October 2009 Archives

Parallels between IFS and CCR

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Three weeks ago I suggested some connections between Internal Family Systems theory and Creative Conflict Resolution.  Since then two other parallels between IFS and CCR have come to mind. One has to do with the futility of getting others to change and the other is the distinction between what we want and what we need.

From time to time I will have a client ask me, "But how does Self get the part to change?" The assumption is that the only way to end the conflict is for the part to be different and the agent of transformation is the Self so the Self must, by some mechanism, get the part to change.

If the part is going to change it will be because the part has discovered a different way of being and has found support for transformation. The Self creates a relationship to the part in which the part is able to transform in just the ways that best meet the needs of the part recognizing that the ultimate intention of the part is the well being of the whole person. It is just so with all of us. We can't change each other. We know that. But it doesn't stop us from trying.

We often conflate want and need using them as synonyms. From the perspective of Creative Conflict Resolution there is a critical distinction to be made between them. What I want is a specific change in my circumstances which is dependent upon others acting differently. What I need is a shift in the qualities in the relationship I have with others which I can move towards simply by altering the choices I make.

Because what I want is for others to be different and because I cannot make others change, when I am focused on what I want, I am likely to create for myself feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. When I shift my attention to what I need, while often a difficult shift requiring more Self awareness than I am accustomed to, I am then attending to an option for my own choices which I can create for myself. As we do this, we discover how immensely powerful we each are.

Conflict Resolution in IFS

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Internal Family Systems theory is a system for personal, relational, and emotional healing which embodies some novel notions about the nature of conflict and its resolution. It is not just a map of the terrain of our interior awareness; it is a set of tactics for how to traverse that terrain safely and to create healing in the land of our internal experience. This paper (posted electronically) illuminates the creative ways that IFS supports healing through a series of perspectives which are totally harmonious with Creative Conflict Resolution.

[I am assuming my readers will already be familiar with IFS. If you are not I suggest you begin with a consideration of some of the resources available online through the Center for Self Leadership. A good general overview is available here.  Links are to the site of the Center for Self Leadership or to the Center for Creative Conflict Resolution site about the book, Just Conflict.]

From the perspective of Internal Family Systems theory and therapy we all are mentally composed of many parts, aspects, attitudes, moods, abilities, and interests. When we are calm and centered we appear to be well integrated. But, when we are under stress, some of those parts of who we are get pushed to extreme positions. Some parts don't like the emotions, memories, or tactics of other parts and they are able to force those parts out of conscious awareness and effectively send them into exile. These parts are in conflict and the protector parts appear to have won the conflict. At one level a conflict is the way one part treats another but, at a more basic level, the conflict is the tension between the parts. They each see and respond to a given circumstance in very different ways.

Some conflicts are mild but some are intense. The greater the intensity of the conflict the more likely it is that parts will be pushed to extreme positions and the more anxiety the individual holding those parts is likely to feel. Intensity in a conflict is a quality which is constructed by two aspects of the constituent relationships.

One aspect is the degree of ownership each of the parts feels toward a given event, issue, or circumstance. The more attached each is to the event, the more ownership they can each be said to carry.

The second aspect is the degree to which they hold a harmonious perspective. The more they see the event the same way, the more harmonious the points of view. When two parts (or parties) have high ownership but they see the event as meaning something very different, they will have a high intensity conflict.

Typically a part will deal with the intensity by:

  • disallowing ownership by acting as though it doesn't really care about the circumstance,
  • over functioning by taking on too much responsibility for the outcome,
  • bullying other parts into compliance with its perspective and strategies, or
  • acquiescing to the perspective of another more forceful part.

None of these strategies is effective in resolving the conflict. This is the opposite of what we mean by being assertive and is a way to submerge the fighting but not get the parts what they each need.

In order to fully resolve the conflict we must construct a resolution that meets the needs of all of the parts. This requires a framework for understanding that is more comprehensive than the point of view of any of the parts themselves. It must transcend their perspective while it includes their perspective. This is the task for what IFS refers to as the Self and what Creative Conflict Resolution labels a Sixth Order level of awareness. This perspective by any name is more complex than the paradigm of any of the parts but it allows a way of being that is simpler.

Being in Self has many qualities (the C's), but one we want to cultivate especially is compassion. This is the ability to

  • be present to another when the other is troubled
  • in a manner that fully hears and appreciates the circumstances of the other
  • without being overwhelmed by the other and
  • while supporting the other's innate capacity for healing.

This is a capacity which we can develop.

When we are in Self and bring sufficient compassion to a part we construct a relationship with it which supports its healing by:

  • Knowing the part (developing an image of it, where it is, what it feels like, what it is called, what it is trying to do for the whole)
  • Respecting the part (acknowledging and appreciating its worth and its place in the structure of the whole person, thanking it for what it is trying to do and acknowledging it when it is feeling unappreciated)
  • Caring for the part (taking its concerns seriously, acting to support what it needs, witnessing its feelings and its memories and helping it discover and go to a place of safety without the burdens it has undertaken on behalf of the whole person.)[relational needs]

This is a very different kind of relationship than we are accustomed to or may have even witnessed in our daily life. This is a relationship of radical accountability which constructs for us and for others the deeply healing presence of Self Energy.

Emotions: Feeling your Feelings

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Pros and Cons by Kieran Meehan

I have been a follower of Kieran Meehan's strip, Pros and Cons, for about a year now.  If you are not familiar with it, the central characters include a psychiatrist, a cop, and a prosecuting attorney.   The feature I most often see and like about the strip is the way he is able to skewer some widely held and unwise notions.  These are cognitive distortions which are so common they become hard to recognize. 

In the case of this offering, the clueless client is so attached to the notion that emotions can be turned on and off that he hears his therapist's intervention as a response to his analogy, not to the notion itself.  We can turn off awareness of our emotions but to do so takes a large investment of energy.  Such a choice also results in us being disconnected from our experience. 

While Meehan makes the choice look foolish, the truth is we all from time to time decide not to feel our feelings.  We decide to turn off our emotions to get through a difficult situation.  We can do this, for a while, at great cost.