You’re not talking to yourself, your Internal Family is

A client of mine complained about the negative voice in her head, her inner critic. The one that likes to let her know she’s wrong, how stupid she is. She hates that little voice, just wants it to be quiet and leave her alone.

It’s understandable. We’ve all been there at some point, had that struggle with our inner critic. Some of us more so than others. This particular person was one of the more so.

I told her this little inner critic of hers is just one part of her. One of many, actually. A sub-personality, so to speak, and that it’s well-intended. In other words, it wants good things for her. It’s trying to be helpful, to keep her from making future mistakes, to guide her in the right direction. It’s just a little over-active, a little too dominant, because it’s not getting enough attention. It doesn’t feel heard.

What do any of us do when we’re trying to get a point across to someone we care about and we feel like they’re not listening? We get frustrated. Or angry. We say more, not less. We might even raise our voice. We want to be heard.

Our internal family

There’s an idea in Western psychology, one that goes back to pioneers like Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, which is that the human psyche is not whole, or unitary, as we like to believe. Rather, it is made up of separate components that only feel unitary to us. For Freud these separate pieces included the conscious and the unconscious, or the id, ego, and super-ego. For Jung, it was the persona, the anima/animus, the Self, and the shadow. More recently, British psychologist John Rowan wrote about “sub-personalities” (in a book called Subpersonalities) and author Rita Carter discussed the concept of “multiplicity” (in a book called Multiplicity). Richard Schwartz, the creator of Internal Family Systems therapy (and author of a book called, not surprisingly if you’ve recognized the pattern, Internal Family Systems Therapy), simply refers to our “parts,” because that’s how most of us refer to them.

You’ve probably done this yourself. You’ve probably felt torn, or conflicted at some point and said something like “there’s a part of me that feels [angry, hurt, glad, etc.].” You might even have said, “a part of me thinks this, but another part of me thinks that.” Or something to that effect.

Take for example the desire for “comfort food” when you’re feeling unhappy. If you’ve ever eaten ice cream right out of the bucket while watching tv, then felt awful about it later, you might know what I mean. Ever wanted to pour yourself a drink and thought, no, I really shouldn’t? Ever felt good about giving into temptation, then bad about having done so? That’s your “parts” talking to you. Again, they are well-intended. The part that wants you to drink wants you to feel better, because it knows that drinking does make you feel better, at least temporarily. The part that wants you not to drink, or beats you up for it afterwards, also wants you to feel better. It knows drinking isn’t the way to go.

The problem is not the parts themselves. The problem is the conflict between them.

Another layer to the problem is that we can temporarily lose our sense of self when one of these parts takes over. We forget that we are the one who is ourself, not these parts. We forget our Self, to use Jung’s term (which is also Schwartz’s term, which is also a common term in the Eastern traditions from which the concept derives).

IFS therapy

Internal Family Systems therapy seeks to resolve the conflict between our parts by treating them like any other quarreling family members. The idea is that returning our internal family to its natural state of balance and harmony allows our true Self to emerge. Our true Self is naturally loving and compassionate, and a healer. When it’s free and clear of interference from warring parts, it shines internally, inside you, and externally, as you relate to others. Your Self is you, and you your Self is the rightful leader of your parts, your internal family. Restoring balance and harmony to the internal family has helped people who are suffering from anxious, depressed, or traumatized parts. It’s also successful in couple’s counseling and family therapy.

The bottom line is, those little voices inside our heads, they just need to feel useful, to feel listened to. That inner critic, for example, needs to be heard. It thinks you can do better, and that it can help. It wants to steer you in the right direction. It wants to help you not make the same mistake again. It’s well-intended. But if we get mad at it, tell it to be quiet and go away, well… it doesn’t like that very much, and it fights back.

There’s no need for your Self to fight with your parts. Or for your parts to fight with your parts. If you’d like to know more about how IFS therapy can be helpful, please visit my contact page.

~ Mike

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