When a part of you isn't helping your cause
An introduction to IFS for repatterning persistent emotional learnings
Welcome, entrepreneurs. I’m so glad you’re here.
I’ve been on a journey to my second mountain for years, along which I’ve benefited most from a deep meditation practice, regular therapy and coaching, journaling, the ceremonial use of psychedelics, and NLP.
I’ve experimented with many other modalities as well, but very few of them make it into this newsletter, never mind regular rotation.
Over the past number of months, IFS (Internal Family Systems) has become a part of my daily practices, and my work with clients. So I figure it’s high time we discussed it here.
What follows is an introduction to IFS, especially written for those who are up to something big in the world, but struggle with persistent and unhelpful thoughts/beliefs/actions.
You are not your thoughts. You are not your feelings. They are simply patterns of energy that occur within your awareness. You are the pure, empty awareness.
Depending on where you are in your journey, that may sound dead on, or like gibberish. That’s ok. Meditate enough, and you learn this experientially.
For most meditators, there is a clear “before” and “after,” a moment when they stop identifying habitually with their thoughts/feelings. Instead of fully identifying with them, listening to them without discernment, or acting on them, they have a choice: when they get angry, or sad, or think that someone is WRONG AND MUST BE CHANGED, they can either act on those feelings, or they can notice all those emotions for the meaningless energy they are, and simply let them go. This shift carries profound implications to our ability to adjust our habitual ways of being in the world, and live a life characterized by conscious choice.
But as effective as disidentifying with our thoughts/feelings is at creating choice where there was none, deeply ingrained thought/emotion patterns will still reoccur when they’re triggered. Despite the fact that you no longer identify with your thoughts, you’ll still think them, especially your deepest beliefs.
Which, depending on the belief, can really suck.
For example, if you have had a lifelong belief that you’re “not good enough,” like I have, simply recognizing it as a thought, and recognizing the thought’s separateness and innate meaninglessness, may not be enough to shift the belief itself. Learnings like that are embedded deeply into our emotions and memories, and while we can gain a great deal of distance through consistent and prolonged meditation, changing these emotional learnings requires something more.
In all of psychology there is only one methodology which has been empirically and consistently proven to shift those deep, emotional learnings that can be so problematic: memory reconsolidation.
The link above provides a detailed breakdown of the therapeutic process, but if you’re looking for a really deep dive, read “Unlocking the Emotional Brain” by Ecker, Ticic, & Hulley. For the purposes of this piece, here’s my reductive summary:
We develop our identity-level beliefs early in life due to often extreme experiences. In response to these experiences, we make a decision to be a certain way, and that happens so early, and is reinforced for so long, that it becomes simply our personality. It becomes “subject,” such that we can’t tell the difference between it and our Selves.
Memory reconsolidation is a process through which a coach, therapist, or other healer leads a person to re-experience the memory that created the belief in the first place, but to experience it in a way that creates a mismatch between the experience and the belief it spawned. This opens up the possibility to repattern both the core memory, and the belief.
Once a mismatch has been created, the metaphorical window is open (for about five hours, as it turns out), and the coach and client can work together to create a new belief, consistent with the re-experience. And, hopefully, one that much more closely matches the results the client wants.
So, for example, imagine that you clam up in situations of high conflict. You know intellectually that you need to step up and assert yourself, but something seems to happen to you at a nervous system level each time, and you find yourself quiet as a mouse. There is a part of you which is misaligned with the goal of asserting yourself. This is the type of thing over which people beat themselves up for years, never making progress, and is the type of thing that memory reconsolidation can shift very quickly.
Memory reconsolidation is at the core of my work in helping CEOs reach inner alignment. I’ve found two methodologies to be the most effective in working with CEOs, based on both speed and efficacy. First, neurolinguistic programming (which I’ve covered in detail here), and second, Internal Family Systems (“IFS”), which I’ll cover below.
We contain multitudes, and each is looking out for us
Internal Family Systems is a remarkably useful framework created by Richard Schwartz, which builds on the work of Carl Jung and other giants in psychology. Again, for a deep dive check out No Bad Parts by Schwartz, but in the paragraphs below I’ll lay out a summary and some guideposts I’ve found useful.
IFS is built on a couple assumptions:
That your psyche is made up of a nearly infinite number of sub-personalities, called “parts”
That each of those parts is a whole personality, complete with its own goals and methods of achieving those goals
That each of these parts was tasked, by you at some point in the past (often childhood), to perform an incredibly important task, and has been doing so, diligently, ever since, whether or not you still need that task performed
That first point can be a stumbling block for some, so let’s unpack.
We are not “one personality.” Our identities are made up of many distinct personalities and perspectives, one or more of which is the “me” that we present to the world at any given time. You’ve experienced this at times during which it felt like you were “taken over” by something. You simply “had to” say that thing to prove your point. Or you knew sending that email was a bad idea, but you did it anyway because “something came over you.” These types of situations are a hallmark of a specific part taking control of a person’s psyche, usually in response to some kind of threat, and the person gains their full faculties only after the compensatory deed is done. This is an extreme example, but more mundane versions of the same thing happen to us every day. Each time we unconsciously act out our thoughts/emotions, executing some highly patterned version of the same actions we’ve taken before, there is a specific part running the show.
The thing to know about these parts is that each one of them has a story. And if you can get curious enough about them, they’ll tell it to you (it may seem weird to talk with your parts at first, but I’ve found that with a bit of practice everyone is capable of having these conversations). They’ll share the important jobs they’re doing, how their out of proportion anger or anxiety in certain situations actually is an important adaptive move to keep your system safe. And they’ll share the hurt they’re carrying for you, the specific traumatic experiences they’ve experienced that showed them they needed to armor up.
Each time they do, and each time you truly feel their hurt with them, or truly understand the job they’re trying to do for you, you are completing the first step of memory reconsolidation – reliving the memory in question at an emotional level, rather than an intellectual one. Then, in bringing all the love and capacity you’ve developed over your lifetime to help that four-year-old part experience that moment differently, you create a mismatch around that memory, completing the second step of memory reconsolidation and opening the door to repatterning. Finally, by working with the part to come to agreement on a path forward that best serves You, and then taking action based on that agreement in the world, you begin to repattern that emotional learning with a different learning, more conducive to the results you want in the world.
In essence, IFS follows these four steps toward memory reconsolidation:
Get to know your part through honest curiosity.
Through love and appreciation, learn what your part is protecting you from. And help your part open up to wholly sharing itself with You (re-experiencing traumatic memory).
Through the distinction between You and your part, allow the part to see that You are here for it. That it doesn’t have to do its work alone. And creatively help the part experience the memory differently (mismatching).
Work with the part to align on a go-forward plan that leaves it feeling taken care of, and serves the greatest good of your system (repatterning).
(A word of caution: In doing this work, it’s immensely helpful to have a guide to help you access your parts at first, and map out how your system currently works. Not only because they’ll be familiar with the terrain and help you navigate the various protective parts that can be hard to do on your own, but also because it can be challenging to have a true, open conversation with a part of yourself, and simultaneously navigate the memory reconsolidation process. That said, once you’ve worked with someone to identify and begin a dialog with your parts, I’ve found that you can carry on building a long-term relationship with them on your own.)
When you begin to relate with your parts through curiosity and love, something unexpected happens. You learn that even the most harmful parts have positive intentions. No matter how inconveniently or harmfully they’re currently showing up in your life, when you ignore their methods and simply look at their intentions, they’re all trying to help you. In realizing this,you begin to appreciate the complexity of your internal system of parts, and have some compassion for yourself when one of them takes over. As a result of this increased recognition, you then inevitably grow to love your parts, which lowers resistance and opens the door to them changing. And finally, you begin to more and more often disidentify (“unblend” in IFS speak) with your parts and identify with who You actually are – the pure awareness in which all these parts occur, which we discussed earlier.
This is a high level overview of the basics. In working with a trained IFS practitioner there are many layers of additional complexity. There are protector parts, which guard the parts of us that we’ve exiled into the basement of our psyche, firefighter parts that deal with crises, and even manager parts that are so pervasive that we often confuse them with our Self. While outlining the entirety of IFS is not within the scope of this article, it is absolutely worth the deep dive into Schwartz’s work on this topic.
So, how does this work in action?
Not Good Enough
Remember that “not good enough” part of me that I mentioned at the beginning? Since I first noticed it, I’ve always hovered somewhere between annoyed and frustrated at that part. It’s caused me all sorts of problems – often taking over to have me try to look good at the expense of the work I was trying to do or the relationships I wanted to have – and mostly I just wanted to be rid of it. I was good enough. I knew that. Why the hell didn’t that part get it yet?
You can probably feel the resistance in my system.
So my coach helped me work with the parts that were annoyed and frustrated. I asked them to step aside for a moment and allow me to be with the Not Good Enough Part. Once I was able to simply be curious with it, it showed me that it was responsible for me pushing so hard to achieve. To build companies and help people. My feeling of Not Good Enough was, it told me, at least one of the prime drivers of my work ethic.
What a valuable part! Thank goodness it had been doing that job for so long. I have it to thank, I learned, for many of the wonderful things in my life.
And once I’d thanked it for doing that job for so long, it showed me why it was so important. It showed me who I’d been when I was in the depths of drinking and drugs, and who I’d been in middle school when I lied about my girlfriend to seem “cool.” It showed me a hurt, scared, angry, lonely, adolescent version of me, that it was committed to hiding.
When I got sober 16+ years ago, the way I did it was by taking the part of me that was wild, that was crazy and erratic (and addicted), and locking it up in a cage. The feeling of Not Good Enough that had been driving me, I learned, was the cage.
I expected to be terrified at this point, but, strangely, I wasn’t. I felt a deep compassion for that adolescent boy – the pain that he had been carrying for so long. With the Not Good Enough part’s permission, I talked with the boy. And he shared with me the reasons he’d become so scared and angry. His parents’ divorce. His friends’ deaths in high school. His benching on the basketball team. I saw, deeply, how hurt he was. And I understood how it was for him.
Furthermore, I felt equal compassion for the constant, thankless work that the Not Good Enough part had put in, pushing me to greater and greater heights of accomplishment to protect that adolescent boy from being hurt again. Every time I had a pit in my stomach, telling me that I needed to be better, more perfect, no matter what I did, it was that part simply trying to protect that scared boy from being hurt again.
I experienced both my childhood trauma, and my deep and driving sense of not good enoughness, again, but differently. And opened the possibility of repatterning them, with love and compassion.
As a father of two boys, I found that I could love both of these parts with the same intensity as I do my children. And in much the same way. I cried, for the pain the boy had been holding, and for the intensity with which the Not Good Enough part cared. How hard he worked to keep the boy safe. And I promised both of them I would be there for them, and that I would protect the boy. And that by doing that important work, the Not Good Enough part could finally allow himself to relax.
And I helped them to better know Me. The pure awareness that contains the entirety of every moment. The infinitely strong, infinitely compassionate, space that I truly am.
And that was it.
What happens after
From that point, supported by an ongoing effort to build on this new relationship with my parts through dedicated IFS work with my coach, and dedicated meditation exercises, my own coaching has improved, as has my performance as a husband. The Self that is distinct from my thoughts and emotions is more present, and the “not good enough” feeling has faded in intensity and frequency. It just feels less relevant. Less true.
More of me is aligned. Opened up to achieve whatever it is that I set myself to, without parts of me holding me back with worries about how I’m going to look, or what people are going to think of me along the way.
A couple weeks after the session I described above, I went golfing. I felt the Not Good Enough part get triggered a couple times when I hit bad shots, and the urge to beat myself up again to do better. But instead of berating myself, I recognized that part for what it was. How it was trying to help protect the little boy from being hurt again. And I talked with it. I listened to it. And I parented it, with love and compassion, and the firm knowledge that I, the pure awareness at the core of each moment, would always love that part, no matter how it played.
Being in relationship with my parts in this way shaved 16 strokes off my golf game.
And that’s the persistent, ongoing beauty of doing the work to develop a different relationship with your parts. Of repatterning emotional learnings using IFS, and of the infinite capacity of your true identity as pure awareness. In those moments when you’d otherwise be triggered and have to rely on your ability to disidentify with your thoughts/feelings, you can instead simply talk to the part that was triggered. Understand it and empathize with it. And allow it to feel what it feels.
And stand resolute in the knowledge that You, the You that is talking with the part, are plenty capable of showing that part how it’s done. And over time, in the same way a father shows his son how to catch a ball, your part begins to be able to keep up with you. And eventually, even help you win a golf tournament you wouldn’t have been able to, otherwise.
Such is the power of inner alignment.
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