I’m reading Dick Schwartz’s latest offering on the IFS (Inner Family Systems) method and I am feeling a sense of deep resonance with the assertion that we can view ourselves and the world in one of two fundamental ways: we can either see ourselves as sinners, bad people, flawed and in need of punishment and hyper vigilance, or we can see ourselves as basically good and in need of care, respect and understanding. In the end, whether we lean towards division externally or internally has to do with how we treat the ‘exiles’ or the people or places inside and outside of us that we banish, shame and treat as separate or ‘other’. This plays out on a mass scale in our politics, but in the microcosm, it shows up in how we treat ourselves or the parts of ourselves that don’t align with external or self-imposed measures of success.
What doesn’t align with ‘winning’ or having things ‘under control’ often gets swept under the rug and then this shadow material gets louder and more disruptive to get our attention in order heal and integrate the wisdom that it is carrying. The impolite, non-conforming, un-shiny parts of us- these deeply human parts are trying desperately to let us know – just like children often are, that there is a need that must be met and that that need has been neglected. These parts are not bad, though their methods may be outdated or problematic; They simply want to return us to our hearts and full humanity.
Dick asserts that the way to healing is to become ‘Self-led’ or in other words, to become like a kind, steady, loving parent to oneself that knows how to respect, care for and guide its children. Before we ‘correct,’ shame or punish aspects of ourselves that we feel are unskillful, it would behoove us to realize where these places come from, listen to what they are trying to say and learn how to meet them with love.
What is so tricky and illusive about healing and growth is that we can so easily slip into all or nothing/extreme thinking that has us ‘controlling ourselves’ or ‘letting ourselves go.’ Finding the sweet spot of paying attention and meeting what arises with compassion (which has different faces- not always the ‘soft’ kind) allows us to be more adaptive, resilient and present. What worked yesterday may not work for us today because where we are in this moment is not where we were yesterday let alone many years ago. This means rigidity and dogma don’t work. What is required is a fluid, listening, responsive system that trusts itself to recalibrate in the same way we do when we slip, jump or fall -either intentionally or unintentionally and are trying to establish or regain our balance.
This makes me think of Patanjali’s sutra 2.46 that describes Yoga as abiding with ease -Yogas Sthira, Sukkham asanam. To me, this means that in order to qualify as being liberating and wholesome, what we do on our mat and off for that matter must lend itself to a feeling of steadiness and freedom within AND without. It means that we check in with our behaviours to observe how they affect not just ourselves but how they affect others. Is what we are doing over here contributing to a sense of ease, steadiness and freedom over there? That whole saying ‘not free until we are all free’ then becomes a powerful driver not just for personal freedom but collective awakening and healing.
On the topic of two-way liberation, Sonya Renee Taylor, the author of The Body is Not an Apology, was speaking on the podcast We Can Do Hard Things recently about the ‘ladder’ or the invisible hierarchy that consciously or unconsciously ensnares us in a constant game of comparison – always in assessment of whether we are better or worse than someone else. Brené Brown says this comparison keeps us from seeing ourselves or each other clearly and ultimately strips us of our humanity. While we can criticize others for their methods and behaviour, it is very difficult not dehumanize them in the process- to forget that there is a reason this behaviour exists and the way out of it begins with radical compassion.
Of course, understanding and compassion are not all that is needed. Right action is also requited in order to shift out of imprisoning habit energy and in order to create more skillful and wholesome ways of seeing and relating to ourselves and others. Unfortunately, in the effort to move out of what is uncomfortable, we often skip too quickly to solutions and ‘correction’ before meeting the raw human material with care. This reminds me of wise parenting advice from Dan Seigal in his ‘No Drama Discipline’ book in which he asserts that before we ‘redirect’ our children we need to ‘connect.’ Oftentimes, that connection is all that is required to diffuse the situation because the issue is rarely what is going on outside but what attachment wounds are being triggered by the situation that threaten our sense of belonging and therefor our very survival (yes, the need for belonging is that fundamental and hard-wired in us).
So what gets in the way of true connection? Brené Brown, in her latest offering on Netflix, Atlas of the Heart asserts that what gets in the way is CONTROL– control is the near enemy of connection and rejection is its far enemy. Ways we try to control is taking over people’s narrative (not believing their lived experience), judging (your fault), blaming others (their fault), or comparing our experience to theirs in order re-assert the dominance hierarchy – I’m above, you’re below or vice versa which is just the flip side of the same coin. True connection says we are equals and I am walking with you – not ahead or behind, but right beside. It means that we meet what is happening with a high degree of empathy and compassion and that we move towards curiosity about ourselves and others instead of condemnation.
By this criteria, the feat of meeting each other may feel impossible. The good news is that connection doesn’t require us to be perfect, it just requires us to be honest – to notice and admit when we are out of integrity and to start again with humility and sincerity. I am very far from great at this practice but I am determined to remember that healing is an inside job- the more I can meet and regulate myself – and all my parts (as they say in IFS lingo) the better I will be at meeting and being there with and for others.