This is the third article in a year-long series about the “12-most-important-relationship-skills-no-one-ever-taught-me-in-school-but-I-sure-wish-they-did.”
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January’s tip I’m guessing no one taught you in school is the idea that there’s not just one you. And in fact it really helps to recognize (and get to know) the many “yous.”
Last week we talked about learning to recognize this phenomenon by noticing how we are constantly buffeted by mixed emotions. And since we can all relate to having mixed emotions, it’s perhaps not such a leap to think of these differing perspectives as representing important-but-separate aspects of ourselves. As different Parts of ourselves:
- We are all made up of different “parts” that together form our basic nature and personality.
- What we call “thinking” is often conversations among these different parts, each with its own point of view. Many of the emotions we feel come from these parts of ourselves.
- All parts of us want what is best for us, and all of them contain valuable qualities and resources. But even though they want what’s best for us, sometimes our parts have bad ideas about how to achieve this.
From “There’s A Part of Me” by Jon Schwartz and Bill Brennan.
Taking it one step further, it can help to think of these Parts as being in relationship to one another. Like family. Some families work to balance the needs of individual members with the needs of the group. Some not so much. Some family members speak up loudly and often, some are silent. And all have their outliers and eccentrics like . . . Olive Hoover’s family from the movie Little Miss Sunshine.
Let’s play with this for a moment. So the idea here is to imagine those conversations you hear in your head are taking place between distinct inner characters, or Parts-of-you, each with his or her own narrow view of what’s needed to keep you functioning and safe. Olive has a loud-mouthed self-medicating grandpa intent on his next “fix”; a brilliant but tortured uncle processing multiple losses; a teenage brother focused on getting into the air force academy and who refuses to talk until he does; an exhausted over-working mother desperate to keep the family eating, sleeping and safe; a self-obsessed father focused on his career as a motivational speaker, and, of course, Olive who is close to her grandpa and who wants the chance to participate in the Little Miss Sunshine Beauty Pageant. Yet, as you’ll see below, “no one gets left behind.”
If you’ve never seen the film, do treat yourself. Meanwhile, whether you’ve seen it or not, take a peep at the official trailer. Even this 2.5 minute clip makes the point: we’re a mess of well-meaning contradictions striving to get along, both inside and outside the family.
This week? Where do these “Parts-of-me” come from, and what do they do?
In brief, your Parts (which contribute to your overall personality) are a mash-up of your biology and your environment. You were born with the predisposition to thrive in two realms;
- Your outer system, by figuring out how to get along with (and even love) other people;
- Your inner system, by figuring out how to get along with (and even love) yourself.
“Predisposed to get along?” I hear a Part of you sneer! What about Olive’s grandpa screaming about the chicken dinner? He seems to hate everybody. Or brother Frank wanting to kill himself. He seems to hate himself.
Those are fair observations but my guess is, both Grandpa and Frank weren’t born with these extreme perspectives. At birth they, and all of us, were perfect little babies born with everything they needed to contribute their unique way of being to the world.
Problem is, they (and all of us) were born into an imperfect world. They (and all of us) were born with unique abilities to feel and think and express but, because they (and all of us) exist only in relationship to others (other people with feelings, needs and agendas in your outer realm and other Parts of you with feelings, needs and agendas in your inner realm) things don’t always go smoothly.
Parts are forced out of their valuable roles [ . . . ] by life experiences that can reorganize the system in unhealthy ways. A good analogy is an alcoholic family in which the children are forced into protective and stereotypic roles by the extreme dynamics of their family. While one finds similar sibling roles across alcoholic families (e.g., the scapegoat, mascot, lost child), one does not conclude that those roles represent the essence of those children. Instead, each child is unique and, once released from his or her role by intervention, can find interests and talents separate from the demands of the chaotic family.
While some people get understandably pushed into destructive roles because of trauma and abuse,
more often, it is a person’s family of origin values and interaction patterns that create internal polarizations which escalate over time and are played out in other relationships.
from Richard Schwartz’s overview of IFS.
Which leads me to talk about what Parts do?
Going back to the idea that we are intended to thrive or at least, to take it down a notch, to-get-along-well-enough-with-our own self and our family or chosen community, then each of these inner personalities has a role to play to help us thrive.
According to Richard Schwartz (in his book Internal Family Systems, page 19) human systems (both our inner system of Parts and our outer system of relationships) thrive to the extent they enjoy ~
1) BALANCE – It’s a fairness thing. Parts and families need their fair share of ~
- influence on decision-making – they need to know their ideas count
- access to the groups resources – they need “enough”
- responsibility – they need to contribute
- safety – they need boundaries that are neither too rigid nor too loose.
2) HARMONY – It’s a cooperative thing. Parts and families thrive when an effort is made to work cooperatively toward a common vision whilst recognizing each person has specific styles, gifts, ideas and abilities. Our Parts are tasked with helping create and maintain this harmony.
3) LEADERSHIP – It’s a “Who’s in charge?” thing. Parts and families need help to ~
- Mediate disagreements and polarizations and manage the feedback they give one another;
- Ensure all members are protected and cared for;
- Allocate resources, responsibilities and influence fairly;
- Provide the broad vision and perspective for the whole system;
- Represent the system to other systems;
- Honestly interpret feedback from other systems;
4) DEVELOPMENT – It’s a learning thing. We may be born with all these wonderfully sensitive Parts designed to help us thrive with balance, harmony and leadership but, as I noted up top, perfect babies are born into an imperfect world. Our Parts have to grow and mature yet all of us to some extent, have parts who get stuck. They hold on to old beliefs and fears or, through trauma, freeze in place.
This is a lot for one week. But bottom line, you’ll be ahead of the game in your relationships if you can recognize that in any given moment ~
- You’ve got mixed emotions – you’re a mash-up of your biology and environment
- Your mixed emotions are expressed through your own inner family of Parts – and each Part is trying to keep your inner and outer worlds more or less balanced, harmonious, well-led and adaptable.
WANT TO KNOW MORE?
- Click here for an overview of IFS.
- Click here for articles, books and other media about IFS.
- * Jon and Bill’s book excerpted above comes as a downloadable eBook for $10, or a paper bound book for $15. Both can be found at the IFS store.
WANT TO TRY SOMETHING?
Bring to mind a dilemma you are having. A “should I do this or that” sort of dilemma. This is a terrific way to see your inner family at work. You are having a dilemma because two Parts of you are polarized. It’s like watching an inner ping-pong match – right?
- Your I want to be happy Part says “Quit your job – you’re miserable!” and
- Your I want to be secure Part says “You’ll never find another job. You’ll be destitute in two months. What are you even thinking!”
And some other Part is striving to find the wisdom of Solomon and be The Decider.
Now what you do about all of this is another article. But if you can at least find these Parts, you’ll be several important steps along the way to resolving the impasse.
- How do these Parts relate to one another?
- Who’s really in charge of all these Parts?
- And how on earth does any of this help my relationships?