Does it ever feel like there is a fight happening inside your head?
The sitcom version of the family debates and conversations over a Thanksgiving meal often have nothing on the real-life inner conflict and dialogue happening inside our minds. For me, there is a familiar cast of characters who show up to voice their opinions and influence my actions:
Ego – begging for attention
Victim – relentlessly going over slights and unfair moments from years back
Judge – sure that we’re doing this the right way and concerned about why other people can’t measure up
Drill Sergeant – clipboard in hand convinced that if we would just follow the system, everything would be OK
Clown – constantly wondering why everyone can’t just lighten up and make this fun.
And that’s just the beginning of the cast…
I assume you have your own cast of characters in your mind – practiced ways of being, reactive responses, or just patters of emotions formed over a long time that tend to shape how you respond to the world. Often, we have regular parts of ourselves that we wish weren’t there. Anxiety, shame, anger, control – each one vying for our attention and sometimes fighting over who gets to take the wheel.
There’s plenty of discussion around the holidays abut how to extend grace to the variety of friends and family that we meet across the table. Harder for me, sometimes, is to find the beauty and grace in the parts of myself I meet around the table of my interior life.
What would it mean for you to say thank you to the parts of yourself that you sometimes wish weren’t there?
Internal Family Systems
There is a model of therapy called Internal Family Systems (IFS), which seeks to value and make peace with our internal cast. Proponents of IFS say that their way of seeing the world “views a person as containing an ecology of relatively discrete minds, each of which has valuable qualities and each of which is designed to — and wants to — play a valuable role within” Click here to learn more about IFS.
Their model assigns three general types of roles to the ways of thinking and acting that often happen inside us: managers, exiles, and firefighters.
Managers are there to keep everything in order. It’s the part of you that has a system you and others should follow. It judges easily, doesn’t want to step outside the lines, and is intent on keeping you safe.
Exiles are the parts of us we hide away and would rather not admit live in us. These are the really shameful parts, perhaps severely wounded, terrified, or who feel without worth.
Firefighters are the extreme parts of us that come bursting in to quench the flames of strong feelings from the exiles. Think of it like drinking or eating too much to hide hard feelings, bingeing on entertainment or shopping in a way that covers up experiences of loneliness or self-hatred.
If it feels like there is a complicated group conversation in your head, it’s because there is. The many parts of who we are each have a valuable role to play, but when one part hides completely, or dominates as our only way of being, we suffer a lack of health and agency in our own lives.
Making Peace with the Pieces
For me, there is something freeing about taking an inventory of those characters, being able to name them in my thoughts and actions, and give thanks for the ways that each of them have served my life. Something relaxes in me when I’m able to look at the more difficult parts of myself, the parts that are judgmental or struggle with trust, and know that they have something good and wise to offer – they just don’t get to be in charge all the time.
From a spiritual perspective it feels like an opportunity to give and receive grace. My guess is that most of us could use more grace, especially for the parts of ourselves we wish didn’t exist or at least weren’t so pronounced. With perspective, it is possible to recognize that those parts we wish would just take a break have been helpful at times, perhaps even crucial to our survival once – just not now. Part of experiencing grace, and gaining control in our own lives, is saying thank you for what they’ve given.
The practice might look like literally saying “thank you” out loud or in writing to those challenging parts of our souls. It looks like giving gratitude for what they’ve given us, and simply asking them to step back. Maybe it looks like this: “Anxiety, thank you – you have kept me safe and been on the watch for danger, often when it was very real for me. I have needed you, you’ve saved me, I just don’t need you in this moment.” “Judgement, thank you – you’ve taught me hard lessons about how to stay true to what I value. You’ve helped me keep good boundaries and set high standards for myself. Right now, I’m asking for a different voice to speak.”
The conventional list of items we give gratitude for around Thanksgiving are often great things: family, friends, safety, or health. However, there is also some power hidden in plain sight that comes in learning how to give thanks for the parts of our lives, and selves, that are harder to live with.
What does this have to do with the family Thanksgiving table, travel, and the people around us? Maybe it’s easier said than done. However, I know that when I’m more at peace with the parts of who I am, I treat others better, too. Perhaps we learn to offer thanks out loud to the raucous family that reminds us to enjoy the moment, while also asking for a moment of quiet reflection for ourselves. Maybe it looks like saying to the critic at home or at work – “your insights keep us honest and have a good way of making things work, but let’s try something else today.”
Trying to see the possible health in all things has a subtle grace in it. It says we are all in this together, that each part of who you are is part of your team. It says that there is an underlying health, a goodness in you that wants to be expressed and be whole. It points to something decent and lovable, even in the parts of who we are that are hardest to love. For this, and so many things, I give thanks.