In the Internal Family Systems model of therapy, the main concept is that we have a core “Self,” in addition to many parts that develop to protect and manage our internal worlds. These parts are your various inner voices or “sides” of you that come out in different situations. We can recognize that symptoms come from parts of us that are trying to protect us from pain or manage existing pain – for instance, we could say that feeling socially anxious is “a part of me that gets scared of being hurt, even though I really want to make friends” or that depression is “part of me that is shut down because feeling hope feels risky right now, even though another part of me want so badly to feel better.” These symptoms make a lot of sense as survival instincts.
This concept opens up a whole new way to view ourselves and others as inherently good and capable, and already possessing the qualities we need to heal the parts of us that are suffering from survival instincts gone awry. When we know our core Self is good, we can have compassion towards the parts of ourselves causing our symptoms, because we can see the good intentions underlying them, and realize that all our “disorders” are attempts to protect from or cope with pain. Those parts are perhaps somewhat successful at providing relief in the short term (avoiding difficult situations, yelling to blow off steam, etc), but not effective in the long term—and not compatible with who we truly are or what we’d like to feel or do in our lives. We don’t need to change who we are, and we don’t need to feel ashamed or afraid of coming into therapy—we are there to become more ourselves and to use the aspects of our “Best Self” to figure out and take care of our symptoms.
Getting in touch with the core Self is an important part of IFS treatment, and really it’s a natural part of any personal growth process we go through. Any time we grow from a challenge, a trauma, a journey, a relationship, or an achievement, we grow because we have used, nurtured, and noted positive qualities within ourselves that led to a good outcome. We didn’t have an absence of fear, anger, self-doubt, etc., we just were able to integrate those feelings in a manageable way; as I like to say, the anxiety might still be on the bus, but it’s not driving it anymore. We leaned on and learned about our strengths, and those strengths got incorporated into our sense of Self. IFS calls this becoming Self-led or Self-directed, I call it having our Best Self driving the bus!
I love using the 8 C’s activity with clients because it helps identify and explore these positive qualities that make up our core, or best, Self. This exercise is particularly important for people who have been suffering for a long time and feel like they’ve lost their sense of who they are outside of their symptoms – for times when it feels like the sense of “Self” is lost and isn’t even on the bus anymore. Here is the 8 C’s exercise: for each of the following C’s, write down a memory of an experience (recent or not, doesn’t make a difference) of a time you used that quality, identify how it feels to think about that (a physical sensation), and reflect on what it means about you as a person (how does it fit in to your identity? Does it make you a good person, a loveable person, a kind person, etc?).
Notice what it feels like to be in touch with these qualities within yourself, and spend time focusing on the ones that resonate with you the most. Think of something you are struggling with, and think about which of these qualities would be helpful to access in that situation.
If it’s hard to find examples, ask a friend or loved one to help you, and start a list that you can add to through the week when you notice these qualities, so that you can build more self-awareness.
If you’re interested in exploring more about IFS with a therapist, reach out to our team!