“The past is the past. Don’t cry over spilled milk. Put it behind you. Get over it already.”
We all have voices within ourselves that say these kinds of things. Usually it is after some event or interaction has left us feeling angry, lonely, or hurt. These messages are from parts within ourselves that want to protect us. By saying these things they calm us down and prevent us from becoming “triggered” – feeling and reacting from the “emotional baggage” of our old, painful experiences and self-limiting beliefs.
Internal Family Systems (IFS) is a style of therapy that calls these different voices “parts.” The language of parts may sound odd at first. Yet, we often speak this way quite naturally. For instance we may say, “part of me wants to go out tonight, but another part of me wants to stay home and chill out.” With IFS we use this language to get to know and appreciate the different parts that comprise our being. This helps us recognize those parts that may have been left holding old “emotional baggage.” The good news is that these parts can be relieved of their burdens allowing us to live fuller and richer lives. IFS therapy uses compassionate inner dialogue to facilitate this process.
When a significant loss or a humiliating or traumatic event occurs, the natural healing process includes tears, sadness, shaking, fear, anger and other normal responses. With compassionate and responsive support, expression of these feelings, and the passage of time, the wound can heal and we regain the emotional energy to invest in our daily lives.
If, for some reason, the natural healing process is blocked we have parts of ourselves that hold on to our emotional pain who become exiled deep in our being. Then other parts protect us from feeling that exile’s pain ever again. According to IFS, there are two different kinds of protectors: the managers, and the firefighters. The managers work to prevent us from feeling the pain our exiles are holding. They manage our emotional barometer and keep us functioning on a relatively even keel throughout our daily lives. Some common types of managers are the self-critic, the striver, the caretaker, and the people pleaser. These parts prevent us from feeling our own deeper emotional pain by focusing our attention on pleasing others or criticizing ourselves, for example. Firefighters “put out the fire” when the exile’s pain gets triggered. These are the parts in us that cause a major distraction or dissociate us away from our exiled pain, or just douse it. They fly into a rage, cause self-harm, or are prone to addictive or impulsive behaviors. Firefighter behavior is what we do when we totally lose it. The firefighters protect us when the managers’ preventive measures have not. Unfortunately, this protection comes at the price of feeling out of control and bringing suffering to those who are nearest and dearest to us.
This may sound a bit chaotic and overwhelming. There is hope. There is a way to help relieve, or unburden, the pain these parts have been dealing with for so long. Each part may have some idea of what they would really rather be doing anyway – perhaps some gift or talent given up when they were forced into exile or some protective duty.
What allows this unburdening is the presence of what IFS calls the innate Self – that which is not a part. In therapy sessions clients are guided to access the natural state of being which is inherently compassionate, curious, calm, connected, creative, courageous, confident and clear-thinking. It is from this state of being that the gentle, transformative work of unburdening takes place. The goal of therapy is to restore Self-leadership amongst all of the parts. The anology of a conductor and her symphony illustrates this point. In making beautiful music each musician is valued and appreciated and works collaboratively with the other musicians to play her best while under the conductor’s guidance and leadership. In a Self-led life, each part of us is free of its heavy load and no longer has to protect us by taking over and running the show. Parts can relax and work symphonically together with the Self’s compassionate leadership. This is the gift of IFS therapy.
IFS therapy was developed over 20 years ago by Richard Schwartz, Ph.D. Since its inception people who have used IFS have reported profound shifts in feelings and beliefs that previously tormented them. They notice that, as they become more confident and compassionate, they find increased harmony not only within themselves but also with partners, family, co-workers, and community.
The past is the past. We cannot change the painful things that we have endured. However, we can rescue the parts of ourselves that have been stuck living in the past and left holding our emotional baggage. We can heal these parts of ourselves, unburden them of the pain they have been holding, and then truly get on with living our lives openly, fully, and as we choose to.
Christine Horn, MA (formerly Christine Lark) is a psychotherapist at the LoDo Healing Center in Denver specializing in Internal Family Systems Therapy. She assists individuals and couples to unburden trauma or exiled pain often at the root of painful relationship dynamics. Christine offers a free initial consultation for clients to decide whether the connection and the work feel like a good fit. Christine can be reached at 720.220.4788 and firstname.lastname@example.org . To learn more about IFS therapy visit www.selfleadership.org.