I find the “bids and boundaries” framework from my previous post to be very useful, but also a little… sterile, perhaps. Imagine prefixing every request you ever make with “it’s okay to say no, but…”; or always refusing bids which you think you might come to resent; or always asking people if it’s okay to flirt with them before doing it. That makes relationships less risky, but also shallower and less spontaneous. Can we get the best of both worlds? I think so, via the two skills I discuss in this post: self-leadership and self-love.
These terms have straightforward meanings, but also more specific connotations in the IFS framework. In IFS, the “Self” is the aspect of you which mediates between other parts, and which is present when those parts aren’t active. Self-leadership is the ability to consistently engage with the world in a way that all your parts endorse, rather than letting some of them seize control in ways that others will later resent. It’s a difficult skill because when somebody hurts you, the hurt part often feels a strong drive to express itself, and will only let you intervene if it trusts that you’ll treat it fairly, and defend its interests, even when it’s less emotionally activated.
Having said that, self-leadership doesn’t mean never getting angry—it just means never fully giving in to that anger or wielding it with the goal of hurting another person (or another part of yourself). Self-leadership might involve telling the other person that you feel angry at them, but without launching into a tirade; or telling them that you need to go on a walk to calm down, but giving them a reassuring gesture before you leave. In other words, self-leadership means that while your angry parts can’t seize full control, neither can the parts of you that want to suppress your anger. And on the receiving end, it involves being able to face someone who’s angry at you without either retreating into yourself or lashing out in response.
For some readers, expressing anger at all might be scary. But suppressing anger doesn’t make it go away; once something starts to bug you, even small examples can trigger the underlying feeling of hurt. Eventually you end up with a conversation like:
A: [finally hitting their breaking point] “I can’t stand how you never treat me with respect.”
B: “What the hell? I was just doing [X]; you’re massively overreacting.”
A: “I hate it when you [X], but you don’t care and just keep doing it anyway.”
B: “I had no idea; why didn’t you say anything? I would have stopped ages ago!”
A: “I kept giving you signs, but you never paid any attention to them.”
B: “If you’re so indirect, how on earth am I meant to figure out what you mean?”
Even this argument is better than just letting the disagreement fester (like the long-married couples who constantly snipe at each without ever expressing their needs openly). But ideally A would be able to express a bit of annoyance much earlier, in a less accusatory way; and B would be able to listen to it open-mindedly, without feeling defensive. That not only makes more progress on the object-level issue, but also makes it easier to handle future issues productively: anger is a mechanism for ensuring that you enforce your boundaries, and the security of knowing that you’ll do so even when you’re not very angry means that your angry parts need to be less active in the first place.
One reason that people might avoid bringing issues up early is fear of falling into the opposite failure mode—of raising too many issues, and thereby frustrating or even manipulating their partner. I do think that this can be a problem, but typically more because of the way it’s done than the amount that it’s done. It’s easy to think that your job ends once you’ve raised an issue, and it’s now the other person’s responsibility to fix it. Instead, though, you should think of solving these problems as a joint effort (or sometimes, depending on the issue, as your responsibility, which you're asking the other person for help with). One good way to shift into that attitude is to cultivate a sense of curiosity: if your annoyance or anger is a signal of something deeper, what might that be? In my experience it’s hard to have too much curiosity-focused communication with close friends or romantic partners.
Another case where self-leadership can be very important is when you’re just starting to build trust with someone. When a part of you really wants to connect with them, it's sometimes tempting to jump straight into the deep end by making a leap of faith and strongly committing to them. But without self-leadership, this is coercive both towards the parts of you that would prefer to be cautious, and towards the parts of the other person that don’t want to feel responsible for potentially hurting you. Self-leadership doesn’t rule out strong, rapid escalation, but it requires first asking yourself: is this driven by a part that doesn’t want to set boundaries because it’s scared of losing the other person? Or is it driven by excitement about them and trust that they’re capable of setting their own boundaries when necessary? Once you’re able to recognize and cultivate the latter, then it becomes not only much healthier but also much easier to throw yourself into something new.
The leadership analogy allows us to harness many of our existing intuitions about what good leadership looks like: setting a vision and direction, weighing the interests of all participants, and motivating them to do their best. But self-leadership needs to be gentler than leadership of others, because many of our parts are less like adults with well-developed emotional self-regulation skills and more like young children. So a crucial complement to cultivating self-leadership is cultivating self-love.
Self-love is in some sense another self-explanatory concept; but it’s also counterintuitive for many people for whom self-judgment and self-critique are second nature. To visualize unconditional self-love, picture the love that a mother has for her newborn child—love which doesn’t depend at all on what the child has done, or what it’s achieved, or what it might grow up to become, but rather an unconditional acceptance of it as it already is. The safety provided by knowing that you’ll always love yourself, no matter what, is incredibly powerful in healing trauma, by providing a visceral counterexample to implicit beliefs about love being scarce. (You can find one personal account of its impacts here.)
Some people have asked me: won’t unconditional self-acceptance make us “too soft on ourselves”, leading to us slacking off or hurting others? I think not, for two main reasons, which the multi-agent model helps explain. Firstly, there’s not just a single dial on how you feel about yourself—you can have some parts that are totally self-accepting even if you have others that are strongly self-critical. And indeed, almost everyone does—it’s just that most people’s self-critical parts try to shut down their self-accepting parts whenever they try to speak. So self-acceptance is usually less a matter of developing a new skill or part, and more a matter of developing the self-leadership required to let the part of you that loves you (and always will) express itself clearly.
But secondly, there’s a different aspect of self-love which actually makes self-criticism more useful: knowing that you’ll never give up on yourself. When a boxer returns to their corner between rounds, a good coach might encourage them, or might criticize them, but in either case will be driven by one goal: helping the boxer win. This type of self-love means knowing you’ll always be in your own corner, and knowing that you’ll never sabotage yourself. That makes it far easier to absorb criticism in constructive ways—just as having a loving and supportive family makes it easier to navigate the rest of the world.
How can we cultivate self-love? The easiest way for me to evoke self-love is to think of my inner child, who’s trying his best in a complicated, confusing world. It’s hard to criticize a child, or hold them in contempt, because even when they misbehave they often simply can’t help themselves, or don’t know any better. A more general framework for this is Ideal Parent Therapy, which involves visualizing how ideal parent figures would respond to you telling them about your problems. Empathy-enhancing drugs can also have a big impact, even long after using them, by unlocking the perceptual shift required to view yourself from the perspective of someone who loves you unconditionally. Once you see how that's possible, it’s hard to unsee it as an attitude you could hold towards both yourself and other people.
In the shell-shield-staff terminology from this blog post: carefulness in making bids and setting boundaries is a shield which protects you from risk, and is better than staying in your shell, but still weighs you down—as opposed to a staff, which helps you move lithely, but which requires that you can absorb and recover from the consequences of making mistakes.