I have a part that likes to eat. I mean, it likes to eat – to excess – chocolate covered anything, sweeeeet treats, and anything that would have been forbidden or restricted in my childhood. This part revels in the fact that I’m now an adult with resources who can simply choose to go to Baskin Robbins for a jamica almond fudge scoop or have (another) handful of the chocolate covered almonds I try not to keep in the house. When that part is active, it only makes sense to go get that pleasurable, sweet treat.
In thinking about how to work with myself on this, Internal Family Systems (IFS) gives me an interesting option. Here are some things IFS posits about the fact of our humanness.
- Our personalities have multiple parts that are distinct from each other. And this is normal! These parts have different agendas, preferences, urges, body sensations, and memories. I think of them as distinct neural nets in our brain that got formed when specific kinds of actions were needed and made sense. For example, when I was 8, vigilance and near-lunging for sugar in my environment made sense as I wasn’t going to get it otherwise, and I liiiiiiiked it! Consequences of eating like that on a frequent basis don’t occur to – or make sense to – the part of me that gets overly focused on them, because it’s very young.
- There are no bad parts. Each part is trying to help the whole, it’s just that some of the tactics or goals are outdated. They made more sense when the need first arose. My young sweet tooth part wants pleasure and sees it as rare. Pleasure is not wrong, and continual pleasure from sugar also has consequences, so I need to do some soothing and updating with this part. It needs to hear from me that I can have sugar sometimes, that pleasure comes in lots of forms, that pleasure is more available than I realize, and that I really get where it is coming from. You know how it feels when someone really understands how you’re feeling? And how sometimes we relax in the face of that understanding? Parts can relax in those moments, too.
- We have three kinds of parts: exiles and two kinds of protectors. Exiles are the parts of us that experienced overwhelming, difficult emotions that we don’t ever want to feel again. Loss, abandonment, or hopelessness, for example. Protector parts try to keep those feelings at bay. Managers, one of two types of protectors, are proactive and do things like have us work hard, improve, be productive, and be socially acceptable so that the hard feelings are kept at bay. They can, however, devolve into things like perfectionism, obsession, conflict avoidance, and trying to control others. Firefighters are reactive protectors that swing into action when those difficult feelings have made their way into consciousness. Feeling the pain of having been abused as a child? Maybe those are the moments we drink or gamble, numb or dissociate, cut or think about suicide. Firefighters lead us to overuse, addiction, self-harm, suicidal ideation – anything to distract and shut down the feelings that seem unbearable. I think it’s possible the part of me who wants continual access to chocolate is an exile who hated feeling deprived as a kid. I have a manager part that makes rules like “no sweets in the house since you can’t handle eating just a little!” and a firefighter who gives in completely with a double helping of ice cream so that I don’t have to have that longing anymore (since it’s already being experienced). Note that both the manager and the firefighter are trying to help.
- In addition to parts, we each also have a Self that is not destroyable. The Self is curious, compassionate, creative, confident, connected, and courageous. It’s not a part, it’s our core. The Self can get to know and work with the parts and their varying agendas. When we are increasingly Self-led, our lives have a whole lot more peace in them. And this is the goal of IFS – increasing access to the Self. When I said I need to soothe and work with my sweet tooth part, it’s from Self energy that that is most effective. My Self can compassionately see that, in my case, the desire for pleasure may also be a desire for expressed love, and it can help me connect with my beloveds. When the part’s real needs are acknowledged, behaviors are more easily changed.
An IFS therapist helps the client find, focus on, and befriend their parts. If you zoom out 10,000 feet, the whole endeavor is about coming to know and accept all of ourselves, and learning to treat ourselves with kind gentleness. If that sounds like something out of reach or something you don’t feel you deserve, that’s a manager at work. Ask an IFS therapist to help you get to know that part, discern its true needs, and foster greater self-acceptance, from which change can emerge.
I am trained in IFS. Feel free to reach out to me to talk more about this in the therapy process.