“When you struggle against or take a coercive approach with another person, the natural response of that person is to defend their corner and fight back. The same happens inside our own minds. When you are fighting a part of your own mind, that causes the part you are trying to stamp out to dig in, to entrench itself, to defend its corner more vigorously.”
– Sarah Fitz-Claridge
“I think I must be possessed! It’s like there’s a rogue part of my mind that is fighting me taking my children seriously. How can I get rid of that part?”
“How can I drop the anti-rational part of my mind that interferes with me taking my children seriously?”
“If I’m feeling bad because my own mind has been hobbled by coercion, now what?”
Sometimes when we reach for the light of reason from the pit of hell of coercion, a coercive, anti-rational, anti-progress, hobbling part of our mind stabs us through the heart even for raising our eyes towards the light of reason, let alone reaching for it.
That part of our mind is itself hobbled, suffering, lost. It doesn’t know any better. It doesn’t know that what it is doing is harmful. It thinks it is protecting us. It works so hard to protect us. It means so well. It doesn’t know that we would be better off without it.
“So what on earth can we do about that part of our mind that so badly wants us to remain in the pit of coercive hell?”
From the pit of coercion, it looks as if the answer is coercion—to shame that part out of existence, to stomp on it to obliterate it.
That just entrenches that part further. Just as all of us including our children tend to react badly to coercion and dig in to defend ourselves and fight, so does that part. Shaming and blaming and punishing hobble creativity and error correction. They widen and deepen the pit of hell of coercion from which we are trying to escape.
When we are fighting a part of ourselves, struggling against that part of ourselves, trying to get rid of a part of ourselves, that part tends to hang on even more strongly.
Try the following IFS-inspired idea instead. If you are not familiar with Internal Family Systems (self-) therapy, I highly recommend learning it. Apart from when they talk about parent-child stuff (in which there is the usual paternalism), IFS is brilliant in its non-coerciveness.
The central idea is that we all have a core Self, and a number of parts or aspects of our mind. Our core Self is calm, clear, compassionate, confident, connected, creative, curious. Any time we are not in that calm, compassionate state of mind—say, we are feeling upset, angry, fearful, anxious, ashamed, or if we re dissociating—that is a part of our mind rather than our Self. Our Self notices—is aware of—such parts of our mind, as opposed to being them.
Some parts of our mind have problematic effects, but no matter how bad the effect of a given part, the part means well. From the perspective of that part of our mind, whatever it is doing, it thinks it is doing what it is doing for the benefit of our system. It thinks we need its protection or whatever. It is doing the best it can with the knowledge it has, just as we all are.
Instead of taking a coercive approach and trying to stamp out our problematic parts, or struggling against them, IFS wisely says: all parts are welcome. If we were to try to get rid of our problematic parts coercively, that would cause them to panic and entrench themselves further, as anyone would when facing an existential threat.
So instead, if we are taking an IFS approach, what we do is to ask a problematic part all about it—what does it think its job is in our system? How does it think what it is doing benefits us? What does it fear would happen if it were not doing that job? We go inside our mind and ask the part to tell us everything it needs us to know, and we really listen to its answers. We listen from our Self, calmly, curiously, compassionately, and so on. We listen without resistance, without arguing with it, really getting what it is like for that part of our mind, that part’s experience of the problem it thinks it is solving in doing what it is doing, hearing it, meeting it where it is, in a way we have never done before.
We keep asking that part of our mind about everything it needs us to know, until the part feels truly heard and understood. We understand the content of the part’s point of view—why it is doing what it is doing. We listen to understand what job it thinks it is doing, and what it thinks its purpose is in our system. We listen to understand how it feels, what it fears, all its emotions, all its worries. And we understand and acknowledge its incredible commitment to its job in our system, and to all its efforts in that work.
What people usually do is to try to get rid of—stamp out—coercively overcome—troublesome parts of their mind. They struggle against them instead of working with them or just letting them be. What that does is to set up a battle in your mind between different parts of your mind—a great big ongoing unwindable war in your own mind. When you struggle against or take a coercive approach with another person, the natural response of that person is to defend their corner and fight back. The same happens inside our own minds. When you are fighting a part of your own mind, that causes the part you are trying to stamp out to dig in, to entrench itself, to defend its corner more vigorously.
When, instead, we meet the part where it is and really understand it and appreciate it and acknowledge it, that has the same relaxing effect on the part as it does when you meet another person where they are and really listen to what they want you to know and really understand how it is for them, and appreciate and acknowledge what they are about.
These problematic parts of our mind have never been heard and understood and accepted like that before. Until we go inside our mind and listen to them in Self, with compassion and curiosity, our parts feel like any person feels when there is something important and upsetting and urgent that they need us to grasp, and we are not hearing them. How do you feel when your partner is just not hearing you? That is how our parts feel, until we actually hear them and understand and help them realise that they can relax and that we will be ok.
IFS thus provides a simple way of resolving some of our troublesome entrenched coercive conflicts in our minds. And although the IFS community seems not to see that this non-coercive way of thinking and approaching parts of the mind applies equally in our dealings with other people, including our children, parents taking their children seriously will see the connection immediately.
Internal Family Systems therapy (IFS) takes parts seriously instead of trying to coerce them into complying or out of existence. Taking Children Seriously advocates taking everyone seriously including children instead of coercing them into complying. Taking Children Seriously is not just about taking other people (our children) seriously, it applies equally within our own mind. This is one of the most important things to understand, so I am going to repeat it:
Taking Children Seriously is not just about taking other people (our children) seriously, it applies equally within our own mind. In the past (decades ago), some parents were under the misapprehension that Taking Children Seriously means sacrificing themselves ‘for’ their children, self-coercively overriding their own wishes in the name of ‘non-coercion’. Coercion anywhere in the system throws a spanner in the works of the creative rational knowledge-creating institutions, and that applies just as much within your own mind as it does when you are coercing your child or other person. So I urge Taking Children Seriously folk to learn IFS or any of the other forms of psychotherapy1 that understand that fighting or struggling against troublesome aspects of our mind entrenches them further.
You will be amazed by how powerful IFS is in your own mind. You will experience the difference between being coerced versus being taken seriously. IFS makes it easier to notice when there is coercion in our own mind, and it enables us to resolve such stuff. And it makes it easier to be aware of when you might be being coercive with your beloved children and others.
Dick Schwartz is a genius, as you will discover if you learn IFS. If you (like me!) find it easier to grasp how to do something in practice if you see it demonstrated in real sessions, it is worth paying to see real IFS sessions by its creator, Dr Richard Schwartz. No one else’s freely-available sessions are so clear (at least, none I have found). I found the first real life IFS session in this course—Dick Schwartz’s Internal Family Systems Master Class: Experience IFS in Action with Complex Trauma and PTSD—particularly illuminating. Unfortunately, it is not free, but it is often much cheaper than the standard price. [Currently huge discount on psychotherapy networker.org.] (I have no financial or any other involvement. I am just a huge fan of IFS.)
Try the following IFS-inspired idea:
Close your eyes and relax into the quiet wisdom of your calm, clear, compassionate, confident, curious, creative inner Self—that core of your being that is aware of all the thoughts and emotions passing through your mind—it is aware of them rather than being them. It is that core of your being that is aware of those parts of your mind that are panicking and inadvertently causing havoc in their valiant attempts to protect your system.
In the midst of the pit of hell that is coercion, you might doubt that you have such a core Self. Are you nevertheless aware of the thoughts and feelings in your mind at the moment? If so, who is it who is aware of them? It is your core Self.
From the quiet inner wisdom of your calm, clear, aware Self, go inside your mind and ask that coercive, anti-progress, hobbling part of your mind what it needs you to hear, and listen without resistance: listen with compassionate lovingkindness to everything it tells you. Really listen and show it that you are really hearing it.
If you notice resistance coming up, that is another part of your mind, not your calm, compassionate, curious, aware core Self. That resistant part of your mind that is angry with the hobbling part may have its own worries and concerns. It is trying to help you by fighting the hobbling coercive part of your mind. As with all parts, no matter how unfortunate their effects are, your resistant part means well. It is psychologically innocent.
Reassure that resistant part that all parts are welcome and that you will definitely listen to everything it has to say to you, but (ask it) would it be willing to step back and let you talk to the hobbling part now, or does it need to talk to you first?
If it needs to talk to you first, turn to the hobbling part and reassure the hobbling part that all parts are welcome and that you will give it all the time and attention it needs, but would it be willing to wait, just for a few minutes, in the peaceful and safe waiting room right there, whose glass walls will allow it to see that you are not leaving, and while it waits it can listen to some lovely soothing music through the noise-cancelling headphones it will find there. Reassure it that if at any time it is not willing to wait any longer, it can always come back out. It will just be easier to give it your undivided attention if you have addressed the concerns of the resistant part first. Assuming it is willing to wait, turn your attention to your resistant part.
Now listen deeply and actively to what the resistant part wants to say. Ask it to say absolutely everything it needs you to hear. Listen with compassion and curiosity, without resistance. Show that you are really hearing what it needs to you hear, that you really get it, you really understand why it is doing what it is doing. Ask it what its job in your system is. How does it see its work? What does it fear will happen if it does not intervene to help you stop the hobbling part? Why does it think you need its help?
You do not actually need its help, and it getting polarised with the hobbling part by resisting and fighting it coercively just entrenches the hobbling part further. But if you were to simply tell it that, with the intention of criticising and refuting its presence in your system, it might panic, reacting irrationally, fearing that you do not appreciate its vital role in your system, and that you are trying to abandon it or overcome it coercively, which would make it too dig in and fight harder. You would not be meeting your resistant part where it is. It would be as if you were trying to pour criticism into the part’s mind, like water into a bucket, like coercive education tries to pour lessons into children’s minds. You would not be addressing your part’s problem situation – its concerns, wishes, fears and its aims and commitments and work, whatever problem it thinks it is trying to solve.
Their problem situation is the problem they themselves are trying to solve in our system, as they themselves see it, from their own perspective. They can only start from where they are and move forward from there. Merely criticising them from our own perspective without first doing our utmost to meet them where they are and put their theory in its strongest form is highly unlikely to address their problem situation, and may well trigger entrenchment.
How do we meet our parts where they are? We ask them about themselves and what they are about, and we wait for an answer, and we really listen to them and hear them and show that we hear them and understand and really get it. And we keep on listening until they feel deeply and completely heard and understood. We really get them—we get how it is for them, their own experience. We show them that we really get them, that we understand why they think what they are doing is important work for our system, that we really see how much they care, how good their intentions are. We appreciate and acknowledge how valiant their efforts are for our system, acknowledging their commitment to the system that is our mind. We express deep appreciation and acknowledgement for their good intentions and their valiant work for our system. And we keep going until there is nothing else they need us to hear.
If we were to try to refute the part without first showing them that we really understand them, we really see how much they care, how good their intentions are, our criticism would fail to address the parent’s problem situation. So having heard everything the resistant part wants us to hear, and having acknowledged its valiant efforts to protect our system from the hobbling part, we reassure it that its life will be a lot easier when we have talked with the hobbling part.
Ask one more time if there is anything else it needs you to know. Wait for its answer for as long as it takes. Really listen, and check that you heard what that part wanted you to hear, and keep going until when you ask if there is anything else it needs you to hear, the answer is no. When there is nothing else it needs you to hear, the part naturally relaxes, just like we ourselves do when someone finally hears and understands and appreciates what we are trying to do. So once it has relaxed and is feeling reassured that you will deal with the hobbling part, maybe it might like to go and have a snooze somewhere else while you talk with the hobbling part?
Now invite the hobbling part to come out of the waiting room and talk with you, and again, from your calm, compassionate, curious, aware Self, ask it all about itself and its role in your system, its fears about what would happen if it were not doing the hobbling job it is doing, and so on, listening to absolutely everything it needs you to know, and keep conversing with it in your mind until this hobbling part feels deeply heard and understood, and until it is reassured that you yourself will make sure that everything is ok, and that you honestly do not need to be protected, and so on. When this inner conversation is complete, there will be a noticeable feeling of relaxation, of space, of lightness, of freedom. And from there, you and the system that is your mind can move forward.
There is of course a lot more to IFS than the above, but that should be enough to enable you to relax some inner coercion such that you have the experience of going from an unfree, pessimistic, hopeless, hobbled, stuck-fast-in-the-pit-of-coercion state, to a state in which you can move, in which you feel free, light, optimistic, able to solve whatever problems you face. Problems are soluble, and we (in Self!) can solve them.
Have I managed to get across how amazing I think IFS is, and how it is consistent with fallibilism, with Taking Children Seriously epistemology and non-coercive educational theory, with nurturing our precious relationships with those we love? Have I managed to get across that it applies in all our dealings with other people including our children? Do you see how IFS embodies problems are soluble, through our actions and way of being, not just saying that we think problems are soluble, but being that idea? Do you see how IFS can help us notice when we are not in Self, which is sometimes all it takes for us to be back in Self again?
Do you see how applying IFS non-coercive engagement in our dealing with other people can make it possible to be (and not just be, but feel, and feel deeply and profoundly) kind and compassionate to others even when they are behaving badly? And how that makes so much possible that is not possible when we are feeling like victims? Because those others, like the problematic parts in our own mind, also mean well and are not being wilfully wicked. We are all fallible human beings. Do you see how the lovingkindness of Self has the power to transform any number of upsets and fighting and angst and misunderstandings and suffering, both within ourselves and between people the world over?
All parts are welcome. All parts/people mean well, no matter how bad their effects. They are not being wilfully wicked, they are doing the best they can with the knowledge they have in the moment. And through reason and listening and understanding and kind, compassionate, curious engagement rather than coercion, they can learn. Problems are soluble, and we (in Self) can solve them. And an IFS approach can help.
1. Another example is ACT (the second edition (2022) of Russ Harris’s The Happiness Trap is particularly clear). I think of this idea of acceptance and letting it be (vs struggling against and coercively trying to stamp out) as a Buddhist one, but be warned that some therapies/books claiming to be Buddhism-informed seem to be advocating using meditation as a means of distracting from (which is another form of fighting!) troublesome aspects of the mind.
- How to read this site
- Why do you like IFS but not ‘Self-led parenting’?
- Memes survive by being good at getting themselves replicated
Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 2022, Taking Children Seriously FAQ: ‘How can I drop the anti-rational part of my mind that interferes with me taking my children seriously?’, https://takingchildrenseriously.com/how-can-i-drop-the-anti-rational-part-of-my-mind-that-interferes-with-me-taking-my-children-seriously/