2020 has been a year of unpredictability, stress and upheaval, and the holidays are no exception. You may find yourself celebrating without the family, friends, and traditions that feel familiar, or you may be struggling to celebrate at all in the wake of job loss or health challenges. You may be wrestling with difficult emotions or behaviors that are contributing to the stress of the holidays. So how does understanding Internal Family Systems (IFS) help as you prepare to ring in a new year?
Let’s explore the Internal Family Systems (IFS) model, and discover how IFS may be able to help each of us experience a more grounded, peaceful holiday season.
What is Internal Family Systems (IFS)?
Internal Family Systems (IFS) is a model that recognizes that we all have different “parts,” and empowers us to bring compassion to these parts of our inner experience in order to cope more effectively.
Identifying the Parts of our Internal Worlds
We are made up of a core Self and three types of “parts:” Exiles, Managers, and Firefighters. Let’s talk about the roles and common behaviors of each.
Exiles are parts of us that become burdened in difficult life circumstances. These tender parts carry the negative beliefs we have about ourselves such as “I’m not enough,” “I’m all alone,” “I’m powerless,” “I’ll never get it right,” and “I’m broken.” They also carry our painful emotions such as shame, powerlessness, rejection, worthlessness and fear. When our exiles become triggered by stressful situations, they quickly flood us, obscuring our access to the calm, clear-minded Self that is always at our core. So if we are planning a holiday without family and friends and suddenly feel flooded with a sense of loneliness and fear, we can honor that we have exile parts that have become triggered.
We don’t like experiencing these painful thoughts and feelings, which is why we develop protector parts that try to…well…protect us from these difficult feelings. We have two types of protectors: Managers and Firefighters.
Managers have proactive strategies: they try to prevent us from feeling our exile pain. They try to get us to do things perfectly, please everyone (including God), and control things, in their quest to prevent our exiles from becoming triggered. During the holidays, our managers might try to decorate the house perfectly, give the perfect gifts, lead the perfect family advent devotionals, or control what other family members are doing or feeling. They are hardworking parts that can leave us exhausted and resentful.
Manager strategies often feel like they work in the short run and let us down in the long run. That’s where our Firefighters come in.
The job of our Firefighter parts is reactive, which is to say that they jump in after our manager strategies break down, and our exile parts are triggered. When we feel things like overwhelmed, anxious, powerless, and broken. Their job is to try to put out that pain. As you might imagine, Firefighter behaviors can be dramatic in order to produce quick results. Common firefighter strategies include yelling, drinking, binge eating, numbing, self-harm, and dissociation. These too, often help the pain feel better in the short run, and make it worse in the long run. So when our well-planned family devotional is received with complaints and sibling squabbles, or our perfect gifting creates a debt we can’t sustain, we suddenly understand that extra glass of wine or angry outburst is a well intentioned firefighter hard at work trying to help us feel better.
While the intent of our burdened parts is always positive (trying to help us with pain), the behaviors they are engaged in often aren’t. And because of the difference in the way our parts feel we should handle situations, it’s easy for them to go to war with one another. As a result, behaviors can intensify as our parts fight to be in the driver’s seat. IFS aims to help Self remain at the wheel, regardless of the situation.
How Can Understanding Internal Family Systems Help Me With Holiday Stress?
As we understand more about our inner world of warring parts, we can learn how to calmly acknowledge their positive intent, while staying in touch with our core Self. This helps our triggered parts calm down and take over less frequently, bringing calm and restoring harmony to our inner experience.
Consider your most common exile feelings: perhaps powerlessness, panic, or loneliness. When in your life did you first feel these types of feelings? What might these tender parts of you need right now?
Consider also your most common managers and firefighters that are active in this holiday season: perhaps drinking, over eating, people pleasing, or controlling. When in your life did they first learn to try to help you by doing what they do? What might they need from you right now to feel more calm and comforted?
Notice how just by naming and appreciating the positive intent of your different parts, you help them calm down. Notice how that opens up your access to your inner wise and calm Self that helps you cope more effectively with whatever holiday stressors you may be facing.
Healing your inner parts can help you feel more peace and happiness as you ring in the new year. You can learn more about Internal Family Systems and this compassionate model of healing by visiting my website: jennariemersma.com.