
How can we be more genuine?
An example of being genuine: questioning the traditional mom role

Our inner worlds are complex

Much of the self-healing advice out there considers the human mind as a single entity, a mono-mind. Advice givers offer solutions aimed at reshaping that singular entity or changing its direction. Unfortunately, this is a fundamental misunderstanding of how the mind works. Treating the brain like a mono-mind is like trying to fix a car from the outside. We can change the car’s direction all we want. We can beat on its exterior with a hammer to our heart’s content. We’ll never get it to stop that clunking noise. Instead, to really get what’s wrong with the car, we need to look under the hood.

In the mono-mind, there is a belief that the human mind is a single, unified machine with a single purpose, identity, value set, and emotional state. To treat a person as a mono-mind is to objectify them in a particular way as good or bad, as hard-working or lazy, liberal or conservative, young or old, wise or unwise, smart or dumb, happy or sad. A mono-mind paradigm minimizes and diminishes a person’s individuality. It is this type of thinking that leads to labeling people as narcissist, racist, psychopathic, a liar, a cheater, etc. This thinking is cynical and destructive. This thinking harms the person being labeled and the person doing the labeling.

Instead, we propose the idea that that human mind is far more complex. Our Identity contains complex identities within it (runner, father, manager, reader, son, etc.). Each of these identities may come with its own value sets, emotions, language, beliefs and purpose. And yet, we’re only getting started exploring our inner complexity.

Our journey starts with Identity. What are some ways to identify you? Try to come up with as many identities as you can.

Most people can probably come up with 10-30 identities based upon friend groups, associations, hobbies, interests, and relationships. These would only comprise the first few outermost layers of a whole Identity. Next, imagine a different identity for every year of your life. Stack these all on top of each other. Then add in identities for all of the significant moments in your life, good or bad. Each strong memory, with its intense emotions, can be an identity that will help to organize your life afterwards. Each identity forms a distinct lens from which you see the world.

Human beings are incredibly complex. Intuition tells us this is the case. We can feel this complexity in ourselves. And yet, we typically ignore this complexity in others. We often fall prey to the bad habit of treating others as mono-minds. For instance, we might say, “That person is a narcissist, a racist, a bad person, lazy, a liar, a thief, an addict, disloyal, etc.” We don’t treat ourselves this way, but far too often this is how we approach others. There is a survival reason we do this. We encounter so many people in our lives, we have to be able to form snap judgments about them all. Friend or foe? Trustworthy or suspicious?

And yet, when it comes to important relationships, we do ourselves a disservice by treating others in this way. We fail to appreciate the complexity of others. This makes it impossible to see them as whole beings. Check out the article of Daryl Davis, a Black man, who was able to befriend and ultimate get a Ku Klux Klan leader to abandon his views. This story is powerful evidence that inside every “racist” is a person wanting to reconnect and be healed. Daryl Davis discovered the inner anti-racist within the KKK leader.

Not only have we greatly underestimated the complexity of the human mind when it comes to viewing others, we also routinely underestimate it in ourselves. Here we will examine the paradigm shift occurring in psychology today. We are shifting away from the pathology-based labeling of individuals with mental illness (depression, anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, personality disorder, addictive disorder, etc.) We are moving towards a deeper understanding of people’s complex inner worlds. Within that deeper understanding comes nuance, beauty, danger, and opportunities for genuine understanding.

Complexity can be freeing as we escape the constraints of traditional labels. Complexity can also be daunting as it may seem that hours upon hours of work are needed to understand a single individual. Luckily, there are common patterns that make understanding people far easier. We will explore some of those internal patterns.

Much of this article is a summary review of Richard Schartz, Ph.D.’s groundbreaking work: No Bad Parts: Healing Trauma and Restoring Wholeness with the Internal Family Systems Model. This concise work is well worth the read for anyone struggling with mental illness or trauma. This book is especially helpful for someone with a trauma background.

People are not mono-mind beings. When we strive to understand people, we see them as complex and multifaceted. Then we are finally able to realize their being. It is here that we can see people come alive in our minds. We vanquish our nihilistic doubts and behold their divine essence.

The elephant and the rider

A person’s inner world is a complex ecosystem full of imagination, beauty, wonder, and danger. It is easy to get lost in there.

If you have not seen Disney Pixar’s movie Inside Out, it is worth the watch. This is a charming film where the five main characters are the five primary emotions inside an 11-year-old girl’s head. Inside Riley’s mind lives Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust, and Sadness. They are all hard at work running Riley’s day-to-day routines. Together, these subpersonalities make up her total Self.

This heartwarming film gives a fairly useful depiction of how the human mind works. At any point in the movie, one of the five characters must take control of Riley. We see how this plays out when the wrong emotion takes control at the wrong time. She tries playing hockey while Anger is in control, and she falls on her face. Riley grows through the film as her own emotions learn to work together in a more mature way.

Disney Pixar’s Inside Out

There is another useful metaphor to describe the inner workings of the mind: the elephant and the rider. We will briefly describe that analogy here. For more detail on this metaphor, see the article How to influence your autopilot. You can also visit Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis where he goes into a high level of detail on how he came up with the metaphor.

Briefly, the elephant represents our subconscious mind. It is everything that our subconscious mind does. The elephant is our animal brain. It doesn’t do math or logic. Instead, it represents everything that we feel. It also includes everything the subconscious mind suggests that we do. These suggestions come in the form of impulses, cravings, and simple thoughts. The elephant forms impulses such as hunger or pain. It generates simple thoughts to go along with those impulses. Some of these thoughts are commands. Go eat. Find shelter. Some of these thoughts are judgments about the outside world. She’s pretty. That restaurant is awful. You don’t like him. Each of these suggestions is a message sent to our conscious selves. When we’re running on autopilot, we generally just do whatever the elephant suggests.

To see more about how the elephant works and what types of cognitive errors and biases it is prone to, see Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.

Sitting on top of the elephant is a rider. The rider represents our consciousness. It is our thinking Self. It can do math and logic. It can make choices. It can act on suggestions. It has veto power over the elephant’s suggestions, but generally doesn’t like to upset the elephant. Because the elephant’s feet touch the ground, the elephant generally decides where the two will be headed. The rider has a little influence and can steer the elephant to a small degree. But the elephant is in charge.

Herd of elephants

Disney Pixar’s Inside Out makes the remarkable insight that people are multiple. Inside our minds, we have different modes of operation. This is similar to a computer with different programs installed. When confronting a problem, if the right app is chosen, the result is usually as expected. However, when we’re running the wrong app at the wrong time, the results can be bizarre.

What are these programs? In Inside Out, there are five programs representing Riley’s five core emotions. Anger, Fear, Disgust, Sadness, and Joy. However, for people, things can be far more complex than that.

Let’s reconsider the elephant and rider metaphor. The elephant represents our subconscious mind. The rider, sitting atop the elephant, represents our conscious minds. In general, the elephant, our subconscious, has most of the decision-making power as its feet touch the ground. Our rider, our conscious self, exists to explain why the elephant is doing what it’s doing.

Next, instead of imagining our subconscious as a single elephant, let’s expand it to be an entire herd of elephants. The exact number doesn’t matter. Imagine something north of thirty, perhaps even closer to a hundred. The number is really only limited by a person’s imagination. How many personal identities can you name? This is how many identities you have, not including the many that you aren’t aware of.

Imagine a person’s brain software as a large herd of elephants. From a distance, the animals all look similar. They are doing similar things and generally traveling in the same direction. Outsiders see them as a single entity, a mono-mind. However, up close, there is a lot going on. These elephants are doing different things. Some of them are angry, some are sad, some are happy. They have different goals and ambitions, different memories and experiences, different value systems and skills, different openness and capacity for connection. They have different ages. They may even speak different languages and dialects, or operate with different word choice (baby talk, childishness, humor, seriousness, cursing, sophistication, etc.)

Not all the elephants are, in fact, on the same page. Often there is disagreement. Sometimes there is conflict. The drama can get intense. There may even be abuse and trauma. Some elephants may act like bullies or be cruel towards others. There may be exiles standing far from the herd. When we talk about healing trauma and mental health, we are really talking about healing conflict between these inner beings. We recognize their individuality, but we also work towards reconnecting them and restoring harmony.

Signs of Multiplicity

We can see evidence of human brain multiplicity everywhere. The first place to look is in your conversations. Notice how you can make subtle changes in the way you ask the same question and get completely different answers. For years, researchers were quick to jump on these differences as being flaws in human reasoning. They would call these differences biases and cognitive errors. They would demonstrate how small changes in the parameters of a question would cause dramatic changes in the answer.

What if we considered a human mind to be like a classroom of students (or a classroom of elephants)? Instead of asking a single student the same question, we are now asking a whole class of students. Depending on how the question is asked, different students will raise their hand to respond. Some students are quick to answer, beating the others. Being that they are all different students, we should expect their responses to differ. This is especially true when a question has some complexity to it. Like offering opinions on politics or estimating the answer to complex math questions.

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman demonstrates the many ways you can influence how someone feels about something just by changing the way the information is presented. For instance, we feel better about the statement, “You have a 85% chance of surviving one month after surgery” than we do the statement, “The 1-month mortality rate after surgery is 15%.” Or a jacket that is 50% off a $300 sticker price looks more attractive than the same jacket that is $100. Or if we ask someone the difficult question, “Who is the best candidate?” people tend to respond by answering the easier, substitute question, “Who is the most likeable?” We automatically substitute this easier question in our minds. Then our autopilot generates answers to that easier question. Check out this comprehensive list of the many different types of cognitive biases.

Rather than look at all of these biases as cognitive errors, we can see them as evidence of human multiplicity. Like a classroom of students, different modules in our brains take turns offering answers to the same complex question. How the question is posed determines which module is likely to answer first.

Consider that when people are forced to do quick, knee-jerk thinking, we are highly prone to error. We overestimate or underestimate to incredible degrees. Kahneman calls this quick, knee-jerk thinking System 1 thinking. Knee-jerk thinking tends to more illogical, more emotional, inconsistent and imprecise. It is prone to error and manipulation. We can trick our subconscious into answering a question in a specific way through prompting and not allowing ourselves much time to think.

However, humans are also capable of slower, more thoughtful thinking, which Kahneman calls System 2 thinking. This thoughtful thinking is slow, logical, consistent, and more precise. It is less prone to cognitive errors, manipulations, and biases.

So, what is happening in System 1 vs System 2?

The easiest way to understand the difference is to imagine our herd of elephants. In System 1 (knee-jerk) thinking, out of the herd of many, we force one elephant to make a quick response. This quick thinking may be due to lack of time or it may be the result of not putting much thought into an issue. Knee-jerk thinking is adaptive and useful in so many ways. It can be useful when a person goes on autopilot and wishes to turn down their awareness. Or when we need to focus on something else. Let our background modules take care of folding the laundry, while the rest of us is engaged in a conversation with a friend.

System 1, knee-jerk thinking can be useful in threat detection. We can use System 1 to quickly scan a large, complex environment for dangers. The many eyes of many elephants are better than a single pair of eyes. Each variable is only seen by a single pair of eyes and is quickly judged as friend or foe. Efficiency is key. If danger is detected, it can be further scrutinized later.

System 1 thinking can be useful when developing excellence towards a repetitive task, such as playing the piano. A few selected elephants can become specialized experts in that task. This allows the person to not have to think about each keystroke. Instead, the person’s central focus remains on the song as a whole. One part of their brain focuses on hitting memorized keys. It is automatic. The rest of their brain is free to manage the overall mood and structure of the song.

By contrast, in System 2 (slow) thinking, the entire herd of elephants get together to tackle a single problem. They each voice their concerns and opinions. Together they come to a decision. System 2 thinking is slow but accurate. It is consistent. It is deliberative. The same person, presented with a similar moral dilemma, will give a consistent response one day to the next when utilizing System 2. Consider that people generally don’t change their core opinions on religion, abortion, politics, etc. This type of change happens slowly over time.

The next time you have a conversation about something important, like politics or religion, withhold your own opinions. Instead, be an active, observant listener. Ask the same question in different ways. See how the other person’s answer changes. With some skill and curiosity, you should be able to elicit contradictory responses. These contradictions are not signs of internal defects, internal disharmony or hypocrisy. They are multiplicity. Your partner is not a mono-mind. Make sure to let the person know why you’re asking them so many similar questions. You are trying to establish the range of different feelings and values that they have on the subject. Obtain permission to do this, otherwise they may feel toyed with.

Signs of disharmony

When dealing with mental health issues, our multiplicity often becomes more apparent. This is especially obvious when mental health issues become advanced or chronic. Here are some signs of disharmony in the herd of elephants:

  • Difficult, unwanted, or intrusive (negative) thoughts such as self-hate, shame, guilt, resentment, self-harm, etc.
  • Cravings for unhealthy habits that afterwards trigger a guilt or shame cycle
  • Rapid changes in feelings (“mood swings”) that seem unexplained
  • Suspicion of the motives of others (cynicism)
  • Feeling disjointed
  • Impulsivity
  • Inconsistent, mysterious, or exaggerated behavior in response to consistent situations (getting emotionally triggered)
  • Flat emotions in response to difficult situations (suppression of feelings)
  • High anxiety
  • Exhaustion (depression)
  • Mixed or ambivalent feelings about certain people or situations that are difficult to resolve

Purpose of multiplicity in System 2 (slow) thinking

Thus far, we looked at the costs and benefits of System 1, knee-jerk thinking. Fast thinking is important in helping to run our autopilot, which has so much to do throughout our day. Due to the sheer volume of tasks, there is a need for speed and efficiency. This comes at the cost of being more inconsistent and prone to errors and biases.

Now let’s look at System 2. It would be incorrect to see System 1 and System 2 as separate, distinct ways of thinking. They are the same group of elephants. In System 1, each elephant is doing its own task on its own. There is maximum speed and efficiency because more elephants can work on more tasks in parallel. In System 2, most of the elephants are focused on a single task. As a result, speed and efficiency have slow way down. But we improve the likelihood of getting a quality, consistent result.

System 2 slow thinking is best suited for tackling difficult, important questions. We don’t want a single elephant working alone on a big problem any more than we want a single monarch running a large country. Better to have the whole congress of elephants deliberating together.

Multiplicity provides us with the ability to be more thoughtful in System 2, slow thinking. When tackling difficult problems, we have multiple internal perspectives to draw on. The whole can be greater than the sum of the parts, so to speak.

Each part, each separate elephant, brings with it distinct memories and experiences, feelings and values. Our herd presents us with a range of tools to choose from. We can exhibit compassion or defensiveness. We can be self-serving or selfless. Each part will model the potential consequences for these actions. Behaviors, values, and feelings then become mini experiments that we can test out to see if the model holds up. We test those experiments in our minds before acting out in the world. We pick the best possible course of action, then go with that to see if our model holds up in the real world.

Getting stuck

Sometimes people get stuck in an unhealthy habit. They cycle through the same behaviors over and over. They may not realize the impact,. They may be unable to see the whole cycle. Or they may be helpless to escape.

What’s happening to get a person stuck?

As humans, we live in routine. We mostly do the same thing every day. Inside those routines, our elephants specialize in handling certain jobs. They carve out their own niches of responsibility. This produces efficiency at the expense of flexibility.

What if, in the course of doing a routine job, the results change? Our results go from being good to not so good. The new results contain both good and bad. What happened? Maybe the external situation changed? Maybe something about us changed? Whatever the reason, the result is not as expected.

Because we are encountering the same situation, the same elephant continues being put in charge. That same elephant behaves consistently to its nature. And we get our result.

But the result is now mixed. The consequences are both positive and negative. Things are not as expected.

We have a lot of questions now. What went wrong? Who is to blame?

Some elephants begin to question if we’re still doing the right thing. Do we have the right elephant for the job? The elephant who was in charge deflects blame, “Not me! I did everything right. I did everything just like I always have. It’s not my fault things have changed.” But there is no clear answer. The questioning goes unresolved.

Then the cycle repeats itself. Everyone hopes the previous result was an aberration.

But it wasn’t. The results continue to be mixed. Both positive and negative. It wasn’t an aberration. Consequently, we again question what’s happening. Because there is no clear answer, our negative feelings about the situation compound. The negative impact adds up over time. More and more elephants are starting to be impacted. They are now questioning if we’re doing things right. At this point, disagreement requires some type of resolution. However, what if healthy resolution still can’t be reached? The elephants continue to find themselves at an impasse. They cannot live with internal disagreement (cognitive dissonance) forever. Disagreement is uncomfortable, painful even. It must be resolved. Yet, our in-charge elephant continues to insist he’s doing everything right. Here the group may search for a scapegoat. The scapegoat can be someone external to the person. If they take that course, our herd can finally agree on something! They could agree that we are not to blame. It’s someone else’s fault entirely. Or the scapegoat could be one of our elephants. That one would get singled out and exiled from the herd. Maybe it is the in-charge elephant, or maybe it’s someone else. Either way, we would suppress an important piece of ourselves. We would marginalize one of our own voices inside of us who we have declared the guilty party.

Very often we do both. We simultaneously find an external scapegoat and an internal one. We marginalize both. It starts when we locate and blame an external scapegoat. However, very often, there is a part of us that knows that we’re being dishonest. It is not entirely the external scapegoat’s fault. We bear some responsibility. When that questioning elephant brings up their concern, they are marginalized by the herd. The herd has already made its decision, and it won’t tolerate further disagreement. So, we suppress a piece of ourselves. This will later come back to haunt us in the form of anxiety, guilt, exhaustion, or another mysterious negative feeling. But for now, we are satisfied in our choice.

Getting stuck can feel awful. Inside us, certain values and feelings come to dominate. We become entrenched inside those feelings and values. At the same time, other important values and feelings have become suppressed and marginalized. They are pushed aside. This leads to internal conflict—disharmony. This internal conflict is one of the main reasons why people experience chronic mental illness. They carry around the weight of this disharmony on their backs. It drags them down and exhausts them.

Unfortunately, disharmony is incredibly common. Understanding how it occurs can help to demystify mental illness and trauma. We can start to clarify the reasons why people don’t feel well. How did they get there? What is this weight holding them back? How can we lighten the load?

Elephant roles

A person stuck in mental illness (internal conflict) is basically in a place where their inner elephants aren’t playing nicely together. The first step to unraveling this phenomenon is to see the different roles the elephants are playing. Each elephant has his own reason for behaving the way he/she is behaving. Once we’ve understood their roles, we can start to help them live harmoniously. After all, these elephants are supposed to be a tight-knit family. The same principles that might apply to heal a rift in a family would apply here.

Let’s look at some of the common inner roles. Here are some of the most common ones. Then we will dive into a few.

  • Protector (activates our fight or flight response)
  • Child (wanting to be playful and free)
  • Inner critic (manager)
  • Inner judge of right and wrong (manager)
  • Jailors (manager)
  • Caution (anxiety, a type of manager)
  • Firefighter (distracts us while we are in pain)
  • Guilt and shame (manager)
  • Exiles
  • Pleasing role (manager)
  • Rebel (cynic)

Four common roles to understand:

Let’s focus on a few of the more important roles to understand and see how they lead to conflict. We will look at exiles, firefighters, managers, and rebels.

Exiles are those parts that had to endure injury or trauma. Exiles are, most often, our inner children. They were playful, happy and innocent once. They were delightful, creative, and trusting. Then something came along and interrupted their innocence. Someone broke their trust. Someone violated their boundaries.

After enduring trauma, these inner children became something else. Fear and pain transformed them. Now they carry the memories of the (unhealed) traumatic experience as a type of burden. They became exiled because our other parts no longer want anything to do with them. We banish our exiles away, along with their burdens, to the deeper recesses of our subconscious. This way, exiles can no longer cause damage.

Exiles respond to pain the same way a child would. They are sensitive to hurt, betrayal, fear and shaming. After enduring trauma, exiles shift to becoming the chronically wounded. They become victims. They are frozen in the past at the age of the injury. They have the ability to pull us back. They can overwhelm us with emotion.

Exiles became our raw spots. They can become triggered. Even in exile, they exert a powerful effect. They can cause mysterious overreactions. They can be hostile towards the Self and others. Acting from a place of pain and fear, they can cause us to exhibit behavior resembling that of a hurt, small child. When a child hits, yells, screams, insults, steals things, throws fits, bites, or does other childish things, they are simply being a child. They are being little tyrants. When an adult does these things, we call it abuse or criminality. Exiles can push us into exhibiting this type of behavior.

Firefighters provide us with numbing activities to numb the pain of stress, anxiety, suffering, abuse and/or trauma. They shift our attention away by providing us with useful distractions. This can include healthy behaviors like exercising, reading, yoga, leisurely activities, religion, etc. This can also include less than healthy endeavors like drinking alcohol, all-consuming jobs, media entertainment / social media, illegal drugs, over-eating, etc. Firefighters push us towards addiction or obsession. Firefighters essentially act as babysitters for other parts, namely our exiles. Firefighters are like parents who give their chronically misbehaving children electronics to keep them busy.

Managers help to manage our other parts. Managers include our inner critics, our guilt, shame, and our pleasers. Managers are tired and stressed out. They are pushed past their limits. They are essentially parentified older children. They often form when children are expected to fulfill adult tasks. We are forced to grow up too quickly in response to trauma. As children, we adapt by creating an inner adult, a manager, that aids in survival. The manager dissociates the rest of us from the injury by banishing the exile away. However, once the injury has resolved, the manager doesn’t stop. It continues jailing the exile out of fear and self-preservation. The manager continues reminding the Self of the past role it had to play.

To understand managers, we first must understand that they want to keep us safe and protected. They protected us at one time by banishing our exile away along with its burden. The manager continues protecting us by hiding the exile away and keeping it contained. They preempt triggering of our exiles by controlling them for us. Through guilt, shame and/or pleasing behavior, managers protect us from future harm. They keep us from taking risks and getting hurt again. They also keep our self-esteem low through self-flagellation. We stay small and below the radar. This keeps our hearts closed off and our confidence low. We don’t trust others and ourselves.

Managers never learned how to set healthy boundaries. The task they were asked to perform was too big for them at the time. They were forced to fight for our survival. As a result, managers that stick around remained rooted in fight-or-flight mode. They keep us hypervigilant. We never grow into the person we were supposed to be.

Rebels help us escape from desperate situations. They are a special type of protector that use cynicism—extreme doubt and distrust—as their primary source of energy. Rebels plot our escape from desperate situations. Rebels can also be exiles, managers, or firefighters. Or they can be special advisors to those other parts. As advisors, they often hide in the background. They don’t want the world to know that cynicism is their primary driving force.

Unhealthy parts are no longer acting genuine

There is one thing that managers, firefighters, and exiles have in common. None of them are being genuine. None of them are being true to their purpose. They are all acting out dishonest roles. They are all stuck in their past.

For all three, none of them are fulfilling the role they feel they were meant to be. Exiles were meant to be playful children. Instead, they are now carrying terrible burdens of past trauma. They are the safeguards of these memories. They protect us by keeping traumatic memories hidden away from the rest of the Self. This is what they are still trying to do.

Firefighters and managers are two parts that also developed during a time of trauma. They exist to control our exiles’ behavior. Firefighters distract the Self from the rift that separates us from our exiles. They keep us from noticing our chronic, unhealed wounds. Managers keep the rift intact and orderly. Managers keep us small and under the radar. They keep us from taking risks and exposing the wounds created by trauma. Managers try to control exiles and keep them contained. Even as they protect the exiles, managers turn exiles into convenient scapegoats for our problems. From a manager’s view, exiles cannot be trusted. Like children, they are prone to impulsiveness, anger, and wildness. Managers are there to keep away the painful burdens the exiles are carrying and check the tyranny of the exiles.

At the time they developed, managers, firefighters and exiles each served a vital role. They were homeostatic mechanisms designed to keep us safe and solve an impossible problem. We simply weren’t ready for the overwhelming stress and/or abuse we were faced with.

All three parts were doing their best when they were first called to act. They were children tasked with doing an adult job. They had limited tools at their disposal. They felt helpless and did what they could to survive. They did their best.

Here we see the power of time. As time passed, we grew up. We became an older child, then an adult, then an older, more mature adult. We acquired new tools and skills. Years later, we encountered similar problems to what we had encountered in the past. Our managers and firefighters were again called to the task. And yet, rather than exercising our newfound skills, we continued using the skills that we had used before as children.

Firefighters distract us via means such as all-consume jobs, spiritual bypasses, media entertainment, illicit or prescription medications, and alcohol. We see how some of these things, like prescription medications, spirituality, yoga, and working can provide a necessary, therapeutic rest. We need rest to heal. In the right context, at the right proportion, these things aid in healing. Yoga and spirituality offer meaningful reconnection. Prescription medications and distraction tamp down the intensity of overwhelming emotions. Meditation offers self-reflection that brings awareness. However, when left to do all the work of healing, these instruments paradoxically prevent healing from occurring. If we rely solely on prescription medications to treat anxiety, we can never improve our condition. We become like a drowning person who is given a life preserver but never learns to swim.

Furthermore, while some tools may be helpful in one context, they may be harmful in another. Even wonderful tools like compassion, listening, education, humor, and meditation can be harmful if used in the wrong context. All tools, even healthy ones, can be misused. A tool that is misused becomes a weaponized instrument for attack. We end up attacking one of our elephants or somebody else. This leads to marginalization and feeling stuck. Firefighters misuse distraction. Managers misuse control, pleasing, and disconnection to keep exiles and the Self apart.

What are these tools, when used correctly? Distraction is a misuse of rest. Control is a misuse of support. Pleasing is an insincere form of love and caring. Disconnection is a misguided attempt to create safe spaces. Rest, support, caring, and creating safe spaces are all essential parts of healthy relationships. When used correctly, these tools make up the blueprint of healing. We cannot reconnect without them.

Cynicism, our last tool, is just as essential. But it must be used correctly. Cynicism was meant to be a protective tool. In its less extreme form, cynicism is doubt. Doubt provides the space we need to create and enforce healthy boundaries.

Exiles, firefighters, and managers are all doing their best. And yet, they are caught in their past. Their behavior hasn’t matured like it should have, and we know it. In carrying these parts, we are caught in a cycle of co-dependency (stagnation). These parts prevent us from learning new, healthier ways of dealing with conflict and stress. They keep us stuck inside a child’s mindset for dealing with our problems. These parts are being asked to perform a service they were never meant to perform. And so, tragically, they are harming us.

Here we see the root causes of chronic trauma and co-dependency. We can also imagine how this cycle of co-dependency can lead us, later in life, to committing acts of abuse towards others. These characters, stuck in their past, still trying to do their best, continue acting out the roles they originally performed. And yet, by doing so, they cause irreparable harm to the very people they are trying to protect—us. They never learned what healthy boundaries are. How could they after having had their own violated? They suggest to us that it is ok to violate the boundaries of others just as theirs were once violated. They make these suggestions out of the mistaken belief that such behavior is necessary to protect us or to maintain life-saving connection. And so, the cycle of abuse is passed along to others.

Our exiles, children still carrying terrible burdens, remains forever alienated from the rest of our Self. In isolation, our exiles can never learn how to control their emotions. Managers, by keeping the exiles locked away, prevent those exiles from ever healing. Firefighters distract us from the problem. Here we see the root cause of insincere, ingenuine behavior. It is paradoxical. From the perspective of all three, they are doing what is right. From the outside, we see that they are locked in a destructive cycle.


The mono-mind paradigm can easily lead us to fear or hate ourselves because we believe we have only one mind (full of primitive or sinful aspects) that we can’t control. We get tied up in knots as we desperately try to, and we generate brutal inner critics who attack us for our failings.

Richard Schwartz, No Bad Parts: Healing Trauma and Restoring Wholeness with the Internal Family Systems Model

Traumatic experiences are things we carry with us. What separates a traumatic experience from a nontraumatic injury is that trauma brings with it emotional pain that doesn’t automatically heal. Traumatic experiences bring extreme beliefs, intense emotions, and painful memories. They become emotional scars.

These emotional scars are carried on our bodies. More specifically, they are carried on the “bodies” of our parts that originally experienced them. They are chronic wounds that don’t heal.

For those parts, we can imagine these scars as being physical things carried around. They weigh that injured part down. This is why we call them burdens.

According to Richard Schwartz, burdens are the product of direct experience. They are the sense of worthlessness a child gets when a parent abuses them. They are the terror that attaches after an accident. They are a feeling of distrust after being betrayed, abandoned or neglected. As young children, we lack the tools to discern and process these experiences. We only remember the helplessness. The experiences become lodged on the “bodies” of our younger parts and become powerful “organizers” of our lives thereafter. They organize a part’s experience and activity “almost in the same way that a virus organizes a computer.”

Through the use of exiles, firefighters, and managers, our parts organize themselves in a defensive formation to protect our larger Self. This defensive strategy is designed to disconnect from the traumatic history and the pain it brings. It is also designed to employ learned skills such as distrust, disassociation, pleasing, self-criticism, and distraction. These skills are used to keep us safe going forward in the future. In essence, the parts expect the trauma to return at any moment. Those parts prepare us for that eventuality.

We call these emotional scars burdens because they are more than just ordinary scars. Ordinary scars are signs of previous injury that we have moved on from. We learn and grow stronger after injury. If permanent damage has been done, we adapt and accept the change. Instead, burdens continue to be carried as nonhealing wounds. Instead of growth, we bring emotional pain into the future. We relive the pain again and again for our own benefit. We do it to protect ourselves. There is a part of us that believes the injury will recur. That part doesn’t trust us when we say the painful event is over. It wants to keep us prepared for the trauma to return.

There are several key points to make when understanding parts and their burdens. Parts and burdens are inside us. But just like we are not defined by our parts, so too are our parts not defined by the burdens they carry.

This last point is critical to emphasize. Our parts are not their burdens. They are not defined by their traumatic experiences. As Richard Schwartz points out, many of the world’s problems are related to a cognitive error of mistaking parts for their burdens. For instance, we believe a person who gets high all the time is an addict with an irresistible urge to use drugs. We miss the fact that their parts are simply acting out important roles of self-defense. They are acting out a protective role meant to keep the person from harm by disconnecting them from severe emotional pain or even suicide. Once we realize their self-defense role, we see the behavior now as entirely rational and appropriate. By seeing that, we can get to know the inner firefighter. We can empathize and listen to it. We can honor it for its attempts to keep the person going. We feel the awe of it’s resourcefulness and ability to help us survive. We can finally negotiate permission to heal.

These traumatized parts of us never asked to carry their burdens. The burdens were forced upon them through the traumatic experience. The parts now carry their burdens reluctantly. They do it on behalf of the larger Self. They hold onto the burdens for the rest of us. Sometimes memories leak out in terms of unexpected emotions, flashbacks, nightmares, panic attacks, fatigue, or other mysterious behavior. We can now see these experiences as a gentle reminder by our burdened parts that they still exist, that they’re still present, that they’re still carrying this emotional pain on our behalf. They do it so we don’t have to.

Ultimately, we can no more easily tell our traumatized parts to go away than we can cut out a piece of our skull. Instead, healing requires that we relieve our burdened parts of their awful responsibility. We need to unburden them. According to Richard Schwartz, this process may feel spiritual. As soon as we unburden the part, it immediately transforms back into its original, valuable state. It’s like a “curse” is being lifted. Exiles go back to being light, easy, creative, playful, trusting children. Firefighters and managers become something else, something like advisors or coaches. Critics become inner cheerleaders.

No matter how demonic or awful a part is, it has a story. It has a secret, painful history to share about how it was forced into its role and came to carry terrible burdens. It was forced to become something it never wanted to be. It wants to change and grow. It just doesn’t know how. It is disconnected.

Parts aren’t obstacles. They aren’t pests or annoyances. They are injured and need to be healed.

All of your parts are in there waiting for you. They deserve your love and attention.

Richard Schwartz, No Bad Parts: Healing Trauma and Restoring Wholeness with the Internal Family Systems Model

Parts of parts

As we begin to visualize parts for the first time, it is useful to imagine them as organic, living things. How we visualize them is up to each individual person. In large groups, I like to see them as a herd of elephants. There is a lot of herd behavior going on.

Taken individually, it can be useful to imagine our parts as living, breathing people. Our parts may take the shape and appearance of our larger Self. Some of these parts may take on the age and size of ourselves at the time when a traumatic experience occurred. Often exiles will come first as the youngest individuals. Firefighters, appearing as our older selves, come along to distract the exiles. Finally older, more mature managers develop to control exiles and firefighters.

Each individual part is like a whole person. Parts have memories. They also have their own spectra of values, emotions, thoughts and beliefs. They have wants and needs. Parts have “bodies” where they carry their burdens in the form of scars.

As we start to see parts in this way, we learn that parts can have their own parts. There is a Russian doll effect here. Parts that are finally given the chance to speak will behave much like people. They have things to say.

Here we can start to see human beings as existing in layers. We have communities, groups, and family layers. Each layer is new and different. But it operates with the same rules and values that other layers do. There is symmetry as we move up and down the layers. Each layer has its own unique ecosystem. But across layers, there are needs, behavioral patterns, values, and emotions that share remarkable symmetry. Each layer needs boundaries and connection.

Lessons that we learn at one layer can be safely applied to the next. Tools for effective listening and conflict resolution remain the same. Lessons for healing rifts in the workplace can be applied when healing rifts within the inner self. Learn how to reconnect partners involved in a distressed relationship, and you also learn how to reconnect warring parts inside an individual.

What about rebels?

So far, we have focused mainly on exiles, firefighters, and managers. But there’s another part that bears distinguishing. Those pesky rebels.

Rebels can be just like any other part of us. They can take on the role of exiles, firefighters, or managers. They can be critics or something else. Often, they play the role of secret advisor to another part, like the devil on your shoulder. Even if they seem like little devils, it’s important not to demonize them. They perform a critical protective role for us that deserves to be honored.

It is important to distinguish rebels from other traditional parts. Other parts use traditional feelings like sadness, anger, anxiety, joy, fear, etc. Whether negative or positive, this emotional energy can be useful in the project of healing. Even negative energies like fear and anger can bring people together when employed correctly.

Rebels use a different type of emotional energy: cynicism. Cynicism is a special type of energy. Cynicism is the belief that other people (or other parts of our inner selves) seek to do us harm. Cynicism is destructive to our goal of understanding. How can we understand a person if we believe they are seeking to do us imminent harm? Cynicism suggests that we shouldn’t try understanding them. Instead, we must fight or flee. We don’t just fear that they are capable of doing us harm. They want to do us harm. Harm is their goal. Cynicism is all about motive. It is the desire to do harm that separates an accident from a deliberate abuse.

Unlike fear and anger, cynicism is directly counter to understanding. Cynicism undermines our ability to understand ourselves, our inner parts, and other people. Cynicism is toxic to relationships. Cynicism is especially difficult to confront because there is no easy, direct path to combating it. Becoming complacent in the face of cynicism leads to enabling behavior and co-dependency. Giving in to cynicism leads to negative cycling. Confronting cynicism directly leads to exhaustion (burnout). Once we’re exhausted, we inevitably give in. And so, it may seem there is no way to escape cynicism. Cynicism appears like a self-reinforcing trap.

Through IVR therapy, we will learn how to navigate past cynicism. There is no direct path to escaping cynicism. Some flexible maneuvering is required, which is why there is a rhythm to healing. However, even cynicism is energy. Rather than fight it, we can use this energy to get to where we want to go. We simply need to figure out how to zig-zag effectively.

Rebels use cynicism. And yet, rebels still perform a vital, perhaps life-saving service for us at critical times. Like other protectors, they activate our fight-or-flight response. They don’t understand why we’re in danger, they only know the danger is imminent. We could, at that point, spend hours, days, or months trying to figure out the danger. We could paralyze ourselves with analysis. We could waste endless hours trying to understand our abuser’s motive. We could try and talk our abuser out of abusing us. Instead, rebels offer us a useful shortcut. Rather than talk it out, they provide us the simple belief that others mean to do us harm. Armed with that belief, we have everything we need to protect ourselves. Now we can take action and escape.

Working together with our other parts, rebels plot our escape in a few ways. They may urge us to preempt the harm we’re about to receive by inflicting harm ourselves. They may urge us towards extreme separation—total separation—from another person, from other groups of people, or from life itself.

Traditional exiles and managers help us out primarily through dissociation. They allow us to internalize the trauma and then suppress it deep inside. Firefighters distract us. Rebels protect us by keeping us from overthinking in a critical moment. They give us a simple conclusion. Someone means us harm.

Armed with that conclusion, rebels help us do things that we would not ordinarily be able to do. Rebels are the voices that urge us to do awful things like steal, acquire and use weapons, maintain or enable addictions, join racist groups, rape or murder, trap and control others, commit abuse, commit suicide, etc. Rebels encourage us to violate the boundaries of other people. Namely, rebels tell us its ok to commit abuse. If the other person intends us harm, then it’s ok for us to intend them harm in response. This is only fair. They deserve it.

A rebel can be an exile, a manager, or a firefighter. Or a rebel could be acting as a companion or advisor to another part. The rebel could be whispering to that other part, providing it with destructive ideas. Or a rebel can allow other parts to feel safe committing the abuses they are already engaged in. Rebels suppress our guilt.

Rebels carry cynical thoughts and feelings as their baggage. Cynicism is a short-cut that bypasses understanding. It is meant as a momentary shortcut to help in cases of imminent danger. It is a survival asset in those cases. Cynicism is a weapon designed for self-defense. Unfortunately, when used outside that context, it is highly problematic. It becomes an offensive weapon. Cynicism becomes a toxic cancer that attaches itself to other emotions and feeds those emotions. Cynicism is the deep underlayer of our most intense emotions when those emotions are being misused. It is the hidden part. It is the ghost that haunts us.

Doubt and trust are the two most important ingredients to a healthy relationship. They form a balance. We are supposed to trust others. We are also supposed to doubt them enough to hold them accountable and keep them from violating our boundaries.

Extreme doubt, doubt that has become unbalanced, is cynicism. Extreme doubt transforms into a misguided belief that others mean us harm.

Extreme trust is also toxic. Extreme trust is delusional. Placing too much faith in a person or group destroys relationships. Delusional trust eventually leads to being taken advantage of and being abused. Abuse, and the harm felt, then activates cynicism as a defensive mechanism. This pairing of delusional trust with cynicism forms the toxic blueprint for negative cycling.

Let’s consider a quick hypothetical to see how our parts work. Imagine a child who believes their home is a safe place only to wake up one day and learn that it is not. Through painful abuse and betrayal, the child’s inner self splits in two. There is an exile, the formerly trusting part, that carries away the pain. There is a rebel, the inner part now tasked with escape. Both are made extreme through disconnection. The exile represents the extreme trust that has been violated. The rebel becomes the doubt that is now unchecked. Paradoxically, though they are disconnected, the two work in tandem for however long it takes until the abuse stops. They help each other survive. The rebel helps keep the exile hidden and protected.

Once the abuse is over, the parts remain severed. The trusting part and the doubting part never reconnect. Healing doesn’t occur. As a result, they remain unbalanced. Sensing this imbalance, the rest of the developing parts remain on high alert. Managers and firefighters develop to distract and maintain control despite the unstable ground everyone is living on. These other parts help us coexist in the world.

Rebels carry the baggage of cynicism for us. Rebels disconnect us from the outside world in a special way. Their original job was to restore balance between trust and doubt during a desperate situation. Trust was too high, and as a result other people were violating our boundaries. Rebels are supposed to recalibrate trust and doubt, give us space to reestablish safe, enforceable boundaries. Unfortunately, this never occurs and so healing remains incomplete. Rebels are never given a safe opportunity to put away their weapon of cynicism. A person who remains unhealed is a person whose rebel continues fighting long after the harm has abated.

The mature rebel needs to one day reconnect with the Self. To do that, we must realize the special importance of doubt. We must see what mature doubt looks like. If we do not create and enforce healthy boundaries, others will take advantage of us. This is human nature. It doesn’t mean that the other person seeks to do us harm. That other person has their own desperate needs. They are suffereing too. They are searching for their own escape.

If we enter into a relationship with someone who doesn’t know how to set and enforce their own healthy boundaries, it is inevitable that we will take advantage of them. Recognizing this is critical. Instead, we can help encourage others to reinforce their boundaries. This is an important task of parenting children, who enter the world without any boundaries or means of enforcement. We must teach them to know where their boundaries are and how to maintain them. We must recognize that healthy boundaries change over time.

The harm of the mono-mind strategies

Richard Schwarz points out that many self-help strategies subscribe to the mono-mind paradigm. These strategies might lead us towards an erroneous assumption that we can “correct irrational beliefs or meditate them away.” Our faulty thoughts are seen as “obstacles,” objects of ignorance, or defects to be fixed. Such strategies may teach us to ignore or transcend our thoughts, or else we might attempt to accept or forgive them.

And yet, advice given in the absence of understanding can be incredibly harmful. We never strive to understand our parts, their purpose and their motives. Mono-mind advice has the harmful impact of minimizing, demoralizing, and demonizing our parts. Because these are parts of our larger Selves, ultimately this will minimize, demoralize and demonize us. Our self-esteem is degraded. Then we disconnect further from ourselves and the larger world.

Wise advice is simply good advice given at the right time. The same words, spoken in the wrong moment, can be equally harmful.

And so, we see that absent understanding, mono-mind devices like forgiveness and acceptance aren’t much better than criticism or contempt. Whether we criticize or accept ourselves, we still feel defective. We are still putting the “defective” part and its larger Self on the defensive. What’s more remarkable is that the harm being done often goes unnoticed by our greater Self. Yet, when we examine our herd more closely, we see that the rift has deepened. The exiled elephants have only been pushed further away. We’ve erected stronger barriers to keep them better contained. Damaged parts become even more disconnected. Exiles are further marginalized. Rebels, instead of being invited out into the open where they can safely voice their doubts, will continue to whisper their toxic words from the shadows.

With all of these mono-mind strategies, we are judging the irrational beliefs and the behaviors. We never actually understand the underlying motives, purpose and behaviors. We never get to their root cause. We never treat those wounded parts of us as equals. We never realize that they deserve respect. They deserve to be heard, honored, and understood.

Learn to parent yourself

Ultimately, we must learn to parent our own inner parts—our own wounded selves. To heal, we must apply principles of effective parenting to ourselves.

We must disabuse ourselves of ineffective strategies such as criticizing, contempt, defensiveness, stonewalling, suppression, and distraction. We cannot just sweep these strategies away through sheer will when there is a part inside us that still feels and believes these strategies are effective. We must first understand the part that carries these beliefs. Where did the belief come from? What does it represent? Under what circumstances would we call on those tools again?

Here we see the paradox of effective parenting. One must both love a child and set appropriate boundaries so the child feels safe. We set up healthy boundaries for our children. Inside those age-appropriate boundaries, we give our children freedom to maneuver.

To heal, we must learn to parent ourselves. We employ self-compassion to our wounded parts. We listen, with intent to understand, their suffering and the intentions behind their behavior that has been so mysterious for so long. Through negotiation, we lovingly relieve our inner children of the burdens they carry. Then we reconnect those injured parts to their true purpose and the rest of the herd.

The Self

Here it must be stated who the “we” is. Who is doing all of this parenting? The “we,” in this context, represents the rest of the herd. It is the great Many. When talking about inner parts, I will also use the term “Self” to represent the rest of the herd. Sometimes, it will be necessary to excuse a few parts from the discussion. If there are two parts that are warring with each other, such as an inner critic and an inner exile, we can kindly ask one or both to stand aside. Then, the rest of our Self can speak with one at a time.

When we talk about identity, I will separate different types of identities. Lower-case identity represents one specific identity that a person has. For instance, runner, writer, mother, friend, and sister are all lower-case identities. Capital-I Identity represents the sum of all of our smaller identities when considered together as a whole.

When talking about perspective, I will refer to the “third story” to represent the blending of two stories into a full picture. The “third story” grows organically as two people begin to listen and understand each other’s personal stories.

And so, depending upon the context, Self, Identity, and “third story” all represent the whole of something with smaller parts. These greater entities are the spiritual blending of our smaller, more discrete elements. Our greater entities evolve organically out of the doings of our parts.

How do we begin to parent a harmful inner role?

Traumatized inner systems are delicate ecologies.

Richard Schwartz, No Bad Parts: Healing Trauma and Restoring Wholeness with the Internal Family Systems Model

Here we will learn to approach our harmful parts. First, we will recognize those parts have become frozen in time. They are carrying burdens that are too big for them. They are exercising duties they were never meant to do. Our goal is to listen and help them.

We can use all the principles of difficult conversations. Review Active Listening and Telling Your Story for a refresher on how to bring two people together through effective communication. We will adapt those principles here to approach and hold on a conversation with our inner parts.

For examples of this being done in practice, together with exercises, please see No Bad Parts: Healing Trauma and Restoring Wholeness with the Internal Family Systems Model.

Here are a few basic steps to get started with:

  1. Goal: understanding. Your goal is to understand your wounded parts. This is your primary objective. Do not carry with you any hidden agendas. Your goal is not to make intrusive thoughts or unwanted feelings go away. Find a way to be genuine in this regard. Your wounded parts will not reconnect with you until they have been fully heard and understood. Any attempt to sweep them away will be seen as a threat. Such attempts will be seen as your Self attempting to steal from your parts. They will view this as the Self stealing away that part’s dignity and honor as a living, breathing, conscious being.
  2. Avoid judgment and blame. Put aside any harm these parts may have caused to the rest of you. Your first job will be to listen and demonstrate compassion. If you find yourself creeping back towards judgement or blame, this is probably because you’ve inadvertently abandoned your primary goal of understanding. Return to step 1 and find a genuine place of compassion. If that is difficult, then you’ve probably run out of energy and need to pause for a while.
  3. Give your parts an identity. Here you will treat your inner parts as living, breathing, conscious beings deserving of honor and dignity. Imagine them in that way. Give them names. Give them identities. See them as they are. When they come to you, you will see an image of them in your mind. They will have an age. They are likely frozen in time at the moment they came into being or at the moment they were traumatized. They will probably look like you but be different. Or they might look like someone else important in your life, like a parent. Imagining your parts as people shouldn’t be difficult. This doesn’t really involve the imagination. If you invite your parts genuinely, they will come to you with a name and image already. It’s not the Self creating these beings. They are already in existence.
  4. Communicate with your inner parts. Here is where you start to hold a conversation. Your inner parts will have voices that may match their ages. Speak to them with dignity.
  5. Have your parts speak one at a time. Your parts have a long, established history with one another. Some of them may not like each other. Your Self must act as negotiator between these warring factions. To do that, only one can speak at a time and must be able to speak open and honestly. If one part is struggling because it is afraid, ask kindly for other parts to separate off. This is a type of healthy dissociation. These parts can stand aside. Tell them it won’t be for long. You will bring them back in shortly.
  6. Ask your parts not to overwhelm. Some of your parts are used to screaming and/or causing physical symptoms just to be heard. Tell them you are listening now. The parts are welcome to get emotional but ask them kindly not to overwhelm you. They do not need to shout or scream. They are welcome to show you where their scars are located on their bodies, and this may cause you to feel discomfort at that area. Tell them you are willing to feel the discomfort. But ask them not to overwhelm you with it.
  7. Listen genuinely. Here is where you will use all of your best listening skills: asking permission, patience, curiosity, persistence, presence, playfulness, paraphrasing, summarizing, reframing, etc. Review Active Listening for a refresher on these.
  8. Let all parts involved speak. Your different parts will need to take turns sharing their intentions, values, and feelings. When one part is done, allow the next to go. Typically, you would start with an exile and then move on to firefighters, managers, and rebels. Go back-and-forth until you’ve peeled back all the layers. Often rebels are the most difficult.
  9. Realize self-abandonment. You will know when you are done listening to your parts only after the Self realizes that it, long ago, abandoned its wounded parts. This was a type of betrayal. This abandonment froze those wounded parts in time. Self-abandonment is the source of their trauma. This may be a hard pill to swallow for someone who has experienced trauma. Obviously, when a person is traumatized, the Self was responding to an impossible situation. The Self never asked to be traumatized and certainly didn’t deserve the abuse. The Self fights for survival, and sometimes this requires selecting a small part of us for sacrifice. Often, that part willingly and lovingly sacrifices itself for the betterment of the rest. However, the part doesn’t die. It is still alive. It is trapped and frozen. Trauma occurs when the Self, later on, after the danger has passed, fails to go back and rescue the exiles. We fail to recollect, restore, and heal the wounded parts back into the whole. They are left abandoned. When the wounded parts are done being heard, they are likely to willingly forgive the Self for this past abandonment. Those parts still love their brethren. They want to be reunited in love. If this doesn’t happen, keep working on listening until it does.
  10. Reveal the “third story.” Only after all your parts are done do you then allow the rest of the Self to speak. The herd has been wounded by this internal rift. Let them share the impact of the rift. Reserve judgment and blame. But do speak about impact on the Self.
  11. Understand each part’s true purpose. Through each individual story, the part should reveal its true purpose. This is the purpose it always aspired to. This is the purpose that became derailed by the traumatic injury. The part may want to be a cheerleader, an advisor, or something else. The part may want to be creative, free, or spread joy. The rebel simply wants to be a voice of caution, a balance against trusting someone too much.
  12. Relieve parts of their burdens. Here is where the Self must become uncomfortable. For this to happen, the Self must grow and mature. The Self cannot tell or force the wounded parts to give up their burdens. The Self must willingly accept those burdens with grace and love. The Self must demonstrate, beyond doubt, that it is capable of carrying the burdens for now on. It is no longer afraid of them. It wants to carry them. The Self must accept and realize that it was not capable of carrying those burdens before, which is why the wounded part got stuck with them in the first place. This is a complicated process that is situation-specific. The Self must thank its wounded parts for performing this service. Then the Self will show how it has grown. It has developed mature values—new boundaries and bridges—to keep it safe and maintain connect. These mature values will better equip the Self, including all its parts, to carry those burdens going forward. Growth of the Self is the key ingredient to transformation. The Self recognizes how it abandoned its wounded parts in the past. The Self earns their forgiveness and reunites with them.
  13. Transformation. If all of these things are done correctly, the wounded parts will gladly lay down their burdens. There will be an almost mystical transformation. It will feel spiritual, magical, like an epiphany. But you will know how it all makes sense. The wounded parts will be recollected into the herd and finally get to become what they were always mean to be. Even though there are scars, the herd will be healed and whole again. Exiles learn to trust and play again. Protectors, especially rebels, now feel themselves safe and protected. Rebels can stop questioning everyone’s motives and resume their mature role of protecting newly solidified boundaries. Rebels can finally relax. They can be a healthy counterweight to trusting too much.

Being genuine

Being genuine involves seeing and understanding your herd of elephants. Are they a fairly cohesive pack? Or are they disjointed? Are there parts of you that have been exiled to the fringes? Are there parts you are ashamed of?

Being genuine is about being mindful that conflict and disagreements will arise. We should be willing to understand and resolve these inner conflicts. This requires effort in battling complacency. It requires committing to the task of conflict resolution—positive cycling. This conflict resolution occurs primarily within one’s inner parts. We work through issues among our inner characters.

Let’s take a look at how the interactions between our inner characters create conflict and give us opportunities to act sincerely or insincerely.

What if you are asked to do something you really would rather not do? This could be at the workplace, at home, or in the bedroom. Should you do the thing and be fake or not do it and disappoint, upset, or hurt someone?

It turns out, this is a false choice. There is always a “third way.” We can be genuine and avoid creating unnecessary conflict and hurt. We can use our inner herd of elephants to understand what that third way is.

An example of being genuine: questioning the traditional mom role

Let’s look at the example of Kayla. Kayla is a married mother of three. Today Kayla is being tasked with making dinner for the family. However, Kayla came home after a long day’s work to a messy house and three rowdy kids. Everyone is demanding something different for dinner. No one is offering to help. Aside from that, Kayla is exhausted and doesn’t feel like cooking for everyone. Her husband is already watching football on the couch and hasn’t offered to help. Kayla has been in this situation before countless times. Usually she just “sucks it up” and assumes a pleasing role to maintain the family harmony. She now recognizes the insincerity of being the pleaser, and how this has contributed to other issues in her life. She might become overly irritable or lose her desire for intimacy. However, today it’s really gotten to her, and she just feels like cooking for herself and letting the rest of the pack fend for themselves. What should she do?

First, she should recognize that being a pleaser is insincere. The price of being insincere is high. We should generally avoid it. As we can see, the habit that Kayla has established through the pleaser role is one that involves strained relationships with her kids and husband. These strained relationships are evidence of co-dependency. Parts of her are now rejecting that habit. They are right to do so. She needs to listen to those feelings.

At this point, Kayla has a lot of choices. Certainly, repeating what she’s done in the past would not be considered genuine. That is to say, if Kayla were to occupy the pleasing role again by silently cooking dinner and not expressing her feelings, that would not be genuine. She and her family would pay a price down the line.

There is more than one way to remain genuine in this situation. In fact, Kayla’s options are only limited by her imagination. Kayla could get upset and pull the plug on the TV. She could be authoritative and instruct her husband that it’s his turn to cook. She could cook for herself and invite others to join her in cooking for themselves if they are hungry. She could have a team meeting where everyone discusses their feelings and votes on the next step. She could be transactional by agreeing to cook only for family members who do something in return for her like other chores or homework. She could cook for herself and ignore the rest.

These are options that showcase the wide range of genuine choices that Kayla has. There are more diplomatic options, of course. For instance, she could tell her family, “I’ve decided that we’re going to cook this meal together as a family. Please let me know when you all are ready to get started. Until then, I’m going to do what I want to do, which is read this magazine.”

Or she could get emotional in front of her family. Sadness or anger both work. She could let out some frustration in front of them. Hopefully this causes them to pause what they’re doing and respond to her need.

All of these choices disrupt the normal family routine. They all create conflict in this moment. What if Kayla doesn’t want to create conflict now? Clearly, there is a conflict here that has long been ignored. Ignoring the conflict, in perpetuity, would not be genuine. The conflict must be addressed eventually. But it doesn’t necessarily have to occur right now. And yet, Kayla shouldn’t be forced to be a pleaser, which is a role that is not genuine.

Let’s assume Kayla wants to have a conflict-free dinner and defer this issue until later. To remain genuine, Kayla must find a part of her inner self that wants to cook for the family. She must look inside herself. There is likely an inner Kayla who genuinely wants to cook. If the issue in question is one that has created deep resentment, this part of Kayla may be difficult to find. It may be well hidden away behind layers of protectiveness. If she’s having trouble finding it, she can use her past as a guide. She can find a time in her past when she enjoyed cooking for the family. She can locate this part in her memory. Tied to a memory is the part of Kayla that was genuine in the act of cooking. There she is likely to find a genuine cook.

Once she’s found her genuine cook, she will need to see if that part of her is willing to cook again. She can ask her cook kindly if it will. Chances are that it does want to, but it’s being held back. It may be hiding. It may be afraid to be itself. There are other parts of Kayla’s inner self—inner protectors—that don’t want to let the cook come out. These inner protectors may be carrying resentment or other strong feelings and burdens. They may not like the cook anymore. They’re hellbent on not allowing the cook the freedom to be itself.

Kayla may ask, patiently, if those inner protectors will stand aside. They may not be willing to do so, at least not at first. She can tell them that now isn’t the best time. She can make them a promise that their concerns will be addressed in the near future if they step aside. If they agree, she can then proceed in allowing her cook to come out. If they disagree, that means that they probably don’t trust the promise she’s making. A part of Kayla doesn’t think she’ll follow through with the promise. They may have heard that same promise before. She may have told them the very same thing in the past. Whether it was spoken consciously or subconsciously, that doesn’t matter. There is a lack of internal trust here.

In this case, I would highly recommend that Kayla not force things. I don’t recommend that she resume the pleaser role and act insincere. Instead, she could start to rebuild internal trust by doing one of the genuine options previously listed. She needs to begin addressing her conflict now. It can’t wait. It doesn’t have to be fully resolved in this moment. Beginning the resolution process may be enough to rebuild that trust and allow her inner protectors to step aside.

Resolution will not be easy. Kayla’s feelings on this issue may be incredibly complex. She may have been treated poorly at work. Her boss may have recently passed her over for promotion in favor of a male candidate. She may now be questioning her work environment as being sexist, and therefore she’s rejecting traditional female roles at home. Or there may be other family and/or marital issues at play. We don’t know the underlying problem causing these feelings. She may not know what it is, at first. Her protectors know. But the rest of Kayla may very well be ignorant. Whatever the issue is, it’s clearly been a neglected for far too long. It begs some attention.

If Kayla’s protectors stand aside to allow her to make dinner, she will need to return to them as promised. They need to be heard and understood. She will need to work within herself to avoid the pleasing role going forward. She will also need to work with her family. She may not want to be the primary cook anymore. She may want to trade that responsibility for a different role that her husband has. Whatever it is, this requires dialogue. Likely there will be some uncomfortable things said. It requires all three components of IVR: a reexamination of identity, a look at values, and improved communication.


No Bad Parts: Healing Trauma and Restoring Wholeness with the Internal Family Systems Model
Thinking, Fast and Slow
The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom
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Difficult Conversations

Sympathy vs Empathy

Sympathy has become a sort of bad word these days. Empathy has become the end-all-be-all form of caring. The differences between the two concepts can be quite confusing. Worse still, there is no common accepted definition for the two words. Depending on the source, the definition for sympathy can be the same as that for empathy. Sometimes the definitions will flip-flop depending on the source.

We make the distinction between the two terms for an important reason. Empathy, according to modern convention, is a more genuine form of caring. In empathy, the person demonstrates caring by feeling what the other person feels.

This Article Contains:

What is empathy? Brene Brown Short
What is the process of caring?
What are hidden messages in communication?
What is the hidden message of empathy?
What are the hidden messages of sympathy?
How to be more clear in your messaging.
Managing conflicting emotions
The limits of empathy

What is empathy?

See the short video below:

The process of caring

I like to keep things as simple as possible. But we have to break it down.

When someone expresses hurt, the other person will feel something. Compassion (or simply caring) is the common emotion. Compassion is the feeling we get when we internalize the other person’s pain. We bring their sadness or suffering inside us. We sample it inside our minds. We don’t have control over this process of compassion. We either feel compassion for the other person or we don’t. We don’t control the degree. We don’t control other feelings also competing for our attention. None of these things are within our control, at least not at first. They all operate within the processes of our subconscious. Over time, we can influence how we feel, but we still don’t control it.

Our instinctive response to feeling compassion, the sampling of someone else’s pain, is to send a return message back to the other person. “I hear you and I care about you.” When they receive this message, they will feel something in response. If they receive the message clearly, they will feel heard and cared for.

So, what’s going on with sympathy and empathy?

Empathy and sympathy are behaviors of communication. They are different ways of communicating back the message: “I hear you and I care about you.” Empathy and sympathy are both bridging behaviors. They are intended to communicate connection to the other person.

But they do more than that. Even though they are also intended to communicate, “I care about you,” they end up communicating something more. There is a hidden message.

Hidden messages in communication

Communication is never as simple as the words we express. Nonverbal communication includes all kinds of hidden messages from our subconscious.

Part of being genuine is eliminating hidden messages. Or at least making sure that hidden messages and intended messages are congruent with one another. Being genuine is all about being upfront about what you truly intend to communicate. Empathy is genuine. Sympathy is not. Sympathy contains mixed, conflicting messages. Worse, the person expressing sympathy lacks awareness of these hidden messages. Let’s take a look.

The hidden message of empathy

Here is the intended message of empathy: “I hear you and I care about you.”

Here is the hidden message of empathy: “I am open to receiving your feelings and feeling what you feel.”

This hidden message is straightforward and implied. It is congruent with intended message, which is why empathy is considered genuine.

The hidden messages of sympathy

Now let’s look at sympathy. There are many possible hidden messages that people inadvertently attach when communicating using sympathy. These messages ride alongside the intended message. They are carried by a person’s tone of voice, facial expressions, and other nonverbal cues. Wording also matters, as we saw in the video above.

The intended message of sympathy is the same: “I hear you and I care about you.”

Here are some possible hidden messages that ride alongside the intended message. Let’s first look at communicating lack of availability:

  • “I don’t have enough time to meet your needs right now.”
  • “I can only give you part of my attention right now.”
  • “I only have so much of myself to can give you right now.”
  • “I don’t want to feel what you’re feeling right now.” or “I’m glad I’m not the one feeling that way.”

Next, let’s look at communicating dismissal:

  • “I would like to dismiss your problem with a quick-fix.” or “I would like to dismiss your problem with a few token words.”
  • “Your problem really isn’t that important.” or “You’re overreacting.”
  • “You’re bothering me with this right now. I don’t like it. Please stop.”

Next, let’s look at communicating arrogance:

  • “I know exactly how to solve your problem. You should do this. In fact, I’m surprised you didn’t already think of that.”

Finally, let’s look at communicating that one lacks the ability to make the other person feel heard and cared for. In other words, a hidden message of incompetency.

  • I am not a good listener.
  • “I lack the personal abilities to meet your needs right now.” or “I do not know how to adequately express my feelings of caring through my behavior.” or “I don’t know how to make you feel cared for.”
  • “I lack the ability to make you feel better.”
  • “I don’t know how to solve your problem.” Paradoxically, the very act of trying to solve the person’s problem directly through fixing is actually communicating the hidden message, “I don’t know how to solve your problem.”
  • “I don’t understand your issue.”

Instead of sympathy, try being more clear in your messaging

Here we see that sympathy can communicate one of these things: lack of availability, dismissal, arrogance, or personal incompetency. To be genuine, I would recommend practicing the following.

  • If you lack availability to help at that moment, simply communicate that directly and clearly. For example, “I can see that you’re hurting. I’m really stressed out at the moment also. I can’t help you right now, and I’m sorry about that. Can we talk about this later tonight?”
  • If you lack competency, please also communicate that clearly. “I can tell that you’re suffering. I don’t know how I can help. Please tell me what I can do. If you can’t think of anything, then please just tell me more about what happened. Or if you prefer, we can just sit here and be sad together for a bit.” The hidden message here is one of humility, which goes a long way to making someone feel heard and cared for.
  • If you are feeling arrogant or feeling like dismissing the other person’s issue, instead of communicating this, consider looking inward at yourself. Why are you feeling this way? What do you value about the relationship?

Conflicting emotions

It is very common to insert hidden messages in communication. So far, I have only provided common examples, not an exhaustive list of possible hidden messages. The number of different types of hidden messages is only limited by a person’s imagination.

It is human to have different emotions compete to be the one that drives our behavioral response. For instance, a person could be feeling compassion. But they could also, at the same time, be feeling angry, anxious, happy, or something else. When we experience these conflicting emotions, we are forced to make a choice. Our behavior–the message we send back–will reflect the emotions we insert into it. Consider verbalizing these competing emotions to the other person:

“I feel sorry for you getting hurt. I care for you. But I’m also angry.” It is at this point that the speaker has a genuine choice. They can focus on the caring and listening, they can focus on expressing their anger, or they can pause and create space for more self-reflection.

The limits of empathy

All values can become weaponized. Empathy is no exception. There are many ways to weaponize empathy. The most straightforward way is by attacking another person’s identity by saying that they lack it. However, most of the time, empathy is weaponized in a more underhanded type of way.

The most common way to misuse empathy is to wield it, bluntly, as a weapon to attack another competing, legitimate value. For instance, consider the exchange:

“Can’t you see that I need your empathy in this moment?” Partner’s response: “Can’t you see that I’m paralyzed by my own panic attack right now?”

In this exchange, one person is demanding empathy. The other person is experiencing anxiety, which is causing them to go into a self-protective mode, which makes it very difficult to express empathy. Or try this one:

“You don’t care about me.” Response: “Yeah, well you don’t respect me.”

Here both people are attacking each other with their weaponized values: respect and empathy.

A demand for excess, unfettered empathy is highly problematic. Empathy must be balanced by other important values. Because it is a bridging value, it typically needs an effective boundary. People in health care fields who express strong empathic behavior and lack appropriate personal boundaries will inevitably cycle towards burnout. Burnout is a process of negative cycling. In essence, they care too much about others and lack the ability to care for themselves.

Next: expressing empathy through Active Listening.

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Difficult Conversations

Do we fit together?

Do we fit?

Where do I fit?

These are the ultimate identity questions. We all want to know if we fit in our jobs, in our families, in our relationships. How do we begin to answer these questions?

Like everything else, we must trust our feelings. Our feelings have purpose. One of the biggest reasons we have such strong feelings is to help us determine where we fit. As fit improves, we become happier. When fit remains stable over time (whether for good or bad), we may become content. When fit worsens, we develop negative feelings like anxiety, sadness, or anger.

What does it mean to fit in a place?

Fit is really a question of value. What do we value? How do we arrange different aspects of our lives in terms of value? What is most important: family, career, lifestyle, hobbies, etc.?

Follow these steps to determine if you fit

Step 1. Start by taking each of the important aspects of your life and arranging them by value. Put them in categories of Most Important, Moderately Important, and Less Important. Be honest. Put things where they belong.

Step 2. Next, create three circles. Have a small circle, then a larger one, then a largest one.

Step 3. Now start filling in the three circles. The center circle, being the smallest, can only fit 2-5 words. Generally, these words are critical people in your life, the closest members of your family. Imagine the people you might donate a kidney to or run into a burning building to rescue. For some people, career/job would go in the center circle, but take care. There isn’t a lot of room in the center for both career/job and multiple family members. As you move out from the center, people and things get less important. Your willingness to sacrifice on their behalf becomes less.

Most people have a hard time being truly honest with themselves in filling in the value hierarchy. To keep yourself honest, look to past behavior to find out what you truly value. Where do people land? If you live far away from someone, they don’t belong in the center. Which jobs or family members would you relocate for? Where do you put your material goods? What about your favorite hobbies? Your best friend?

If you have an addition to alcohol or making money, put those things in the center where they belong. Keep in mind, there’s not a lot of room in the center. If things start to get crowded, draw another smaller circle. What/who would you sacrifice for what/who? Look to past behavior to make that determination. How do you allocate your time? Be brutally honest.

Step 4. Next, we want to determine if there is a good fit. To do that, we have to draw another value hierarchy. If you are evaluating your fit at a job, ask yourself where you are situated in that job’s value hierarchy. Sketch it out. Use employer’s behavior as a guide. How easily are you replaceable? Does the employer put its employees or customers / making money first? Again, the center of the circle doesn’t have much room.

Good Fit

This is an example of a good fit. Both the employee and the employer value each other to the same degree. The job isn’t the most important thing in the employee’s life (immediate family belongs there), but there is still a considerable amount of loyalty. From the employer’s standpoint, the employees are valued to a moderate degree, but the employer isn’t willing to sacrifice its own long-term well-being for its employees. Overall, this is a healthy situation for everyone.

One could easily imagine a job where the relationship is less important to both parties. Consider a fast-food job or something temporary. One could also imagine a job where the relationship is more important to both. Consider a professional athlete who spends 12-16 hours a day on their craft. This career probably belongs in the center. There may or may not be room for anyone else. Other spouses and family members may belong just outside in their own dedicated circle. There may not be anything wrong with this so long as everyone is honest with themselves.

Not a good fit

Here is an example of a poor fit. In this case, the employee values the employer far more than the employer values its employee. The employee exists in the employer’s outer value circle and is essentially replaceable. On the other hand, the employee is expected to value the job to a considerable degree.

Remember that a value is different from a feeling. Feelings are innate to the individual and outside our immediately control. Conversely, we value things through our actions. In the value hierarchy, it makes no difference what the parties say about each other. Words are meaningless here. Nor does it matter how they feel about each other. The employee may hate their job. But if their actions show that they value the job to a considerable degree, it makes no difference what they say they feel.

A poor fit, like what is shown, is extremely damaging to both parties. The relationship is psychologically perverse. It creates moral injury and a toxic environment. One side feels “used” while the other side naturally manufactures a culture of dishonesty as it fights against the reality that it is abusing its employees.

The same thing occurs in personal relationships when one person values the other more highly. Unless the distortion is resolved, the relationship is destined to become more toxic over time.

There are many other types of distortions in value hierarchy. A person’s marriage can become cold over time. Both parties may agree that they no longer value each other much, and so the relationship may appear to be balanced. However, one person or both may be acting in unhealthy ways because the situation is far from what they want out of life. They may be depressed or anxious, and their actions will likely reflect this alteration in mood. They may constantly pick fights with their spouse or refuse to speak cordially with them. All of these actions are signs of tremendous distortion.

Keep in mind that just because something or someone is on the outside circle, that doesn’t mean they aren’t important or that you can’t develop excellent relationships with that person or endeavor. One should strive to have healthy, satisfying relationships with everyone. We only use the value hierarchy to determine order of importance. When push comes to shove, who or what takes priority?

Suffocation: A person may be suffocating their partner. When this happens, other aspects of the partner’s life may be pushed way to the fringes. There may not be much room for other parts of the person’s identity. This is not healthy as it naturally leads to co-dependency.


Aim to achieve balance with your value hierarchy. Each circle should remain free of distortion. All relationships inside the circles are proportional. How you value your friends corresponds to how they value you. The same thing can be said for your job and other aspects of your life.

If two people don’t value each other equally, then they don’t fit together. Unfortunately, this then requires a reevaluation of the relationship before they begin to resent each other.

Next, we will look at how to evaluate Identity.

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Difficult Conversations

Difficult Conversations: Telling your story

“Words create the bridges between us.  Without them we would be lost islands.  Affection, recognition and understanding travel across these fragile bridges and enable us to discover each other and awaken friendship and intimacy.”

John O’Donohue, Beauty

We are going to discuss how to have a difficult conversation with someone whom you disagree.

In any difficult conversation, you must be able to advocate for yourself.  You have a story to tell.  It is your story–your perspective on events.  Mutual understanding cannot occur if your story is not expressed.  To be effective, per Douglas Stone, author of Difficult Conversations, you must learn to “speak with clarity and power.” 

Telling your story is best accomplished after you have effectively listened to the other person’s story.  You now understand their point of view.  You can see the impact of events on them.  You should have a clear understanding of their intent: their goals and values.  You understand their thought processes and feelings involved.  Where did they start from and where did they intend to end up?

You have an advantage in going second. You can tailor your story to address key moments that were brought up during the telling of the other person’s story. You are not going to try to undermine their story, but you can start to close the gap between what you both know. They might have observed that you appeared to be feeling one way, for instance. However, your feelings may have been far more complex. You can help clarify for them which observations they made about you were true and which weren’t.

Remind them that their beliefs regarding your own feelings and intentions are merely hypotheses needing to be tested.

Remember, emotional intelligence experts need not apply. Give the other person credit if they’ve observed you feeling certain feelings. Kindly correct them when your feelings, thoughts, and intentions are different than what they imagined. Remind them that their beliefs regarding your own feelings and intentions are merely hypotheses needing to be tested.

This Article Contains:

Before starting… sort out your own story in your head
How to understand three perspectives in any difficult conversation
How to begin from the “third story”
How to roll into your story: Start with a feeling and an identity anchor
Do’s of telling your story
Things to avoid when telling your story:
How to turn blame into contribution
How to be genuine
How to manage nonverbal communication
How to balance honesty in storytelling
How to exercise discretion – you are not an open book
The back-and-forth rhythm of storytelling
Bookshelf: advanced reading on difficult conversations

Before starting… sort out your own conversation in your head

Your goal is to create a learning conversation.  Understanding is key.  To do this, you must first exercise some humility yourself.  You are not here to dole out blame and punishments, whether to yourself or the other person.  You are not going to prescribe “fixes” for the issue.  You do not have all the answers and solutions.  Solutions will blossom organically only after mutual understanding is achieved.  Let connection be the cure

Let connection be the cure. 

To be effective, you must be able to sort out your own story in your head.  It’s ok if your story is still confusing, but you must have a good chunk of it arranged first.  Saying, “I don’t know” is a very effective signal of humility that invites curiosity from the listener.

Chances are you are confused by your own conflicting feelings.  Having heard the other person’s story, there are parts of you that can now empathize with their point-of-view.  That is expected. If you can’t do this yet, go back and try active listening again until you can.

You should also expect to have other parts of you now rebelling against some things they said.  That is normal and natural. After all, your point-of-view matters, too! Do your best to map out these feelings ahead of time.  You can then get them out there.  In fact, this is often a great place to begin, by stating out-loud the internal conflict that you have.  “I have mixed feelings about this situation. On the one hand, I am very appreciative when you… On the other hand, it also makes me quite angry…”

Understand three perspectives in any difficult conversation

Before you begin, you must also have a good understanding of perspective.  There are three perspectives at stake in any difficulty conversation.  Each person has their own perspective—their own story.  This includes the personal feelings, thoughts, values, and mental processes that the person experienced.  It also includes their intentions, their observations, and the impact of unfolding events on them.  

The “third story”

This chart shows three perspectives. The first perspective is shown in orange, which represents one person’s story. That person felt the impact of events and circumstances and then took some action. The second perspective is shown in blue, which represents the second person’s story. They also felt the impact of events and circumstances and then took some action.

The “third story” occurs when we take a step back and see the impact of everyone’s actions altogether. Here we see the basic outline of a behavior cycle. One person’s actions have an impact on the other person, who responds in turn. The third story is an outsider’s perspective, the type of perspective that would be assumed by a mediator or relationship counselor.

The goal here is not to judge who is right. Instead, the mediator’s job is to allow both stories to be heard. Only then will imaginative solutions reveal themselves. Both sides must see the true impact of their actions. How does that impact then feed into the cycle in a type of rhythm. A person who feeds negative energy into the system should fully expect that negative energy to return to them–to bounce back. It may bounce back amplified or diminished, depending on how much work the second person puts in to affect it. But nevertheless, it will return.

Begin from the “third story”

It is most effective to begin your story from the position of the “third story.” You now have both stories in your mind. Look at the whole of everything that has happened. How did their behavior affect yours? How did your behavior affect theirs? Most likely, both of you contributed to the cycle, at least in some way. Start by saying things like:

  • “I don’t like the way things have gone between us. After hearing you, I can see now that we both contributed to the problem…”
  • “I can see now how we’ve both been attacking each other, each in our own different ways, and that this hasn’t been healthy for our relationship…”
  • “After hearing you, I can see how the connection between us has frayed and finally come to a head here…”

The third story is an admission of humility. It puts aside the discussion about right-vs-wrong–blame and guilt. These concepts are generally toxic to understanding. We are not seeking to punish. Instead, we look to concepts of safety, values, perspective, accountability, connection, and understanding. Each of these concepts can only be seen fully from the “third story.” It is here in this space that we can establish safe boundaries and build bridges of connection.

Start with a feeling and an identity anchor

After giving brief statement acknowledging the existence of the “third story,” feel free to roll into your story. If this is particularly difficult conversation, consider starting with an identity anchor and a feeling that you might attach to that anchor. Typically, the identity anchor is the main subject at hand. It could be the relationship between the two individuals or another important relationship that forms the focus of discussion. Then say plainly how you’ve been feeling about that subject.

For example:

  • I worry about our son
  • I really like my job, but I feel things haven’t been working out for me lately…
  • I’ve been feeling somewhat disconnected from you these past few months…
  • I’ve had a lot of anger recently. I’m not sure what it’s about, but it’s got something to do with stress at work. I know that it’s made me feel disconnected from you
  • I’ve got a lot of mixed feelings about spending Christmas with your parents

In each case, you’ve clarified what you think is the primary subject for discussion. You make it plain that this subject is important to you just by bringing it up. Then you give a feeling. Remember that feelings are energy. This important feeling (or small group of mixed feelings) will drive your story forward.

From here, you may not know exactly how your story will go from the outset. Engage with your listener. Let them ask curious questions. Give them some freedom to play around in your world. Give as much control to the listener as possible. You have important points make, certainly. But the order in which you tell them isn’t necessarily as important.

Do’s of telling your story

  • Start with what matters most.  The listener’s energy tanks are highest at the beginning.  Don’t work up to the most important subject by easing them into it.  This will only heighten everybody’s anxiety or surprise them at the end after they’re starting to feel exhausted.
  • Speak for yourself with power. This is your story. These are your feelings and values. This is your perspective–how you see things. There is no need to beat around the bush. But if you are confused or your feelings are mixed, make sure to state this also. Feelings and values are sacrosanct. They are personal to you and not to be questioned.
  • Present your thoughts and conclusions as hypotheses needing to be tested. Everything is experimental at this point. You do not have all the answers. Your judgment is not the final word. Let the listener hear your thoughts but leave wiggle room for changing your mind. You need to know the difference between feelings, values, thoughts and conclusions. Here are some examples:
    • I felt abandoned when I saw you flirting with that other girl (feeling).
    • I value family over workplace responsibilities (value).
    • I observed that you appeared uncomfortable around my ex (an observation / thought).
    • I thought that you cared more about your job than mine (thought).
    • I believe that we made a mistake when we let our daughter go to that party (conclusion).
  • Tell the process behind your conclusions. Recognize how past experiences may have created biases in your mind:
    • “I grounded our kids for a week because that’s what my parents would have done if I’d skipped school. That’s what worked for me when I was a child. I understand the same strategy may not also work for our children…”
  • Talk about your conflicting feelings.  You don’t have to fully understand them.
    • “I’ve had these feelings of shame lately. I don’t know where they come from. I know I’m worried about our finances…”
  • Give examples of ways the other person might have communicated better for you. Present these as suggestions, not as absolute ways in which something ought to be done.
    • “When you said that to me, it really didn’t sit well. I know I exploded. Now that I’ve seen your side of things, I think it would’ve been helpful for me if you had said… instead. That’s a message that would’ve resonated with me and not rubbed me the wrong way.”
    • “When you said you were bored last year at the lake cabin, what I heard was that you don’t like spending time with my family and that they drive you nuts. I think I would have responded better if you had said that you would prefer to do a canoe trip with my family rather than sit around fishing.”
  • Call out their behavior.  Help them understand the impact their behavior had on you.  However, you must be careful not to make definitive judgments on right vs wrong.
    • “I don’t think it’s appropriate for your daughter to be wearing those clothes. I think they will attract the wrong kind of attention from the boys at school.”
    • “You are staying out until 2AM with your buddies and coming home drunk. Maybe that’s ok on occasion, but I don’t think that’s appropriate behavior for a married man.”
    • “I think you were too hard on the kids today. You really blew up at them.”
    • “I feel like I can’t talk to you. It seems that when things get difficult, you retreat to your office and spend hours there with the door shut.”
    • “I feel like lately you’ve been dismissing my concerns about our son’s bullying at school.”
  • Be sure not to attack their identity (directly). You are not accusing them of being a bad spouse, parent, worker, etc. You are only calling out behavior or patterns of behavior. Take care with accusatory language that calls out who they are. In fact, even as you’re calling out their behavior, you should be building up their identity at the same time. Here are examples of what not to do:
    • “No boyfriend has ever treated me like that before.”
    • “None of my friends would’ve found that acceptable…”
    • “Why can’t you be more like her?”
    • “You’ve let yourself go.”
  • Avoid making them feel like you’re attacking their identity (implicitly). In the process of calling out behavior, you may establish a pattern that paints the picture of a bad person. Your goal is not to lay out a prosecutor’s case for jail time. Make it clear that you still respect and appreciate their identity.
    • “I’m not saying you’re a bad father. I just think you could’ve handled that fight with our daughter better. Here are some things I would have done differently…”
    • “I want to make clear that even though I felt abandoned when you didn’t support me changing careers, that was uncharacteristic of how you had helped me so many times before. It was surprising because of all the other things you supported me with over the years… I still appreciate you for all of that.”
  • Pause to check in with how they are feeling periodically. Make sure you still have permission to continue the conversation.
    • “That was a lot. I appreciate you. Do you need a break?”
  • Recognize when they begin feeling defensive. Rather than accuse them of defensiveness, realize that you are probably saying too much too quickly. Slow down and let them speak, too.
    • “It seems your anxiety meter going through the roof right now. I understand this is a lot. I’m uncomfortable, too. But I appreciate you listening. Can you tell me more about what you’re thinking right now?”
  • Speak from a place of empathy.  Your caring is directed towards the relationship, which you must regard as important.  Connection is cure.  Your goal is to always build connection and understanding, not destroy the other person or prove one side right or wrong. Keep supporting the listener in their role. You want to build them up.
  • Kindly remind them if they switch to fix-it mode. Tell them you need them to be a good listener now. Fix-it mode is what we do to hurry up and dismiss the other person’s feelings. It is usually a sign the listener is running low on energy. Ask them to be patient and keep listening, if they are able. Or suggest a break.
  • Be accountable for your mistakes and contributions. Point out that you have room to grow. Hopefully you learned something from listening to their side of the story. Point that out. It will give them hopeful energy that you’re on the right track.
  • Discuss openly areas of fit.
    • “I’m not sure you’re the right person for this job.”
    • “I question if we’re right for each other and if we share the same values.”
    • “I can’t tell if you’re fully committed to the relationship the way I am.”

Things to avoid when telling your story:

  • Avoid easing-in, prefacing, or beating around the bush. Instead, just get right to the point. For example, don’t says something like:
    • “There’s something I need to tell you and I don’t think you’re going to like it. I want you to know, before I say it, that I still think you’re a good person…”
  • Presenting your conclusions as “the truth”
  • Absolutes: “always,” “never”
  • Avoid insults.
  • Emotional Intelligence experts need not apply. Avoid assuming you know the other person’s mind, thoughts or feelings. You may score very high on emotional intelligence tests and think you’re an expert on reading people. This mistaken belief will probably hurt you during the discussion. It’s best to speak from a position of humility.
  • Avoid destroying their identity, even if you do question their fit within a group. Even if they did something terrible, it does not make them a bad person. Keep the focus on their behavior (actions and impact). Do not assume their intentions. Remember, their identity is not defined by a single action or pattern of behavior. For conflict resolution to be successful, both individuals’ identities should be strengthened over time.
    • Also keep in mind, identity is not the same as ego. Ego relates to one’s belief in one’s own abilities compared to others. A healthy dose of humility (a reality check) is needed from time to time to balance out ego. Identity relates to a person’s role within a group. There is no person-to-person comparison. Instead, in regard to identity, we measure group cohesion, or fit. For instance, a person’s ego may be too high. However, a group can never be too cohesive. A person can never fit too well within a group. A family can never be too close.
    • Another example of questioning fit without attacking a person’s identity: “I don’t think you’re a bad partner, I just question whether the two of us are a good fit.”

Turn blame into contribution

Blame is toxic to a relationship. Blame often exists as a poor proxy for a discussion about feelings and impact. To move forward, each person must understand their contributions to past problems. This needs to be done without blaming.

Blame also muddles important issues of intent, behavior, identity, feelings, thoughts, and values. These elements need to be separated out, processed, and understood. People who throw around blame are cheating themselves and others. To put it bluntly, blaming is lazy. It is short-cutting the difficult work of separating these key elements, seeing multiple conflicting perspectives, and then seeing the overall evolution of what has been happening.

The toxic nature of blaming can be understood as a type of vicious cycle. Overall blaming tends to contract personal growth for all parties involved. Parties take turns assuming postures of attack and defensiveness. Their ability to appreciate multiple perspectives diminishes. It leads to inflexibility in values and behavior. Blaming also generates feelings of cynicism. Finally, cynicism destroys connection, which completes the cycle of toxicity. We call this negative cycling when a person or group gets caught in a trap of blaming and cynicism.

Escaping the trap involves transforming a discussion about blame into a discussion about contribution. Here is a table showing examples of this transformation:

Questions intent.Questions fit.
Who is the cause?  (This question assumes finite perspective inside a finite time frame).Assume multiple causes witnessed across multiple perspectives over an expansive timeframe.
Judge actions against a “standard” (for example: “my friends all do things this way…”).Evaluate value system fit.
Assign roles to individuals in the story: “the accused,” “the victim,” “the enabler,” “the ally”.Start with a neutral discussion of roles. Assume everyone is a “contributor” to problems that have arisen.
“blame” is a poor (lazy) proxy for feelings.Feelings are discussed openly.
Define a person by their behavior (diminish and attack a person’s identity).Separate intent, behavior, identity, feelings and values (i.e. separate behavior from the person).
Use cynicism as an instrument of attack. Alternate attack and defensive postures. Question cynicism? Where does it come from? Refocus energy towards understanding and growth.
Focus on one perspective.All perspectives respected and explored.

Be genuine

Being genuine is about being aware of oneself and taking steps to align one’s beliefs, values, and actions. Being genuine is harder than it sounds. There are many pieces involved. Here are a few key, basic steps:

  • Have awareness of one’s own feelings, beliefs, and values. How does one element influence the other?
  • Have awareness of raw spots, areas of past personal trauma and injury.  How does your past influence present feelings and values?
  • Have awareness of how your values and feelings work together to drive your behavior.
  • Take active steps to change behavior so that beliefs, values, and actions become better aligned over time.
  • Recognize the impact of your own actions on others and on yourself.
  • Being genuine has little to do with the specific words and phrases you choose. Instead, being genuine is about reflecting your true feelings and values. Communicate your true feelings to the other person. Don’t pretend to feel one way, when in fact you feel something else. Be sure that you stay consistent to your values.

Managing nonverbal communication

Be aware of the nonverbal communication you are using. Remember that what you communicate is the summation of your words and emotions. In your message, emotions overshadow words by a tremendous amount. A message completely changes when delivered with compassion vs with anger, disgust, or contempt.

Practice delivering your message with compassion rather than using other emotions.  If the other person is listening, they will be doing so with empathy. It’s best to match their caring with your own.

Rather than focusing on the right message with the right words, instead practice using the correct emotions to deliver your message. This doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice being genuine. State out loud what emotions you are feeling, but then take steps to keep them from steamrolling the listener. Let them exist, but also hold them back.

Balancing honesty

Honesty is a key value in communicating. However, honesty needs to be balanced by compassion and listening. You cannot just bulldoze the other person with your unbridled opinions. If you want to be understood, follow a few final steps:

  • Pick and choose pieces of your story, when to deliver them and how.
  • Be patient.  Pause and check-in.  Be curious about how they are receiving your story.  Give them breaks when needed.
  • Tailor your message to your audience. Be cognizant of their emotional response. The message you rehearse is not necessarily the one you will give. 
  • Avoid ulterior motives (agendas) other than mutual understanding.  All additional motives must be set aside. You are not trying to convince your listener of anything apart from making them understand your story.
  • Edit! Edit! Edit! Behind every good story is a good editor. Rarely would a deleted scene ever add to a movie. Likewise, you do not have to subject your listener to your every fleeting thought, detail, idea, and impulse. You can edit out much of it while still remaining true to your story. Keep the core pieces that build to understanding. Leave the extraneous behind which may otherwise throw off the listener and detract from your message.

Exercise discretion. You are not an open book.

There are details in your life that you would rather not share. The listener doesn’t have a right to learn things that ought to be kept private. But you don’t have lie by omission. Simply let them know that you don’t feel comfortable answering certain types of questions. Say, “This is as much as I’m willing to share right now on that subject.”

This is an often-overlooked point. Someone who is willing to share EVERYTHING will lose respect from their listener. They think they’re communicating openness and vulnerability. In fact, they’re communicating that they can’t maintain adequate boundaries and thus lack emotional self-control.

For instance, consider someone who is willing to tell you EVERYTHING about themselves, without discretion. Would you truly feel comfortable sharing your own vulnerabilities with that person? Would you trust them, when they might turn around and use that same open-book policy to later share your secrets with someone else?

By not being an open book, you are protecting your listener. You are giving them select details of your story a little at a time. You may be open to sharing deeper layers, eventually, as mutual trust builds.

Remember that being genuine is about conveying your true feelings and values, not about sharing every detail and secret. For instance, instead of vomiting out every sin or dirty thought you’ve ever had, you can very easily say, “I’ve done some things I’m not proud of. I’m not ready to talk about them, but I am sorry for the people I’ve hurt.”

Obviously, if you’d done something terrible to the listener, you shouldn’t hide that for long or else that quickly becomes a lie of omission, which is no different from any other terrible lie. And so, we see that discretion should be balanced against honesty. If you did something that had a direct impact on the listener, they probably have the right to know. If you did something to someone else, especially something in the distant past, use appropriate discretion. Find the right time to convey such information.

The back-and-forth rhythm of storytelling

The process of having a difficult conversation is much like climbing a mountain. At the bottom, you are never quite sure how things will go or how you’ll get there, you just know you need to get to the top. It’s a winding, twisting journey. It takes both strength and flexibility to succeed.

As you climb through your conversation, you’ll notice frequent switchbacks. Each person must switch roles from being listener to speaker, often many times.

The conversation is also like a dance. One person needs to take the lead on this. It’s typically best if the leader assumes the listening role first. Listen as much as possible until your own strong feelings start to bubble up, and then insist on a switch. Flip the conversation and insert your own story. The leader thus takes the initiative in switching roles, while gently encouraging their partner to then become the listener. Take care not to have both people speaking their stories at the same time, like penguins talking over each other.

As the leader speaks, the leader should notice when their partner becomes exhausted as listener. The listener’s anxiety starts to heighten, and they will appear increasingly uncomfortable. The leader will switch back into listening mode at that point. They will signal the switch with a caring, curious open-ended question. They may also change posture, appearing themselves more relaxed and ready to tackle something difficult.

The partner who is speaking generally is unloading a weight off their shoulders. They are venting frustration and pend-up negative energy. The process is cathartic as long as the speaker feels listened to. The speaker gains positive energy with which they can use to later be the listener. If things go well, the weight being passed back-and-forth between partners will grow lighter over time.

If this process is done correctly, we call this positive cycling. It forms a type of virtuous cycle. Understanding is the result. Each person’s imagination opens to new possibilities of cooperation (bridge building). Each partner also becomes more aware of the other person’s raw spots and boundaries. Respect builds, and with that comes trust. There also comes a more honest evaluation of fit. How well is the situation working for both people? Where can it be improved?

Next: Evaluating Fit


Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most
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Difficult Conversations

Comprehensive Guide to Active listening

“Every experience is open to countless readings and interpretations.  We never see a thing completely.  In sure anticipation, our eyes have always already altered what awaits our gaze.  The search for truth is difficult and uncomfortable.”

John O’Donohue, Beauty

Active listening is a critical skill for the health of any relationship. Active listening involves observing what verbal and nonverbal communication is being sent. The goal is to help the speaker tell their story. With attention, curiosity, and empathy, the listener conveys mutual understanding and validates their perspective.

Active listening helps to build trust, connection, and perspective. It strengthens values that are often ignored when individuals are in conflict: caring, patience, and imagination. It can lead to transformative change for both the listener and the speaker.

This article will focus on listening to others. To learn the complementary practice of listening to oneself, see my article How to Build Self-Awareness. To learn to listen to one’s inner characters for purposes of trauma healing, see We’re all multiple: Internal Systems of the Mind.

Here we will learn to build effective communication skills set the groundwork for having difficult conversations at home, at work, and elsewhere. Ultimately the goal of any conversation is understanding. Conflict resolution doesn’t occur without it. Active listening is one key piece that builds to understanding. The second half of having a difficult conversation is asserting one’s own feelings and perspective; see Telling Your Story.

This Article Contains:

What is empathy? Brene Brown Short
What are the 5 key aspects to active listening?
(Part 1) Prologue – setting the conditions for effective listening in 11 steps
(Part 2) Storytelling – 22 key points to remember when listening to someone’s story
(Part 3) Conclusion – How to transition to telling your story!
Bookshelf: 2 books on active listening

What is empathy?

Active listening builds genuine caring, otherwise known as empathy. See the video below which describes the difference between empathy and less genuine forms of caring.

The ladder process of active listing: 6 key aspects

There is a ladder process to listening. This involves hearing, piecing together a story, feeling the other person, understanding what they have to say, and finally validation.

  • Set the stage for listening
  • Hearing (the words).
  • Piecing together the facts into a story.
  • Feeling what the speaker feels emotionally as you travel through the story. Being present with them.
  • Understanding the choices the speaker made during the story (and imagining yourself make similar choices in similar circumstances).
  • Validating their feelings and perspective

This six-step process is not easily done. There are many potential missteps along the way. Even knowing the skills, it may take years to really master them. Next, we will break down this process into 3 parts: Prologue, Storytelling, and Conclusion.

Part 1: Prologue – setting the conditions for active listening in 11 steps

“Our culture has little respect for privacy; we no longer recognize the sacred zone around each person.  We feel we have a right to blunder unannounced into any area we wish.  Because we have lost reverence of approach, we should not be too surprised at the lack of quality and beauty in our experience.”

John O’Donohue, Beauty

Active listening is about one person telling a story, and the other person becoming immersed in that story. Like all stories, we need to first set the stage. Here are eleven key steps to setting the stage.

  1. Look inward first to find calm. Before we begin, we need to first do a personal self-check. Where are we right now? What emotional baggage are we bringing to the table? What agenda are we bringing? How emotionally reactive are we at this moment? Ideally, we would come into the conversation with a place of inner calm. To explore self-awareness, see How to build self-awareness.
  2. Be genuine. Even if we can find calm, we need to recognize our own thoughts, emotions, and our own story related to the subject. Recognize how much energy we have available to share with the other person right now. Recognize that we may not have as much energy to give as they are expecting to receive. Be up front about this. “I have 30 minutes to talk about this. We don’t have to finish in that time, but wherever we’re at we’ll need to pause at that time. We can always come back.” Call out negative emotions, “I’m feeling defensive when you say…” Self-monitor for your own thoughts and judgments that may come up. Recognize your mixed feelings on the subject. Do we have the energy right now to give our speaker undivided attention?
  3. Create psychological safety. Honest conversations cannot happen when one person feels like they are trapped in an interrogation cell. Start by finding an appropriate time and place for your conversation. Make sure everyone involved has enough energy to have the conversation. Make sure everyone is feeling safe. Nothing that is said should have repercussions afterwards. No one should be walking on eggshells for fear of being punished for saying the wrong thing.
  4. Establish, from the outset, unconditional positive regard. Acceptance and connection are key. Even if the personal connection between speaker and listener is frayed somewhat, work to establish the connection that still exists. That connection will be our foundation upon which the conversation can be built. Make clear that no matter what is said, we can always go back to that foundation and trust it will still be intact. We will not allow what is said to threaten that preexisting foundation. Both speaker and listener will check-in periodically to ensure that as the conversation flows, this unconditional positive regard has not suffered. If it does, we will agree to take breaks to recharge.
  5. Set out clear goals for the conversation. Now is the time for the listener to quickly and concisely be clear about the purpose of the conversation. “I don’t feel good about what happened yesterday. I’m hoping to learn more about your perspective…” The goals may require some negotiation. “I would like to learn more about how things are going with you at work right now. I know that you also want to talk about my mother, but let’s agree to hold that conversation for now…”
  6. Acknowledge preexisting feelings, including distrust and disconnection. If the purpose is to resolve a previous disagreement, be clear about what negative feelings that disagreement has generated in the past. we will use those feelings as energy to drive our resolve towards understanding. However, once we get started with the process of listening, those negative feelings that we have will need be put aside. We are only going to acknowledge and label those feelings at this stage. We are not going to justify or explain them. There will be time for telling our story later.
  7. Ask permission. Ask if the speaker is willing to talk. Let them know exactly what we’re hoping to learn from them. If there is preexisting distrust, the speaker may only intend to share parts of their story. Make clear that we are OK with that. As trust builds, they are likely to open up more.
  8. Find compassion.  Sometimes two people get stuck in a difficult situation. This becomes a type of trap or negative cycle. Recognize that no one person is to blame for the negative cycle, but that everyone has become unwittingly trapped.  We must have compassion for each participant.  No one wants to be trapped. Compassion is the key first step.  We care about the person, the speaker. We are not afraid of what they have to say.
  9. Pause our own thoughts, feelings and storytelling. Our story must be set aside for now. For effective listening to occur, we must completely pause, in our mind, our own version of events. Right now, they do not exist. We have dissociated from them. We will revisit them later. We have no agenda right now except to put on the shoes of the speaker. Our preexisting feelings and thoughts must be suspended.
  10. Extend benefit of the doubt (extend unearned trust). If we’re having this conversation because of a prior conflict, resolving that conflict requires both sides to extend some measure of trust that didn’t exist before. We must find some trust–generosity of spirit–within ourselves that we can extend to the other person, whether we regard that trust to be earned or not. We must have faith that their actions, whether we believe them to be good or bad, were the result of some legitimate purpose that we can eventually find common cause with. We don’t have to agree in the end. The purpose isn’t agreement, it is understanding. Trust is the glue that will hold the conversation together. Without it, we shouldn’t expect a positive result.
  11. Exercise humility. No one person has the answer.  Everyone will need to work together to answer critical questions and resolve the issue at hand. 

Part 2 of Active Listening: Storytelling – 22 key points to remember when listening to someone’s story

“A great journey needs plenty of time.  It should not be rushed.”

John O’Donohue, Beauty

Now is the time to dive into the story. We will do this primarily by asking open-ended questions and giving space for the speaker to answer. The quality of the conversation will be determined by the quality of questions that we ask. Here the speaker will build their narrative. They may not always follow a linear timeline. We will use our skills to piece together their feelings, facts, motives, and observations. Along the way, we will convey interest by demonstrating understanding and validating their perspective.

  1. Find your curiosity.  We begin to ask difficult questions.  What is the speaker feeling?  Why are they feeling this way?  Where did these feelings come from? 
  2. Ask open-ended questions that leave room for a narrative response rather than closed questions that forcing a yes-no response. Yes-no questions are agenda-driven questions that pressure the speaker into conforming to the questioner’s agenda. Yes-no questions undermine the complex experience of the speaker.
  3. Be brave. As the listener, it takes courage to find our own vulnerabilities. Our speaker is sharing their vulnerability with us. To truly hear them, we need to be equally vulnerable. They are opening up to us, and in turn we must reciprocate by opening up to receive what they have to say.
  4. Give encouraging verbal cues. Use small replies like: “Yes, I see,” “Mmhmm,” “I get it,” “I hear you,” “Right,” “So…” “Oh?” These are done to encourage and covey interest. They are used alongside gestures and expressions, such as smiling or nodding. Practice this. This begins the process of making the speaker feel validated.
  5. Their truth. Their perspective. What is being said is a type of truth that belongs to the speaker. It is not The Truth–the final word on the subject. But it is a truth. Avoid dismissing it. Avoid looking for cracks and plot holes. The thoughts and feelings being expressed must be believed, supported, and respected. They should not be challenged. Avoid logical arguing. Avoid diverting the conversation away from uncomfortable topics, unless we had already agreed not to discuss those topics at this time.
  6. Withhold judgments. As we listen, our own stories will try to seep in. Our preexisting beliefs and feelings are like pesky critters trying to find their way back into the forefront of our thoughts. They may manifest through analysis and judgment. They undermine our ability to be present with the speaker. We must actively work to avoid this. Avoid criticism, blaming, threatening, directing, lecturing, shaming, analyzing, interrogating, humoring, and distracting. Doing any of these things undermines psychological safety for the speaker.
  7. Logical analysis should only be done for the expressed purpose of understanding the speaker’s story. Our goal is to gather the facts as the speaker sees them. This is critical. Here we should recreate the speaker’s timeline. We will immerse ourselves in the speaker’s story. Part of doing so is understanding the facts, timeline, and logical thinking that are part of the story. We will probe with curiosity and caring as our instruments. We will avoid allowing our own preexisting negative feelings to drive our analysis.
  8. Do not interrogate the speaker. Interrogation is pressuring. We are not pressuring the speaker into doing anything. Instead, we are letting them come to us with honest narration. There are two types of interrogation to be mindful of. The first is bending the speaker’s story in a particular direction (towards agreeing with us or being congruent with our story). The second is pressuring the speaker to divulge information prior to them being ready. The speaker must feel safe before they can give up deeper, more intimate parts of their story.
  9. Recognize the speaker’s emotions. Respond to them. Label and call them out in a curious, caring way. This will help the speaker know that we are truly listening and remaining engaged. Keep in mind that this is our impression of their feelings. Leave plenty of room for their feelings to be different or more complex than what we are observing.
    • Be sure not to diagnose their problem or stamp a definitive label on it. Labeling at this stage is still phrased as a curious question meant to clarify what they are actually feeling and close any knowledge gaps. We are filling in the gaps of your ignorance, not trying to bend their feelings in a particular direction. In other words, labeling an emotion is offering a hypothesis to be tested. The speaker will help correct or clarify the hypothesis.
    • Remember also that by labeling an emotion, we are shaping it. We are defining it through language, which does in fact change the emotion. This is another reason why we must be careful to exercise curiosity and respect at this stage for what they might be feeling. Ultimately the speaker will pick the words that best describe what they are feeling. The speaker may discard other labels that we offer.
  10. Share new feelings generated by their story with care and intention. We have already put our preexisting feelings aside. Yet, there is an experience to hearing someone else’s story. New feelings are like new plants growing in the wild. We may acknowledge them as they began to grow and take shape. Likely they will be similar to but slightly different from the feelings the speaker has. These differences in feelings and experience may be OK to share. We need to be intentional about sharing them.
    • Some of our feelings may exist harmoniously with the speaker’s feelings. These may be OK to share in small doses. Watch for feedback from the speaker to see if they are feeling validated by our sharing.
    • Some of our feelings may not be harmonious with the speaker’s feelings. We should acknowledge them internally, to ourselves, and then set them aside for now.
    • If the reason we’re listening right now has to do with resolving a disagreement, chances are we are now feeling something different from what we may have felt originally. Try not to resolve these differences right now. Keep our preexisting feelings away so they don’t interfere with the new feelings that are germinating.
    • Do not overuse “I” statements. We are the listener. The occasional comment about us will show that we are remaining attentive and demonstrate how the speaker’s story is affecting us. Avoid flipping the switch and suddenly start telling your story while being the listener. Avoid letting “I” statements disrupt the speaker’s story.
  11. Let silence sit. There will be moments where silence is called for and necessary. Especially moments of confusion, times when big emotions get dropped, or times where new layers get opened up. If we feel compelled to break the silence, say something like: “Maybe we should just sit with the silence for a few seconds.” Wait until they indicate they are ready before proceeding.
  12. Key Skill: Reframing. Translate the essence of what the other person says into more constructive language. If there was past conflict, there may have been mistranslation and miscommunication. To resolve this conflict, someone will need to act as translator. Work on acting with dual roles: listener and translator. Watch for certain things below which commonly need to be translated. Check out the book Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most that goes through this process in detail.
    • Translate: Truth → Different stories. The speaker is speaking their truth, as we noted before. It is not The Truth. Remind them that there may be different stories. They should not be using language that disrespects our story (our version of events).
    • Translate: Accusations → Intentions and Impact. The speaker should not be making accusations towards us or others. Instead, refocus their efforts towards their feelings. For instance, they may feel abandoned, but that does not mean that we abandoned them. The difference may seem small, but it is critical. Discuss the impact that events have had on them. Encourage them to discuss their own intentions as well. Why did they do what they did? We will hold off on discussing our intentions and the impact on us until we are ready to share our own story.
    • Translate: Blame → Contributions. When they start into blaming, ask them instead to share how they think others contributed to the outcome. What actions did they observe and what was the impact of those actions? Ask them how they think they contributed to what happened.
    • Translate: Judgments → Feelings. When they start to judge, again refocus them into saying how they felt. Here we are winding back their thought process to discover the underlying feelings. Their feelings will be held as sacrosanct, while their thought processes will be recognized as hypotheses that need further scrutiny. Avoid scrutinizing their thought processes here during the stage of active listening.
    • Translate: What’s wrong with us → What’s going on for them? This is another type of accusation that must be redirected. Bring it back to them. We’re not here to be put on the defensive. We only want to exercise curiosity and caring to understand their story.
  13. Key skill: Focus on the behavior, not the person. In an argument, the speaker may accuse us or someone else of something. This is likely to be phrased as a personal attack against that person’s identity. This needs to be translated and refocused into a discussion about behavior. Leave the person’s identity intact. Focus on the choices that the person has made, including the impact of those choices. Talk about why those behaviors matter so much. “There seems to be a pattern developing here…”
  14. Key skill: Help keep the speaker on track. Listener and speaker previously agreed to what subjects would be discussed and which ones would be put aside for now. If the speaker veers off into a different subject, feel free to nudge them back on track. “Let’s get back to talking about…”
  15. Key Skill: Paraphrasing. In paraphrasing, the goal is to close any ignorance gaps that might arise. We will restate things that spoken by the speaker. As we hear them, we are processing their words. We are translating them in a way that we can understand. Mirroring their story back is one way to check the accuracy of your translation. It can also help make the speaker feel validated.
    • Clarify. Double check facts, timelines, feelings, experiences, intent and impact. The last two pieces are the most difficult. Work to understand their intent. What values drove their decision-making? What was the impact on them? Prior to their decisions, what did they think the impact would be? After the decisions were made, what did they observe the impact to be on us? We will close the gap between their observed impact and the actual impact later during the telling of our story.
    • Move from “either-or” → “and”. Many arguments involve individuals unwittingly setting either-or traps for one another, then watching as people fall into those same traps. We escape the traps by remembering that two things can be correct at the same time. For instance, change, “You didn’t care about me” into “I do care about you, and I was also trying to protect myself.” Remember, when two people argue, they are bringing two sets of feelings, experiences, perspectives and values. Both sets are important and needing to be validated and respected.
    • Summarize and repeat back key words. Catch small things that the speaker might hint at which may be incredibly important. These tip-of-the-iceberg statements require more exploration. These often include feelings that stand out.
  16. Key Skill: Escaping Traps. Speaker and listener may get stuck somewhere in the conversation. Often this occurs when one person refuses to back down from leveling their insults and accusations. To escape a stalemate, try one of the following:
    • Don’t get insulted when they call out our behaviors. Take accountability for the contributions we made to the problem being discussed and the resulting impact on the other person. This isn’t yet the time to discuss our intent. That comes during the telling of our story.
    • Keep our focus on behavior; avoid attacking the person. Remember that they have every right to call out our behavior in the way that they see fit. But they do not have the right to insult us as a person.
    • Invite the other person to persuade us. “I’m still not sure that was the right thing to do. Can you tell me more?” Remember to leave the invitation open-ended so as to avoid making the speaker feel pressured.
    • Ask their advice: “What would you do if you were me?”
    • Explain our listening strategy. We may annoy the speaker with reframing and paraphrasing. Carefully explain why we are using these techniques as a means to understand them.
    • Give them an opportunity to try again. This is especially useful if they say something that really rubs us the wrong way. Tell them, “What you just said was insulting. Would you mind trying to explain that again?” Again, we’re not trying to bend their story, only to eliminate the unnecessary insult from it.
    • Be prepared to walk away. We should always be prepared to conclude that understanding isn’t possible at this time. Keep the door open for the future. “I have to pause this conversation right now. I will leave the door open to resume at a later date.”
  17. Avoid non-validating responses. Don’t minimize the uniqueness of what the other person has said. Avoid pretending to know something about something that we don’t.
  18. Do not problem-solve. Avoid fixing the problem right now. Fixing the problem for the speaker is another way of dismissing their issue and quickly wrapping things up. There is time for resolution later.
    • When the speaker feels sufficiently listened to, they may ask for advice: “What would you have done differently if you were me?” Be careful in answering this question. They may genuinely want your advice. Or they may be testing you to see if you’re still listening (without even knowing they are testing you). In many cases, they have an idea in mind about what they would do differently next time, and they are looking to see if you are thinking the same thing. Try answering their question with another curious question rather than a definitive answer: “What do you think would’ve happened if you had done this instead?”
    • Ultimately, even if we have the perfect solution to the speaker’s problem, we don’t want to just give it up. Help the speaker arrive at that solution for themselves, through careful questioning, only after they’ve been appropriately listened to. Even our perfect solution may not be perfect for them.
    • Follow the 80:20 rule. When we are the listener, make sure we’re not doing more than 20% of the talking. If we’re doing more, then we’ve probably switched over to fix-it mode.
  19. Be patient. The speaker will tell their story at their own pace. Give them time to feel things again before they answer.
  20. Accept that we will make mistakes. Listening is an art that times time and practice. Ask forgiveness if we do not get it right at first and the speaker gets upset.
  21. Connection is cure. Avoid trying to make things better. This can be seen as dismissive. Instead say: “I don’t know what to do right now. I’m just so glad you told me.” Always work on connecting to the emotions that underpin the experience.
  22. Recognize when we’ve heard enough. Take a break. When we feel our own emotions start to boil over, insist on pausing. If they have still more to say, let them know it is only a temporary break. We will come back. Give them a rough estimate on when we can resume. For instance, if our spouse wants to discuss a thorny issue right before bed, we can say, “I know this is important to you. Because I love you, this is important to me, too. Right now, I need to get some sleep. I would like to discuss this tomorrow after dinner when I have more time and energy to listen.”

Part 3: Conclusion (now for the sequel: Your story!)

We have a story to tell!

If this conversation started because a friend came to us looking for advice, then now is finally the time when we can begin to offer our advice up! Again, we don’t want to just tell our friend what to do. Give them a story from our past experiences. Tell them what we did and how it worked out or didn’t work out for us. Then let our friend make up their own mind on what they should do. Leave room for our suggestions and methods to not be what your friend ultimately decides to do. “I don’t know if this would work for you, but last year I found myself in a similar situation. Here’s what happened… Here’s what I did…” Ultimately, we want to empower the speaker to solve their own problems. Even if we’re the expert on the subject, maintain humility and leave room for further learning. Try our best to follow the 80:20 rule through the entirety of the conversation. Pretend someone is transcribing the whole thing, and afterwards we will count the number of words spoken to verify an 80:20 ratio. All of our talking, including your curious questions and your stories, should not exceed 20% of the total conversation.

If the conversation is the result of a disagreement, then now is the time for our feelings, perspective, and intent to be shared. If we exercised good listening, chances are the speaker’s trust in us has gone up exponentially. This opens the speaker up to being willing to listen to our story. They may even start to model some of the listening techniques that we’ve used. They may also need some gentle guidance in how to listen effectively. “I’m asking for your patience as I try and explain why I did what I did…”

Ask the speaker, “Did you feel listened to?” If not, remind them that we are trying our best to listen. We may not have gotten it perfectly right this time. Ask if you can try again another day.

Check out this active listening worksheet for more ways to practice.

Difficult conversations are best handled like table tennis, where the ball is being bounced back and forth. There is a rhythm to the process where each side takes turns being listener and speaker. No one person monopolizes one role. Rarely does one person tell their entire complex story all at once before allowing the other to speak. Instead, the onion is peeled back in layers. With each layer, both sides get to speak parts of their story while the other takes a turn listening. However, for this to work effectively, at least one person needs to become an extremely effective listener. Practicing these techniques and mastering the listening role can go a long way towards relationship success. As we get better, we can model effective listening for our partner. Over time, both individuals share in the rewards, building trust and confidence in the process. This rhythmic approach with back-and-forth switching of roles is called positive cycling. For more on this, see Guide to Positive Cycling. Positive cycling is a type of virtuous cycle. It is not a straight-line walk towards a preexisting agenda. Instead, it is a winding journey full of twists, bumps, and missteps. Always we are moving towards understanding.

Next: Telling Your Story


Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most
No Bad Parts: Healing Trauma and Restoring Wholeness with the Internal Family Systems Model
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Feelings have purpose

“Our senses are lanterns that illuminate the world.  Beauty is never simply in the mind alone.  Beauty awakens for us through what we hear, touch, taste, scent and see… the experience of beauty confirms the intricate harmony and creative tension of senses and thought.  Without the senses, we could never know beauty.  Without thought, beauty would seem transient and illusory.” 

John O’Donohue, Beauty

If our senses are the bridges between the body and the mind, as John O’Donohue suggests, then feelings are the bridges between the mind and the soul. They form the connection.  They carry us. They transform us and color in the empty spaces of our lives.

Emotions are information with purpose.

This is a difficult concept for many people. But it makes sense with a little explanation.

Understanding the language of emotion is so critical to our wellbeing. Hearing that language and the underlying message is an important skill to learn. We don’t always have to do exactly what the feeling is urging us to do, but we are obligated to respond. Failing to do so will almost always come back to bite us.

This Article Contains:

How do we separate feelings from thoughts?
How do we begin to understand our feelings?
Six steps to regaining control of our feelings
Feelings are organic living things
Feelings are energy
Feelings are a source of connection
Why feelings should not rule your life
Bookshelf: 3 books on emotional intelligence

How do we separate feelings from thoughts?

We all have times when our feelings overwhelm us.  They can confuse and scare us. Strong feelings can be troubling for a person going through a state of crisis.  We feel like we’re losing control. Our ability to function in society and in relationships can feel like they’re slipping.  We feel like we’re losing control. 

Understanding feelings can be difficult. The first step is to separate feelings from thoughts. Thoughts are language–words that we hear in our heads. There are many different types of thoughts: conclusions, judgments, assumptions, beliefs, associations, creative thoughts, curious thoughts, negative unwanted thoughts, and more. Some thoughts are within our control, and others are not. We cannot always choose to believe what we believe. Examples of this include believing in God or believing that you are in love. There are elements of these types of beliefs that are outside of the person’s conscious control. Neither can we entirely control the stream of conscious thoughts running through our heads.

In contrast, feelings don’t exist as language. Feelings exist in the more primitive centers of our brain. They can be translated (or mistranslated) into language. We feel hungry and then hear the thought, “I should go eat.” In this case, the impulse of hunger is a feeing from outside our conscious self. It is therefore outside our control.

Now just because a feeling’s existence is outside our control doesn’t mean that we can’t shape it. The easiest way to make the feeling go away is to give in. If we’re hungry, we can eat. But we don’t have to give in. We can fight the feeling, and it may go away for a while, but often it comes back worse than before. A person who puts off eating a slice of cake now may find themselves eating the whole thing later.

Our choices here aren’t as black-and-white as given-in or fight. We can do a lot of things to feelings. We can shape them. Through discipline, effort, and skill we can mold, shape or channel feelings to a healthy end. This is not always easy or straightforward. It often takes trial-and-error with considerable failure before we finally succeed. For example, we can start with a feeling of hunger. We translate that into “I need to eat.” A better translation would be, “I need to eat something healthy.” The end goal is to crave something healthy to eat. For some people, this is incredibly easy and natural to do. For others–people whose past traumas center around food insecurity–developing this craving can be the hardest thing they ever accomplish.

We can do many things to feelings. We can explore them and open them up through listening. We can pause them and return to them later when the timing is right. We can suppress them, much to our later detriment.

How do we begin to understand our feelings?

The most important thing we can do is try to understand feelings. Where do they come from? What do they really mean?

When a person goes to the doctor’s office, at least half the time they do not come out and say why they are really there. Much of the time, they leave it up to the medical staff to try and figure that out. Sometimes they don’t tell the doctor the real reason until the doctor’s hand is on the doorknob. Sometimes they make it out to the parking lot before realizing they’re upset at never having their needs addressed. I didn’t want to know what kind of illness I have, what I really wanted was an antibiotic. Very often, the patient has no idea why they are really there. They only know afterwards that they are upset. All doctors struggle with this. Some are more intuitive than others.

Feelings are a lot like this. They exist. And yet, it can require a great deal of detective work to figure out why they are there. For someone struggling with an eating disorder, understanding that person’s hunger can be the work of a lifetime. And yet, healing cannot occur without understanding.

Some feelings can be extremely scary.  The voices in our heads can tell us disturbing things.  They can urge us not to trust people we know.  They encourage us to cut corners.  They tell us to hurt ourselves or hurt others.  They shame us into believing that we’re not worthy. These are all difficult feelings. They can be overwhelming and seem impossible to escape. And yet, the only power they have over us is the power we grant them.

For difficult feelings like these, there is more than meets the eye. Much like the patient who comes in with a hidden agenda, these feelings won’t divulge their purpose easily. They will require curiosity and good listening before they will ever give it up.

Remember that a negative thought remains just that–a thought. Thoughts are partially within our control. For instance, a thought of suicide can be a voice inside our heads telling us to do harm to ourselves. It may be very specific and it may be very loud. We may not be able to wish that voice away. But we can affect its behavior. We can talk to it. By talking to the voice, we can discover the feelings driving the voice along with the underlying motive and purpose. For more on how to have difficult conversations like these, please check out No Bad Parts: Healing Trauma and Restoring Wholeness with the Internal Family Systems Model  by Richard Schwartz, PhD.

The first step to regaining control is recognizing that feelings have purpose.  If this is a new concept, these steps with a few less intense feelings that you might have. Imagine that you are the doctor now and the feeling is your patient. The feeling has an agenda that may not be straightforward. The feeling will only relax its intensity when it feels understood. You have some detective work to do here. Take comfort in knowing that you don’t have to give in to the feeling’s demands. In fact, that is very often the wrong thing to do. The feeling only needs to be understood. Then it will relax its intensity.

Six steps to regaining control of our feelings

While feelings are not under our direct control, we do control how we respond to them. Thus, we can keep them from overwhelming us. This is analogous to an obnoxious child. We cannot stop the child from being obnoxious if he truly wants to be. But we can keep the obnoxious child from ruining our day. And if we stop feeding his negative energy, he will settle down eventually.

Try these six steps to start regaining control:

1. Recognize and label feelings

If you’ve never done this type of work before, it will take some time to learn to do this. Consider reading Permission to Feel by Marc Brackett, Ph.D. for a primer on emotional intelligence. Keep in mind a few principles here:

  • There are countless types of emotions and labels that we might give them.
  • Feelings must be separated from thoughts. Feelings are outside our control whereas thoughts are partially in our control.
  • Feelings and thoughts are often confused. “I feel angry at my spouse” is a feeling. “I feel that my spouse should communicate better” is not actually a feeling, it is a thought. A good rule of thumb is that anytime you say feel that you are probably about to voice a thought. To avoid confusion, it’s best to keep things simple and say, “I feel angry” or even, “I am angry.”
  • Often we will experience multiple feelings at once. This causes internal confusion, conflict, or ambivalence. Try your best to separate out the feelings. For instance: “I am angry at my spouse because… I am sad because… I am also appreciative of the way he…”
  • Here are some common feelings that people often fail to recognize: appreciation, trust/distrusting, connection/disconnection, flexibility/inflexibility, belief/doubt, motivated/unmotivated, fatigue/energized, stressed/overwhelmed/relaxed, abandoned/betrayed, forgiveness, hatred, contempt, disgust, resentment, wonder/awe, and feeling needy. We can feel dismissed and neglected or we can feel validated, heard and understood. Even our identity contains elements of feeling beyond our control. Rene Brown offers a list of 87 common emotions. See here for her book on the subject of mapping out emotions.
  • Remember that by labeling an emotion, you are shaping it. You are defining it through language, which does in fact change the emotion itself. You are taking a ball of clay and molding it. It is still clay afterwards, but it looks different. Our minds have access to a full spectrum of emotions that go beyond what our language can fully define. Paradoxically though, we cannot understand our emotions without labeling them just like a person cannot fully understand the ball of clay without working it in their hands.
  • Emotions and sensations from the body (touch, pleasure, pain) share a strong connection. Before we consciously recognize a sensation from the body, we feel that sensation emotionally. Long before we can formulate a thought regarding that sensation, we have already felt something reflexively. This is because the emotional centers of our brain reside in the more primitive limbic system. The limbic system stands between the body and the higher areas of the brain. We feel before we think. Due to this strong connection between the body and emotions, expect that your feelings reside, at least in part, somewhere in the body. Find out where they like to hang out. People are often surprised to discover where their negative emotions are hiding, such as in their stomach (irritable bowel syndrome), chest (chest tightness), head (migraines), or back (back pain).

2. Recognize internal conflict (conflicting feelings)

If you are having trouble separating conflicting feelings, start first by recognizing the conflict and what that conflict is doing to you internally. Is that conflict causing you additional feelings of confusion, ambivalence, anxiety, or excitement? Then work your way backwards through refection. “When my spouse did this, I felt… When my spouse said…, I felt…” Then hold the feelings up, side-by-side, and allow them to coexist for a moment. It is ok if they are completely at odds with one another.

3. Examine each feeling separately

Each one will need to be examined separately to understand its own unique purpose. Pick one and shine a spotlight on it. For this to work, you may need to pause or distance yourself from the others. If you must, learn how to temporarily dissociate from certain distressing feelings if they will not make space so that you may explore other feelings.

4. Feelings are like weather

Feelings change often. Even strong feelings can change quickly. People can feel like they’ve fallen in love after a few short conversations or one intimate encounter.

5. Not me

We are not defined by our feelings. Knowing this can help make them not be so scary. Feelings are an important part of what makes us human, but one set of difficult feelings do not make us the whole of who we are. Understanding this is an important part of sidestepping, or dissociating, from feelings when the time calls for it.

6. Listen to your feelings

Listening to your feelings will probably be strange at first. Take the feeling you have chosen to explore. The rest of your feelings and involuntary thoughts must be set aside. Once isolated, approach the feeling with intent to understand it. This requires putting aside ones fears. Instead, we must exercise genuine curiosity, caring and patience.

Learning how to listen to a feeling is not unlike listening to another person. Listening is one of the most important skills a person can learn in their lifetime. It can be a difficult skill to learn. This is usually the place where people get tripped up. When done well, when we begin to listen to our feelings, we come to see them as being like whole people. They take on a shape and identity of their own that is similar but separate from the rest of us as a whole. The movie Inside Out is an excellent depiction of how this works. Each feeling has wants, needs, desires, and an agenda of its own. Each feeling has its own place of safety that it desires to call its home.

Much of what people accomplish in counseling is learning how to simply listen to their own bodies. It is through the power of truly effective listening that the feeling reveals its purpose. We will go over some basics of effective listening next.

Feelings are organic living things

Isolated feelings share many similarities to people as a whole. They are organic living things produced from living tissue. And yet, they occupy a special place–a doorway. They sit at the threshold between the mind, body, and spirit. Feelings also connect us to the unfamiliar–that which is beyond our control. This contrasts with the familiar Self–that part of us that we have direct control over, the part of us that makes choices. There are many types of unfamiliar: other people, the living breathing environment with which we live, and the unfamiliar parts of our own inner Self. It is the complex interactions of these unfamiliar entities together with our familiar Self which produces our many feelings.

Feelings are energy

All of this may sound crazy and abstract. But there is an easier way to understand feelings. Feelings are energy. As energy, feelings flow through these invisible doorways that separate one person from the next. Feelings are alive with motion. Imagine other forms of energy, like the sun, the wind, and the energy that exists when we split atoms. We do not truly control this energy. We cannot tell the wind or the sun what to do. We do not govern the laws of physics. However, we can harness these forms of energy for useful purposes. Feelings are the same way. When they enter the domain of our conscious, we can harness them. We can use them for healthy purposes or for ill. Like other forms of energy, feelings can be misused. How we use them determines whether they make us sick or heal us, whether they deepen rifts or make us whole.

Feelings are a source of connection

As a type of energy, feelings also serve as the primary source of connection between people. Feelings form the bonds that hold people together. Without feelings, there can be no social bond.

Imagine that feelings are like the forces that hold atoms together. In physics, when two particles connect, there is typically more than one force holding them together. There are both attractive forces and repulsive forces at play. There is a balance between these differing forces. This balance tends to hold different particles at a certain, predefined distance from each other. The distance becomes stable, meaning it doesn’t change much over time.

Feelings operate much the same way. When two people connect, there is typically more than one feeling holding people together. It is the balance of these feelings that creates a stable bond, or attachment between people. Some feelings attract, while others push away. This tends to hold people at a certain distance from each other–not too close and not too far. If someone gets too close, we feel smothered, and our feelings push us towards wanting more freedom. If someone gets too far away, we feel lonely and reel them back in.

Our full spectrum of our feelings is involved in this process. This includes feelings like fear, anger, loneliness, anxiety, disgust, surprise, joy, sadness, etc. All of these feelings can participate to create stable bonds of connection. It may be surprising to learn that feelings like anxiety, anger, disgust, and fear participate in connection. But these repulsive, negative feelings are as important as the attractive feelings like joy and loneliness. The two types of feelings work together. They cannot exist without each other. And so, we see here the importance of negative feelings. Feelings that cause us distress–fear, anger, anxiety, sadness–are as important as positive feelings like joy or happiness.

How do positive and negative feeling work together?

Feelings tend to pair up together to create a stable bond. Often a feeling of attraction will pair together with a feeling of repulsion in effort to keep a person at the distance that feels best. That distance is what we refer to as fit. We say that two people fit together when the distance they want to keep each other at is relatively similar. All this means is that they want similar things out of the relationship. They don’t fit if they want different things from the relationship. For instance, one person wants a romantic relationship while the other wants to remain friends. See Do We Fit Together? for more on this topic.

As different feelings pair up to create a bond, there exists a give-and-take between them. There is a yin-and-yang of attraction and repulsion. Even though the distance between people may not appear to change much over time, there is always a push-and-pull at work to maintain that distance. A relationship dynamic between people is always in flux as people bounce back-and-forth between feeling attraction and feeling repulsion. This constant movement creates a rhythm. We push, then we pull, then we push again. This dynamic repeats itself through the life cycle of the relationship.

A couple can be in-sync or out-of-sync. Their separate, individual rhythms may line up together or they may fight each other. For instance, in-sync partners may feel the need for intimacy at similar times, or they may feel responsive to each other’s needs. Out-of-sync partners have difficulty communicating and responding to each other. This leads to conflicting behavior. One may be pushing while the other is pulling–one may be chasing while the other is running away.

When a rhythm is out-of-sync, this creates conflict. Resolving the conflict can be done in healthy or unhealthy ways. A power struggle between partners is one pattern of unhealthy conflict resolution where one person attempts to have their rhythm supplant the rhythm of their partner. In a power struggle, one partner believes their needs are more important than the needs of their partner. Active listening is one strategy for healthy conflict resolution and getting people back in-sync.

The emotional rhythms of relationships lead to a lot of repetitive behavioral patterns. These repetitive behavioral patterns become a type of habit over time. Individuals tend to respond to similar circumstances in predictable ways using their past experiences and abilities as a guide. These types of repetitive patterns become stable over time. We call this stable habit a cycle. A cycle basically means that people tend to do the same thing over and over again in their relationships.

Cycles are a normal part of relationships. We all have our routines. Partners become locked into their cycles. Even though, at any one point in time, they may be at a different place in the cycle, they are destined to return to that same place after a given period of time. That is ok. Being in a similar place is familiar and feels safe, which is why people enjoy the safety of a relationship’s routine.

There are many different types of relationship cycles that involve different types of emotions and behaviors. Cycles can be healthy or unhealthy. A healthy relationship is one where partners are generally in-sync, share similar values, and are responsive to each other’s needs. An unhealthy relationship has a deficiency in one or all of these three aspects.

When a relationship is working towards a healthier cycle, we call this positive cycling. When a relationship becomes stagnant in unhealthy behavior patterns, this is co-dependency. When a relationship becomes unhealthier over time, this is negative cycling, which is like a vicious cycle.

The purpose of this website and Identity-Values-Reflection (IVR) is to understand different types of relationship cycles. How do they work? What feelings are involved. We can determine which cycles are healthy and which are unhealthy. IVR can help people break out of unhealthy cycles and move towards healthier ones.

Take home points:

  • Feelings are connection. Without feelings, connection does not exist.
  • Different feelings group together in effort to create a stable connection so that people are not too close and not too far. Attractive feelings (i.e. joy) tend to pair up with repulsive feelings (i.e. anger).
  • We attempt to keep people in our lives at a certain distance based upon how much we value their connection. If each person values the other person to the same degree, then they fit well together.
  • There is a constant flux, or rhythm, in all relationships. This rhythm is defined by the balance between attractive and repulsive feelings. Both types of feelings are critical to establish this balance.
  • The habitual, repetitive rhythm becomes a stable cycle over time. Behaviors and feelings repeat themselves.
  • Cycles can be healthy or unhealthy depending on whether partners are in-sync, share similar values, and are responsive to each other’s needs. Relationships may progress towards greater health and connection (positive cycling), they may regress (negative cycling), or they may stagnate in unhealthy behaviors (co-dependency).
  • Identity-Values-Reflection (IVR) can help people understand their relationship cycles and work to make them healthier over time.

Feelings should not rule your life

Just like in the section “Not Me” above, feelings shouldn’t run your life. They provide you with energy. But they do not define you. Feelings aren’t Facts.

A person who is ruled by their feelings will surely run into peril. Feelings must be balanced by logic and reason. Feelings and logic form their own special cycle.

What is logic? In this case, we are not talking about a mathematical logic. Instead, we refer to the logic of values. Logic/reason consists of the values we use to channel and direct feelings towards a particular action or purpose. These values form guardrails to keep our feelings from driving us off a cliff.

Without feelings, a logical person becomes flat, robotic and disconnected. They become judgmental and lose the ability to truly listen to others or inspire through passion. Without true connection, trust cannot exist. This leads to negative cycling and a destruction of important relationships.

Without logic, the feeling person becomes dysregulated. They exist as a different person, moment-to-moment. Without the grounding of emotions, they make critical decisions on a whim. This also leads to negative cycling. The feeling person will eventually give in to their impulses. Important values like integrity, honesty, loyalty, respect and identity will erode. The feeling person will always follow their “happiness,” not realizing how they are cutting corners in their lives. They will cheat and steal from others. This also leads to loss of trust.

List of core values

Feelings aren’t Facts.


Permission to Fee: The Power of Emotional Intelligence to Achieve Well-being and Success
No Bad Parts: Healing Trauma and Restoring Wholeness with the Internal Family Systems Model
Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience

Next: active listening

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3-Step Rhythm of Healing

We live between the act of awakening and the act of surrender.  Each morning we awaken to the light and the invitation to a new day in the world of time; each night we surrender to the dark to be taken to play in the world do of dreams where time is no more.

John O’Donohue, Beauty

There is a rhythm to living.  Living is a conversational rhythm that occurs between people, between thoughts in our heads, between ever-shifting identities, between feelings and values, between distinct perspectives.  The conversation bridges worlds that are otherwise separate.

There is also a rhythm to healing.  To heal from any injury, we must feel that rhythm.  We must become in tune with our bodies.  The rhythm for healing most physical injuries is a 3-step process; connect-act-rest.  In this 3-step process, the first two steps are forward, while the third step is backward.  This 2-steps-forward, 1-step-back process is critical.

This Article Contains:

Healing Step 1: Connect to Heal
Healing Step 2: Act
Seven principles of healing action
Healing Step 3: Rest
How do we rest a difficult relationship – 5 tips for resting together!
How to keep the rhythm going

Step 1: Connect to Heal

In step 1, connect, we decide that we are going to take action to heal.  This may seem simple, but it is the most important step and often the one most overlooked.  We decide here that healing is our own responsibility, not someone else’s.  It is ok to use tools, like braces and wheelchairs, to help us with healing.  We seek out help from others who act as consultants, coaches and cheerleaders.  But we take care not to become dependent upon these tools or the people who help us.  When we rely upon people too much, they can start to ‘used’, which is a sign of co-dependency.  In the connect step, we allocate space, time, and energy towards healing.  The biggest mistake people make here is not setting aside enough space, time and energy.  People expect to cheat their way to getting better, and they are often surprised when it doesn’t work.

Step 2: Act

In step 2, act, we take specific action towards healing.  Usually this involves expending effort.  For most physical injuries, this means exercise.  If you don’t know exactly what types of exercise to do, then work with a professional.   For mental health issues, this involves confronting our issues head-on through mental processing.  Mental processing can take many forms: journaling, counseling, talking to friends / family, engaging in artistic endeavors, mindfulness recordings and self-guided meditation.  For relationship issues, this involves working directly with the person to tackle the issue at-hand.

People make the common mistake that healing happens naturally without effort, when in fact healing is always hard work.

The ocean surface is incessantly restless with every conceivable crest and blister of water.  Yet the ocean maintains poise.  However and wherever it throws itself, it never falls outside of itself. It can spread and scatter every which way, yet it is always held within the shelter of the one rhythm.

John O’Donohue, Beauty

Seven principles of healing action include:

  • We do the work!  At this stage, we are the person doing the majority of the work.  For physical injuries, this means actively working to make one’s body stronger.  Seeing a chiropractor or having a joint injection do not qualify here.
  • Get uncomfortable!  Growth does not happen without discomfort.  Discomfort occurs when we push the limits of old boundaries.  Here we may push ourselves to run faster or lift more weight.  We may take on new exercises or learn new skills.
  • Break out of old habits.  By doing the same things we have always done, we can expect to get the same results.  Try something new.
  • Don’t be afraid of failure.  In fact, we should expect failure.  Failure is part of the growth process.  In step 3, rest, we will learn how to take stock of what worked and what didn’t.  Here in step 2, we’re expected to jump full-bore into something that may not work.
  • Avoid causing pain.  While discomfort is expected and necessary for growth, pain is the sign that we are worsening an injury.  We must listen to our bodies to discover the fine line between discomfort and pain.  We can ride the edge but must take care not to cross.  For physical injuries, pain is a sign of tissue trauma.  We can work a torn muscle to the point where discomfort becomes pain, then we must back off or else risk making things worse.  For emotional rifts, we can explore thorny issues but must take care not to cause worsening emotional trauma.  Here we must learn to listen to ourselves and others to find the invisible line between discomfort and pain.  Once we feel that twinge of pain, we must redirect the activity away.
  • Active listening is a key skill involved.  When we are healing from physical or mental injuries, we are listening to our bodies to discover where the boundaries are, how far they can stretch, and how much rest they need.
  • The boundary between pain and discomfort changes over time.  As an injury heals, this boundary should expand.  For instance, as a muscle gets stronger, it should be able to do more prior to experiencing pain.  The same goes for emotional trauma.  As a person heals, it becomes easier to discuss thorny issues.

Healing Step 3: Rest

In step 3, rest, we actively engage in resting our system.  This is the one-step-back.  For physical injuries, this involves actively resting our injured body.  Active resting isn’t just sitting around.  Here we are still actively doing something.  We are icing our joints, stretching, rolling out our muscles, taking in proper nutrition and electrolytes to promote healing, etc.  Here is where we can allow others to take a major supportive role: chiropractor, massage therapist, acupuncture.

For mental health issues, we are giving parts of our brain a rest while still working other parts of our brain, our body, and spirit.  For instance, exercise and yoga are great ways to keep our bodies in shape.  To exercise those other parts of our brain, we may conduct artistic endeavors, read a book, or engage in other intellectual pursuits that are not related to the mental health issue.  Here we must be sure not to allow our mental health issue to encroach upon activity and thus force ourselves to rest.  We also take steps to ensure proper sleep.

Here are some general principles of active rest:

  • Rest is not sitting around.
  • Rest is not watching TV, surfing social media, or playing on electronics.
  • Rest is often uncomfortable as we continue to stretch or work sore muscles.
  • We can allow others to help with certain aspects of rest (chiropractor, massage therapist, acupuncture, etc.), but we do not rely on these people to do all the work for us at this stage.
  • It’s best to engage in a comprehensive plan for resting that involves the whole body: mind, body, and spirit.
  • Reflect upon what worked and what didn’t in the act stage.

How do we rest a difficult relationship?

People may wonder how to rest during a relationship struggle.  When going through couples therapy, for instance, the therapy occurs during the act stage.  This is where couples practice better communication and work through difficult issues.  Couples may also conduct specific exercises designed to work through these issues.  Between sessions, couples need to rest.

There are two types of rest: resting together and resting apart.  Both are critical for stressed couples.

Resting together involves doing fun activities together that help to build an emotional connection.  These are leisurely activities that help build appreciation of one another.  Here we are putting aside all the difficult issues, the stressors, the communication struggles, past betrayals, etc.  A couple could look back to the fun activities that brought them together in the first place.  This typically means going on dates.  A couple needs to make time and space for these activities.   The goal here is having fun together doing something that you both enjoy.  This step is so critical because without it, what’s the point of the relationship?

Five tips for resting together:

  1. Avoid watching romance movies that can cause one person to feel hurt or quickly spiral into a fight: “Why don’t you ever do the kind things that I saw that guy do?”
  2. Avoid one-sided activities that will cause one person to feel used.  For instance, don’t offer to massage your partner’s feet if you really don’t want to.
  3. Physical intimacy and sex are critical elements for most couples, but this needs to be carefully approached if this was part of the problem.  If that’s the case, delay attempting these activities until you both are ready.  Find new ways of sharing intimacy that are unrelated to past hurts.  Be curious!  Set appropriate boundaries ahead of time so that you don’t inadvertently slide back down into a thorny issue.
  4. Emotional intimacy is also critical.  Now is the time to explore deeper feelings and beliefs.  Partners need to be explorers.  They need to be genuinely curious about one another.  Again, like physical intimacy, couples need to avoid sliding into discussions related to their thorny issues.  Set appropriate boundaries to prevent that from happening at the wrong time.  If you feel yourselves sliding towards a difficult issue, say something like, “I don’t feel comfortable talking about that right now.  Can we table that issue until tomorrow and instead go back to discussing…”
  5. Good quality listening can be helpful for establishing appropriate boundaries around what your partner thinks would be fun vs what they see as another chore.

Resting apart involves doing activities that help to strengthen other aspects of our identity.  We can do things that build our self-esteem, such as learn new hobbies.  We can also engage with other people in our life: family, friends, coworkers.  We work actively to strengthen those bonds.  We make ourselves into a stronger, more whole person.

Keeping the rhythm

Healing a complex injury involves going through these three steps over and over again.  Knowing which step you are on is helpful.  Knowing which step you may be neglecting is also important.  Don’t be afraid to try something new and fail.  Don’t be afraid every time you take a step back.  Keep in mind the image of a dance: two-steps-forward, one-step-back.  Try not to get angry when your toes get stepped on.  Remember that is part of the process.  Also remember, every dance can be hard work to learn at first, but it is supposed to also be fun.

Be flexible.  Healing a complex injury rarely occurs according to a predetermined schedule.  Before going back to step one, be sure to reflect on what worked and what didn’t.  Also ask yourself, what haven’t we tried yet?

As we repeat the cycle, we create a rhythm.  Over time we collect feedback on our performance.  Which of our connections are getting stronger?  Which are getting weaker?  Are we healing?  Are the boundaries stretching.  Have they stretched too far?  Do we feel listened to?  Have our partners demonstrated signs—changes in behavior—that show that they also feel listened to?

Next: Feelings have purpose

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Beauty and Loss

A time of bleakness can also be time of pruning… this pruning cuts away all the false branching where our passion and energy were leaking out.  While it is painful to experience and endure this, a new focus and clarity emerge.  The light that is hard won offers the greatest illumination.  A gift wrestled from bleakness will often confer a sense of sureness an grounding of the self, a strengthening proportionate to the travail of its birth.  The severity of Nothingness can lead to beauty.  Where life had gone stale, transfiguration occurs.  The ruthless winter clearance of spirit quietly leads to springtime of new possibility.  Perhaps Nothingness is the secret source from which all beginning springs.

John O’Donohue, Beauty

Beauty and loss are two intimate partners in the dance of life.  There is the beauty of exploring new places, taking risks, meeting new people, forging new connections, and trying on new identities.  With each change, we cross a threshold.  Embracing that change is seeing the beauty that exists on the other side.

Across each threshold, there is shedding of the old and changing into something new.  With all change, there is loss.  We feel that loss and we reflect on it.  We carry forward the memories of what once was.  We learn to trust and to distrust.

In her memoir, Heartbreak, Florence Williams describes a beautiful and transformative metaphor that she used to heal after her divorce. She was able to picture herself as a tree. Her ex was a strangler fig wrapped around her tree trunk. Through the process of recovery, she was able to tell the strangling vine to go away so that she could continue to grow. After Florence ripped the fine away, she looked up and saw a canopy of leaves growing into the light.

With each loss, there is stress and potential for injury.   How we respond to this stress determines whether we are able to embrace the coming beauty, whether we can truly move forward.

In parched terrains new wells are to be discovered.

John O’Donohue, Beauty

The journey of life is a journey across these bridges, from world to world, identity to identity, purpose to purpose.  It is a journey of reaching out and pulling back.  With each crossing, there is excitement and danger, there is beauty and loss.

This is a website committed to helping us to understand beauty and loss.  We will explore how to chart a way forward after incredible difficulty.  We will learn to see that beauty thrives on the other side of loss.  For loss and beauty, one does not exist without the other.  Sometimes we get stuck in loss or we retreat from it.  Sometimes we feel like something was stolen from us.  We will explore how these concepts of stagnation and theft impact healing.

As we begin to understand this change, we begin to see that life is circular.  Life has rhythm.  Life is a dance.  It has repetition.

Heartbreak: A Personal and Scientific Journey

Next: Rhythm of Healing


Beauty, The Invisible Embrace
Heartbreak: A Personal and Scientific Journey
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Healing complex injuries

What is a complex injury?

A complex injury affects multiple domains of a person’s life including the physical, spiritual, social, psychological, moral, and religious domains.  Examples include trauma, migraine headaches, chronic pain, chronic fatigue, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, addiction, abuse, PTSD and mental illness.  Even simple-appearing injuries, like a sprained ankle, can readily become complex if they affect a person’s job and livelihood.  Treating complex injuries requires comprehensive treatment plan that crosses these many domains to restore wholeness and wellbeing.  There are no miracle cures or quick fixes for these problems.  Instead, healing requires listening, understanding, and hard work.

What is healing?

Many of our assumptions about healing are wrong.  Much of what we think produces healing actually does not.  This is not meant to diminish the remarkable discoveries and accomplishments of science and modern medicine, but rather to see them in an appropriate context.  Modern medicine has done much to address physical issues like treating infectious diseases.  However, we often neglect the nonphysical domains of healing.  Most healing is not the result of a pill or a surgery.  When someone heals from a complex injury, modern treatments deserve only a small part of the credit.

“[Healing] has been obscured by modern medicine’s obsession with small parts, and the technologies, techniques, and the chemicals that manipulate them.  While many of these technologies are extremely valuable, this hyper focus an the economic rewards driving them has largely squeezed out the essence of what medicine is all about—how to guide a person to healing, wholeness, and well-being” – Wayne Jonas, MD How Healing Works

Inherent healing capacity

People have their own inherent ability to heal from complex injuries.  The trick is unlocking that ability.  Healing is a journey which requires risk, support, and curiosity.  There are no one-size-fits-all solutions.  We will use Circular Healing as a model to explain how healing works.  This model fits well within Whole Systems Science, the emerging science of integrative and complementary medicine.  Circular Healing is a model that weaves together these different domains of healing into an interconnected framework.  In Circular Healing, we will demonstrate the importance of values, behavior, and choices on healing.  We will also show that for complex injuries, the injury did not start on the date the physical injury occurred.  Nor has healing concluded on the date that physical healing has concluded.  Wholeness and wellbeing requires effort long after.

In this model, we can see that the a person’s ability to heal is affected by their state of health prior to the injury—their pre-injured state.  Compared to a person in good health, a person in poor health will struggle to heal after an injury.  They will be far more likely to not fully recover and be left with chronic wounds.  This is especially likely to occur if the person focuses primarily on physical aspects of healing.  The body is remarkably resilient and best suited for healing itself.  It is the nonphysical domains of injury that require the most energy.  To heal, we must dedicate the majority of our conscious effort to treating these nonphysical domains: mental, emotional, spiritual, social, and moral.

In this website, we will explore how relationships, support, trust, beliefs, and other aspects of wellbeing shape our ability to heal following injury.  We see how physical injury tests our prior wellbeing.  If our support systems hold up, the response to injury will lead to wholeness and restoration of wellbeing.  If the systems fail to respond appropriately, we will be left with chronic injury.  We then see how chronic injury is a type of nonhealing wound that distorts wellbeing and impacts our ability to respond to future injury.

Next: Beauty and Loss

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