In recent months, I’ve become hyper-aware of language that we’ve all used at some point, but we don’t always notice. When we say things like “part of me wants to quit my job, but part of me thinks I just need to work harder,” we’re identifying and calling out an inner conflict. We’ve all been conflicted about breaking off a relationship, how to spend our time, or whether or not to eat that gorgeous sugar-fat bomb we see in the bakery.
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
–Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, 51
This idea that we might be large and contain multitudes resonates so strongly with me—especially when I realize just how many different voices in my head have a strong, loudly expressed opinion about my behavior, my success, and my lovability.
All of my inner conflict comes from various parts of myself that have been conditioned to behave in ways that were meant to serve me, but ultimately don’t. They often disagree with each other, not just with me. And sometimes they don’t even like each other.
For example, there’s a part of me that is so desperately uncomfortable every time I find myself in a situation where I don’t get a reference to an important book (that another part of me believes I should have read) that I nod as if I understand. That’s the part of me that protects me from feeling stupid, because the stupid part of me (and trust me, she’s there) is unacceptable. Stupidity was unacceptable in my family of origin, so I banished any semblance of stupidity. I have to be very conscious of not letting my inner anti-stupidity part’s voice overcome my ability to ask a question, get curious, and (ironically) get smarter.
There’s a part of me that quietly mutters a hex for harm on the people who drive like maniacs, endangering everyone. She’s my enforcement officer, a stickler for the rules. She’s also very judgmental when that same woman is late for yoga class every. single. week. (What is her PROBLEM?)
Yes, I see the irony there, too.
There’s the credit-seeker, who demands visible appreciation for even the smallest act of generosity, part of my people-pleasing behavior that isn’t satisfied unless the pleased people acknowledge their pleased-ness. And when they don’t, the Judge appears, sentencing them to the punishment of my choice.
There’s another part of me that’s so competitive, she makes it hard for me to celebrate the achievements of people I love, especially those who have the unfortunate distinction of being in a similar business. That’s my hyper-achiever at work, pushing me to be better than anyone at what I do. Ironically (again) this puts an invisible wedge in important relationships, as my hyper-achiever colludes with my superiority judge, who protects me from feelings of inferiority by dismissing others’ achievements. And the part of me that wants to have closer relationships? She’s getting nervous because she thinks the competitor needs to be shut down, shut up, and stop feeling less-than because it’s just not coach-like, when the real healing comes when I can respect and comfort that part of me that competes for attention and praise.
All of these parts are in conflict with my true, essential Self, which knows that these behaviors are inconsistent with my embodied core values and the highest level of consciousness I am capable of achieving.
They’re also often in conflict with each other, when they’re not working together to gang up on the more vulnerable parts of me.
What these parts all have in common is that they are trying to protect me from feeling difficult emotions, by managing my expectations, and helping me avoid being triggered. They’re keeping the most sensitive and hurt parts of me from being outed, and they’re making sure that the parts of me that I’ve exiled never see the light of day, lest their shame be disclosed to the world.
They’re vestiges of old traumas, large and small, from a time when my understanding of emotions and my skills of discernment were not yet developed.
I’m learning about all my parts as I study a psychological framework called Internal Family Systems (IFS), which is a helpful way to see how all the parts of me work together. I’ve got an inner “family,” with all the roles and conflicts and potential for love and support that an outer family might provide. It’s been a deeply moving and humbling and empowering process, which helps heal the wounds that my life experience has provided, and helps me understand how others move through the world in a similar way. It’s increased my empathy for myself and for others, and illuminates a path forward for anyone willing to have some interesting, enlightening, sometimes painful, and sometimes plain weird conversations with themselves.
The IFS model helps identify all the parts—exiles, protectors, managers, and firefighters—as well as the true Self, who has the ability to heal these parts and help them find roles that are more joyful, exuberant, supportive, and helpful than the ones they’ve felt obligated to play.
By identifying the protectors, and acknowledging that they’ve been working hard in roles they were never intended to play, we can give them the space to step back so we can re-connect with the parts of us we’ve relegated to the dark, cold, lonely basements of our consciousness. Those are the exact parts that need our light, our warmth, and our presence in order to heal.
Once we’ve identified the parts and re-engaged with our true Selves, we can move through the world in a way that is less hurtful to ourselves and others, and more joyful, centered, and whole. It can be a formidable foundation for conscious leadership, both of self and of others.
If you’re interested in learning about your own inner family, join me, and fellow emotional intelligence coach Rena Rachar, as we lead a deep-dive book club for “No Bad Parts,” Richard Schwartz’s latest book about the framework he discovered through his experience as a therapist and human. Rena and I will share how this framework has changed our lives, changed our clients’ lives, and given us all a way through the most challenging situations of our lives.
The program will run for four consecutive weeks beginning September 13, 6:30 p.m. Eastern time. Contact me directly to be put on the participant invitation list.