A common saying in mindfulness is “you are not your thoughts.” When you start noticing them mindfully, it becomes clear that they are separate from you. You are the Observer; they are the observed. Noticing this separation often has a calming effect, giving you space from troubling inner experiences.
I believe that the whole story is something more like “you are not your parts, and your parts are not their thoughts, feelings, sensations, and impulses.” I’ll explore the first half of that idea here and the second half in Your parts are not their burdens.
The Observer interacts
Say you notice one thought: “I want a cookie.” And then another one: “Cookies are unhealthy.” Since these thoughts are pointing you towards opposite behaviors, it’s a safe bet that they’re emanating from different parts. We could call one your Treater part and the other your Nutritionist part. You are not a Treater all the time, and you’re not a Nutritionist all the time. But it’s not just that you can toggle between the two; you can also differentiate yourself from both at the same time, observing both the Treater and the Nutritionist.
Those of you familiar with mindfulness will be thinking “yeah, yeah, the space between you and your thoughts, we’ve all seen it.” But it turns out that the residue of you-ness that’s left behind is not just an Observer. It’s also capable of interacting with your parts. (I actually believe many mindfulness practitioners agree, but I appreciate that IFS makes it so explicit.) Not only is having a conversation between you and your parts possible, it’s transformational.
IFS calls that core you the Self, with a capital S. As a memory aid, IFS sums up some of the Self’s qualities with the 8 C’s:
Self is calm, curious, compassionate, confident, courageous, creative, fosters connection, and has clarity.
Unblending from parts
You have parts, but you are a Self. It doesn’t always feel that way, because a troubled part can cover up the Self so fully that you see through that part’s eyes, feel its feelings, and think its thoughts. But your Self always there. It’s a lot like the sun. On a cloudy day, you see less of the sun’s light and feel less of its warmth. At night, when the whole Earth is between you and the sun, it’s hard to tell the sun is still there at all. But it always is. Similarly, when parts are in the way, they can partially or fully obscure the warmth and light of your Self. But your Self is still there, and when you can convince your parts to scooch over and let it shine through, you’ll feel it again.
A few terms:
- Self-energy: the warmth and light of your Self, that you can feel to a greater or lesser degree
- blended: the state of feeling like you are a part, to a greater or lesser degree
- unblending: the process of separating Self from part
- being in Self: the state of being unblended from all parts, at least enough that some Self-energy is available
Being with a part
There are at least three states a part can be in:
- unblended and out of consciousness/inactive
- unblended but in consciousness/active
The third state makes it possible to be in Self while also being with one or more parts. The ability to be with a part rather than being that part (or just dismissing it) opens up important possibilities. You can learn information from your parts that they had been keeping subconscious. You can offer your parts support that actually feels meaningful. And you can stay calm and compassionate even while bearing witness to their troubled feelings.
As with parts, it’s not necessary for you to have specific beliefs about Self to benefit from IFS. Some people interpret Self in a spiritual way, and others see it simply as a mental state. Whatever it is, it’s demonstrably helpful, and more and more modalities of therapy and personal growth are making use of it.
It’s important not to take away from this post that Self is good and parts are bad. I’m a huge fan of parts! Stay tuned to understand why.