New York Times columnist, David Brooks, was recently inspired by the movie, Where the Wild Things Are. He wonders if we are one person, with an ingrained, stable character—or are we different people in different situations? It sees as if we are tripping around the truth with one person and going whole-hog honest with another?
His thoughts, and the movie, offer us a great forum to explain Internal Family Systems (IFS).
In Where the Wild Things Are, the child, Max, is torn between loving and needing his mother and raging at her. He falls into another world, populated by strange, wild creatures that he tries to control. They want him to build a world free of burdens and pain, but sadly, he can neither build the world nor control the creatures.
Internal Family Systems tells us we all have multiplicity. We have different parts with different needs, feelings, experiences, and agendas. Sometimes we are unaware of them, and other times we are batted about by different feelings and behaviors.
We may not know we have parts— we just know we feel depressed one moment, angry the next, full of energy in an hour, and totally listless by nightfall. Or we melt into the eyes of our loved ones, explode a moment later into rage, collapse into guilt, and then sink into loneliness.
As Brooks says, we may think of ourselves as having immutable character, hopefully the good, stable, productive, fun-loving kind. But in order to keep thinking of ourselves that way, we have to ignore, hide, or demean aspects of ourselves that yank us out of these experiences.
Personally, I think of myself as creative and focused. But what about when I get carried away by one distraction after another in the course of trying to write or create something? (Excuse me while I check my email.) As Brooks says, do I use direct assault to fight these distractions and return to my rightful character? Like Max, do I try to control the Wild Things?
Thankfully, IFS shows us another way. We neither own our ingrained monolithic character, nor are we buffeted and tossed on the waves of situation-specific behavior.
We all have parts, and they are all good. If they get extreme or bossy, it’s because they have been forced, through some difficult experience, into extreme roles. Each, in their own way, tries to help and guide us. It’s not their fault if one extreme part causes problems which another one has to mop up!
We don’t have to use reason or force with these parts. I don’t need to criticize my distracting parts for checking that email. Instead I can take a moment to ask for a bit of space between me and my distractor, and say “Hello, who are you?” When my distractor feels my friendship and presence, it relaxes, and says, “Oh, I was just trying to get you to have everything all at once. I’m worried about only doing one thing at a time. It was not very safe in childhood to stay in one place for more than a moment.” It relaxes, and I can focus again.
We don’t have to control, analyze, fear, judge, or push away our community of selves. As IFS tells us, we can ask them if they would take turns letting us understand the worlds they live in. If they live in tight little boxes, reliving unhappy events, they can feel another heart beating there with them, offering them understanding, contact, and relief.
© Copyright 2009 by Mona R. Barbera, PhD. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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