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How Do We Make Sense of and Integrate the Past? Part 2

Updated: Sep 19, 2022

In the last post, I told my process of learning to trust in the presence of Jesus in the present and how that led to seeing him in the past. As promised, today I want to explore how we see similar processes of integrating past and present in the fields of neuroscience and psychology.

Today, let's look at Internal Family Systems, originally explained by Richard Schwartz and beautifully explained for Christians by Jenna Riemersma.

One Body, Many Parts

The idea is that there are multiples aspects to our personality, or "parts". This is familiar language for most of us. How many times have you said or thought, "There's a part of me that really wants this, and a part of me that wonders if it's a good idea." In IFS, those parts are personalities that make up who you are.

The trouble is that when we experience any kind of experience that we don't have the capacity or maturity to handle, or we don't have a mature person with more capacity who can make sense of our experience, a "part" of us can become sort of frozen in time, carrying the burden of protecting us or soothing our pain because we weren't protected or soothed by someone else in the moment.

For example, I was working with a client just yesterday who was recalling what it was like to go to first grade. It was her first time being "in public" and away from her family. Because of the way things were structured in her family, receiving individual attention from a parent was a negative experience for her. And so the first time that all the eyes of her teacher and her classmates were focused on her, she experienced deep and paralyzing fear. A part of her responded in the moment of crisis to protect her from that fear. stepped forward to protect her from that fear. She got physically smaller by slumping over, and murmured something quiet to satisfy the teacher's question but make it clear she had nothing she wanted to say. And it worked!

And in that moment, that part of her was rewarded for the protective strategy of becoming small and making it clear she had nothing to contribute to the conversation. She didn't have an answer, so everyone looked away and moved on. Because the strategy was successful, a part of her continued pulling that strategy forward every time she was the center of attention.

Right Strategy, Wrong Time

According to IFS, this is a 'protector' or 'manager' part that was protecting her from the fearful 'exile' that was overwhelmed with terror. This protector decided that the little exile was never going to be that afraid again and so took on the role of protecting by deflecting attention. Because this part emerged when she was only seven, it continued to draw on the resources and perspective of a seven year old.

The strategy was wonderful for a seven year old (right strategy), but my forty-three year old client was sick of feeling overwhelmed and afraid to speak every time the attention turned her way (wrong time). She found herself self-deprecating, speaking timidly, and keeping silent when she actually had something really wonderful to contribute to conversations. Why? Because this seven year old protector was still enacting this strategy every time the attention turned her way. She found herself wondering, "Why do I do this? Why can't I just get over this?"

Integrating the Past with the Present

The reason she felt so stuck is because there is a part of her that is stuck at the age of seven, still playing a role that no longer serves her. And all of us have parts like this. And usually, when one emerges, we feel frustrated and confused by our own behavior - almost as if we are watching ourselves jump off a cliff and feel powerless to stop ourselves. We resist these parts and feel desperate to make them go away and stop doing what they're doing.

But the counter-intuitive key is to lean in, to listen, to move toward the part with compassion and curiosity. This part of you is doing the best thing it knows how to do (keep in mind it's usually frozen at a very young age). This part of you is afraid that if it stops doing what it's doing, your life will fall part. What it doesn't realize is that the strategy it's using is what's causing your life to fall apart.

By going through a process of getting to know this part, honoring it for how it's been working so hard for you, you can gain appreciation for the part and feel better for its presence in your life. Once you appreciate the part and can feel tenderness for it, you can treat it with compassion and curiosity, even introduce this part of Jesus who welcomes all who are weary and heavy laden to come to him. And you can all explore together how this part might 'grow up' and play a new role in your current life, now that it recognizes that you're not seven anymore and you have new resources.

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