Are you tired of the conflict that has come to characterize our culture? Me, too. Some days I wish there was a failproof prayer or plan that would eliminate it for good. Other days I do my best to ignore it—and I’m able to do that for a while if I unplug or limit media intake. But try as I might, I cannot truly ignore, escape, or eliminate conflict—and neither can you. The only healthy way out of conflict is through it, addressing it patiently—person by person, moment by moment—with love, wisdom, and grace. And the only way to do that is to look inward at our own internal conflict, because all conflict begins within us.
That statement may make you want to stop reading right now! But I encourage you to stick with me and keep reading. Because when we deal with the conflict within us, it has a positive affect on how we handle the conflict around us. We must invite God to bring healing and harmony in us if we want God to work through us to bring healing and harmony in the world. If we will address our own internal conflict with love, wisdom, and grace, we will be equipped to do the same in our relationships with others.
In case you’re thinking, I don’t have any internal conflict, here’s a simple litmus test. Ask yourself if you’ve ever said something like this:
“Part of me thinks/feels…, but another part of me thinks/feels…”
We use this kind of language all the time, and when we do, we’re describing internal conflict. Dr. Richard Schwartz, founder of the therapeutic model IFS (Internal Family Systems), explains that each of us has different internal “parts” that hold various roles and points of view. You might say that each of us has an “internal family,” and the family members don’t always see eye to eye!
Understanding how our internal family works can help us to extend more compassion and grace to ourselves—and to others—in the face of conflict. That certainly has been true in my own life, which is why I'm so passionate about sharing IFS, or parts work, with others. (At the end of this article, I'll share some ways it has been transformative in my life and the lives of those I meet with for spiritual direction.)
Here’s a simple overview of the model.
A Snapshot of the IFS Model*
IFS divides our internal family members into three types of parts:
As in any family, some of these parts get along and others don’t. But unlike many dysfunctional families in which certain family members have ill intent, all our parts have our best interests at heart. Every part is trying to help us in its own way, even if the outcomes are not always desirable. Understanding this moves us from criticism and condemnation to curiosity and compassion.
In addition to these parts, there is the core of our being, our True Self or Spirit-led Self, which serves as the wise parent of the family. In union with God, the Spirit-led Self leads the internal family with love, wisdom, and grace. However, because our various parts have taken on burdens and false beliefs, they must learn to trust the Spirit-led Self and allow it to lead the family system toward internal harmony. This process is the work of IFS, which involves befriending and unburdening each part so that it may integrate harmoniously within the family system. From a Christian perspective, this is a beautiful picture of the process of sanctification, or becoming whole in Christ.
4 Principles to Help Us
Often simply having a basic understanding of the internal family model increases our ability to give ourselves grace and be patient with ourselves when different parts of us hold conflicting thoughts and feelings. I’d like to highlight four basic principles from the model that can help us take practical steps toward addressing the conflict within—which, in turn, can help us to navigate the conflict around us. (These principles are taken from the steps of IFS but are not the steps themselves.)
1. Pause and get curious.
Often we become irritated and frustrated quickly rather than pausing to wonder what’s going on within us. Simply taking a few deep breaths and getting curious about what’s happening inside us can help us move from a defensive or offensive posture to a more neutral one.
As we look inside with curiosity, we become aware of our feelings. Are we frustrated, irritated, angry, sad, afraid? Then we follow those feelings, eager to learn whatever they want us to know. We might ask ourselves, Why am I triggered? Why am I so angry? Why am I feeling sad right now? Pausing with curiosity enables us to ask questions that will lead us toward clarity.
2. Listen with genuine compassion.
Pausing and becoming curious helps us to listen to ourselves with compassion—not with a particular agenda or with feelings of self-pity, but with the genuine care and concern of our Spirit-led Self. This is a time to listen attentively to the stories, hurts, concerns, and fears held by some part of ourselves—often a younger part. It’s a time to “walk in another’s shoes,” so to speak, even though the “other” happens to be a part of ourselves.
Sometimes as we’re listening, an inner critic or another internal part will interrupt our thoughts, discounting or objecting to what is being said. When this happens, we can gently acknowledge the interrupting part and ask it to soften back so that we can continue listening to the one who was sharing. If it is willing, we can let it know that we will circle back to listen to it as well. When we make this promise, it’s important to keep it and check in with that part later, allowing it to be heard too. If the interrupting part will not soften back, then we should pause and listen compassionately to its concerns, acknowledging that they are important. Though sometimes we may want to silence a part of us, true healing comes from letting every part know it has a voice.
Listening with compassion enables us to show honor to every part of ourselves. Because we are image bearers of our Creator God, every part of us is worthy of honor and love.
3. Bear witness to concerns and pain.
To bear witness is to “be with” someone in their joy or pain. It is to be a safe, non-anxious, compassionate presence who allows another to share their experiences with vulnerability and authenticity without judging, shaming, or “fixing.” When we bear witness, we communicate our “with-ness” to another.
Just as we bear witness to others, we can bear witness to ourselves. Rather than trying to “fix” or get rid of a part of us, we can connect with that part from our Spirit-led Self and offer compassionate presence. As our Spirit-led Self assures the part that it’s not alone but is seen, known, and loved, the part comes to trust that there is someone who understands the burdens or pain it is carrying, as well as any ways it has been trying to help us. As trust builds, the part becomes willing to release its pain and burdens and take in the gifts or resources of God. This is the process of unburdening, when the Spirit of Christ draws near and does the work of healing and transformation that only God can do.
4. Express ongoing love and support.
Just as realizing we are not alone is necessary for unburdening, so receiving ongoing love and support is necessary for continued health. God designed us for community, and we need one another’s love and support throughout life’s journey to be healthy and whole. Likewise, when our internal family members love and support one another, we experience harmony and wholeness. Each time we express love and support to a part of ourselves, we are strengthening our connection and creating loving community within our internal family. The reason we address conflict is not simply to bring peace, though peace is a wonderful thing. We do it to foster loving community, which our Triune God both demonstrates and desires for us.
* * *
Personally, I have found IFS to be an incredibly effective tool in my own journey toward greater healing and wholeness. It has helped me to pay attention to parts of me that are skeptical, fearful, or guarded and learn from them about ways I've been hurt in the past so that I can allow God's healing in those places. It has enabled me to identify spiritual wounds, those experiences that gave me a false representation of God and caused parts of me to carry ideas about God that have created distance or doubt. I have seen IFS uncover lies that have dominated an individual's actions and feelings for years without explanation or understanding. I have watched someone find freedom from harmful labels that created overwhelming shame and begin to understand their resulting drive to be whatever others want or need them to be. I have witnessed another breaking free from the tyranny of having to perform constantly in order to feel worth and acceptance. I have walked with someone who had all but given up on God and is discovering the reality of an intimate and loving God by identifying the wounding representations of God that came through early caregivers. I have seen another recognize how conflict with a spouse has more to do with the ways they've both been wounded than with each other. This is why I believe these principles from the IFS model can help all of us to address our own internal conflict with love, wisdom, and grace. And as we do that, we will be equipped to do the same in our relationships with one another. My prayer is that we will not seek to avoid or eliminate conflict but will work through it together and grow in loving community.
Want to Learn More?
* This overview of IFS is expressed through a Christian lens (see Dr. Alison Cook's book Boundaries for Your Soul). If you'd like to learn more about IFS and how it can be helpful to you on your spiritual journey, I'd love to talk with you about it. I have completed a 16-week comprehensive IFS course and am an IFS informed spiritual director.
Hi, I'm Sally!
I'm passionate about connecting with God and connecting with people, offering spiritual encouragement and companionship. I'm so grateful to be on the journey with you as we walk with God together.