Defuse fights by understanding your inner conflict
Your son Moishy comes home from yeshivah at half past ten, and throws off his shoes, hat, and jacket. You brace yourself for his mood even as you stay positive, greeting him with a smile.
“Hi, sweetie how was your—”
“I’m hungry!” Moishy barks.
But he grunts when you offer him the supper you prepared specially for him. Your smile becomes forced, and it’s with clenched teeth that you offer to make him a bowl of cereal or a Tradition soup. Too late. Moishy’s already buried in a book on the couch, and you feel ignored.
You decide to push yourself to be a “better” mother and continue to engage him. You sit down next to him on the couch, give him a little back rub, and try again.
“I want to hear all about your day, sweetie, anything new?”
“You asked me that yesterday… nothing is new, just a long day, and you’re asking too many questions.”
Dejected, you turn away. As you walk to your room, you shout out a half-baked, “I love you,” to which Moishy responds, “Don’t forget to buy me more socks… and did you wash my shirt?”
As you lie down to sleep, you’re kept awake by thoughts swirling in your head. What kind of relationship is this? you think. Tomorrow, you decide, you are not even setting aside the supper. You’ll show him.
How many times do moms find themselves in repetitive chinuch conflicts, desperately wishing for a way out? We try so hard, but it doesn’t seem to work the way the books say it should. How can we make this scenario look different?
One thing is for sure: “If you keep doing what you’re doing, you’ll keep getting what you’re getting.” When you find yourself in a constant state of conflict with a child, or anyone for that matter, and you wish for something to change, invite yourself to try something new.
The IFS Model
To resolve any external conflict, you first need to resolve your internal conflict. We human beings are made up of many different “parts,” explains Dr. Richard Schwartz, creator of the Internal Family Systems Model (See sidebar). “Parts” are subpersonalities that we’re born with.
“It’s not the best, most descriptive word,” he says, “but it’s the most user-friendly. When discussing their problems, most people won’t object to hearing, ‘Oh, one part of you says this, one part of you says that.’”
Your parts are all good and have naturally valuable resources, says Dr. Schwartz. They’re here to protect you. But they don’t always know their role. Sometimes they get stuck protecting you in a way that’s actually destructive to your current state. That often happens because the part is “stuck in the past,” and when it does happen, it usually backfires, and you get exactly what you didn’t want.
What to do?
The IFS model promotes talking for our parts. Take a step back and ask these parts why they’re doing what they’re doing. Be kind and curious, calm and confident. Follow your part’s journey until you get to its root. When you can see how it’s working to protect you, you will automatically feel compassion for it, and then you can hold it gently or put it aside so that you can do what you need.
Let’s look back at Mom and Moishy.
When Moishy reacts rudely to Mom’s overtures, Mom tries harder to please him, using more extreme measures that leave her drained and resentful when they “don’t work.” By the time she goes to sleep, Mom is miserable and criticizing herself for everything she does. As she lies in bed, her inner dialogue sounds like this:
“You annoy your son, you can’t get it right, you should have made a better supper, you just don’t do well at this mothering thing.” Finally fed up, Mom decides to throw in the towel and not prepare supper tomorrow. That’ll show him.
What parts are showing up for Mom?
Night after glorious night, Mom is activated to perform to perfection, to be the textbook “best mother.” Good mothers, Mom knows, “engage with their children when they come home. Kids need to know that their mothers put everything aside to be there for them. Good mothers ask their kids about their day, and they know they’re good mothers because their kids talk to them.”
But Moishy is not responsive to her advances, and Mom ends up feeling like a failure — exactly what she’s trying to avoid. And it goes farther, leaving her frustrated and depleted and feeling like she wants to ditch the whole “showing up” bid since it’s too hurtful.
As Mom opens up, she notices that she has a strong “schmoozing part,” which puts a lot of importance on talking to her teen after a long day. To schmoozing part, talking to her teen defines a good mother, and it coaxes Moishy to be available to speak.
But teenage Moishy has no interest in talking, especially after his long day. Also, and here’s the key: it’s not Moishy’s job to make Mom feel good about herself. Mom needs to learn to be compassionate to her own needs and to separate them from her son’s needs. To heal the conflict Mom is having nightly with Moishy, she needs to combat her own activated parts.
In time, Mom learns that her “need to talk” is a personal need, coming from schmoozing part. Using the IFS model, she accesses schmoozing part and asks it why it feels the need to schmooze so strongly.
“That’s what good mothers do,” schmoozing part says.
“And why do they do that?” Mom asks.
“It makes their kids feel good, to know you care about them and want to hear about their day. They like when you connect with them to see if there’s anything happening at school, or with friends, maybe something you can give them advice about.”
Mom hears herself sounding like a preteen, and realizes that schmoozing part often felt disconnected from her own mother, who worked a long day and would come home too tired to hear about preteen Mom’s day.
Mom learns to hold schmoozing part and to be compassionate about its need to talk. Then, she asks it to step aside and let other parts have a turn.
Pretty soon, Mom comes to realize that Moishy likes to be left alone and silently catered to when he arrives home after a long day in yeshivah. (He takes after Bubby.) When Mom recognizes and owns what’s really happening, she’s able to welcome her son with a simple and brief hello, tell him where dinner is, and let him know that she’s here if he needs anything.
By recognizing the agenda of her schmoozing part, Mom had the clarity to see that it needed to relax for her to truly become Moishy’s attentive mother. Success!
Opposites Don’t Always Attract
Think about your parts. One part loves to eat cake, and another part wants to lose weight. Sometimes you feel hyper, other times you feel scared. At times, social butterfly part wants to chill with friends; yet often, introverted part needs to be alone and ignore the phone.
You have parts that love to host and parts that hate to cook. Parts that are snappy and parts that are shy. When traffic hits unexpectedly, you feel yourself entering a furious part. As long as the cleaning lady is present, you may be calm, but as soon as your daughter spills the juice, you’re hijacked by an overwhelmed part.
All parts are welcome, and they’re all here to serve you. Our parts have a positive intention: to protect us from pain. But parts often get the very thing they are trying to avoid! What to do?
When a child throws a tantrum, his purpose is to get Mommy’s attention. Now, tantrums are not the most productive way to get what you want. But baby’s intention is positive: I want my mommy. And rather than yell at him for kicking and screaming, Mommy tries to see beyond the tantrum to her child’s real need. Is he tired, is he not feeling well, did he get into a fight in school?
If we can learn to do the same when our own parts “tantrum,” we can learn to be kinder to ourselves and open ourselves to long-term change.
Make a U-turn
Tammy had been working in the same seminary for the past six years. She had excellent ideas and was the one who’d take on extra projects and see them through implementation. She’d also spend hours after class schmoozing with the girls or talking to them on the phone late at night.
At first, she loved it. Her coworkers praised her and considered her the star mechaneches. And it was no secret that the girls loved Tammy! But now, her responsibilities seemed to be piling up, and she felt like she was doing far more than the other teachers in the same roles. It wasn’t like she was getting paid more than they were. Also, Tammy began to notice that when she got stuck staying late and would ask colleagues for help, they weren’t available.
At the same time, Tammy was being pulled in her home life by her husband and growing family. It was increasingly difficult to juggle home and work responsibilities and to do them both well. Tammy was overwhelmed and overcommitted, and she was beginning to feel mistreated by her coworkers. The positivity she received from work no longer filled Tammy the way it had. In fact, she was fed up!
If something evokes strong feelings for you, that means it touches you. Before looking outward, to see who is responsible for your mess — the coworkers who don’t help out, the school that doesn’t pay enough — do a U-turn. Look inside to see where you (and your parts) contribute to the problem.
As Tammy began to explore how she became a mechaneches who was this deeply angry and burdened, she learned a lot about herself. Tammy discovered that her default state, what IFS refers to as the Manager, was a savior part.
As the oldest of a large family, Tammy was a leader, and often took on the role of savior. She’d offer to make supper when she noticed that her mother was tired, and would do homework with the younger ones when her parents had an event. Pretty soon, Tammy began to attach her self-worth to being the savior for her family and friends. This role suited Tammy like a glove; she loved giving, hated taking, and was truly appreciated for her efforts.
Savior part worked well for Tammy when she was younger and there were automatic boundaries in place. But today, savior part was operating to the extreme, taking on extra responsibilities that weren’t always necessary or warranted.
As Tammy explored her internal family system, and learned to recognize savior part for what it was, she also allowed overwhelmed part a chance to speak up.
Overwhelmed part’s overarching goal was to prevent Tammy from becoming overwhelmed. When it saw how Tammy would stay late to help the sem girls prepare for Shabbaton, and thought of the dishes and laundry piling up and Shabbos waiting to be made at home, it knew Tammy needed help. Overwhelmed part called on Tammy’s fellow teachers for help.
When they couldn’t make it, savior part stepped in to save the day — or, at least, to save the sem Shabbaton. And when she got home at two a.m., Tammy still had to deal with dishes and laundry and her own Shabbos. That got resentment part stewing at the other mechanchos for what they didn’t do.
As Tammy moderated the conflicting parts inside of her, she began to see herself and the situation more clearly. The other mechanchos were not responsible for her savior part, and not for overwhelmed part, either. This was entirely up to her. She was soon able to let go of her resentment and to realize that what she needed was to set boundaries the way they did.
With honesty and vulnerability, Tammy acknowledged the part of her that needed to feel important and appreciated (value part), the part that was afraid that the school wouldn’t like her as much and she’d feel less important, hindered her from setting boundaries. Ironically, Tammy was walking around feeling unimportant anyway, since she felt that everything was being thrown on her and she wasn’t compensated or valued for it.
It wasn’t easy, but Tammy was finally empowered to use her strengths, including the leadership that emanated from savior part, but this leadership wasn’t used as an indication of her self-worth.
By solving her internal parts conflict, Tammy was able to get rid of her overwhelm and resentments, which not only helped her avoid burnout and a cold war with her coworkers, but also enabled her to focus more on her growing family. As a cool aside, setting boundaries made the school value her even more.
A Parts Party
So, parts are there to serve us, but sometimes they get out of hand. It gets even worse when they show up in external conflict. Take the example of Dina and Avi.
On Thursday afternoon Dina’s husband, Avi, calls to ask about having guests for Friday night. Dina’s shocked part can’t believe her husband has the audacity to ask this of her so close to Shabbos. But her Manager, people-pleasing part, responds with a grudging affirmative, while her critical part spends the rest of the afternoon internally criticizing her husband.
At dinner that night, Dina’s confrontational part confronts Avi, “What were you thinking, asking me to have guests at the last minute?”
“What’s the big deal?” Avi’s logical part responds. “If you don’t want to have guests, say no.”
“How could I say no when you asked me like that?” asks people-pleasing part. And then critical part proceeds to blame him, “But what were you thinking when you asked me? That’s the more important question.”
“I guess I was thinking that since it’s my niece who is here in seminary, and it’s been a few months and we never had her, I wanted to be able finally to invite her,” Avi’s logical part attempts to explain.
Dina’s critical part has its say again, berating her husband for his laziness. “And I’m always the victim of your being last-minute,” she concludes.
No response. Avi’s shut-down part has been activated.
“Hello! Do you hear me?” Confrontational part again.
Shut-down part manifests with a sigh.
To fill the space, Dina’s confrontational part reminds her of all the other things Avi has neglected or forgotten to do. “And you still haven’t changed the light in the hall, and you never organized the bills… It’s ridiculous how often you don’t do what I ask. I’m just white noise to you. Hello! Don’t you want to apologize?”
Without IFS, we’d say that Dina and Avi simply need to work on their communication styles. With IFS, we understand that more important than the details of what occurred, is the process of conflict between their parts.
The biggest issue here is that Dina’s parts are not in consonance. Her people-pleasing part’s knee-jerk response is to say yes to whatever she’s asked, but it doesn’t check in with the rest of her parts. When asked, people-pleasing part explains that its job is to avoid guilt. But in an attempt to avoid guilt, she’s left with even more guilt after attacking her husband.
Let’s look at Avi. His Manager is logical part, which makes him a great computer programmer, but also means that he responds to his wife’s emotions with logic. This only exacerbates his wife’s emotions, which is the exact opposite of what logical part wants. And as Dina’s emotions grow stronger and more intense, Avi’s shut-down part becomes more activated.
It gets more complicated: Were Avi to ask shut-down part what it’s afraid would happen if he stayed present, it would say that it’s afraid of creating conflict. Unfortunately, shutting down only creates more conflict as his wife becomes more and more frantic in her criticism. And if asked, Dina’s critical part would explain that if it didn’t criticize and attack her husband, perhaps he’d never change, and she’d be left unseen and alone.
Now we have a parts party. Avi’s shut-down part is fighting with Dina’s confrontational and critical parts and everyone feels the distance. What a mess.
But following the IFS model, Dina can learn to ask her people-pleasing part to step aside so she can reassure it that it is okay to say no; saying no doesn’t mean she’ll be rejected. Then she can speak for her frustration at being asked about Shabbos guests at the last second. She can let her husband know that this is not a good Shabbos for her, while being there for her own guilt and soothing it the way she would her child. In this way, Dina begins to see and care for her own needs, and the conflict between her and Avi doesn’t even begin.
Were Avi to have a conversation with his parts, he’d explain to shut-down part that while it thinks that by shutting down it can avoid conflict, shutting down actually creates more conflict, as it makes his wife feels ignored. By holding his part and acknowledging its fear of conflict and longing to avoid it, he can control it responsibly — and then respond to Dina more appropriately.
When facing conflict, we want to invite the feelings under the behaviors to show up. When you understand your parts and how they’re simply trying to protect you, you open yourself up to vulnerability instead of protection, and conflict fizzles out.
What is IFS?
Just like in families, where multiple people with different thoughts and feelings live together, we are comprised of many “parts” that make up our “internal family.” And just like you may not always see eye to eye with the members of your family, these parts often have opposing desires.
To resolve external conflict, you need to first resolve the conflict between your polarizing parts. Do that by exploring the root of each part and learning why it acts the way it does. You can do that by accessing what Richard Schwartz calls Self.
Self can be loosely translated as your neshamah. It’s your pure, truthful being, your naturally valuable state.
Your Self, says Dr. Schwartz is naturally Calm, Curious, Compassionate, Courageous, Connected, Creative, Confident, and has Clarity. You know you’ve reached Self when your voice reflects one of these C words.
Putting IFS to Work: Talking to Your Parts
Operationalize change in IFS by being Self-led, not parts-led.
Are parts controlling your behavior or is your Self in the driver’s seat? We all embody a Self, which contains an inner wisdom. Learn to use this Self to open your parts and understand them.
For instance, when your critical part berates you, invite Self, and ask critical part what it really wants. Get to the root of why this part feels a need to be speak harshly. It sounds simple, but the work is experiential.
Two questions will help you see your part for what it really is:
- How are you trying to help me?
- What are you afraid will happen if you’re no longer in control?
Through IFS we learn to discover our parts’ agenda rather than seeing them at face value. Uncovering the agenda will naturally breed compassion — whether internally or for someone else. Finally, when we understand what the part is trying to do, we respond with more accurate messages, and feel more at peace with ourselves.
Shira Fruchter, MSW, maintains a private practice in Ramat Eshkol for adults and couples. Shira’s an international trainer and a certified IFS therapist with over 15 years of clinical experience. She runs IFS support and skills groups.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 812)
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