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.
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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.
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
- 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.
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?
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)
- 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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 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.