We've all been tempted to do something we knew we shouldn't do. Perhaps it is an extra dessert or something more serious like an illicit affair. We also are forced throughout our lifetime to do things we don't really want to do. For example, it may be speaking before a group of co-workers when we have a very real fear of public speaking or it could be as simple as getting up on Monday morning to go to work when we prefer to sleep in and keep the weekend going. In all these cases, we wrestle with voices and parts of ourselves that scream for our attention. There is one part that ultimately wins and it is so subtle and so automatic for us, we are consumed by that voice and don't think much about it. There are voices within us we consider more a part of who we are than other parts. It can become the only one we listen to and at the expense of other parts of ourselves that need us.
I have been thinking about this lately--a lot. There is a newer form of therapy out there now called Internal Family Systems. When I first I heard the name, I thought it had to do with my physical family but it does not. Then I wondered if it took the approach of the inner parent and inner child classic but it is not quite that either. Okay but who cares? Read on, and I guarentee in a short moment, you will.
Internal Family Systems looks at all parts of yourself as a family. No, it's not new age stuff about crystals or yoga poses. It is not a parent / child inner dynamic. This is as close to you as the voices in your head. The ones that say "I hate my job" while another part says "But I need the money" while yet another says "I love the hours" and yet another part says "I am worried about the longevity of this position". All of this within a span of a few seconds to even a split second in some cases. It can be voices reacting to simple things like choosing what to do this coming weekend to more serious things like why am I having a panic attack when I walk into the front office.
Before I go on, I want to make an interesting note that there is a Biblical connection that I thought of too when we talk of parts within ourselves. In the Book of Romans, the Apostle Paul describes our struggle with ourselves as 'knowing what I ought to do but not doing it'. He says in effect, that though I know the things I ought to do and I know the things I want to do...I still find myself doing the very things I don't want to do. Many have asked what is it that Paul is talking about here. Most Christians I know believe he is describing the struggle of "sin". For the Christian, there is a truth in that too and we experience liberation from strong forms of that struggle in the faith. Yet, if we were honest, several years down the road in our Christian faith, that struggle doesn't end but rather morphs, shifts, and changes its face. This is the struggle Internal Family Systems is talking about at a psychological level. In a very real way though, institutions of faith have abandoned sound psychology. I won't speculate why here but they have. What this has resulted in is a need to spiritualize every struggle and considering things like psychology as too "secular". I agree that a Christian life takes a number of struggles down and in some aspects off the table. But I am also very progressive. Very much a realist and super spiritualizing everything limits the work God can do. Odd that hyper spiritualism would actually do the over zealous would conspire, but it is true.
One evidence for me is that my decades long struggle to make Jesus the answer for everything failed in producing anything I would call "life". Many of us secretly still struggle with conflicting thoughts and emotions that no amount of spiritual comfort completely dispels...because quite frankly there is work to be done beyond God just supplying us comfort. But people will say "Keep studying God's promises!" and "The thoughts that are good; foster those. The ones that seem bad; disown them, they are from the 'devil'". Anyone ever tell you that? "That's the devil talking to you!" There is also the old phrase "the devil made me do it". I'm not sure it has ever helped me very often to think that the great God of the universe and Lucifer himself are having epic battles in my head and soul via a thought and desire war. I'm not saying that this never has helped but hardly. Denial is easy to engage in and there's no better way to feel good about it than attaching God's name to it and saying "Devil, I rebuke you!" rather than facing, and learning to work with our emotions. Sometimes we do need to just blow stuff off but not before we understand the parts of ourselves that may be trying to show us something. We, just as our ancestors before us who knew no better, label things about ourselves as "good" "bad", "god" and "devil" that may not only be wrong but detrimental to us! Think about that for a minute. How you are coping with these parts of yourself could be having a worse effect than a better one. Isn't it time to do something different? To consider a perspective you haven't before?
Would if a voice and part of yourself which you have always thought of as the "bad", a part you smack back like an angry parent, is really trying in its own way to protect you? Could it be that parts of ourselves that are trying to help, we just don't know how to nurture or deal with? Protective parts of us will pick up toxic things if they have to. If toxic tools are all we know, we will use what we got to survive which isn't a sign of the devil as it is our resources or uneducated souls. Instead, we learn how to shame these parts of ourselves while overly exalting others. Why? Because we simply don't know better. We are the blind leading the blind. I dare to proclaim that Internal Family Systems is a step up in our evolution. I know that is a scary statement for the religious minded because of the evolution and creation debate. Hear me out though. This is a step up in both our mental and spiritual struggles that we need not fear as religious people because Jesus foretold that those coming after Him would do "exceedingly greater things" than Jesus did himself. Yet, we often find ourselves doing worse, not greater things.
A long time ago, in a camp far far away, I learned and engaged with four sides of myself I think you will understand and appreciate no matter your particular belief system. This is the child side, the wise adult side, a wild assertive side (not aggressive, but assertive), and a higher soul/or spiritual side. This was eons before my recent encounter with Internal Family Systems. It was probably God setting me up for the future because I had such a distaste for anything seeming new age. Anywho, Four parts. Easy enough right? I think on some vague level we all can relate to these four parts existing within us in some form or fashion; We might experience a child side when we run across a TV show re-run that you watched as a kid and usually, we will see or hear something that reminds us of childhood; The wise adult side might be engaged when someone asks you for your advice or you are asked to train someone in what you know; The wild side might come up when you go to that crazy party or you venture off and take the road off the beaten path; The protective side might be engaged with a boss or co-worker that is speaking inappropriately to you and you have a need to confront them or to stop this from happening. we have an additional side that can step back and observe all these sides. One might call this side the soul or spirit. It is an interesting idea you may identify with or not. We don't live in one of these four places, energies, motivations (whatever you want to call them) for 24hrs at the exclusion of the rest of parts. We engage with all these parts of ourselves at different points in a day or week. Some even suggest we have an additional side that can step back and observe all these sides. One might call this side the soul or spirit. It is an interesting idea you may identify with or not.
I know for me personally that living with an awareness of parts has never been very relatable to me. It has always come off as new age hokey pokey. Put your adult side out, and your child side in, take the magician out and shake the wild side all about. Ya do the new age hokey pokey and turn yourself all about! Ta Da! You're healed! Eh, not quite. I totally get the skepticism. But a really good first step to moving toward some functional psychology and spirituality around this is when you can break from this notion that who you are is one thing. Even in religious circles, we are taught that we are a body with a mind and soul/spirit. This is true to me but it is leaving something critical out. The seeming insanity that swirls about within us in the form of competing thoughts and desires. What do we do with those and where are they are coming from? What could it all mean?
If you hate the thought of an inner child, I have bad news for you. You really aren't going to get away from that if you want personal growth that is real. Trust me when I tell you that I've tried it all. From psychology to spirituality in all its forms. The proof: we often see ourselves as younger than our age demands. We come across a mirror reflection and we say to ourselves "What? When did that happen? How did I get to look like this?" A birthday swings around and we say "Really? I still feel young!". Though we don't want to be a big child as an adult either, it is important to remember that childhood is the biggest most formative years of our lives. All educational psychology agrees with this statement (I know, I have my bachelors in education). So don't throw out the baby with the bath water or you may be throwing up a block to a better life.
I think the best way to give you a taste of how Internal Family Systems works to use a real example. In the last year, I was very aware of the child side of me dominating my experience. I never discounted the notion of an inner child but unless I was in some workshop or camp practicing it, I was totally disconnect from it. But, this time, I was so well connected in other areas of my life I could see clearer when I wasn't clear--such as at work which was highly stressful. I could see the child in me come out and it cried, cried and cried and was so afraid and angry but I remained static and stoic against it. I could feel these emotions stirring and wrestling with in me so I judged that I was dealing with it because I was fighting with it. I was trying to work around it. What I wasn't aware of was just how much a part of me was trying to keep a tight lid on that cry for my protection. The protection felt good and right. After all, big boys don't cry, says one protective part. It wants me strong and confident so I can tackle my daily challenges.
Another side chimed in, see if you can recognize it:
It says "I know better. I am 48 years old and I can handle this, it says. I know coping mechanizms A and B, and I have my faith in God. If I but trust in God, the Spirit should take care of this."
If you haven't guessed it, this is the wiser more adult side attempting to protect me. And for years and years, I've went on like this with all these other parts of me rolling their eyes at the screaming child inside of me BUT now that child side wouldn't "shut up" because of the stress I was put under on the job. Why did I exalt the other parts over the child side? Because the protective parts of ourselves have good motivations. The protective part of me wanted me to get done what I wanted to get done in the way I wanted to get it done. It was looking out for the success I wanted. With goals and a need for protection exalted, the child part was treated almost as an obstacle and a pulling back. But was that side of me a waste of time?
While this more protective part of me would not let go of the goals I worshipped, the child side continued to make a fit that it wasn't being taken care of. I would not nuture myself or probably better said, I didn't know how to nuture myself. No one ever taught me.
Do you ever have voices in your head that don't agree? I think we all do. When you experience that, be aware that parts of yourself may need some assurances that they are being heard. By not getting that child side of me in the place where I could sit in the emotions and speak to that side, the condition persisted. By not helping the protective side to take a break to let the child come forth and that it too will be heard and taken care of, I was at a stalemate of emotional trauma. See, at the time, it was an extra long winter for my seasonal effectiveness disorder. This was encased a new job that quickly turned into a toxic job situation spearheaded by a boss that looked, talked, and acted like someone in my past who verbally abused me as a child. Can you say trigger? Oh, I was triggered everyday by her raging on little children and back stabbing others in our department. I was consumed by the perspective of the child. I often envisioned the episodes like I was the parent that wears the thing that straps the child to your front like some over sized fanny pack. The child side of me was there, in front of me, unprotected, crying and consuming my existence in those moments were several in a work day.
Meanwhile, I felt shame and fear while I stuffed the child cries as me not being "faithful" enough. I imagined I wasn't relying on God or His Spirit would have ministered these pain and fears in me, taken them away. So, I worked on becoming "less of me" and "more of Christ" because isn't that godly thing to be do? Isn't that what we are taught? That the self not only doesn't really matter much but it actually get's in the way? All of you God, we say, and none of me. I mean doesn't it make sense that if my "self" is acting like a big baby and my identity is being rattled by it, that I just look at that as something immature and put it away? If you are religious as me maybe you try to apply more scripture, believe more of your "identity in Christ" and rebuke that voice as something inspired by the devil or too negative and robbing you of joy. And we buy the books and tapes, and go to the conferences and praise our cheekbones up into a new form of plastic surgery and come out of Church looking a bunch of Carol Channings. Yet all that does is stuff and shift things around like luggage at the airport baggage claim. And we've let different parts of ourselves put a spin on our emotional baggage so much that when it comes by our view again, just like the patron at the baggage, we aren't even sure it is our luggage anymore. Oh, that's gotta be for someone else! Nope, it's yours lol.
A lot of times we go around and around with these competing voices in our heads as the voices of the bodies we are carrying in our luggage. The bodies are the causalities of the parts of ourselves we won't listen to or just never knew how to help. This comes out in expressions that could be qualified as "doing what we don't want to do". Behaving how we don't want to behave. Then we add fuel to the fire as we attribute protective parts as negative, scolding parts and we proceed to push them down. Yet we wonder why these voices in our heads come back screaming with a vengeance. We pound them down like a person playing Wack-A-Mole our whole lives. But, what I'm trying to tell you is this: it is a whole lot more work, a whole lot more burdensome and emotionally draining to live that way than learning how to hear, honor and talk with all parts of ourselves.
Again, IFS is a relatively new form of therapy and we can't let that scare us. It is counter intuitive to not only to how many of us have lived but what we have been taught from new age gurus to churches. It feels odd to even engage in it because it takes patience, some imagination, quiet moments, and a heck of a lot of listening. But it is worth it. In one session, the turbulent child voice that haunted my entire winter was quelled and satisfied. I have a whole lot better relationship with that side of me but also the protective sides as well.
IF any of this makes sense to you, I encourage you to find a therapist that practices Internal Family Systems. Contact me and I can make some recommendations. Trained therapists in IFS can sit down with you and teach you how to engage with these parts of yourself and help you nuture them. There are also books out there of which I plan to get myself. You can get more information at this websiteThe Center for Self Leadership website
Part 2 will be addressing my ever developing spiritual beliefs and shame surrounding them. It is much more difficult for me to put into words than this post. Stay tuned...