“It looks like you’re checking out on me. Your mood just shifted dramatically,” my therapist says to me. Her eyes soften and she adjusts in her chair, pulling her legs up under her, like she’s giving me more space. She drops her chin ever so slightly as if to tell whatever protective part of me she’s connected with that she’s a safe person. I can trust her, I know this. Why is she sensing otherwise? I take note of myself to see what’s giving her the signals she’s seeing.
“What’s going on that is making you feel defensive right now?”
Her words echoed the question I had just asked myself. She had asked me to describe characteristics of an ideal nurturer—what would I have needed? The more I thought about how a loving caregiver tends to a child, the more uncomfortable I became. I had pulled a couch pillow in front of me and moved so that I wasn’t facing her directly. I felt like retreating into the back of the cushion and burying my head in my arms. There was obviously a part of me that was kind of freaked out by the idea that we were talking about as preparation for the next phase of EMDR treatment, but why?
Most of us have had the experience of feeling torn between two strong feelings before. Sometimes we talk about these conflicts so casually we may not recognize it as strongly as my therapist noticed it in me. We say things like, “Well my head is telling me one thing, but my heart is pulling me in a different direction,” or “I have half a mind to just tell him off, but then I remember…”
Some of us have developed a sense of when other people are having these internal conflicts. You can see the internal debate written all over them or notice a shadow fall across their face. Sometimes a different part of a person will emerge subtly and you won’t realize they’ve become upset right away, but sometimes this change is triggered instantly by some unknown reason. Either way, it can be frustrating to be at war with yourself, especially if you can’t identify the source of your self-sabotage.
Internal Family Systems (IFS) is a theoretical framework designed to identify and process different, often conflicting thoughts and feelings or parts of you when you’re facing a decision or experiencing barriers to moving forward in your journey. IFS as a theory and therapeutic approach was developed by Richard Schwartz in the 90s. Today, the Center for Self-Leadership trains professionals how to work with the different parts of people’s mind in a way that makes it easier for the client to understand, and ultimately love themselves.
IFS isn’t the first psychodynamic approach to look at different aspects of a person in order to help them understand themselves. Sigmund Freud, considered by most to be the father of psychoanalysis, described 3 parts, our Ego, Super Ego, and Id. Building on Freudian psychoanalytic theory, many psychodynamic approaches such as Gestalt, Ego States, Transactional Analysis, and Schema Therapy to name a few, work with different moods, states, or frameworks of a person as they interact with their world.
For an excellent example of IFS, think about Pixar’s movie Inside Out, about a little girl’s 5 primary emotions living in Head Quarter learn to work together to help her through a big family move. Here is an excellent review of the movie from an IFS perspective written by Pittsburgh native Varda Epstein – Inside Out, Internal Family Systems Model and the Kars4Kids Jingle.
One of the things I appreciate about IFS is its application of family dynamics to internal conflict. Regardless of how you grew up, almost everyone intuitively understands family roles. Therefore, asking a person to consider two different conflicting feelings they are experiencing as different members of the same family, is a relatively easy ask—even for children.
Why am I telling you all of this? There are a couple of reasons. One reason is that we all find times in our lives when we feel stuck in self-sabotage. From things as practical as losing weight or getting in shape, to more esoteric goals like reprocessing your trauma history, we often find out we are our own worst enemies. We can start off down the road toward our goals only to find we get in our own way. IFS provides a framework to look what part(s) of us may be steering us off course.
Whenever there are conflicting feelings within you, whenever you find yourself in a self-sabotage cycle, it can be a sign that a part of you isn’t on board with the process. Even though 90% of you may think this is the best decision for you, if you don’t have 100% consensus internally, you’re more than likely going to have difficulty following through to reach your goal.
I recently experienced this phenomenon when I went back to therapy this week for the first time in over a month. I had done a lot of preparation over my break and felt ready to tackle the next phase of my EMDR treatment. Not all of me was ready though, and it became alarmingly clear to me and my therapist about 5 minutes into the session. So, like several times before, instead of pushing through, she took a step back and gave me space.
Rochelle is a master of creating an accepting atmosphere in her therapy office. All parts of me are welcome. Instead of getting frustrated when running into resistance from a client, she sees barriers as different members of a person’s internal family coming to the table. It’s a process that is as messy as any family meeting can be, and she’s honored you trust her to invite her to the family argument. In her office, everyone has a voice, from the most cantankerous old man to the youngest, meekest child. In fact, I have several parts of my internal family that aren’t even human. All of me is welcome.
In conclusion, this week I’m starting a new leg of my journey to a trauma-informed life. Right out of the gate I encountered some unexpected internal resistance. Although I thought I was ready, a part of me was terrified of the monsters lurking around the bend. Instead of just running ahead of me and calling out “Come on! There’s nothing to be afraid of,” my therapist saw my hesitation and stopped. She didn’t breathe a big sigh of frustration or call me a scaredy-cat, instead she dropped everything, came over to where I was stuck and said
“What can I do to help you feel safe right now?”
“I don’t know.”
“Who, or what part of you isn’t ready?”
“I don’t know.”
“Okay then.” And she sat down to wait. She didn’t shuffle uncomfortably or ask a bunch of probing questions. She waited. Any time I started to become frustrated with myself, looking longingly down the road towards my goal, she would stop me. Everyone has to be along for the journey, or we don’t go. No matter how long it takes.
The session ended without much progress. Undauntedly, Rochelle gave me my homework, to wait. So, this week I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting again. I’m writing in my journal, thinking as I drive, making space for the part of me that is holding back to feel safe enough to make themselves known. I’m fortunate enough to have a guide like Rochelle who will be patient and kind with me. I try to do the same for those I work with as well.
If you find yourself trapped in a cycle of self-sabotage, a place where there seems to be a part of you resisting progress, let me encourage you to take some time and check in with your internal family. Someone isn’t in agreement with the plan, and they need to be heard. If you’re having trouble identifying that part of you, I’d love to grab a cup of coffee (or chocolate milk) or go for a walk (or play on the playground) with you and see if we can make friends with the part of you who’s struggling.