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Curiosity, Compassion and the Multiplicity of Mind

What would happen if—by some miracle—we spontaneously became compassionately curious about those aspects of ourselves that we typically reject and fight against?

Take for example, the inner critic. What if we asked that critic, without anger, and truly wanting to understand its deeper motivations, “why do you criticize? What do you think would happen if you didn’t?”

What would happen if we acknowledged that we’re really multiple, but connected, and just how connected and harmonious our internal parts are determines our overall mental wellbeing?

If any of this kind of thinking sounds familiar to you, then you’re probably already familiar with Internal Family Systems Theory.

IFS is a style of psychotherapy that puts into action the Hermetic principle of correspondence: “As above, so below; as below, so above. As within, so without; as without, so within.”

Look at the way that smaller systems, nested within larger systems, exhibit similar patterns. Just as our bodies are a collection of organs, and those organs are a collection of cells, and those cells are a collection of molecules, and so on, multiplicity-unity is a key feature of the natural world. Why would our minds be any exception?

Life is a fractal.

I’ve tried mentioning IFS at a dinner party, and I can tell you that it’s not the most popular concept. It makes many people downright uncomfortable because we’ve been taught to pathologize multiplicity. But according to the founder of IFS, Richard Schwartz, PhD, Multiple Personality Disorder is really just an extreme example of the human mind’s natural state.

In order to take some of the fear out of it, Dr. Schwartz recommends this contemplation:

“Try on, for a second, the idea that your thoughts and emotions emanate from discrete personalities inside you. What fears arise as you consider that possibility? People often have fears that come from the association to conditions like schizophrenia or multiple personality disorder (now called dissociative identity disorder), or from the creepy idea that autonomous entities exist within us—that we are not fully in control of ourselves.

If you can put aside those fears for a second, consider what might be good about having parts. What would it be like if you knew with confidence that your most repulsive or disdainful thoughts or feelings were coming from little parts of you rather than being the essence of your identity? How would it feel to disclose shameful feelings to others if you could say “Part of me feels . . .” rather than “I feel . . .”? What if you totally trusted that those parts were different from your true Self and that you, as that Self, could help them to transform?”

What I love about this system is that it’s entirely based on self-compassion. IFS shows us a way to look within, and show up for the scared and confused parts of ourselves in a way that others could not. In fact, it was that lack of others showing up for us that lead to the creation of some of these inner protectors in the first place.

Ultimately, it’s about self-reparenting. WE become our own attachment figures. According to Dr. Schwartz, as we discover these parts, and ask them to unblend from us for long enough to talk to them, and address them with loving curiosity, discovering and healing the exiled parts of ourselves that have been locked away out of temporary expedience, a Self [with a capital ’S’] emerges, one that has a patience, calmness, and a depth of being that are unmistakable.

He claims that—after 30 plus years working with a wide variety of very troubled people, including sex offenders—that all people have access to this Self, evidenced by its spontaneous emergence during therapy sessions. Once our inner protectors, who are trying to help us but often go about it in highly negative and neurotic ways, are understood and allowed to finally stop playing their protective roles, we can heal.

Do these parts actually exist, or is this merely a metaphor, a way of interfacing with the mind-body operating system? Functionally, it doesn’t matter. If it works, it works! Personally, I feel a deep resonance with this system.

If you’d like to check out more about IFS, I’d highly recommend this video.

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