Tentatively considering emotional stories (IFS and “getting into Self”)

I’ve re­cently been get­ting a lot out of the psy­chother­apy model of In­ter­nal Fam­ily Sys­tems, as de­scribed in this book. I just wrote a com­ment on Slate Star Codex de­scribing some of its ba­sics and what I’ve got­ten out of it, and thought that I might as well re­post it here:


I recom­mend this book, though with the note that I of­ten don’t need to fol­low the full pro­cess out­lined there. Some­times it’s definitely nec­es­sary, but what I’ve found even more com­monly use­ful is some­thing that it dis­cusses at the be­gin­ning of the book, which it calls “get­ting into self”.

Here’s the ba­sic idea. Sup­pose that a part of your mind is re­ally an­gry at some­one, and tel­ling a story (which might not be true) about how that per­son is a hor­rible per­son with no re­deem­ing qual­ities. In­ter­nal Fam­ily Sys­tems says that there are three modes in which you might re­act to that part:

First, you may be en­tirely blended with it (for those fa­mil­iar, this cor­re­sponds to what Ac­cep­tance and Com­mit­ment Ther­apy calls cog­ni­tive fu­sion). This means that you are ex­pe­rienc­ing ev­ery­thing in terms of the story that it is tel­ling, and have for­got­ten that this is an emo­tional re­ac­tion. So you feel that it’s just ob­jec­tively true that the other per­son is hor­rible and with no re­deem­ing qual­ities.

Or you might be par­tially blended with it. In this case, you re­al­ize that you are ex­pe­rienc­ing an emo­tional re­ac­tion, and that your thoughts and feel­ings might not be en­tirely jus­tified, but you still feel them and might not be able to stop your­self from be­hav­ing ac­cord­ing to them any­way.

Fi­nally, you might be “in Self”, mean­ing en­tirely un­blended. Here you are still aware of the emo­tions and thoughts, but your sub­jec­tive ex­pe­rience is that they’re not your emo­tions, they’re some­one else’s – they’re com­ing from a part of your mind which is ex­pe­rienced as sep­a­rate from “you”. In this mode, you do not feel threat­ened or over­whelmed by them, and you can main­tain a state of open cu­ri­os­ity to­wards whether or not they are ac­tu­ally true.

My ex­pe­rience is that usu­ally if I have an un­pleas­ant emo­tion, I will try to do one of two things: ei­ther re­ject it en­tirely and push it out of my mind, or buy into the story that it’s tel­ling and act ac­cord­ingly. Once I learned the tech­niques for get­ting into Self, I got the abil­ity to sort of… just hang out with the emo­tion, nei­ther be­liev­ing it to be ab­solutely true nor need­ing to show it to be false. And then if I e.g. had feel­ings of so­cial anx­iety, I could keep those feel­ings around and go into a so­cial situ­a­tion any­way, mak­ing a kind of men­tal move that I might de­scribe as “yes, it’s pos­si­ble that these peo­ple all se­cretly hate me; I’m go­ing to ac­cept that as a pos­si­bil­ity with­out try­ing to add any caveats, but also with­out do­ing any­thing else than ac­cept­ing its pos­si­bil­ity”.

The con­se­quence has been that this seems to make the parts of my mind with be­liefs like “do­ing this perfectly in­nocu­ous thing will make other peo­ple up­set” ac­tu­ally up­date their be­liefs. I do the thing, the parts with this be­lief get to hang around and ob­serve what hap­pens, no­tice that no­body seems up­set at me, and then they are some­what less likely to bring up similar con­cerns in the fu­ture.

In terms of global workspace the­ory, my model here is that there’s a part of the mind that’s bring­ing up a con­cern that should be taken into ac­count in de­ci­sion-mak­ing. The con­cern may or may not be jus­tified, so the cor­rect thing to do is to con­sider its pos­si­bil­ity, but not nec­es­sar­ily give it too much weight. Go­ing into Self and let­ting the mes­sage stay in con­scious­ness this way seems to make it available for de­ci­sion-mak­ing, and of­ten the mod­ule that’s bring­ing it up is happy to just have its mes­sage re­ceived and eval­u­ated; you don’t have to do any­thing more than that, if it’s just hold­ing it up as a ten­ta­tive con­sid­er­a­tion to be eval­u­ated.

The book has a few differ­ent tech­niques that you can use for get­ting into Self. One that I of­ten use is to try to get a sense of where in my body the emo­tional sen­sa­tions are com­ing from, and then let my mind cre­ate a vi­su­al­iza­tion based on those. Once I have a vi­su­al­iza­tion and a phys­i­cal lo­ca­tion of the part, it’s eas­ier to ex­pe­rience it as “not me”. Another thing that I do is to just make that men­tal move that I de­scribed – “okay, this is a pos­si­bil­ity, so I’m just go­ing to test it out”. I find it use­ful to first stay blended with the part for a while, to get a sense of what ex­actly is the story that it’s try­ing to tell, be­fore un­blend­ing and get­ting into Self.

E.g. a while back I was hav­ing a sense of loneli­ness as I laid down for a nap. I stepped into the part’s per­spec­tive to ex­pe­rience it for a while, then un­blended; now I felt it as a black ice hockey puck lev­i­tat­ing around my lower back. I didn’t re­ally do any­thing other than let it be there, and main­tained a con­nec­tion with it. Grad­u­ally it started gen­er­at­ing a pleas­ant warmth, and then the vi­su­al­iza­tion trans­formed into a happy nap­ping car­toon fox, curled up in­side a fire­ball that it was us­ing as its blan­ket. And then I was no longer feel­ing lonely.

That said, some­times a part is not con­tent to just raise a ten­ta­tive pos­si­bil­ity; some­times it feels like some­thing is an emer­gency, so you must act right away. Ob­vi­ously, some­times you re­ally are in an emer­gency, so this is jus­tified! But of­ten times it’s based on the part hav­ing an un­re­al­is­tic fear, which in the IFS model tends to be a re­sult of some past trauma which it is re­liv­ing, not re­al­iz­ing that the cir­cum­stances of your life have changed and you’re now ca­pa­ble of deal­ing with it. In that case, you need to do the full pro­cess de­scribed in the book, where you ba­si­cally get in proper con­tact with the part in ques­tion and ad­dress its con­cerns. (Ac­tu­ally it’s a bit more com­pli­cated than this, since the IFS model holds that there are many differ­ent kinds of parts that may have re­la­tion­ships with each other – so the “beer-drink­ing part” may be drink­ing beer in or­der to keep the trau­ma­tized part numb and safely out of con­scious­ness, so you may ac­tu­ally need to deal with two differ­ent parts sep­a­rately. The book goes into a lot more de­tail.)