In You are not your parts, I introduced the concept that you are a Self underneath all of your parts. Your Self is pretty great! When you’re centered in your Self, you can handle any feeling, and you’re in touch with your natural wisdom about what’s best for you. But we learned that some parts of you carry burdens that are like bulky backpacks, taking up space in your inner world, blocking the influence or “energy” of the Self from shining through. So one of the goals of IFS work is to release those burdens and allow Self-energy to flow more freely.
I also pointed out that burdens have the effect of locking doors in your inner world, isolating parts from each other and from the Self. In the story of Alma, it’s obvious that Belle, Alma’s exile, is locked up and alone. But even Alma’s protectors Clara and David feel like they’re on their own, which makes them believe that they can’t give up their problematic strategies. So it’s not just the burdens that create problems; it’s also the isolation. Another goal of IFS work, then, is to unlock these doors and foster connections in the inner world.
Self holds the key
Fortunately, the Self carries the key to opening these locked doors, building relationships, and using the safety of those relationships to release burdens. The Self is:
- a natural attachment figure, able to build trusting and loving relationships with parts
- a natural leader for the inner system, able to mediate between parts that are fighting
- a natural healer, able to help parts release their burdens
You may wonder how it’s possible for the Self to help, since all the bulky burdens and locked doors are blocking Self-energy. But with the right technique, even burdened parts can move out of the way temporarily to expose enough Self-energy to get started. Working with a practitioner who knows how to find their own center also helps, because their Self-energy can jump-start the process.
Approaches to Self-Restraint
If there were no such thing as Self, we might try to help Alma by teaching her self-restraint—that is, how to restrain her parts. Let’s look at a couple of the methods people sometimes use.
Motivate through fear or shame
Some advice is to be tougher on yourself, try harder, ditch the excuses, and have more self-discipline. It’s also common to focus on the terrible downsides of the behavior you want to change. In the case of Alma’s procrastination problem, such advice would try to make not doing her project even more threatening than doing it. When the protector David starts to distract Alma, an inner critic might say “you’re terrible for slacking off!” or an inner drill sergeant might say “work harder or you’ll get fired!”
These tough parts might overpower David, even as they trigger Belle’s fear and shame. As a result, IFS theory predicts that David will become even more determined to do his job in the future and even less cooperative with Alma’s other parts. That means this technique may work in the short term, but leave Alma worse off in the long term. If you’ve ever tried to be very strict with yourself and found your plan impossible to stick to, this may be the reason why.
Avoid triggering parts
Another approach is to take the fear and shame out of the task you’re trying to complete. For instance, the pomodoro method is a popular way of tackling procrastination. It breaks up the workday into 25 minute chunks of work and 5 or 15 minute breaks. If Alma uses this method, her parts may be less likely to get intimidated by her project. She’s never thinking about the daunting task of completing the whole project; she’s always just trying to do 25 minutes’ worth of work on it. And since a break is never that far away, David may get enough chances to soothe Belle that Belle never really overwhelms the system.
Techniques like the pomodoro method are less likely to cause internal backlash, and I’ve come a long way in life by using them. But they still require some self-restraint: Alma must work during the work period, stop working during the break period, and stick with the method. When she stops using the method, she’s back where she started, because her parts are still burdened. It is possible that a method like this will happen to bring Self-energy into contact with Alma’s parts and create lasting healing by chance, but it’s likely that Alma would remain dependent on the method. Eventually her parts may get tired of being that regimented, and the problem would return. If you’ve ever used a method like this to great effect for a while, told all your friends how amazing it is, and then one day found yourself unable to stick to it anymore, you’ll understand the problem.
Less Pain, More Gain
If David didn’t have to soothe Belle, because Belle wasn’t in pain anymore, then Alma wouldn’t have to overpower or tiptoe around him. So we use the natural talents of the Self to free the parts from their pain and misguided responsibilities, unlocking their positive potential. Instead of restraining yourself and the possibilities available to you, you can seek release, relaxation, and flexibility.
The anti-“coddling” messages of Western culture would have us believe that the harder we are on ourselves, the more we’ll accomplish, but actually, this gentler and more respectful approach is also more effective. A future post will explain the science behind it, but for now let’s just say that releasing burdens creates change that is deeper, longer-lasting, and easier to maintain than the change created by enforcing self-restraint.
Facilitate, Don’t Force
As I mentioned in the last post, the key to embracing both acceptance and change is to be careful not to push parts to change. When you’re centered in your Self, you want what’s best for all parts, which includes releasing burdens. But you don’t have a timetable for change, or pursue change without your parts’ consent. In Self, you have the wisdom to see that parts have good reasons for resisting change and that their resistance gives you useful information about what needs to happen first. You can’t unlock an inner door before you unlock the outer one; similarly, parts are limited by layers of constraints that must be released in a certain order.
Next week, we’ll wrap up the IFS Theory 101 series with a look at the unexpected benefits of unlocking the full potential of your parts.