Leaving Self-Sabotage Behind: Internal Family Systems

Written By: Shawna Hyde, MA, CCC, Psychotherapist with Capital Choice Counselling Group

Are you struggling with a never-ending diet? Determined to stick to your budget but catch yourself swiping your card almost before you’ve realized your wallet is in your hand? What makes self-sabotage so powerful, anyway? What keeps us repeatedly reaching for the masks of Procrastination, Perfectionism and/or Couch Potatoism despite our best efforts to resist, resist, resist? We know how we’d like to be living if only we simply could stop arguing with ourselves and commit to action.

But how do we discover which way to proceed when so many of our previous attempts have resulted in such disappointment and frustration? Part of us wants to leap up and tackle the world, while another part may not feel up to the challenge at hand. We will use subtle (or not so subtle!) techniques to convince us to abandon the (active) pursuit of successful, effective, happy living in favour of the ever-predictable, comfortable, and familiar status quo (in other words: keeping us stuck in our misery!). Strategies employed by this part of ourselves can include: overwhelming feelings of doubt, fear, insecurity, unworthiness, depression and/or anxiety. These feelings ultimately result in judgments of low self-worth and self-sabotaging behaviour.

So who is this “Self” with whom we seek to identify? And just who are all these “parts” that seem to have their own thoughts, opinions, preferences, mannerisms, moods, and even memories of their own?

Internal Family Systems (IFS) is an approach in therapy that allows us to explore these characters that make up so much of our inner world, and who create so much “mental chatter”. You might be surprised to discover that these parts of your Self each have their own jobs to do, and see themselves as “personally” responsible for handling certain tasks, responsibilities, aspects of your daily life, and your interactions with others. Each and every part of your Self, deep down, is motivated by care and concern for you (despite the mess its behaviours may make of your life!!). In other words, each part of your Self is actively striving to shape your life in a way the part thinks will have the most benefit for you. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always work out so smoothly, as some parts of you have gotten stuck in the past (and as such they are not aware of how much you’ve grown up, or all the skills and resources you now have at your disposal). Some parts were badly hurt in the past, and don’t trust anything or anyone. Not even your Self. Parts can adopt attitudes and rigid ways of thinking that are neither positive nor helpful to you, resulting in self-sabotage. This is what causes the internal power struggles that often lead to tremendous feelings of sadness, anxiety, procrastination, anger and depression.

As in a typical family, differences of opinion, clashes of power, or the digging in of heels happens when the agendas of these different “personalities” (or parts) are at odds. What happens when the Relaxed part of yourself just wants to kick back and put its feet up, but the Organized part of you has had enough of the mess in the garage and insists you get out there right now and take care of it? What do you do? Clean the garage or procrastinate just a little while longer? The answer will depend on which parts of you are involved in this debate, and which one has the most power at the time the decision is made. This is the internal power struggle that maintains a seemingly never-ending cycle of misery and depression. Fortunately, internal family systems helps us to see the exit signs.

In order to escape this “mental merry-go-round”, we need to be connected to our true “Self”. At first, this concept appears unclear and elusive. Which part of us is the “Real” self? Internal Family Systems teaches us to recognize the times when we are experiencing feelings of curiosity, compassion, and openness. By being in, and recognizing that state of mind, we can start to explore the conflicts within ourselves that are ultimately holding us back from living the life we’ve been pursuing all along.slide1

Included in Internal Family Systems is the concept of “Mindfulness”, which describes this way of thinking about our Self. Mindfulness occurs when we are able to be aware of which part is actively engaged with another part, and how this conflict is influencing us. Being able to step into Self allows you to take a step back from the internal power struggle of your own values. Then you will be able to identify that which is most important to you in the situation, thereby revealing the path or life direction that you are seeking or the decision that is waiting to be made.

Many books have been written about this evidence-based therapeutic model, among them, Jay Earley’s “Self-Therapy”. To learn more about Internal Family Systems, you can check out their website here. If you are interested in learning more about how you can tackle obstacles in your life, find your courageous, confident Self, or find help for your loved one who is struggling with their own inner conflict, please contact Capital Choice Counselling Group for further information and to schedule an appointment.