Know yourself and end self-sabotage
Do you find yourself doing the opposite of what you know is good for you? Do you scupper your own chances of success, or procrastinate endlessly? Do you regularly break promises to yourself? Is your inner critic so loud you feel as if a bully lives inside your head? Do you sometimes think: why on earth did I agree to that? I don’t want that for my life.
In this guide Nathalie Hourihan takes us through a therapeutic process called Internal Family Systems, created by psychotherapist Richard Schwartz. We follow her as she tries to heal her past and find new ways to thrive. She invites us to practise powerful visualisations for ourselves, so we too can go on an inner journey.
This month, it’s all about nurturing and reparenting ourselves, so we can align our values and actions and design a life that we love.
Heal your inner world
Nathalie Hourihan shares what she learned practising Internal Family Systems (IFS), a form of therapy and self-work that focuses on discovering your many different selves. Here, she includes a set of disciplines designed to transform the parts of yourself you like the least into your greatest allies and find relief from stress.
Once I lied about owning a dog.
Not only was this untrue – I have never owned a dog – the statement leapt from my mouth without warning! This event was weird and unsettling. It was also unfortunate, given that I was in the middle of a job interview.
The woman who sat across from me was warm and effusive. I liked her immediately. The trouble was that I both did and did not want the job that was on offer. Or rather, I very much wanted a different version of it – one without all the travel. After too many years of too many hotels, I dreaded the idea of being away for several nights every week. In response to my declaration of pet ownership, she simply shrugged and carried on talking, oblivious that my imaginary pet meant routine trips were out of the question for me.
Meanwhile, I was mortified. What was wrong with me that I could not be honest with her about what I wanted?
The incident would have remained no more than a ridiculous anecdote to laugh off with friends, except a few days later I attended a talk by psychotherapist Richard Schwartz. The approach he described reframed my dilemma and behaviour, and since then it has rescued me whenever I feel overwhelmed by my life.
One mind, many parts
Schwartz, who has a PhD in marriage and family therapy from Purdue University in Indiana in the United States, explained to the audience: ‘Though many of us prefer to believe that healthy people possess a single self, understanding that we have many distinct selves gives a far deeper awareness of how we actually work.’
According to his theory, it is normal and natural for the mind to divide into subpersonalities, or what Schwartz refers to as ‘parts’. These drive our everyday thoughts and behaviour. They also trigger knee-jerk reactions that we later come to regret. And parts of us can prove formidable blocks to what we want to achieve in our lives. But we shouldn’t try to shut up these parts, we should instead ‘listen to the message’. In practical terms, this involves talking to different parts of yourself, noticing how your parts interact and strengthening your ability to heal and self-parent.
1. Talk to different parts of yourself
When you wrestle with different problems, it may be that your subpersonalities are in conflict with each other. Learn to engage with them and you can resolve your dilemmas
Psychotherapist Richard Schwartz developed IFS after 40 years of clinical practice. He believes ‘all of us are born with many sub-minds that constantly interact inside us’. He adds: ‘This, in general, is what we call thinking. When you face a dilemma, you will find one part that says “go for it” and another that says “don’t”. Most of the time, we let that debate happen.
We don’t pay attention to it.’ But Schwartz argues it is essential that we attend to this inner conflict. He suggests we locate our parts by tuning into our internal chatter, along with our feelings and impulses. When we talk to our parts, we discover what each accomplishes for us and their different talents and roles.
How to meet a part
Engage with your inner parts using this meditation. There are audio versions online led by Schwartz if you prefer.
Set aside 15 to 20 minutes. Find a quiet space. Sit or lie down as if you were about to meditate. Take several deep breaths. Shift your attention inward.
Choose one of the following prompts
Invite a part you know well, such as your inner critic, to come to the fore.
Recall a trigger where you were unable to control your response to an action from a loved one, colleague or even a stranger. In your mind’s eye, play out the person repeating their action. Notice your response. Allow the person who triggered you to fade away. Turn inwards towards the part of you that got triggered.
Daily practice: Simply wait for a signal. Be receptive to thoughts, emotions, sensations or impulses that seem to want attention.
Locate the part
Where do these thoughts, emotions, sensations or impulses exist in or around your body? These reactions represent a part of you. Can you picture, hear or feel the part?
Notice how you feel towards the part
Do you dislike or fear the part? Jot down any thoughts or emotions you have towards this inner part.
Take a step back
If you feel anything other than calm, other parts have shown up. Ask them to step back, until your attention softens into gentle, open-heartedness. If these parts won’t step back, that’s OK. Never push past a protective part. Instead, ask why they can’t relax? What do they fear will happen if you engage the part?
If other parts do step back and you are able to approach the target with compassion, ask these three key questions (we’ll come back to these later).
What does your part want you to know?
Wait for an answer. Ask any ‘thinking parts’ of you to step back. If nothing surfaces, that’s OK. Instead, ask the thinking parts why they can’t rest and step back.
If your part volunteers information, follow up with:
What does it fear will happen if it does not perform its role? Often, a part fears that painful feelings will flood the system. If you encounter a traumatised part that feels out of control, seek help from a therapist.
Finally, ask: What does the part need from you in the future?
It may or may not know. Ask your part what age it thinks you are. You are more capable than it may know.
Show that you care.
If you get answers, you have learned how your part tries to take care of you. Thank it for trying to keep you safe.
Remind the part that it can get your attention again.
Journal about your experience.
My meditation experience
I closed my eyes and returned to my job interview, where I could not express my desires and lied that I owned a dog. I recalled the discomfort I felt at the idea of constant travel. It made me feel weighed down, and I spoke to the oppressed part of myself. I asked it Schwartz’s standard three questions (above):
What did my oppressed part want me to know? It told me servitude was the best way to stay safe, remain valued and be forever employed.
What was it afraid would happen if I did not behave as it did? People would be angry with me. I would not receive their praise and attention. They would stop loving me. I would be replaced.
What does it need from me in the future? Here, my part stalled. It struggled to figure out what it wanted from me. Finally, it settled on this: it needed more rest.
A final question that Schwartz sometimes suggests is how old your part thinks you are. We build our defences when we are young. With our still-forming minds, we are ill-equipped to self-parent. As a result, later in life, many of our overtaxed parts believe we are far younger than we actually are. My oppressed part guessed that I was 10 years old. At that age, my mother was a single parent with no employment or savings. Even though I took on babysitting jobs over the years, I soon became anxious about how to get and keep work.
2. Notice how parts of you interact
The cast of characters in your mind aim to protect you from anguish, but they can result in self-sabotage if you do not recognise them at work, and learn to communicate with them
IFS borrows its logic from family therapy and focuses on the relationships individual parts have with each other. To understand ourselves, it is not enough to delve into one part in isolation. Parts bicker about the best way to serve us. They collude and gang up on each other. As I thought back to the job interview, I could see my lying part, however misguided, had been well-intentioned as it raced to the aid of a weary self.
The characters that make up your inner family are unique to you. The first step is to identify how your parts interact, and it starts with ‘exiles’ and ‘protectors’.
Exiles carry our emotional burdens. They store memories of when we were rejected, humiliated, frightened or abandoned, real or perceived. Thanks to early injuries, protective parts fear we will be wounded again, so we exile vulnerable parts to keep them safe. We present an outward image that hides parts of us that feel needy or unworthy. In exiling our youngest, vulnerable selves, we don’t just push away painful feelings, which are linked to child-like beliefs, we lose tender aspects, such as the ability to be playful, and our readiness to rely on others.
In other forms of therapy, these parts are known as defence mechanisms. IFS categorises two types of protectors. We have managers that try to prevent us from getting hurt and firefighters that swoop in when it’s too late. To avoid painful feelings, protectors manage our behaviour. In this category, we find the most infamous of parts, the inner critic, which bullies us to ‘look good’ or ‘act correctly’.
Other common managers include:
Coach: If there are inner critics that belittle you to avoid taking risks, there are also those that yell at you to do better. This encouragement is often negative and goads us like a sports coach. Some people possess more of a cheerleader but, irrespective of tone, the motivational message remains the same: you can and must do it, whether it’s pass a test, give a speech or smile at your ex.
Caretaker: Common in women, this manager puts the needs of others above your own.
Avoider: Some managers push you to do something, others pull you away – either from other people (lest you become dependent) or from uncomfortable emotions. Here lies procrastination and the tendency to live in your head, intellectualising instead of feeling your feelings. If managers control and tend to be chronic, the second category of protectors are acute and chaotic. Impulsive by nature, Schwarz calls them firefighters. When the preventative measures fail, these more extreme parts leap into action. They might self-harm or binge on food, drugs, work and social media. Firefighters don’t care about collateral damage. Their job is to douse pain to stop extreme emotions from flooding your system. While they employ different strategies, managers and firefighters share the same goal: to protect us and keep exiles away.
To expose these relationships, I followed the steps in ‘How to explore a family of parts’. I found parts that pushed my inner martyr to keep dragging its load and agitators that believed I needed to go faster. They exhausted my system until a different manager suggested I head to the sofa and drink wine. How did I know when I was dealing with an exile or a protector? When I asked my parts why they do what they do. Mostly, we meet protectors. They stay at the fore keeping exiles out of harm’s way. The exile’s job is more passive. It clings to emotional burdens: feelings and beliefs we want to push away.
By the end of the exercise, I had mapped an alliance of parts committed to my urge to overwork. I could see my drive to achieve and compensate for a shaky sense of self-worth and financial insecurities. Staying busy kept feelings of emptiness at bay. I had to wonder whether this pattern cost me too much.
Get to know your internal family
Try this exercise to deepen your understanding of your subpersonalities. It will help you see how they relate to each other and influence your behaviour
1 Select a part. For example, one of the parts that needed to step back during the meditation
2 Focus on this one part. Spend time with it. Find it in your body.
3 Draw an image of the part. It does not have to be a work of art, just illustrate the part in a way that means something to you.
4 Wait for a shift. Focus inward again on the part you just drew. Another part will emerge.
Be patient. Once another part appears, add its image to the page.
5 Repeat these steps: focus on a part, wait for another part to appear, then draw it.
6 Stop when you feel the cluster is done or you have three or more parts illustrated. These are members of your inner family.
7 Examine your piece of paper. Ask yourself the following questions and accept whatever answers come to you:
- How do these parts relate to each other? Do some protect others? Do some fight? Are there alliances? Make notes on your pictures to capture clues you see.
- How do you feel about this cluster or internal dynamic?
- If you were to help this inner system, where might you start? What might this family of parts need from you to become more harmonious?
3. Recover and learn to self-parent
It started with a blatant lie during a job interview but, during her exploration of IFS-based therapy, Nathalie Hourihan found a path out of panic, exhaustion and self-sabotage.
In the weeks after my first brush with IFS, my career dilemma was resolved. The more I negotiated on travel, the less attractive I became as a candidate. Eventually, we agreed that I was not right for the job. One part of me was relieved. Another felt disappointed. A third woke me in the night worried about how I would survive. The episode pushed me to leave my employer of 20 years. I went freelance in the hopes of a more balanced life.
Back to the beginning
As I began to live a less frenzied existence, I fell prey to the feelings that busyness had suppressed. During the pandemic, IFS became an SOS intervention. As a household of one in Ireland, where lockdowns have been extensive, I often struggled not to burst into tears. When loved ones rang, I could barely speak. I felt strangled by emotion. As an overthinker, I was unused to crying. I felt embarrassed and selfish, and worried I would push people away.
One day, I went out for a walk and plugged into an IFS meditation. While I was afraid of the loneliness that I felt deep inside, when I asked what this pained part of me needed, the answer, once again, was simple and clear. It wanted permission to weep. It was exhausted by the choir of alarmed parts that flocked to my grief, the way they overanalysed the problem, screeching about how urgently I needed to fix it.
Forgive their trespasses
The next morning, my mother rang and I sobbed. Afterwards, I felt unrecognisably better – just as I had as a child. What many parts need is no more demanding than to be heard and comforted, to be valued instead of demonised. And, because parts operate as a family and not in isolation, a small adjustment with one part can benefit the whole system. It does not take years of self-analysis to see positive change.
Likewise, those initial reactions I had felt toward my oppressed part – disappointment, embarrassment, resentment and frustration – were the opinions of other, protective parts. As I mastered the step-back procedure outlined in ‘How to meet a part’, I stopped berating these misunderstood beings that worked so hard to serve me. Soon, entrenched and seemingly mysterious behaviour began to relax and loosen its hold.
There she is
The secret to making lasting changes in my life was to make IFS a regular practice. Every time I succeeded in getting parts to step back, I noticed what Schwartz believes is an innate healing presence. I gained access to something larger and wiser than all my selves – what he calls the ‘Self’.
Eight qualities that describe our larger Self:
The goal of IFS is not to eliminate parts or cultivate a Self-led state all the time, but to alleviate parts of extreme roles, so we treat ourselves and others fairly. We do this when we talk to our parts with kindness, notice their interactions and ask what they need. We heal and learn to self-parent, unburdening our parts of their child-like beliefs.
The more I talked to my parts and learned to wait for their answers, the faster I became at noticing patterns and dissolving difficult moments. I took solace in the fact that tricky thoughts or feelings were not all of me, just parts. While I have not traced the source of the despair I feared and felt, I can see it is not cured by frenetic activity. I learned that the darkness would not engulf me. I could sit with it. It was only a part.
‘No Bad Parts: Healing Trauma And Restoring Wholeness With The Internal Family Systems Model’ by Richard Schwartz it out July 2021 (Sounds True, £12.69). The audiobook ‘Greater Than The Sum Of Our Parts’ (Sounds True, £28), read by Schwartz, includes guided meditations. IFS is one of the fastest-growing forms of psychotherapy in the US. For more, visit IFS-institute.com
Watch ‘How to heal your inner world’ Editor-in-Chief Suzy Walker’s interview with Richard Schwartz
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