Key points

  • When someone pushes our buttons, there's usually an old wound underneath.
  • According to Internal Family Systems (IFS), we all have protective parts that are trying to keep us from feeling deeper pain.
  • We can befriend our relationship parts by engaging them in dialogues.
  • Writing can increase insight into our protective system so we can heal our wounds.

Have you ever noticed that the same type of person keeps showing up in your life and pushing all of your buttons? These people may look nothing alike or even share the same gender, but they keep presenting you with more or less the same frustrations and issues. Why do these individuals and situations keep appearing in the storyline of your life? Is it just to senselessly aggravate you?

If you answered “yes,” you may feel like a victim, and that probably doesn’t feel very good. When we feel like victims, we feel a heavy sense of powerlessness that, if gone unchecked, can lead to depression, health issues, and low self-esteem.

But what if there was another way to look at challenging individuals that left you feeling empowered and lighter in spirit? What if you could reframe such tensions as opportunities to open your heart to more love, understanding, compassion, and peace?

The good news is that it’s possible. The path begins by dialoguing with your relationship parts, the complex set of uncomfortable feelings, thoughts, and body sensations that get triggered by interactions with others.

Our parts are trying to protect us.

According to Internal Family Systems (IFS), there exist multiple sub-personalities or families within each person’s mental system, each with its own viewpoint and qualities. This is true of everyone on the mental health spectrum.

IFS was developed in the 1990s by family therapist Richard Schwartz, Ph.D., when he noticed that eating disorder patients were referring to the relationship between different parts of themselves in ways that mirrored how families organize themselves in systems thinking. He built the IFS model based upon his success applying concepts from structural, strategic, narrative, and Bowenian schools of family therapy to patients’ internal worlds.

IFS sees consciousness as composed of a central self with three types of subpersonalities or parts: managers, exiles, and firefighters. It assumes that everyone is born with a core “Self” that is inherently calm, compassionate, confident, curious, creative, courageous, clear, and connected. In a balanced person’s system, the Self is the conductor of an orchestra of parts that help us survive and thrive—helping parts, striving parts, discerning parts, organizing parts, danger-detecting parts. When we are Self-led, we respond to life with the aforementioned qualities, mindfully leveraging the appropriate parts to collaboratively play the called-for notes in various situations.

According to the IFS definition, the Self is always present. But often, it gets overtaken by sub-personalities that take on extreme roles—for example, a highly critical part, a raging part, a clingy, anxious part—to protect our most vulnerable, wounded parts, which become exiled in our bodies. These exiled parts develop in childhood when the Self, in its natural state, is overtly or tacitly rejected, shamed, neglected, dismissed, criticized, or abused. When triggered, protective parts step in to protect the exile, either by controlling a situation or distracting them because they fear the person can’t handle the emotional intensity of these wounds.

Why triggers feel familiar

Chances are if something is triggering you in your current relationship, you’ve experienced a similar hurt before. As long as the original wound remains unacknowledged and unhealed, our protective parts follow us into adulthood and continue to act as if we were still dependent children. They continue to protect the inner, exiled, wounded child who lives inside us, holding all our pain. Although they hide from our awareness, we can sense young exiles whenever something in our adult world triggers a strong emotional reaction, inciting our protective parts to overdo it or overreact. The expression of being “overcome with anger” reflects the idea of a part taking over the Self to the point that the person no longer has access to a sense of calm they may have felt just a few minutes earlier.

A core tenet of IFS is that every part has a positive intent for the person, even if its actions or effects are counterproductive or cause dysfunction. This means that there is never any reason to fight with, coerce, or try to eliminate a part; the IFS method instead promotes internal understanding, cooperation, and harmony.

Dialogue as a path to alchemy

If your interactions with your antagonist are triggering all your protective parts, you can begin to calm them down by getting curious about them. Trying to understand why they are doing what they’re doing and how they’re trying to help, even if their ways aren’t constructive, is a first step in disarming them of their charge and power over you.

By dialoguing with our protective parts, we can begin to understand why our parts are being activated. The more we understand, the more we can begin to peel back the layers of protection, accessing our Self-energy to reveal inner wisdom.

In my IFS writing labs and online course Reframing Your Narrative About Challenging Relationships, I invite students to engage in written dialogues with their parts. This begins by imagining that each part has a voice, much like a person, with its own distinct narrative. After all, each part has a narrative that, when explored, can tell us more about our motivations and reveal insights that can help us get clarity about how to best handle a person or situation.

While acting as a tool to tap into our inner well of Self energy, writing also holds up a mirror to our inner world and storylines, which become clearer as they fill the page. If we can witness what our parts have to share with us an open mind and heart, our inner adversaries can become assets, revealing the places inside that need understanding, love, and compassion. From there, we can unburden ourselves from the source of our pain, leading to happier, more fulfilling relationships.


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