Therapeutic Journaling Part 4: Internal Family Systems

One of the most useful journaling methods that have helped me is loosely based on Internal Family Systems. It’s the concept that within every individual is a plethora of different personalities all warring for dominance over their directing mind. You might be thinking about people with split personality disorder and how you would be so far removed from them, but actually what they suffer from is a very drastic disintegration of the self.

For those of us fortunate enough to not be clinically diagnosed with that mental illness, we still contain a variety of competing personalities within ourselves, which would explain why our thoughts and emotions are so complex. There are different versions of ourselves living within us that comprise of our entire being as a whole. It doesn’t make you crazy or anything, just human.

Due to varying factors such as culture, upbringing, and social circles, we all internalize different thoughts and opinions from our environment and all these ideas become a huge part of our personalities. Some ideas are stronger than others, while some are strong enough to contend with each other, and the goal of Internal Family Systems style journaling is to integrate these personalities, not disperse them.

I talk a lot about contending with your shadow on here and this is a more detailed and nuanced form of that. There are parts of you that you might be ashamed or even afraid of, and perhaps it is your resistance to their existence that creates their persistence.

(I totally didn’t mean to rhyme, I’ll try not to do that all the time ūüėČ

What you resist persists, though. According to Freud’s theory of repression, the more we stuff down things in our psyche, the stronger they actually become in trying to take the center stage of our minds. This is possibly how split personality disorder can occur aside from the unfortunate randomness of neurological development in the brain.

So instead of trying to completely cast out certain parts of yourself, you befriend them and finds ways to make them work in your favour. Most especially if they run counter to another personality of yours that seems to be its complete opposite. In actuality, these two warring personalities are two sides of the same coin, and sometimes one side wins over the other causing discord within our lives.

By allowing these varying parts of ourselves to have an open dialogue with each other, our directing mind can have a better time at getting a clearer picture of who is saying what, and why they are saying it. Imagine your consciousness as the director of a play and all these different aspects of your personality as individual actors who you need to assign roles to. Then as the playwright, give them their lines and let them put a play on for you to get a better grasp of yourself.

What I am about to teach you is definitely useful in understanding yourself better through Therapeutic Journaling, but also your fiction, and you’ll start to see how and why as you read along. I’ll even go into further details afterwards, but without further adieu…

Assigning Roles to Your Personalities

Think of the most prominent thought patterns you have about yourself, your relationships, and the world. For simplicity’s sake you can call them protagonists. Then think about if you ever have other thought patterns that contradict your protagonist’s patterns. Consider those contradictory thought patterns as antagonists. In actuality, there is a little good and bad in each of them, but whichever way you slice it, what you want to do is give each pattern a distinctive name as to give them some character.

In turning these thought patterns into characters, having a distinctive name and visual representation of them in your mind will allow you to get a clearer picture of how and what they manifest in your life. Sometimes writing out your thoughts, contradictory as they may be to each other, is not enough, and so the more divided you are, the more important it is to try out IFS Journaling so that you can better manage the contradictions within yourself.

Drawing from my own experience, I’ll give a couple examples of some of the characters living within my Internal Family System and how I integrated them into my being in a healthier way than just resisting what I thought needed to be discarded.

Becoming Your Own Inner Parent

Little Marlon is the wounded inner child. He just wants to be loved, taken care of, and allowed to enjoy his hobbies without judgement and without the pressure of turning them into careers. He just wants to enjoy these things for their own sake. He’s also very shy around people, but also wants to befriend them anyway because he likes to talk.

Papa Marlon is the kind of father I wish I had growing up, and the kind of father I wanted to become when I grew up. He works in tandem with Little Marlon to give him compassion, leniency, and empathy. He comforts Little Marlon and knows how to talk to him so he can feel better, thus helping him develop his social skills and become more confident with other people. However, sometimes Papa Marlon is too soft on Little Marlon and lets him get away with too much when he needs discipline.

Inner Father is the internalized version of my actual father. Although my actual father could be loud, aggressive, and sometimes physically abusive, much to Little Marlon’s and Papa Marlon’s dismay, he is not wrong in asserting that children need to be disciplined. They need to know between right and wrong or they’ll go about life disrupting the order of things.

I originally saw Little Marlon is a weakling who I needed to forget all about and become infinitely better than. I also saw my Inner Father is a nuisance because he was the one bringing up shame in for me simply being vulnerable and sensitive. For so long I wish I could get rid of this weak and sensitive part of me as well as the one who was so judgmental about his very existence to begin with.

This is where Papa Marlon had to come in to empathize with Little Marlon to let him know he belongs in the Internal Family System because reconciling his sensitivity is actually what allows me to understand the sensitivity of others and treat it kindly. Papa Marlon also went head to head with my Inner Father during the years I studied psychology and childhood development, thus developing some resentment toward my actual father for some of the ways in which he failed me growing up.

Papa Marlon represented the moral stand I took in that if and when I have kids, I will never hit them or yell at them, mishandle their vulnerability, and outright ignore them throughout their lives. He is also how and why I was able to raise my God-daughter without raising my voice or laying a hand on her, and that was a great exercise in self restraint and learning to break the cycle of violence in my family.

However, I did get over zealous with peaceful parenting and at times had been too lenient with my God-daughter, who in many ways was the physical and present manifestation of Little Marlon; another fresh new child brought into the world who just needs some love and guidance to survive it so they can feel safe and sound. But at the same time can bring danger upon themselves and even us adults sometimes.

My Inner Father was right, you really can’t let kids step all over you, which is what I allowed to happen at times with my God-daughter and Little Marlon.

Papa Marlon and my Inner Father had to duke it out in what was one the most fundamental journal entries I’ve ever written in my life. What it all amalgamated to was knowing that you must be gentle and patient with children in order to foster a safe environment for them to grow in, but you also need to discipline them whenever they act out in unruly ways.

For a long time it was either/or for me. You either be kind to them or you beat them into submission. But thanks to the dialogue I wrote out between Papa Marlon and my Inner Father, the two were able to meet in the middle and teach me that you can discipline children without having to hit or punish them in any other way.

It took some time, but alongside raising my God-daughter like she was my own, while concurrently parenting Little Marlon, I discovered ways in which I can teach these children how to behave properly without having to resort to any aggressive means of discipline. A lot of the times, I learned that some of the things parents allow their kids to do was more of the fault of proper supervision, while at other times, it was just kids exploring the world and not knowing how to do so safely.

So for instance, to teach my God-daughter why it’s important to not run into the street, I comically simulated one of her Barbie dolls getting run over by a car and voice acting how in massive pain she was in. My God-daughter laughed at this depiction, which was a relief because in hindsight it sounds like I could have easily traumatized her instead.

But she understood even at the age of two what I was trying to teach her. So any time we went out for a walk, yes I mostly held her hand to keep her close, but there were times I’d let her go and she just knew to stay on the sidewalk.

The Internal Interpersonal Tournament

This was just one of many examples I could have shared with you, and while it was geared towards healing my inner child, other dialogues I’ve written for my Internal Family System comprised of a vaster array of characters that lurk in my psyche. There’s the Lovelorn vs the Casanova, the Anima vs my Inner Mother, and many more character battles that had to take place, and still take place within me that allow me to get a better sense of myself.

So to do an Internal Family Systems journal, you assign characters to certain thought patterns of yours and like a movie script, write our their dialogue and see in what ways they can resolve their conflicts with each other so that they can live in harmony within you, as opposed to discord.

After all, this is kind of what we do, as writers, when we write novels. All the characters we write about may be amalgamations of other people we know in our lives, but ultimately their words and actions are being born out of our very own hands. If that isn’t a more creative and emotionally distant form of Internal Family Systems journaling, then I don’t know what is!

But I digress.

Writing an Internal Family Systems journal can be a more direct, dark, and gritty form of getting the kind of self-knowledge you get from writing a novel with characters who all represent different sides of you. With an IFS journal, you remove the creative filter and write something raw, unhinged, and uninhibited. Just like the Shadow Journal, you will want to proceed with caution because the more honest and vulnerable you are, the scarier this kind of journaling actually is.

Though the good news is that if you can survive it, you will become a much smarter and stronger version of yourself that you may not have imagined possible before.

Therapeutic Journaling Part 3: Meditations on Marcus Aurelius

For the past couple of months, I have been reading some Stoic philosophy, and I am starting to see how the intended goal for therapy is to help people become Stoic. And I’m talking about the real kind of Stoic, not the lower case s stoic that is attached to the common misconception of what the state of being entails. A Stoic isn’t entirely devoid of emotion, rather a Stoic is hyperaware of their emotions, but not let their emotions guide their actions. A Stoic chooses and controls how they react to their feelings, along with what ever external stimuli and circumstances they are exposed to.

One of the most prominent Stoic philosophers is Marcus Aurelius, the author of the world renown collection of books called Meditations. The funny thing about these books that so many people have read to ease their minds and gain wisdom from is that it was never meant to see publication even at the time of Marcus’ lifetime. They were personal journals that he wrote to himself in order to keep his ego in check being the most powerful man in the known world at the time.

What we can glean from Marcus’ example beyond his rare and virtuous being as an emperor, and of course his powerful and punchy philosophy, is what journaling can mean for not just the individual, but for the whole world at large. These books are so short and few in number, but their wisdom transcends the ages and remain universally acclaimed to better those who read it, especially repeatedly.

After all, he wrote these books while he was in campaign for a decade, and being the busy guy that he was, had very little time to himself to write, and so made the best use of his time when he found possible.

You too, could follow in his example, especially if you lead a very busy life that leaves very little time to yourself. If the Emperor of Rome can do it, so can you. Just a few lines a day is all it takes. You don’t even have to recount your entire day if you don’t want to, what you can do is reflect on it as you live it, then by the end of the day, write what insights you can glean from the failures and successes of today.

That’s what Marcus did.

Barely ever did he detail the minutiae of everyday life and little events he experienced. Instead, he wrote the words that would remind him on how to be a better man based on all the philosophical teachings he had been blessed with throughout his life. He could have easily sank into his power and enjoy endless luxury, but he understood the responsibility of power he held and how important it was for him to lead a good example for his people.

It’s really interesting to think that something a man wrote 2000 years ago that was deeply personal would end up becoming something that would universally understood. Most philosophers wrote books with the audience in mind, be it their students, the general public, or even letters that they wrote to each other. But Marcus wrote solely to and for himself.

The beautiful irony is that even though he was the Emperor of Rome, what he wrote to himself can easily apply to us naughty future readers who are prying into his personal diary. We may not have had his friends or family, nor his power, fame, or wealth, but what we do have as he would call it, is kinship of the mind. We are all humans who share the same emotions and desires like everybody else. We all seek to love and be loved, and love requires virtue. And so Marcus’ Meditations are fundamentally reminders and demonstrations of virtue.

One way to give and receive such love is shown in the very first pages of Book One in Meditations, where Marcus lists off all the important people in his life and what kinds of blessings and virtues he has received from them. In turn, you can write about the people in your life whose virtues inspire you to become a better person and express your gratitude for their role in your life.

Another prominent theme in Meditations is mortality. It’s a scary thing to think about, but it is a reality we must accept that we will all become dust one day. It’s already clich√© enough as it is to say that life is short and how you should make the most of it while you can. Even more pressing is Seneca’s rebuttal to that which is life isn’t all that short, a lot of us just choose to squander a huge fraction of it on trivial things.

In either case, we are given ample time to live and we must not waste too much of it if we can help it. Every day, nay every moment, should be spent consciously in the present moment with intentional purpose. That means less complaining and more action taking. Less worrying and more pondering. Less wasted moments and more fulfilling days.

It can all be swept up in an instant so whatever you do or say should carry the weight of someone who only has one day left to live. See each day you live as your last and be thankful to wake up every morning because you can consider that a bonus.

And if you’ve been journaling, reflecting on your way of being and how to improve it, then each day can stack on to the last providing everlasting change and fulfillment for you.

While we sure as hell hope that our personal journals never end up in the hands of the public, it doesn’t hurt to have stern dialogues with ourselves within them. Okay, I’m lying, sometimes said dialogues can hurt and that’s fine, that’s all part of the process. Consider it a slew of growing pain. But nonetheless, perhaps our very own personal insights can have universal appeal, and while you may not want to share your journal with everyone you meet, you can instead embody the kind of person you present on the page.

Stick around for Therapeutic Journaling Part 4 where I will briefly touch upon a huge variety of different journaling techniques you can awaken the Marcus Aurelius within!

Truncated Trifecta of Tribulations

A few weeks ago I shared my life long experiences with depression, as well as the resulting lessons I learned in dealing with a recent depression spell I suffered under.

The original posts cut deep and it only made sense to transcend my usual desire to keep articles under 1000 words for concise and bite sized comsupmion. Now while I do urge you to check out the full Trifecta of Tribulations series, I decided to see if I can put these lessons into their simplest form possible.

My personal story as to how I came to these Top 3 Lessons help flesh them all out more, but for a quick and bite sized experience, here they are in their most concise form:

1. Share to Shed Your Shadow Side

We all have dark parts lingering within us. Parts of us, for better or for worse, that sometimes urge us to behave in ways that go against our values. Instead of trying to suppress these dark thoughts–only to make them boil up and burn you over worse in the future–trying sharing them with people you trust.

Maybe you have a life coach or therapist, family members you’re close with, and/or some very trustworthy friends. Whoever you have in your life who won’t judge you or ostracize you for voicing your vulnerabilities, feel free to share your shadow side with them. Make it clear that these dark thoughts you have are just that; thoughts. You may be afraid that they end up fearing you, but if they are trustworthy people, they’ll end up understanding you better.

There’s always that horrible thing you want to do to someone who has wronged you in the past, or that vicious verbal assault you know you can unleash on someone who you think “deserves it.” Unless you actually act these things out, don’t feel ashamed of yourself, just notice it’s there and pay attention to what’s driving it. You can usually then find more healthy ways to express your frustrations with the people you find yourself in conflict with.

2. The 60:40 Principle

Optimism is a helpful tool in keeping yourself hopeful and excited to live in the world. It’s a mindset required in order to achieve the things we want and connect with the people we want to connect with. However, an excess of it can make you naive and susceptible for possible abuse and maniuplation. Not to mention, the higher your set your hopes, the harder the fall if things don’t go as planned.

So what’s the solution? Pessimism?

Well, Pessimism is a little more “realistic” after all, and is so much easier to convince yourself of. Yes, life is unfair, it’s full of suffering, and we might not get everything we want before we die. This much is indeed true, but if Pessimism is taken on as a primary mindset in which to live with, it can be quite dibilitating. We’re only human and it’s only natural for us to need things and need other people to survive, but too much Pessimism can cause you to suffer needlessly, and it makes little to no sense to inflict any more suffering on yourself that life is bound to give you anyway.

Life is about balance between the two mindsets. Always try to operate from 60:40 Optimism over Pessimism, or 60:40 Pesssimism over Optimism. Why not 50:50? Because you’ll logically and usually be feeling one mindset stronger than the other, depending on how your life is going. The trick is to not turn it into 70:30 of either mindset over the other. Hope and dream, but be cautious so that you’re not too attached to a certain outcome. Feel your negative emotions and experiences, but remain hopeful life can get better.

3. You Create Your Own Reality

Now while it’s obvious you can’t delude yourself into thinking everything is fine when your family is at war with each other, your friends are ditching you, and your job is sucking your soul dry–despite of what you’re experiencing in life, it’s still your responsibility to handle it in the best way that gives you the least amount of uneccessary suffering.

Taking The 60:40 Principle in account, you must ask yourself, “if my life is Hell right now, what did I do to make it this way?” And if you find that an undesirable circumstance is, indeed, your fault, don’t fall into the temptation of beating yourself up over it. Ask yourself then, “what can I do to make it better?” And, “how can I make sure I don’t suffer any more than I have to?”

Unless your brain chemistry is misaligned beyond repair by a serious disease that makes it visible, chances are that you actually have more control over your mind than you think. Over time, it just gets easier to buy into everything our mind tells us. Most of the thoughts we have are uncontrollable and we had little to no choice in getting them stuck in our heads due to our unique set of environments and childhoods. So relcaim your mind and remembering the silent observer that is merely aware of such thoughts, and become its ally, so that in turn, your mind can be yours once again.

Save $20,000 on Therapy by Buying a $20 Journal

Gotcha! There are no shortcuts to self-knowledge.

Obviously you can not achieve the same results you would in therapy through journaling alone. However, there is still a goldmine of value you can gain from jotting your thoughts down on paper.  You can potentially save a sum of money by doing your own self-work before hand, but let me make this clear: I am not at all claiming that therapy should be replaced with journaling. Put together, both tools go hand in hand like different instruments in a band.

photocredit: http://www.bookriot.com

If you can’t afford to go to therapy or just don’t feel comfortable with opening up to a stranger you may or may not connect with,¬†journaling could be an affordable and more comfortable alternative to dipping your toe into self-knowledge.

Journaling can be used in a variety of ways including outright emotional release, decluttering¬†your mind, and organizing creative ideas to name a few–but for the express purpose of this post, let’s focus on pursuing self-knowledge through this practice.

Following in the principle I provided in The Free Fall Journal,¬†you need to feel comfortable with writing down your thoughts and feelings, most especially when you journal for self discovery. It’s an invitation to have an open and honest dialogue with yourself, after all.

Now, I’m pretty sure you’re thinking of that crazy guy you saw downtown arguing with himself at the street corner that one time, but I assure you it’s nothing like that. In fact, the reason why this man lost his mind enough to shamelessly berate himself in public is because he never learned how to keep it to himself and journal it out.

Just kidding!

Though within every joke, there is a hint of truth. We are not all that different from that guy, you and I. We all have an inner dialogue that runs through our heads all day, he just chooses to express it out loud, albeit in an unfiltered and frightening manner.

Keeping your most distressing thoughts and feelings to¬†yourself doesn’t¬†make them any less frightening unless you choose to write unfiltered. When we write about our experiences, we provide evidence to the contents of not only our minds, but most importantly the expression of our hearts.

“The unexamined life is not worth living.” – Socrates

You can just as easily journal for the sake of¬†emotional release,¬†but when you pursue self-knowledge through journaling, it’s important to also examine the evidence¬†so you can understand yourself better. Self-knowledge is all about understanding what sets you off and gets you off (your couch ūüėõ ).

Having the luxury of reading back what you’ve written, you’re bound to notice a few patterns.¬†When you recognize certain patterns in your thought process, you can then spend the time to explore why you may have them, and then decide on whether or not to break them.

That’s not to say that all patterns are negative, but generally speaking, the ones that fill us with¬†the most doubt and distress are usually the ones that require more than one entry.In fact, some of the best journal entries are the ones that span beyond different dates, either in chronological order or streamlined between other topics. If you find yourself revisiting certain events or themes in your life, it just means that you’re comitted to understanding that aspect of yourself.

“Pain demands to be felt.” – The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

I cannot promise your entire life will be saved and understood through journaling, and I can not speak much for therapy in that regard, but the only guarantee I can offer is that if you commit to this practice frequently, you will develop a better relationship with yourself. It doesn’t have to be everyday, sometimes you need the break, but come back to your journal frequently and you will notice that you gradually become more honest in your writing.

Be sure to have compassion for yourself when you come across things you may not like re-reading, especially immediately after writing. Those are indicators that you might need to make drastic changes in your life, or at the very least, learn to play the hand you have been dealt.

Keep in mind that your journal is a safe place for you to express yourself authentically. So just like free fall journaling, do not worry about poise or eloquence in the way you write. Sometimes I decide not to separate paragraphs and write in the most unreadable chicken scratch possible (take THAT, would be invaders of my private journal!)–vulnerability is expontentially more important.

photocredit: http://spectralfairy.deviantart.com/
photocredit: http://spectralfairy.deviantart.com/

It has been in my experience that the less I filtered myself, the happier I became. I used to just reiterate what I learned from the plethora of self-help books I read with the intent of simply reprogramming myself to think positively. Although it helped in the short term, it only masked the pain, rather than helping me understand and heal it.

When I go back to my old initial journal entries, I can sense how inauthentic it was to cover up my pain by forcing myself to think positive, just for the sake of faking happiness. I don’t doubt that thinking positive can have its benefits, but there’s a disconnect between mind and heart when it’s not genuine. When I realized this–and wrote from a place of truth instead of falsehood–that’s when I finally got to experience what authentic positivity feels like.

 

Do you journal? If so, how has your experience been?

If you’re new to journaling or thinking of trying it out, what do you look to gain from it?