musings on IFS

from evy's notebook

context on IFS from a recent post:

I've been reading about Internal Family Systems therapy recently. It's a form of parts therapy, which means it models different emotions and internal thought patterns as different parts of oneself, each personified and in relationship with each other. And at the core of oneself, beneath all the parts that are afraid or hurt or trying to protect, is what IFS calls "Self". This "part" is less of a part and more of something foundational. The Self is compassionate and caring, it's calm and grounded, it naturally feels close to others, and it's curious in ways that are accepting and not critical or judgmental. It feels these ways both towards other people and towards the various parts that make up the internal mind.

musing #1: do scary shit

Years ago, I adopted a motto do scary shit!". As I come out of a period of restorative hibernation and stronger risk-aversion, I'm returning to the idea of doing scary things. It's an art, in that some scary things improve my life and some have hurt me, and it's sometimes not clear when fear is holding me back versus keeping me safe. The more uncertainty I have around when to trust my fear, the harder it becomes to do scary shit.

As I've been learning about IFS, I've been shifting the way I work through fear. With this framework, I start by having a conversation with the part of me that's afraid, from a place of curiosity and compassion. I learn more about what it's afraid of and how it's trying to protect me. From there, I consider how capable I am of keeping myself safe (for whatever definition of "safe" feels important to me). If I can trust myself to step in if things become more dangerous, to handle what might come up, to take care of myself through hurt or failure -- then I ask the part that is trying to protect me if it would let me try doing the scary thing.

So instead of doing something despite fear, I do it in conversation with fear. By respecting my fears, I become more aligned with my intuition instead of pushing feelings away. I become more myself. I become stronger, and more capable of getting out there and doing scary shit!

musing #2: how meaningful is age?

A common technique in IFS is asking a part how old it is, and asking it if knows how old you are in the present day. The idea is that your parts are often formed in childhood and are unaware that the rest of you (especially Self) is a lot more capable of handling challenges than the part was when it formed. By realizing that things are different now, it's able to heal.

I've been finding myself quite resistant to talking about age in IFS. Why? Three things come to mind:

(1) I find age, in terms of specific numbers, difficult to think about. It takes me a moment to remember how old I am when people ask, and I'm much better able to remember periods of time in my life (elementary school, the summer after high school, my third internship) than how old I specifically was when those things happened. So maybe I would prefer thinking of life phase when talking to parts about age, than actual numbers.

(2) It's hard for me to imagine parts as being stuck in my past. A lot of my parts feel connected to events that have happened throughout my life, as patterns repeated themselves and reinforced existing fears. Parts often don't seem surprised to learn how old I am. The block to them healing feels less related to them not being aware that I'm older now, and more related to them not yet trusting my (current) Self to stay present and manage perceived threats.

(3) I'd like to believe that younger versions of me were capable of accessing Self and taking care of myself, and just didn't know how yet. I'm wary of narratives that treat children as unskilled and defenceless, since I think they're often a lot more capable than we give them credit for.

All that being said, I think there is value to thinking about the patterns I've learned around interacting with the world and where those patterns started out. Sometimes past circumstances are different from current circumstances, and consciously exploring what's changed can shift how I relate to potential threats and how I respond to them.

I like to ask parts "when have you felt this way before?" and "what are you protecting me from?" and "what are you afraid might happen?". I like showing them the things I'm working on and some of the ways my life has become more comfortable and supportive over time. Instead of directly asking questions about age, I ask related things that get at similar ideas. I'm curious to see how my relationship to the age question evolves over time.