Internal Family Systems

Edit: better than anything that I can say is Richard Schwartz performing IFS therapy live on Tim Ferriss, very powerful.

Since finishing high school in 2014, I have developed the bad habit of spontaneously playing chess online.

It’s dangerously easy to pop open a browser tab and finish off a 1 minute game. More of a dopamine rush than social media, email, or Netflix.

People like to minimize my struggles with distraction. “But at least it’s chess! You’re using your brain. There are worse problems to have. And you’re pretty productive; things seem to be going fine overall!”

For the last decade, I was one of those people too. I took the outside view and swept my procrastination under the rug of relative achievement. Everyone has mild addictions, right?

Now, I’m re-evaluating this stance with help from a great therapist. In our first session last week, we outlined a few subpersonalities:

  1. The goal setting idealist, who’s ambitious and not quite happy with the status quo. This is the part of me which is driven to squash all the bad habits in service of more productivity, constantly making to-do lists.

  2. The distracted self, who falls into addictive / binging patterns. This is the part of me which always asks for dessert and plays one more game of chess by inertia.

  3. The quiet inner self, who is most content reading and enjoying the simple pleasures of life. Time in this mode feels well spent—learning, authentically socializing, running, or otherwise basking in nature and enjoying the present moment.

I’ve had similar thoughts before. Perhaps you’ve had them too. Such musings have not led to any deep insight or behavior change for me in the past, despite copious journaling and self-reflection.

However, there is a psychotherapy model called Internal Family Systems which seems well-suited for the task. It provides a language for productively exploring one’s parts, similar to Minsky’s Society of Mind.

While grokking this new tool, taking notes on an IFS explainer podcast and doc, I was presented with an immediate challenge. There’s a part of me that says “I don’t need therapy, I’m fine, so why waste time and money on this made up touchy-feely nonsense?”

I’ll call this part the “competent controller”. It is overconfident, overoptimistic, and impatient. It doesn’t listen to others and doesn’t like to learn new things. It often masquerades as my core Self, projecting to the world that I can do everything on my own.

This is born from my genes, reinforced by masculine archetypes, and enhanced by early experiences. In the classroom and on the playground, there was positive ROI in trusting myself to find answers—to being the pioneering leader.

For example, this part liked to brute-force calculations on physics assignments as the first course of action instead of humbly working to understand the new underlying concepts being taught.

The competent controller fears being seen as incapable, weak, or dependent. Ironically, those fears may end up driving incompetent execution, especially when relying too heavily on prior experience.

Hiding behind the competent controller is a reliant part that holds space for connection. Unlike the competent controller, the reliant part doesn’t have all the answers. It feels less guilty taking than giving because it accepts not having all the answers as the natural course of affairs. Unfortunately, this part usually speaks up far too late, after the competent controller has done its damage.

Intricately linked with the competent controller is the ambitious planner mentioned earlier. Sometimes the ambitious planner will amplify the voice of the reliant part through its neurotic worrying and compulsive counter-balancing.

For example, the ambitious planner told the competent controller that we’re going to seek therapy, just in case it’s useful, and we’re going to do this super amazingly perfectly well in order to become a more productive person. Then the competent controller was empowered to work within that constraint to interview 5 different providers and judge the best one itself, rejecting any online reviews or external guidance.

The ambitious planner sets extreme goals, likes to make detailed plans, and needs projects with outsized impact to feel useful. These things ultimately give its life meaning. The ambitious planner isn’t so much self-confident in juxtaposition to reliance as it is competitive—fearing non-contributing uselessness, unworthiness, and nihilistic meaninglessness.

When conflict tore my nuclear family to shreds, the ambitious planner worked with the competent controller to envision a positive future existence, jointly holding me together through years of turbulence. The ambitious planner has trouble relaxing its grip because it feels shame around emptiness, which is the part nestled next to reliance—usually squeezed too tight—that holds space for love to enter from outside of me.

My core Self recognizes much of these dynamics but often takes a back seat, letting the parts do the talking directly instead of speaking on behalf of the parts. It’s most likely seen by the other parts as an exiled 7-9 year old sitting on the sofa reading Harry Potter, having sleepovers, and building Hot Wheels tracks back home in Mequon Wisconsin.

This core Self is fine with being wrong and enjoys learning about this crazy, miraculous world we live in. He’s curious, open, present, flowing, domestic, reflective. Thankfully, he projects enough tranquility such that the ambitious planner and the competent controller don’t get too crazy or self-flagellating.

The core Self recognizes that the current blend of good and bad habits have accomplished a fair amount of progress overall without too much interference. But now he’s growing up under the influence of Seth’s standards, and asserting himself as boss throws the binging firefighter’s out-of-control rampaging into sharp relief.

This distracted part mentioned earlier seeks shiny pleasures and disguises this pursuit as highly-convincing adventures by spontaneously spraying validation in all the right spots to momentarily marshall resources from the other parts.

The binging firefighter fears stillness, having nothing to do, and not enjoying or “spending” life to the max. It discounts the denominator of the “life optimality coefficient”—value over cost—because it finds commitment stifling and challenge shameful. These protected parts want to mature the Self through discipline and hard work.

I could go on about the judgmental part which shields vulnerability and softness or the people-pleasing part which protects loneliness and space for self-love… But let’s wrap up the IFS rambling with two takeaways.

The first is that moving to Ecuador was a subconscious way to give the core Self more time front and center. Removing distractions, distancing from a competitive environment, and increasing the necessity for adaptation has turned ambition inward, opening the door to positive personal growth via quiet reflection and self-discovery.

The second is that there is some deep value to potentially unlock by pursuing therapy further. I’m excited to live more deliberately, more healthily and happily, by fertilizing various parts of my inner landscape with the help of a professional gardener.

We’re already discovering and yanking on weeds. It’s not easy to trace and uproot the distracted self’s tenacious tentacles, but I’m enjoying the journey and learning so much in the process!

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