Your Past is Never the Reason

I’m a huge fan of the Internal Family Systems therapy method. This method involves (among other things) digging into your past to find emotions you never finished processing and sorting them out. I’ve seen this method work very well to shift repetitive thoughts and behaviors relatively effortlessly. Doing the work is often fun and rewarding. While fake memories can come into play (it’s happened to me), my experience tells me that most of the memories people access when doing IFS relate to actual incidents.

Once those incidents are revisited and consciously processed, it’s easy to change the related story and then your behavior. [Read more…]

If You Have A Strong Feeling, It’s Yours

I’ve had a plan to blog about something related to personal growth every Monday. I’ve managed this the last two weeks, and I’m doing it again today.

I read an IFS book about relationships a couple of years ago that had an articulate explanation of why strong feelings are always about us, never the other person. Will and I just hosted an NVC webinar, where we talked about the importance of taking responsibility for all of your feelings. The basic idea is that even though there are external triggers that prompt us to feel emotions at certain times, something always happens in our head between our sensory perception of what happened and our reaction to it.

And we have control over that something that happens. We can change our narrative, and therefore change our feelings about a situation.

While this principle basically always holds true, today I’d like to focus on the specific case of really strong feelings. One heuristic I use is that if a reaction seems disproportionate, it’s because the person isn’t actually reacting to the situation at hand.

If I get a little annoyed at my roommate for eating my cheese, ask her not to do it again, and forget about the whole thing, I think it’s basically fair to say that I was annoyed about the cheese. If my roommate eats my cheese and I’m in tears (yes, I’ve done this…), there’s something else going on. I’m pattern matching my current circumstance to an unresolved incident, probably from my childhood.

If someone says or does something that makes me feel absolutely terrible, I always try to remember that whatever the trigger was can’t possibly be what I’m really upset about. It doesn’t make sense to say that I’m in a really bad mood “because my friend was late” or “because Will joked that ‘you only think of yourself’ when I didn’t unplug his power cord for him”.

It doesn’t make sense to frame it that way, because I’ll never actually be able to resolve my emotional state by focusing on the trigger. Setting up my life to avoid situations that pattern match to the past probably won’t work, and (in my opinion) would be counterproductive even if it did. Because the trigger brought my attention to some emotional pain that was already there.

My model of how this works is that actually feeling better means owning the feeling and opening up emotionally. In doing so, my mind will naturally go back to the original incident where I created a distorted narrative instead of processing the emotion. Once I can see the mental movements I’m going through, it’s not usually hard to change the pattern.

So, if you find yourself complaining, either to yourself or out loud, about how bad someone made you feel, or about how much someone is making your life difficult, try getting curious about what’s going on underneath the surface.

And if you can manage it, try feeling grateful to the other person for drawing your attention to something that already a problem.

(If the thing the other person did to you is actually huge, like killing someone you care about, then this heuristic doesn’t apply. That’s a different story.)

Your Inner Virtue Ethicist Should Like Self-Compassion

If you haven’t read Virtue Ethics for Consequentialists, I highly recommend it. As I see it, consequentialism is obviously correct, and virtue ethics is how you implement it on human hardware.

I’m also a big fan of self-compassion. Today, I was working with someone, and while we did some good IFS work together, we didn’t manage to wrap things up in a nice little bow at the end of the session. That happens sometimes. So, I recommended an operant conditioning exercise to work on in the meantime.

Basically, imagine the situation that was triggering her and feel compassion. Practice this enough times, and it gets easier to feel compassion in the real situation.

She said, that her inner virtue ethicist objected, because it seemed like rewarding herself for undesirable behavior. That’s not how I see it at all, so it seemed worth it to me to write up my reasons for seeing it differently.

Compassion is a game-theoretic hack.

Or something. 

Many people end up using some sort of internal system where they aim to feel good when they do something aligned with their moral system, and bad when they do something that isn’t aligned with their moral system. This is a relatively intuitive way to set things up. And compassion is generally experienced by people as positive, so I could see why it might seem backwards to “reward” yourself with compassion for, say, feeling resentful.

But here’s how compassion is a hack. Yes, compassion feels good. But in order to feel self-compassion, I have to be updating. As humans, we tend to store data that tells us that the world is worse than we realize. We cordon it off and prevent ourselves from looking at it. If we were to take it out and look at it, we would get sad. And if you look at your sadness from the right angle, you get self-compassion.

Compassion lets you feel good while updating your model of the world to be accurate even when you’re getting bad news. But you’re not going to start doing the undesirable behavior in order to get more compassion, because feeling the self-compassion at all requires that you be in exactly the sort of observer state that means you’ll be updating as you feel it. If you take in the compassion, you’ll accept the world as it is,  feel better about yourself, and then not have the emotional impetus to do the problematic behavior anymore.

(I’m somewhat worried that this post isn’t particularly articulate, as this isn’t a concept I’ve tried to put into words very often, but it seemed worth trying. I may revisit this topic later.)

How It Feels to Be the Subject of an IFS process

Will and I recently hosted a webinar about IFS, and when I was reading the feedback forms, I noticed that two people asked very similar questions about how it felt to be the subject of an IFS process. I wanted to give my best attempt at a description, though I imagine it’s somewhat different for everyone.

During an IFS process, I go into a trance-like state. I’ve had some hypnosis work done on me, and it’s a little like that. Also similar to how I feel during guided visualizations I’ve done. If you know what it means to be “in your head“, that’s not the state you’re going for. It shouldn’t feel very much like you’re in the driver’s seat at all. More like you’re witnessing your thoughts, emotions, and visualizations unfolding.

Sometimes, I’m aware of vivid visual imagery. That being said, my imagery isn’t all that vivid compared to what Will experiences. I’m usually pretty aware of what’s going on physically in my body. It feels sort of floaty. Answers to the questions the facilitator poses come quickly, or I don’t trust them. If I pay attention, I can feel my head wanting to nod or shake before all of my mind has even processed the question.

It occurs to me to describe the state as feeling spacious. I think what I mean by that is that, since I’m not identifying with much, my thoughts are flowing more and I’m not self-censoring them.

There are moments when I can tell a process is going somewhere interesting. One of the most important signs is when I get an answer from myself that seems surprising. Or when I get a thought that causes a strong pulse of emotion. Recalling memories I haven’t thought of in ages that don’t seem obviously related is a very good sign too.

There are also a few protectors that make regular appearances in me when I’m the subject of IFS.

  • Anger: I’ll get frustrated that the person trying to help me doesn’t actually understand me. When the facilitator tries to paraphrase what I’ve said, it won’t sound quite right and I’ll complain about it. This part judges other people for not being able to read my mind effectively.
  • Confusion: I’ll find myself wanting to answer “I don’t know”, which can slow things down quite a bit if I don’t identify it as a part.
  • Skepticism: Am I doing it right? Am I just making this up? Does this even work at all? I’ve experienced powerful work on both ends, but these questions still come up for me, even now.
  • Analysis: As I mentioned above, being in an analytical frame of mind isn’t appropriate for doing IFS work, but it’s always a strong attractor for me anyway.
  • Silence: I’ll have a strong impulse to shut down and not say anything. This can happen for a bunch of reasons, though it’s not as strong in me as it used to be.

Other people I’ve worked with have a different set of usual objections. Going deep is vulnerable, and there are many reasons someone wouldn’t want to do it. Some people, for example, are reluctant to cry in front of others. If you are afraid to cry, your brain may be looking ahead ten steps and preventing from letting you talk about something that even might lead in that direction.

IFS Unpacked Recap

On Tuesday, Divia and I did our first webinar on Internal Family Systems, a therapeutic technique that we’ve both gotten a lot of mileage out of. We briefly covered the model and some theory about how we think it works, followed by a live demonstration, and then a Q&A.

This time we actually did record the webinar, so click here to listen. [Edit: link now broken, sadly.]

There are also written notes available again, this time courtesy of Scott Fowler.

Thanks everyone for your interest, for attending, for volunteering, for asking great questions, and for giving great feedback!

Analytical Parts in IFS

When I do IFS work, one of the first things I have to do before I can really get somewhere with the person I’m working with is to disengage the person’s analytical part. I usually start by doing this implicitly. I choose my questions with the intent of bypassing the analytical mind, and that tends to work pretty well.

Questions about emotions, visually imagery, and feelings in the body are good for this, and there are some other rhetorical tricks that also play into the process. For example, if someone doesn’t respond to the question “what does that part look like?”, I sometimes have better success with, “if that part looked like something, what would it look like?” For some reason counterfactuals often let the analytical part relax.

On the other hand, “why?” questions are very likely to activate the analytical part. [Read more…]