Covering Up Negative Emotions Doesn’t Work. So What Does?
It’s crucial to grasp what your unwanted emotions protect you from. Enter IFS.
Posted August 2, 2017
Common wisdom advises you to avoid, or try to let go of, troubling feelings. That way they won’t overwhelm your coping abilities. And these feelings include anxiety and panic, deep discouragement and hopelessness, rage, guilt and shame. It’s like being told to eliminate unhealthy foods from your diet so they won’t make you sick. On the surface, it certainly makes sense to get rid of what’s not in your best interests. For generally speaking, your better judgment isn’t available if it’s bulldozed by overwrought impulses and emotions.
However (and similar to much self-help advice), such a straightforward recommendation doesn’t, and probably can’t, explain how to put such self-defeating feelings and unruly inclinations to rest: To overthrow them in a way that, at the earliest opportunity, they won’t return—and maybe with special vengeance to punish you for trying to silence or squelch them in the first place.
Although, doubtless, it’s wise not to permit your feelings to dictate your behavior (see my earlier “What’s “Emotional Reasoning”—And Why Is It Such a Problem?”), vanquishing precariously inflated emotions is far easier said than done.
Your emotions basically come from child parts of yourself. And this isn’t to imply that as an adult you lack feelings, but to emphasize that your present-day emotions arise from those more impulsive, and less developed parts of your personality. These more primal aspects of your being haven’t yet had the experience to recognize the possibly high costs of emotionally driven behavior. It’s only after a young child has said or done something they were impulsively motivated to do that they begin to appreciate its consequences. And unless their parents have amply warned them beforehand, they couldn’t, realistically, have predicted its results.
And doubtless, this fact accounts for why, on the circuitous route to adulthood, children are prone to make so many mistakes. It also explains why a child’s judgment will improve, or become more refined, with age. For the increasingly circumspect evaluation of experience is a key component of maturation.
Call it “experiential learning,” and it’s crucial in understanding how children get socialized. More than any formal education, your personal and interpersonal reality teaches you about the value of cooperation and compromise. Which is why, typically, as you move through various stages of growth, you become ever more rational.
As an adult, then, your behavior is more or less governed by logic, reason, and objectivity. Your childhood impulses and emotions are now subordinate to your rational faculties. Except, that is, when you’re beset with strong feelings and begin to engage in so-called “emotional reasoning.” This is when you’re apt to lose your (rational) way. For essentially you’ve “regressed” back to childhood. And that’s where feelings reign supreme, creating the serious threat that any decision you make will be “under the influence of"—and likely, distorted by—your now dominant feelings.
Seen in this adult/child context, the common recommendation is to revise (on the fly, as it were) your too-emotional inner dialogue and make it more rational—to somehow prompt your adult self to return to “executive control” of your being. And, ideally, that would seem to be the best solution.
But it’s not.
Why? Because such guidance glibly assumes that it shouldn’t be that difficult to hit an internal reset button and restart communication between your rational self and your predominantly emotional self. But all too frequently this advice simply isn’t do-able—at least not when you’re so overcome with emotion that you really can’t think straight.
If in the moment your emotions have already hijacked your more levelheaded self, how do you recover, and put back in charge, this adult part of your being? How can your more logical self-talk return to ascendance when your disruptive child self is beginning to reign supreme and frantically sabotaging it? Can powerful emotions—whether linked to marked anxiety, despair, or rage—be muffled purely through an act of will?
Consider trying to talk rationally to a three-year-old in the midst of a temper tantrum—as though even in such a highly charged feeling state that youngster might still be swayed by adult reason. In any particular situation, endeavoring to stifle powerful emotions (however irrational they may be) through such an act of determination isn’t likely to be successful. Similarly, rational self-talk—if it can be “summoned” at all—is hardly likely to quell a voice from deep within screaming that your very survival is under siege. You adult self might not believe that any such threat exists, but your child self may be equally convinced that it most certainly does.
To offer but one example, as the adult you are today, you may conclude, and quite rationally, that what your spouse has just requested of you is unfair. And so it’s only fitting to share your frustration with them. Yet such a course of action might make the child inside you start quivering with anxiety. For that still-living fragment within you (dormant but mobilizable) continues to be run by programming rooted in your parents’ highly punitive reactions whenever you assertively expressed negative feelings toward them. Consequently, the present-day pounding of your heart signals you to stop in your verbal tracks.
In such a regressed state, you’re emotionally convinced that being candid is too hazardous to your relationship, that (ironically) it risks compromising your all-important, though perhaps somewhat tenuous, bond with your parents. It can safely be assumed here that this scared child part of you is frozen in childhood and has never been integrated into your adult self. Which means it can’t help but regard your partner literally as a composite of your parents—and so will create in you physical symptoms of anxiety to ward off the possibility of (supposedly dangerous) self-assertion.
So, by struggling to ignore, belittle, or dismiss the “feeling viewpoint” of your inner child—vs. seeking first to empathize, understand, and validate where it’s coming from—this anachronistic part of you, however wrongheaded, will likely prevail. And may even become more intense— throwing you into an irresolvable quandary. That is, if you can’t listen compassionately to the emotional reasoning of your child self, it’s likely to sound an even louder alarm— whether that’s by turning your anxiety into panic, your discouragement into despair, or your frustration into inflamed, out-of-control rage.
Given that antiquated (family or environmental) programming can be so rigid—so robust—so intimately tied to your sense of emotional survival—how rational is it to think that ignoring it, or talking "reasonably" to it, could actually resolve such inner strife? Realistically, how could such hard-line rationality, or resistance, be expected to prompt these so scared or shamed parts of you to acquiesce to what is, well, more judicious?
After all, you’re not even listening to these early, wounded parts of you, just lecturing to them (and kids don’t like being lectured to!). Generally speaking, attempting through your self-talk to bypass your frightened, forlorn, humiliated, or infuriated child parts—to continue to abandon them (as they felt abandoned originally), and so leave them out in the cold (as “exiles”)—won’t work.
Remember, because of what in your past felt traumatic to these parts, they froze—and, still residing deep within you, remain frozen. So expending your mental energy not to heal them but to keep their pain numbed up through rationalizing with them, is ultimately an exercise in futility. For various challenges you face in the present will inevitably trigger, or reawaken, them. So how can you liberate them from their bondage? And, too, how can you put an end to the enduring burden of these hurt, injured, or damaged parts of you?
My previous post discussed the increasingly popular therapeutic modality of Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS), the remarkable brainchild of Richard Schwartz. This compassion-based model for repairing wounded child parts is, admittedly, fairly complicated. So I’m limited in what I can suggest here regarding precisely how to implement this process for yourself. But I can definitely describe something of its essence, as well as the paramount importance—if you have unresolved disturbances from your past—of implementing this compelling protocol for self-healing.
Obviously, your task must center on finding ways to prompt these wounded child parts (Schwartz’s “exiles”) out of their hiding places, so you can begin to heal them. And that’s best done by befriending them—bearing witness to their suffering and offering them the caring, understanding, and support so sadly missing when they were roused into existence. And the You that can do this is your higher, non-reactive, non-damaged, ego-transcendent Self, which can be (re-)discovered in this restorative process. For when you’ve accessed your True Self, which emanates from your inborn creativity, compassion, and confidence, it can finally begin to interact with your wounded parts and proceed, methodically, to heal them.
But, following the IFS model, it needs to be added that other, protective or defensive, parts of you (Schwartz’s “managers” and “firefighters”) have long been operating to keep these pained and most vulnerable parts of yourself concealed— so that they won’t disrupt your day-to-day functioning by overwhelming you. And whether these parts accomplish their purpose through people-pleasing, procrastination, apathy and numbing out, flying into a rage, or one of innumerable forms of compulsive/addictive behaviors, their overriding function is to safeguard you from having to re-experience past emotional suffering.
These different parts must all be respectfully addressed and eventually induced to step aside before you’ll have full entry to your wounded exiles. However mistaken these self-protective "sub-personalities" of yours may be right now (since, obviously, you’re no longer a child, though they remain so), you yet have to recognize that they mean well and need you to understand this. For while their varied efforts to keep you emotionally safe may frequently have sabotaged you from taking advantages of many opportunities life has presented you, their misguided (though totally innocent) labors on your behalf warrant being appreciated.
And that’s why they deserve to be befriended, too, before you introduce yourself to your exiles. So, in their own voices, let them speak to you about their “appointed” roles. Only then will they be willing to retreat and let the essence of you—your calmer, more resourceful, compassionate Self—take over for them and begin not merely to protect but to heal your long-suffering child parts. For, from deep within, you can never feel really safe and secure in the world, or reach your full human potential, until you’ve convinced these protective parts to allow you to intervene for them and actively engage with the so-vulnerable “inner children” they’ve sought to keep sequestered. (Because actually healing these parts is—by the protectors’ own admission—far beyond their job description.)
Next, it’s time to invite these wounded parts to emerge from their caves and tell you about the heavy emotional burden they’re still carrying. And whatever these afflictions may be, they’ll enable you to better comprehend why your protective parts have regarded it as absolutely imperative that they regularly trigger emotional agitation and negative physical sensations in you to prompt you to act in ways to block this pain from engulfing you. And what you’ll recognize is that, unconsciously confronted with present-day reminders of past emotional crises, your protectors’ intentions have stayed constant: to help prevent you from doing what once had such harmful repercussions for the exiles they’ve labored so hard to keep at bay.
Once reunited with your hurt exiles, you begin the healing process by being there for them, as no one back then ever was. You have these parts tell you, and visually show you, what events led to their feeling so bad about themselves—and probably the world around them as well. And you help them to understand that you’ve now come back for them. That you’re the patient, caring, empathic, and responsive parent they’ve so long yearned for. That you're able to love and accept them unconditionally. And that you can reassure them about any (perceived) threats to their survival.
And finally—whether or not you were able to demonstrate this earlier (because for so many years your Self-leadership was preempted by your various protector parts)—that you can now manifest the internal resources and resilience you couldn't in the past. Which is the reason your childhood protective parts felt obliged to take over for you in the first place.
You carry on a dialogue with these different exiled parts, one at a time, until you’ve won their trust. And only when, having removed them from each troubling scene they report to you and managed to get them to perceive it in a less self-damaging way, do you invite them to join you in the present: To become an intrinsic part of your grown-up Self and, if they’re ready, to choose where inside you they’d now like to reside.
That’s when they’ll begin to experience how much better (i.e., less symptom-generating) a "bodyguard" you can be for them. And, now partaking of your courage, comforting, and fully functioning emotional resources, they’ll require less and less defending. No longer do they need to hide, or rather be hidden by, the juvenile parts protecting them since childhood (but only through squashing or stifling them).
Moreover, these “inner children”—finally nurtured by Self—no longer need their protective parts to act in the extreme (and frequently maladaptive) ways they had been. So the Self can now grant these parts a much needed vacation . . . and have them return refreshed and ready to assume more appropriate—and less burdensome—roles.
And that’s the ultimate goal of IFS therapy: to reunite all your different parts and allow the Self to lead the newly blended, harmonious “ensemble” that is you.
© 2017 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.
Earley, J. (2009). Self-therapy: A step-by-step guide to creating wholeness and healing your inner child using IFS, a new cutting-edge psychotherapy (2nd ed.). Larkspur, CA: Pattern System Books.
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Schwartz, R. C. (1995). Internal family systems therapy. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Schwartz, R. C. (2001). Introduction to the internal family systems model. Oak Park, IL: Trailhead.
Schwartz, R. C. (2008). You are the one you’ve been waiting for: Bringing courageous love to intimate relationships. Oak Park, IL: Trailhead.
Seltzer, L. F. (2017). How and why you compromise your integrity: Internal family systems therapy can free you from self-sabotaging defenses. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/evolution-the-self/201707/how-and-…