Change is hard. We want to change how we handle things, how we talk to people, how we treat ourselves. We decide: “It’s time to change. I don’t want to do (name your unwanted behavior) anymore. I’m going to use all my willpower not to do that anymore.” When we want to make such a change in our lives, we start out with such good intentions — so why doesn’t it work? Why do 99% of New Year’s resolutions fail?
No matter who we are, no matter how happy or successful we are, each of us has parts of ourselves that resist change. These parts of ourselves want to keep things steady and safe, so any big change feels scary. As a result, over time, most of us don’t change much, despite our good intentions.
Is real change hopeless? No. Not at all. I’d like to share a bit about a therapy modality that I use with my clients to help them change.
IFS stands for Internal Family Systems. We all know about external family systems: mother, father, siblings and other relatives. IFS helps us work with our internal (psychological) families. It even gives them names, like:
Managers: these are our bossy, controlling internal family members who want to keep things smooth and steady. “Don’t make waves!” they yell. “Don’t change things, we don’t know how we’d handle it if you did.”
Firefighters: these family members distract/numb us out when things get too scary. Sex, drugs, alcohol, shopping, overeating and video games are good ways to be distracted/dissociated from our unhappiness. Explosive anger, road rage and even irritation are other ways they use to avoid facing painful situations.
Exiles: these are very young family members who are still hurt/wounded from old, painful childhood stuff. We think that they’ve “gone away” and don’t affect us anymore, but, if you have a long-standing dysfunctional pattern in your life – you always pick the wrong person as a partner, you have a history of hating your job/boss/coworkers, you habitually try to drink/smoke/shop less, and it never works out — you probably have an Exile who’s sabotaging you. This Exile wants to be heard and healed. But, we, in our infinite wisdom, usually tell the Exile: “Shut up and stop bothering me. I’m an adult now. Get over yourself.”
When my clients are “stuck” and can’t make progress, there’s always some part of themselves that’s resisting. And, that’s fine: resistance is normal. The $10,000 question, however, is: how do I work with my resistance to change?
This is where the 5% possibility can be useful: Are you — and your Managers/Firefighters/Exiles — willing to change 5% of your thoughts/behavior, leaving the other 95% alone? For most of us, this is a pretty low-risk situation. Usually, your internal family is willing to try it. Big, dramatic
change scares the hell out of them, but, small, gradual change like the 5% possibility doesn’t.
IFS has one more family member that it calls “the Self.” This is the wisest, best, smartest, kindest part of you. It is the family overseer, the chairman/woman of the board of directors of your mind. The Self is the one in charge of your life, it’s the real decision-maker. When you feel calm, compassionate and strong, it’s your Self who’s running the show. If you feel overly rigid and controlled, your Managers are probably in charge, whipping you into shape. If your life is full of drama and upset, your Firefighters rule. When you feel super-needy and fragile, your Exiles have taken over.
The solution? Let the Self be in charge. It can work with all these unhappy/needy/demanding internal family members by listening to their hopes and fears and then being a “hope merchant” — making them an offer that they can’t refuse. In this case, offering them the chance to change merely 5% of a dysfunctional behavior. Just a little piece, a sliver. Nothing to get upset about. A little experiment.
The next time you want to make a change in your life, get in touch with your wise, calm, insightful Self and let it talk with your unhappy internal family members. It could propose the 5% possibility to them. And they may just be open to it. If so, as you try changing that 5%, keep talking to your Managers, Firefighters and Exiles about how the change process is going. They get to “watch” and make sure that the change isn’t too scary. This is a great way to avoid self-sabotage.
If you want to know more about IFS therapy, give me a call. IFS is a terrific way to work through problems that, up until now, have been too stubborn and resistant to change. You can help your Internal Family System to work with you, not against you.
—Michael Kimmel is a licensed psychotherapist who specializes in helping LGBT clients achieve their goals and deal with anxiety, depression, grief, sexually addictive behavior, coming out, relationship challenges and homophobia. Contact him at 619-955-3311 or visit lifebeyondtherapy.com.