Using Internal Family Systems to Reduce Self-Criticism

Dick Schwartz Offers an IFS Approach to Self-Compassion

Richard Schwartz

Compassion is one of those warm, fuzzy words referring to qualities that often seems in short supply in the ever-accelerating rough and tumble of daily life today. Basically, it means actually applying the golden rule and putting into practice the biblical injunction to “love your neighbor as yourself”---something that most of us have had at least a nodding acquaintance with since our earliest exposure to religious training. In contrast, self-compassion is a much less familiar notion and not so easily grasped. It can even seem opposed to compassion for others, as if being kind to ourselves precluded being kind to others. In fact, the idea of self-compassion---reminiscent of the treacly uplift of the self-help industry at its worst---can make many of us a bit queasy.

Although it’s true that self-compassion may begin in a simple, generic stroking of our wounded selves---there, there, you’re not so bad---achieving a genuine state of self-compassion is a more challenging undertaking than many realize. More than comforting phrases you offer yourself when stressed, genuine self-compassion is a journey into the multiple parts of yourself---the good, the bad, the ugly, the confused, the frightened, the abandoned---in order to make friends with those parts on the deepest level.

The primary obstacle to treating ourselves more kindly is the fact that most of us are addicted to self-criticism. Who among us hasn’t had the experience of learning to be judgmental of ourselves as a teenager, when we’re so worried about how we're going to appear to others? This self-directed animus serves no good social purpose: the dark, hidden places inside don’t generally make people better or nicer to others; just the reverse. But getting to know, understand, and forgive these dark selves can have deeply transformative healing powers for the whole person, making us better, kinder, more compassionate to others than before.

Making Peace with Our Inner Critic

What’s known as the inner critic, what Freud called the superego, is but one of many parts of the personality responsible for keeping you safe. Most often it’s criticizing you to motivate you to achieve, look good, be tough, and so forth, so you won’t be hurt or rejected. In our culture, it makes sense to have a drill sergeant in there goading us to compete. Don’t we need to be hard on ourselves to have the discipline to ascend the ladder of success that, from an early age, we’re taught we need to climb in order to survive in a dog-eat-dog world?

Most of us depend on a harsh inner voice to get us to do the things we need but don’t want to do. We’ve never learned any other way to improve our performance or look right or avoid rejection. We may feel that if we took the steering wheel away from that inner critic, we’d risk devolving into impulsive hedonism or a constant state of mushy vulnerability.

What most of us are less familiar with is that an essence exists within us that can embrace the full range of all our parts and help us achieve an inner harmony by recognizing the positive intentions of even the most critical and seemingly troublesome of these inner selves. As a therapist, I’ve found that when I help clients access that core essence, they begin to feel compassion for parts that, even moments earlier, they were totally disdainful of.

Accessing the Self

One of the main obstacles to self-compassion is that, by itself, the idea is too vague. It’s not enough just to be “nicer” to yourself. You need to ask the question “Who’s being compassionate to whom?” This involves actually being able to picture or sense the different parts inside us and develop concrete, ongoing relationships with them. For example, let’s say I have a client focus on a reactive, anxious feeling inside himself and he sees an image of a boy being bullied by other kids in the neighborhood. Now I can say, “For an hour every day this week, I’d like you to get to know that little boy. Listen to him and be kind to him.” Now the client has a clear, specific target for his self-compassion.

So how do you first access your compassionate Self? Often the process begins with helping people notice from where in their body their inner critics seem to be broadcasting. This initial experience of noticing the source of sensations within the body can begin to create separation from the clamor of parts. The next step is to ask people how they feel toward the part that’s the source of the thoughts and feelings they find disturbing. This question creates further separation and helps people realize they have a relationship with a part. Often a person will say, “I hate that critic. I feel oppressed by it. I know I can never please it.” In these dialogues, the therapist’s first job in IFS is simply validating these negative feelings of the parts who hate the critic and expressing an understanding of why they might react that way. The next step is to have the client ask those parts to step back or relax inside, so he can get to know the critic with an open mind. The goal is to see whether it’s possible to listen to it in a way that makes that part let go of the need to be so aggressively critical.

When you think of yourself as being psychosocially monolithic, instead of comprising a range of different parts, having self-compassion seems simple: you just relate to the self you happen to identify with at the moment with warmth, rather than harshness. But once you recognize that you’ve got many selves in there, things become more complicated, and it becomes crucial to recognize that there are levels of self-compassion, some of which need much more effort, awareness, and emotional resilience than others.

This blog is excerpted from “Facing Our Dark Sides." Want to read more articles like this? Subscribe to Psychotherapy Networker Today!

Topic: Professional Development | Anxiety/Depression

Tags: addicted to | being bullied | bullied | depression | family | family systems | internal family systems | kids | meditation | psychotherapy | self-compassion | therapist | therapy | Dick Schwartz | IFS | networker | self-care | burnout | self-criticism

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