It’s possible to have things going on beneath the surface of which we’re not entirely aware. I experienced this the other night in my struggle with rumination. My therapist and I have started discussing this phenomena as part of Internal Family Systems therapy (IFS). Fascinating stuff.
I sometimes feel as though there are individual “parts” of me that rise to the surface and make themselves heard in times of crisis. For example, when I struggled to fall asleep the other night, I was bothered by thoughts that kept calling for my attention. I described it to my therapist as if there was a toddler who wouldn’t stay in bed. A drink of water, a trip to the potty, a check for monsters under the bed—my thoughts seemed to be demanding some kind of reassurance from me that everything would be alright. Diane explained that in IFS, different parts have specific functions: managers, firefighters, or exiles, that can be either productive or extreme. According to one online article:
“Internal Family Systems Therapy is based on an integrative model and believes that each sub-personality of the mind possesses its own characteristics and perceptions. This therapy technique sees each level of consciousness as having these sub-personalities, or “parts,” and each plays a distinct role in achieving self-preservation for the client as a whole. Every part within a person is responsible for warding off any behaviors, actions, or reactions that can result in dysfunction or disharmony within. In this type of treatment, each part is validated and recognized as significant because of its primary function. Parts can be identified as having either healthy, productive roles or extreme roles. The latter category is made up of parts that require transformation or alteration through the therapeutic process.”
My inner toddler is one of my exiles, who carries painful, traumatic emotions that interfere with my functioning. In this case, she was making it known to me that my recent termination caused a lot of pain, fear, and self-doubt. In this situation, I didn’t have a chance to advocate or stand up for myself. This caused her to stay awake at night, worrying about how things would go in the new job, and wondering if I could rise to the occasion. She simply wanted reassurance from my core self, my true self, that I would not let the same thing happen again in the future. By taking a new job, I am taking a calculated risk—one which frightened and confused my toddler. It was up to me to let her know that despite the risk, we can trust that I am where I need and want to be, and that I would do everything in my power to protect her from trauma in the future. She needed to know I could see and acknowledge her hurt, and that I would work to take good care of her.
I also have a manager, who stands up and does what needs doing during traumatic events or times of stress. This is the one who dries her tears, registers for unemployment the same day she’s fired, and works to present professionally in a job interview. My manager is one who gets things done despite pain and fear. She’s not perfect however; she’s capable of working herself until she drops in order to avoid feelings, she’s cool and detached, and left to her own devices will drive my true self into the ground in order to further her agenda.
I imagine my toddler as “Cindy Lou Who”, with big sad eyes and a pink onesie. She has soft brown curls and rosy cheeks, likes ice cream and flowers, and needs to be snuggled occasionally. My manager on the other hand is an Execu-Dyke, with a bland, neutral two-piece pantsuit and pearl earrings. She gets things done and is uncomfortable with powerful emotions like fear or sadness. These parts aren’t pieces of a multiple personality—they coexist within my core self and each have their given roles. They aren’t Sybil. They’re merely adaptations I’ve learned throughout my life to survive. Working with them means that I take the best of them, work to subdue the negative behaviors, and encourage my true self to treat these parts with compassion. It’s interesting, it’s not easy, but I think it’s invaluable work. My goal is to bring the best of myself forward, stop the internal battles, and learn to live with myself harmoniously, with all parts intact.