As I mentioned in You are not your parts, “you are not your thoughts” is a common saying in mindfulness practices. IFS introduces a layer into this picture: there’s you, and then your parts, and then your thoughts:
- You are a Self
- You have parts
- Parts have thoughts, emotions, sensations, and impulses (some of which are burdens)
The way I see it, differentiating your Self from your parts allows for mindfulness, and differentiating your parts from their thoughts and feelings allows for self-compassion (or rather, parts-compassion!).
This is the key to understanding why IFS founder Richard Schwartz says there are “no bad parts.” We’re not denying that something is wrong: you may have troublesome thoughts, painful emotions and sensations, and/or unwise impulses that lead you to engage in harmful behavior. But that’s not because you’re a rotten person, and it’s not because you have rotten parts. It’s because your parts carry burdens: overwhelming feelings, misguided beliefs, and outdated strategies.
Alma’s Heroic Parts
In the last post, we saw how Alma’s parts cause her problems: Belle overwhelms her with shame, Clara criticizes her and keeps her stuck in self-doubt, and David sabotages her career with procrastination. But look at them each a little more closely, and you’ll see how good they are at heart:
Belle took a bullet for Alma by absorbing her shame so that it wouldn’t pervade Alma’s whole system. She only causes emotional overwhelm because she needs someone to help her finally release that pain, and doesn’t know any other way to get Alma’s attention.
Clara’s criticism makes it seem like she hates Alma, but she’s actually doing her best to protect Alma from shame. Deep down she knows it isn’t working very well, but she can’t think of a better way. She doesn’t believe she has anyone to turn to for help, so she does the best she can. She’s exhausted from her constant monitoring, but too dedicated to rest.
David doesn’t intend to ruin Alma’s career, he just has a strong sense of priorities. Alma can pick up the pieces of her career later, but right now, Belle’s shame is too much to bear—he’ll do anything to stop it. He knows other parts and people think of him as a lazy no-good slacker, but that’s a sacrifice he’s willing to make to help Alma.
These parts aren’t inherently bad, and they don’t hate Alma. They’re just carrying burdens that are too heavy for them, and trying to handle them alone.
No Simplistic Identities
Buddhism and IFS agree that you should not tie your identity to your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Alma, for instance, is not “an uncreative person,” or “a procrastinator.” Her parts’ burdens make her act that way right now, but that’s not core to who she is.
With IFS, we see that it’s not core to who her parts are, either. You may initially know a part by its most unpleasant quality: “my inner critic,” “my stress eater,” “my angry part.” But when you get to know a part better, it turns out to have its own range of thoughts and emotions. A part is not an unthinking script that tells you the same thing every time it’s triggered; it’s just that while a part is burdened, reacting to its burden is its top priority, so we tend to see a one-dimensional version of it. The Mosaic Mind and Daily Parts Meditation Practice both give examples of the full personalities of real people’s parts (note that the former includes graphic discussion of abuse).
This is perhaps the hardest aspect of IFS to believe. Many theories hold that the mind contains multiple of something, but fewer explicitly state that those somethings are so person-like. The important thing, as always, is not to commit to a belief, but to be open to playing along. We don’t know what the subconscious actually contains, but people who try IFS find over and over again that interacting with parts as if they were “little people” yields the best results.
Many spiritual and therapeutic traditions have noticed a paradox in the importance of both acceptance and change:
The curious paradox is that when I accept myself as I am, then I change.Carl Rogers, founder of person-centered therapy, On Becoming a Person
Dialectical Behavior Therapy, for instance, is named “dialectical” to mean that we should embrace paradoxes, including this one:
DBT represents a balance between…technologies of change and…technologies of acceptance.Marsha Linehan, founder of DBT, Cognitive-Behavioral Treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder
I believe IFS helps demystify this paradox. Because parts with good intentions can be saddled with burdens that result in bad outcomes, we (our Selves) can love and accept all of our parts, while our parts want to change their burdens. We’re supportive of that desire for change, and interested in facilitating change, but don’t push our parts to change. The next post will explore how we can embrace change without pushing or manipulating our parts.
In the meantime, how do you feel about the idea that all the stuff that’s truly “you” is fundamentally good? Do parts of you feel relieved at that idea? Do parts of you feel uncomfortable with it?