In the first four posts of this sequence, I outlined how fear can lead to internal conflict. In the next four posts I'll explore and defend the following claim: we can resolve internal conflicts by understanding what underlying fears are driving a conflict, then providing evidence that those fears won't happen, thereby reconsolidating the memories which caused them. A simple example of this process comes from exposure therapy for phobias, which works by demonstrating that the phobia is much less dangerous than the person had learned to believe. A wide range of different therapeutic approaches apply the same core mechanism to deal with more complex internal conflicts. I'll focus in particular on the internal family systems (IFS) framework—which, despite the slightly kooky name, is one of the most powerful methods for dealing with internal conflict.
The core ideas of IFS are essentially the ones I've outlined in the last few posts: that you should think of yourself as being composed of many parts, some of which are implementing protective strategies based on your previous experiences (especially from childhood). IFS particularly highlights the idea that there are “no bad parts”—we should treat all parts as deserving of sympathy, even when the strategies they’re using are harmful and deeply misguided. From an IFS perspective, the memory reconsolidation process I described above can also be see as a process of build trust between different parts of yourself. In this post I'll focus on the first step: identifying the underlying parts at play and what they want.
Our starting point can be any phenomenon that triggers an emotional response from some part of you. You might find one by thinking about an emotionally-loaded topic, like your work or relationships (especially with your parents); or paying attention to how your body feels; or paying attention to the way you choose your words or thoughts, and which ones you're suppressing; or to your dreams; or to character archetypes or symbolic motifs that particularly resonate with you. Many types of triggers work far better for some people than others—a fact which helps explain why so many different psychotherapy techniques exist.
However you find an emotional trigger, the next step is to work through the protective or defensive strategies associated with the part causing the response, to figure out what its underlying fear or need is. In doing so, it’s often helpful to name or visualize the active part (e.g. by identifying it with a younger version of you) and imagine having a conversation with it. The practice of Focusing can also be useful here—this involves saying a possible articulation of what the part wants out loud, seeing if it resonates, and adjusting it if not. Again, different techniques will work for different people; the important thing is finding some introspective technique for narrowing in on what the part "wants to say".
Doing so often requires navigating two types of defensiveness: from the part that's trying to articulate its perspective, and from other parts reacting to criticism of themselves. For example, suppose that you face a conflict between a part that wants to donate more to charity and a part that wants to spend more on holidays with your friends. The former might be partially driven by a fear of others thinking you’re selfish; the latter might be partially driven by a fear of not seeming cool enough. For each of them, criticising the other part helps it get more of what it wants, while admitting its own fear gives the other part ammunition to use against it. So each part might become defensive both when it's prompted to articulate its underlying motivations, and when criticized by the other part. What defensiveness looks like varies by person, but it often involves angry pushback, refusal to engage, or redirection towards less sensitive topics (e.g. via making jokes, or via switching into intellectual analysis mode).
One useful tool for addressing defensiveness is compassionate communication (or CC; also known as non-violent communication aka NVC), which focuses on expressing accusations or criticisms more concretely, and linking them to the underlying needs driving them. As an example in an interpersonal context, instead of saying “You never clean up after yourself; you’re so lazy!“, you might say something like “When I saw you leave the dishes in the sink, I felt angry and unappreciated”. CC has been very popular since Marshall Rosenberg’s original book came out a few decades ago, and has been battle-tested (literally): the bestselling book Never Split the Difference describes how CC significantly improved the effectiveness of the FBI agents tasked with negotiating with kidnappers.
However, while CC is good at handling loud and angry types of defensiveness, it's less effective in other cases. When a part is stonewalling or changing the topic, the best move is often to go meta: ask why it's doing that, and what would make it feel safer. For example, when a part refuses to answer direct questions about itself, you can move to questions about what it's trying to avoid by not answering, and see if you can provide the type of safety it's looking for. Note that this is very different from directly reassuring it that its concerns are misguided, or arguing it into engaging less defensively—our primary goal shouldn't be to get its concerns out of the way, but instead to understand and empathize with them.
Another example of going meta: when one part is being crowded out by another, it's often useful to directly ask the latter part if it'd be willing to step back temporarily (analogous to how marriage counsellors typically ask each person speak in turn, rather than letting them constantly interrupt each other). In the book Man and his Symbols, Jung writes:
Time and time again, in my professional work, I have had to repeat the words: “Let’s get back to your dream. What does the dream say?"
This resonates with my personal experience of IFS: I often need to ask my intellectual part to step back from trying to generate top-down narratives about a topic, so that my more emotional parts can be heard. This request is easier to make when you can reassure other parts that they'll eventually get a turn to speak; if they don't believe this, you might need to switch to focusing on their meta-level concerns before returning to the original object-level topic.
Having said all of this, the process of “listening” to parts (like the process of interpreting dreams) is inherently a messy one, and it’s easy to just hear what we expect to hear. Indeed, I’m not sure that there’s a clear line between “listening” to a part and “inventing” a part, which should make us cautious. So we should think of IFS as a lens on our psychology which sometimes allows us to articulate hidden beliefs or desires, but sometimes leads us on wild goose chases—and we should trust it to the extent that these articulations tend to be productive.
Non-violent communication is a much more common term, but a lot of people (including myself) really dislike its implication that other forms of communication are violent. So I’m throwing my efforts behind switching to the "compassionate communication" terminology.