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  • Writer's pictureBradley King

Everyday Glimmers of Self-Energy

Updated: Apr 22

* the following article has been deidentified to protect client confidentiality and the client involved has given consent to share aspects of their story *

It's an old adage in psychotherapy that we as therapists learn as much from our clients as they do with us. I was reminded of the truth of this claim in a recent session with a young person I've been collaborating with for about 9 months now. They shared a simple story from their everyday life that highlighted to me how just below the surface of our worries, fears and vulnerabilities lies a wise energy that wants to connect with the world, one that is naturally curious and compassionate.

The client went out for a walk with their partner one evening around dusk. On the walk they came upon a small stray cat. They both stopped to offer the cat some attention. After a time, they continued their walk, but as the client walked away, they noticed an impulse to return to the cat to check on its welfare. It was a natural and spontaneous energy that gently urged the client to return to the cat to offer it care. However, no sooner had the impulse arisen and they were beset by doubting, self-critical and worry thoughts; "why do you really want to do that? You don't really care about the cat, you're just doing it to look like you're a good person, you're trying to create a good impression of yourself" and so on. The outcome was that the spontaneous energy of caring was pushed to the background by the inner doubting and critical monologue and the moment was missed.

From an internal family systems (IFS) perspective, what the client experienced as the natural urge to connect with the cat was a simple expression of their Self energy (or Self). Self is the natural state of who we are when are not blended or fused with our neuroses, defences or again, from an IFS perspective - with our protective parts (protectors). When our protectors are not active or triggered, the innate qualities of Self spontaneously arise. In IFS, these qualities are described as the 8 C's of curiosity, compassion, calmness, connectedness, courage, confidence, clarity of mind and creativity. They don't all arise at once together, but rather will arise as needed given the circumstances we encounter. In the client's case, the situation he met drew forth his native compassion response.

I feel we experience our qualities of Self more often than we tend to notice. Each time we feel one of the 8 C qualities, we are experiencing Self. It might be a glimmer of curiosity at work when we encounter an interesting problem needing solving. It might be an urge to give to charity or to a homeless person struggling in the street. It might be a surprising moment when we confidently ask for our needs to be met in a relationship. These are all everyday glimmers of Self energy coming through.

An old analogy I often describe for clients is that of the sun and the clouds. In this instance, the sun is our Self and the clouds are our protective parts. Sometimes it's clear skies and we can feel the sun's energy very clearly, it's warm and it feels good. At other times, there are clouds and the sun's energy is partially blocked, but we can still feel it's warmth. At other times there are intense storms where we can't see the sun at all, but it's still there. If you penetrate the cloud cover and go high enough, you'll find the sun radiating its energy. It is like this with Self and the activity of our protective parts. Sometimes they are blocking Self and at other times self energy is clearly present.

However, as is often the case when we are unaware of our parts or early in the psychotherapy process (or in another effective modality of Self exploration), our experiences of Self can be very brief glimmers. Why is this? IFS posits that it is the action of our parts that obscures Self and while this is still the case our experience of Self will only be fleeting.

In IFS, the human mind is constituted of multiple 'parts' and is not singular as most of us often perceive it to be. Our parts break down into two categories; exiles and protectors. Exiles are the tender, vulnerable parts of us that are burdened by early life experiences that were hurtful or overwhelming for our younger self. They then take on the burden of certain feelings, beliefs and body sensations. Exile examples can include those burdened by shame, worthlessness, loneliness, sadness and grief (amongst a number of others). Protectors on the other hand are parts that took on protective roles early on in our lives to help us manage and soothe the hurtful experiences we may have experienced. They persist in these roles into present day and continue to try to "protect" us in a wide variety of ways from being hurt again or from experiencing the feelings, beliefs or body sensations held by the exiles.

In the example of my client, their protector part began to critique their Self-led compassion response towards the cat. Interestingly, a protector type I've come across regularly are what are called "Critic" protectors. Often, critic protectors use self criticism as a means to try to make us behave in ways that they deem are safe and socially appropriate. They often use shame to steer and control our behaviours. It sounds strange, but this is actually considered a protective function because the shame spurred by the Critic part is deemed preferable to the possibility that someone else might judge a particular behaviour as inappropriate. It essentially means that shaming ourself is ok as long as it is in the service of avoiding shaming from someone else, which must be avoided at all costs. For my client, it seems their critic part was concerned that if they had gone back and offered further compassion and care to the cat they would have run the risk of being judged by their partner and thereby shamed for their behaviour. The critic part avoided the potential of this occurring by criticising them to the point they were no longer in touch with their Self-compassion and inevitably avoided going back.

What does IFS therapy offer here?

IFS is an evidence based and compassionate psychotherapy. It uses experiential techniques in order to gradually introduce us to the full range of our parts, starting initially with protectors and later, to our exiles. As we get to know our parts, we begin to know and feel that they are trying their best to help us survive in the world and have good intentions for us (even the shaming critic mentioned above). As we learn more about our parts and begin to connect to them, there is an inevitable meeting between the parts and Self. Essentially, the parts begin to feel the care, compassion and curiosity of the Self. When this happens, protectors start to settle, to calm and to open space inside. Taking this a step forward, as the protectors make room for Self, the next step can often occur - meeting and unburdening our vulnerable exile parts. This is usually a big moment in IFS therapy as when exiles unburden, the feelings and beliefs they have carried is released and clients experience great relief. Importantly, the protectors that were connected to the unburdened exiles can relax back further and often drop their protective roles completely for more adaptive prosocial roles in our inner system.

As the psychotherapy process unfolds, what were once just glimmers of Self-energy now become more and more stable periods of Self showing up in our lives. As Self arises more and more, a positive feedback loop gains momentum and we are able to notice when we are triggered into our various parts more quickly and we know how to compassionately and curiously work with our parts to find the clear, courageous or caring path forward in a given context. As the unburdening process progresses, what were once automatic triggers for us, no longer have the power they once had. We then have more choice as to how we are responding and showing up in our lives. Rather than led by our parts, we are more and more Self-led.

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