‘No bad parts’ is the motto of Richard Schwartz, founder of the Internal Family Systems model.
We use this model a lot. It helps make sense of the family that most people can recognise inside of themselves – the boss, the petulant child, the people pleaser, the nurturer, the critic. This model acknowledges that we have many different parts or sub-personalities, each working hard to do something for us, each needing our attention.
So which is the most important part?
There isn’t one. Each part is needed and valued.
With that being said, we like to think of ‘the Self’ as at the centre of our mind. This part takes on the role of leadership and with all of our other parts having full faith in it too, it leaves us feeling confident and at ease in our lives.
All of our other parts are connected to this centrepiece and each other, a bit like a jigsaw puzzle. It’s these connections that bring balance and harmony to our lives. But if one of our parts becomes overburdened by something painful that life throws our way, it disconnects from the picture, becoming what Schwartz calls an ‘exile’.
Exile parts break away to protect the mind from feelings of hurt. But, they struggle to stay exiled for long and want nothing more than to be nurtured and heard. We know this to be true in the case of childhood trauma, particularly if the event has not been processed properly.
Let’s take parental separation for example. A mother may become emotionally unavailable for some time after the separation and unable to meet their child’s every need. The child will pick up on this and to maximise their chance of survival, they may shut off their emotional needs too. This part of the child may become overburdened by hurt and feelings of rejection, becoming frozen at the age of the trauma. This part is now exiled in the child and we sometimes call this part our ‘inner child’.
Fast-forward and the child in the example above becomes a parent. We imagine that their inner child may scream for attention when triggered by their own son/daughter’s emotional demands. This is because it’s touching on past hurt and poking their inner child, who still has a story to tell.
So how does our brain deal with our inner child as an adult?
It uses defence mechanisms to make sure we hold things together, even when our inner child is begging to be heard.
Some parts form a team to become our ‘managers’ and protect us not only from feelings of pain associated with our inner child but also situations that could trigger our inner child to cry out. Manager parts use control and evaluation as coping strategies.
Another way in which parts work together to protect us is through numbing the feelings of pain when our inner child does cry out. We call these parts firefighters. They use distraction and numbing as coping strategies. So we know they’re running the show when we engage in behaviours such as excessive alcohol/substance misuse, binge eating risky sexual activities etc.
It’s important to know that not one of these parts is bad. We just need a completed jigsaw again, with all parts connected and not one part running the show.
To do this, we need to unburden and nurture our inner child- take some time and space to hear what it has to say. We can almost guarantee that it has an important message for you.
How do I nurture my inner child?
Notice– Scan your body and turn your attention inwards. Where do strong emotions and physical sensations show up? Perhaps there’s tension in your jaw or an uneasy feeling in your stomach. Notice what age that part of you feels and just let it be.
Speak to your younger self– Close your eyes and picture your younger self standing in front of you. What would you like to say to them? What would they like to say to you? Show up and listen to their hurt and be open to what they may need from you now.
Be your own parent– Make some time to address those needs. Be empathetic and become curious. Does your inner child need more touch and connection or perhaps it needs more elements of playfulness? Spend time doing activities that align with these needs.
Give yourself permission to reconnect– Remind your inner child that things are different now and that you have understood their message. Let them know that you’re capable of taking care of them and that they can reconnect with your other parts.
If you’d like to understand more about internal family systems, click here for Richard’s video summary of the model. For more tips on how to steady yourself as a parent, check out our blog posts and social media.
Pocket Family Psychologist
Blog post written by Ellie Harper.