What are subpersonalities and how they work in IFS therapy?

In our society, the belief that our mind is a single and complete whole is still very common. This point of view, which psychologists call the “mono-mind" paradigm, is damaging to our way of being. First of all, if you have a part within you that causes destructive behavior or has a negative impact on you, then without knowing the multiple mind paradigm, you are likely to judge yourself through the prism of only this single part. For example, sometimes you feel like you want to just marinate, not doing anything productive. This can make you think of yourself as lazy. So you will define your entire self as lazy, while in fact it is only one part of your personality. Exactly the same thing happens when some part of you is afraid of something. You can label yourself as a person who is always fearful.

The notion of a single mind means that we look at ourselves in a very one-dimensional way. And that does a lot of harm to our self-esteem.

Internal Family Systems theory

When we begin to understand that we are made of parts, and that some parts can show strange, difficult or extreme behaviors, while others act to challenge and support us, we suddenly stop seeing ourselves as a homogenous entity, but rather as a whole repository of different personality parts.

What are these parts in the first place? Some may take it for some kind of a metaphor. We look into ourselves and see that there is an inner critic, a perfectionist, an inner child and that this is a way to name our thoughts. From the therapy point of view, this is not quite how it works in the Internal Family Systems theory. After all, even now many neuropsychologists claim that our brain works on a modular basis. The modules seem to co-operate - some more constructively, others less, but they all form an internal community of autonomous neural networks interacting with each other.

“The mind, with its billions of neurons, is like a community made from smaller communities. The communities at the highest level (right under the level of wholeness) are something I like to call subpersonalities or inner voices… They are the competing aspects of ourselves, which try to govern the whole.” - Douglas Hofstadter

Parts are not just thoughts or emotions, but small internal personalities that form around a specific need. In order to achieve their goals, they use various elements of our mental life. Thanks to Internal Family Systems theory we know that , for example, an internal critic can fill us with specific emotions, such as tension, stress, or emotional pressure, and at the same time speak to us with his internal voice. He may also implant in us certain beliefs, evoke behaviors, and even develop habits.

Fulfilling needs

So, each part’s goal is to meet a specific need (e.g. for rest, acceptance or self-fulfillment). To this end, parts contribute to our behaviors, emotions, habits, beliefs and bodily sensations (e.g. feeling tired, thinking "I am useless", critical internal dialogue, feeling of withdrawal).

Parts use a variety of strategies to satisfy their needs. An internal critic may discourage us from acting to prevent us from experiencing failure, and thus having destructive impact on us (e.g. laziness, shyness, self-criticism).

Subpersonality is a temporary personality mode. It can be active at one moment, and can alter after a while. You may have noticed that you act differently in the presence of different people. You are someone else at work and you are someone else at home. I know people who are extroverts at work, they are loud, funny, etc., but when they are around their close ones at home they seem to turn into quiet introverts who like loneliness and serenity. Depending on the part that is active, we can behave differently.

What is very important is that the role of a given part is not its essence, in other words, if, for example, an internal critic slates you for doing something, it is not everything that this part stands for. Your internal critic can also experience other emotions. Moreover, he can affect you in many other ways than this. In my therapeutic work with clients, I have often encountered that their "internal critic" is at some point very critical and demeaning, and when we get to know him better and listen to his fears and needs, he turns out that be an internal advisor. No longer does he need to criticize, but rather supports and gives positive remarks.

Exactly the same goes for the inner child, or one of the inner children, as there can be more than one in our inner world. At one time, it can feel hurt, causing you a great deal of pain, but at another time, when this part is released from the pain, he may turn out to make you be spontaneous, joyful and able to feel many positive emotions, to which your access was completely blocked before.

So, our parts are attached to the need they want to satisfy, but they can change their roles and start to act in a different way. It is important that the therapist using Internal Family Systems theory in their work, or that we, when doing self-work with this method, look at these parts holistically.

It’s not black or white

Each part can present a whole spectrum of various behaviors and emotions. And it is amazing that when we look inside ourselves and start getting to know that internal family that lives in us, it suddenly turns out that these parts are like people, like some kind of family really, with whom we can try to get along and help it’s each member change their destructive behavior.

We don't do it by forcing our subpersonalities to change, or by exerting any pressure. It wouldn’t work, I assure you. The parts want to be understood and heard. When we start talking to them, it turns out that they want to tell us something about them, and how much they no longer like their role. When they learn that we want to help them change their role, they are very happy to do it, because every part of us has a positive intention, it wants us well.

At first it may seem not true - you may be experiencing parts that really want to take it out on you. But in the course of work with the Internal Family Systems model, we manage to understand them. Usually at first they have no idea in what other way they could support you. That’s what they have been taught to act and they are convinced what they are doing is good. And once they begin to see that what they are doing is harmful, they suddenly start to want to change their behavior.

There is much more to our parts than just the role they play. They tend to experience other emotions than just the most visible and predominant ones. When they see there’s a point to it, our parts are open to switching their role - they are often tired of what they do (e.g. the shy part may start to encourage us to go out more and meet new people).

Our subpersonalities activate in different situations and moments of our lives, depending on when they are needed. However, we can also activate them consciously, by self-empathy and visualization. In self-therapy with the IFS method, we look deep into ourselves to get in touch with our parts.

Most of the psychotherapy work based on Internal Family Systems theory is run with us having our eyes closed. You enter your inner world and meet the parts, talk to them. Although it may seem absurd or weird to you now, if you experience it yourself, you will see that it is very simple, tangible and real, and that this is in fact exactly how our psyche works.

IFS therapy vs. other therapeutic methods focused on subpersonalities work

There are several differences. Firstly, the most important one is that in IFS we place special emphasis on establishing relationships with a given part. We consider every part not as a mechanism of functioning of our mind, but as an internal person with whom we can establish a deep and meaningful relationship. When the parts feel recognized and heard, they relax, unbend and stop behaving in such a very extreme or vulnerable way.

Secondly, we pay attention to the dynamics of the relationship between various parts. Most often some of them are polarized and conflicted, while others form an alliance. We can see how the one part that protects the wounded part may be in conflict with another part. There may be another part that badmouths both of these parts. Thus, we began to see the structure of a problem from a completely different perspective. All of a sudden, we are able to see five different parts that massively influence each other and that allows us to understand better what that inner problem is all about. We can meet with each of these parts, get to know them better and slowly begin to help them change. In result, we can deal with the problem much easier and much faster.

What distinguishes the therapy based on Internal Family Systems theory the most is the so called Self energy. It is a state of consciousness in which we do not identify with any of the parts. In that state, we dissociate from all our parts and are in a state of pure curiosity, openness and kindness. It is from this level that we want to communicate with each part, because it makes our parts more open and more willing to share what they have to say.

What is also important is that parts can affect us in many different ways. We can work on a given problem, e.g. our lack of assertiveness at work and submissiveness to our boss, but when we meet with this part, we learn that it also affects us at home and in social situations. Working with this part, we do not work only on that original problem, but we work on all those situations in which this part is active. That is why, when this part alters its behavior, we experience substantial change in different areas of our life.

IFS therapy gets to the heart of the problem and allows us to explore the source of the reactions, behaviors and emotions we experience in our day-to-day life. This is a kind of therapeutic work that goes very deep and affects our personality in many different ways.

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