Sunday, January 03, 2010

Jay Earley - IFS and Diamond approaches to the Inner Critic

Another excellent "inner critic" post from Internal Family Systems blog.

I was recently asked a question by a member of my professional IFS telecourse. He is a Diamond Approach student and knows that I am also. In fact, I have been a Ridhwan (Diamond Approach) student for 15 years and have grown enormously as a result of my work on this spiritual path. The Diamond Approach incorporates quite a bit of sophisticated psychology into its spiritiual work, and it has a way of working with the Inner Critic, which it calls the superego, that is quite different from that of IFS. He wanted to know how I compared the two approaches.

It turns out that a wrote an article a few years ago discussing what IFS has to offer to Diamond Approach students, and the IFS approach to the superego/inner critic is included. Here is the section of that article that deals with the inner critic. The article is written for Diamond Approach (DA) students and assumes a fairly detailed understanding of that system.

Working with the Superego

The DA sees the superego as a set of structures in the soul that have been introjected from the parents (or other caretakers). It attempts to maintain the status quo in the soul by keeping you away from certain feelings that it considers unmanageable or unacceptable and by directing you toward certain ego ideals. This is seen as an introjection of your parents, who originally did these things. Once created, the superego is assumed to operate more or less automatically. If your father judged you as incompetent, then your superego will judge you in a similar way because it is an introject of your father. It may judge you for something other than competence, but it will judge you in a similar way to your father.

IFS believes that each person has one or more parts that have a superego-like role, judging and controlling you through attacks. Where the DA sees each component of the superego as an introject, IFS sees each component as a part that carries a burden which is an introject. In IFS each part has a current motivation for what it does, including parts that have a superego function. This motivation is always an attempt to do something that the part believes is positive for you (even if the part actually ends up doing something painful or destructive). In the above example, if you get to know the part that is judging you as incompetent and find out why it is doing that, you might discover that it is doing this in order to make you try harder so you will be successful. It might be trying to get you to succeed so you can get people’s approval instead of their judgment. Or it might have some other motivation.

The Diamond Approach would agree that the superego might be trying to make you work harder, but if so, it would see this as an introject of the father’s desire for you to work harder. From an IFS perspective, the superego part is judging you for its own reasons now, which may or may not be modeled after your father. A superego part’s current motivations are colored by the past, but they aren’t a mechanical recreation of it. IFS would agree that the part might be carrying a burden of being judgmental that was introjected from the father, but this burden is seen as not intrinsic to the part itself, and therefore the part can change this attitude. This has important ramifications for how to work with superego parts, as we will see below.

From an IFS perspective, a superego part is a protector. Whatever its motivation, it always involves a positive intent, even if it doesn’t have a positive result. The IFS approach to working with a superego part (as with any protector) is to get to know it from a curious, accepting, compassionate place, and to find out what its positive intent is for you. In our example, the judging part is trying to get you to work harder to protect you from being judged as incompetent by people. The part is actually tearing you down and making you feel bad about yourself because it carries a judgmental burden (introjected from the father); however, it is doing this in a distorted attempt to help you. Notice the irony here. The superego part is trying to protect you from feeling deficient, which is the very thing it is causing you to feel.

Understanding the positive intent of a superego part usually begins to shift things. You begin to see it not as a powerful opponent, but rather as a part that is concerned about your well-being but is acting out its concern in a destructive way. You realize that it cares about your being judged by people and wants you to get approval. This makes it easier for you and the superego part to cooperate. This part took on this burden of attacking when you were a child, and so it is really a child part that is puffed up to look powerful.

For many people, seeing a superego part in this way immediately reduces their fear of the part and helps them to feel more powerful with respect to it. It takes away the ability of the superego to intimidate and derail them. The next step in IFS is to find out what exile the superego part is trying to protect you from. In this case it would be the part of you that feels deficient because it was judged by your father. Then you access and understand this childhood experience and unburden the painful feelings and beliefs that are associated with it. Once this exile part is healed of its feelings of incompetence, the superego part no longer needs to protect it, and the superego part can let go of its judgmental role.

This has some similarities to the Diamond approach to the superego, which involves first defending against the superego and then later understanding its origins in the father’s judgment. The difference is that with IFS there is no need to defend. You can understand the superego from the beginning. However, the understanding you start with is not how it was introjected but what its current motivation is. Later in IFS work, sometimes in the same session, you may access and understand the origins of a superego part’s role.

I have worked with my superego in both ways over the years. Now when it comes up, I get curious as to what my superego is trying to protect me from, usually some inner state it thinks is dangerous. Once I realize what this is, I reassure it that I can handle this state, and it relaxes.

The IFS approach to the superego has a number of advantages for the Diamond Approach. Some students have difficulty in feeling powerful enough to defend against their superegos. With IFS that isn’t a problem; you just need to be in Self, which means that you have enough curiosity about a superego part and are open to learning about it without judgment or fear. Since Self doesn’t necessarily imply presence, it is not that hard for most people to access a good-enough degree of Self early in their work. In IFS, this is accomplished through purposely disidentifying from ego structures that are contaminating the Self. Since IFS understands that the Self is who you truly are, once you have disidentified from those ego structures that are most prominent at a given moment, what is left is the Self.

Most DA students also have the experience of their superego returning after they have defended against it and attacking them repeatedly. With IFS, once you have accessed and unburdened all the exiles that a superego part is trying to protect, it can be unburdened, and it usually stops attacking you for good. In other words, once you have released the pain and negative beliefs of the exiles, then the superego part can release its burden of trying to protect against this pain by attacking you. Of course, there can be more than one superego part, each one protecting one or more exiles, so each of these will have to be worked with.

To me, the IFS understanding of the superego (and of parts in general) seems consistent with the Diamond Approach understanding of the soul. The soul is an organism of consciousness, an alive presence. Since parts (including those with a superego function) are differentiations within this alive medium, it makes sense to me that they would exhibit the aliveness of the soul and that therefore they would have their own current feelings and intentions (even though filtered through the veils of the past) and they would be able to change their attitudes. Parts often seem to be fixed and mechanical because their attitudes are shaped by painful incidents from the past and they respond in repetitive ways that aren’t attuned to present situations. And the burdens that parts carry are fixed structures similar to DA self-images. However, the parts themselves have their own current motivations which can change through IFS therapy.

To my mind, the biggest advantage of the IFS approach to the superego is that it is actually more aligned with the overall understanding of the DA and with inquiry, which is to be where you are and understand where you are. In every other situation, the DA brings acceptance and understanding to our work with our personalities. We don’t disengage from our experience or try to change it. We feel it and understand it. The superego work is an exception where we try to disengage from part of our experience. Hameed has said that the DA superego work is not inquiry per se; it is an exception to inquiry which is meant as a support for inquiry. However, by incorporating the IFS approach to the superego, there no longer needs to be this exception. All of the personality can be approached with the curiosity and openness of DA inquiry.

You may argue that the Diamond approach to working with the superego helps to access the Red essence, especially through directing aggression at the superego in the process of defending. However, there are many other internal situations where aggression can be encouraged as a way of accessing the Red.

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