What is Self Leadership?
Self Leadership is when the various parts of us that make up our inner world or psyche, give up the steering wheel of consciousness, in the proverbial bus of life, to the True Self, to let it lead us through life wisely and lovingly.
By True Self, I’m pointing to our essence or nature, known by many names. Mostly everyone I’ve ever known, even the most atheistic, logical, rational minded people have some sense that there exists within them this animating spirit that they feel is their true core. Names people know it by are soul, consciousness, spirit, being, life-force, life, universal intelligence, Buddha nature, Atman, Christ nature, sage, source, and simply, the Self (let’s put a capital on that to distinguish it).
Being connected to Self, and being Self-led is when we’re living and leading ourselves from that drop of consciousness. It’s what a lot of us have been missing, and seeking, for a long time, perhaps most of our lives. (See – Self Discovery & Recovery)
Being who (or what) we truly are, and living our lives more from our core being than from our egoic, fear-based, conditioned, reactive ways, is the only way to realize and actualize our true, full potential. It is also incredibly healing and transformative, but it’s no walk in the park getting there. Becoming Self-led.
We’ve been hurt, scared and scarred, and we’ve developed thick skins, protective armor, and personas that shield us from future harm. It’s not easy getting through our protective system to change how we think and feel and function in the world. But it’s something we must do if we want to be free. Free from the mental trappings and limits set on us by our very own egos.
In Self Leadership, who is the Self actually leading? Itself? You? Who are you?
Are you just one personality or identity? Or do you recognize that there are different parts or versions of you that come out under different circumstance, in different places, with different people, while doing different things?
There’s a whole collection, an entire family of different versions or fragments of you in your mind, or psyche.
This piece will introduce you to a Self Leadership framework – a model based on the theory that the mind is made up of many sub-personalities or selves, and that there is a true Self that we should get to know and trust, so we can live with more peace, harmony, freedom, courage, power, vitality, wellbeing, compassion and love.
As I prepare to write this piece, there’s a boisterous crowd forming inside me. I knew I wanted to write this but it’s as if there are different parts of me that are getting in the way, preventing me, blocking me. They’re competing with each other for my attention, clamoring,
“Don’t write that. Change it. Edit it.”
“Don’t write this piece, they won’t get you. They’ll think you’re nuts.”
“You need to read a few more books and see what other people are saying.”
“You’re tired, maybe you should write later… after a nap, and a coffee, and…”
I’m not worried in the slightest about having this experience, this inner conflict of different parts of me competing within. This happens all the time.
I’m not hearing voices ‘out there’.
I’m hearing voices or impressions ‘in here’ and I’m well acquainted with quite a few of them. I even think they’re me a fair chunk of the time.
Multiplicity of Mind – Who is at the Wheel?
We’re not who we think we are. We are not our identities or personalities or roles. We aren’t the thoughts in our head or our idea of who we are.
We don’t actually have one single identity or personality. We have multiple identities or personalities, and any one of them can indeed grab the steering wheel of consciousness and will, and drive our bus on the streets of life.
One of them, or even a conglomerate, may be running the show, making the decisions, controlling so much about our experience of life and how we conduct ourselves, while blocking out the others.
These parts of us are distinct, fairly autonomous, sub-personalities or selves and, don’t be frightened, this is actually completely normal for human beings, and makes so much sense.
This isn’t an illness or disorder. It’s called Multiplicity of Mind.
There are many Mes in Me, and many Yous in You, but none of these are who we really are.
Several psychological models and theories hold that the psyche consists of multiple selves, also called ‘subpersonalities’, or simply, parts. Three of which are: Transpersonal Psychology aka Psychosynthesis, Psychology of the Selves aka Voice Dialogue, Internal Family Systems aka IFS. Each of them provide powerful ideas and tools for getting to know all our parts.
When we take a closer look at our own inner conflicts, many of which drain substantial energy and time from our lives, we can see parts come alive or online.
This is the seminal work by Dr. Roberto Assagioli, M.D. on a psychological model he developed called psychosynthesis. He was a contemporary and colleague of both Freud and Jung and had studied the work of both schools associated with them. He saw psychosynthesis as an evolution of the psychological thinking of the time to include all of a person’s body, mind & spirit in the process of psychiatry, psychotherapy and self knowledge. This book contains many of his early writings describing psychosynthesis and its application to psychotherapy and self improvement. It is an essential work for understanding the principles, techniques and application of psychosynthesis both as applied in various clinical settings as well as for the personal growth of the reader.
This highly acclaimed, groundbreaking work describes the Psychology of Selves and the Voice Dialogue method. Internationally renowned psychologists Hal and Sidra Stone introduce the reader to the Pusher, Critic, Protector/Controller, and all the other members of your inner family. They have refined the process to the point where voice dialogue is considered one of the most effective techniques in psychology today.
IFS reveals how the subpersonalities or “parts” of each individual’s psyche relate to each other like members of a family, and how–just as in a family–polarization among parts can lead to emotional suffering. IFS originator Richard Schwartz and master clinician Martha Sweezy explain core concepts and provide practical guidelines for implementing IFS with clients who are struggling with trauma, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, addiction, and other behavioral problems. They also address strategies for treating families and couples
Familiar Examples of Inner Conflict
Here are some simple and extremely common inner conflicts or polarities we’ve all experienced:
- A part of me wants to go on a big adventure, a part of me would rather just chill on the beach
- A part of me feels mad, and another part of me doesn’t really care
- A part of me wants to speak up and say something, a part of me tells me to shut my F’n mouth
- A part of me knows I need to do this work now, and another part of me wants to keep scrolling on social media
- A part of me wants me to be brave, and another part tells me to be careful
- A part of me wants to go with you, a part of me just wants to be alone.
Here’s a more vivid scenario you may not personally relate to but it’ll help you understand:
“She’s very disciplined in most areas of her life. Except when it comes to food. She says she’s on a diet again but buys a tub of ice cream and chocolates on her next grocery trip but knows they weren’t on her list. She puts the food away and a few hours later proceeds to eat the entire tub of ice cream, the box of chocolates, and a few other things she scrounged up from the pantry. She finally falls asleep. Upon waking, she feels disgusted with herself and throws away all traces of what’s happened.”
In this scenario, there’s a disciplined part managing most of her life, an indulging part that gets her to buy the ice cream, and eat it. Then another part judges herself and makes her feel disgusted and ashamed.
Parts are distinct clusters of awareness, perception, emotion, thought, belief, desire, will, fears, and preferences, as well as, a repertoire of classic behaviors, with a benevolent aim – to protect you and guide your life based on the rules they’ve learned from life experiences, especially the painful ones.
If you don’t like thinking of parts of you as selves or sub-personalities, then this might help: consider each of them an adaptive, protective program (APP) or even a neural network. A program your psyche developed to adapt to adversity, challenge, pain and difficulties you were experiencing in life. It’s just an APP running in your brain to try to protect you from harm, and it’s not who you really are. But recognize, when it’s online (or blended as they say in IFS) it is you – it has the wheel of consciousness and it’s reacting to life and it’s calling the shots.
Our parts aren’t distinct or cut off from each other either. They form relationships within us, and make up parts of an internal system – our psyche. Most of what I’ll share below is my ‘cover version’ adaptation of the Internal Family Systems model, developed by Richard Schwartz (Please see https://ifs-institute.com/ and see below for a brief intro video)
There are several types of parts, and ultimately what you really are, which is not a part.
The Self – Take 1
The Self isn’t a part. It’s our true self, our essential nature, a drop of consciousness or life-force itself as discussed above.
When we’re in Self or Self is behind the wheel, our experience of life can be classified by the 8 Cs and 5 Ps.
8 C’s of Self
5 P’s of Self
Self is an integrative, healing force in us and in the world.
Many of us know what it’s like to be in Self without really realizing it. It’s not that far-fetched. Whenever we’ve felt in flow, without resistance, in the zone, feeling good and free and open and full-hearted, we’ve been in Self.
“The field of the finite is all that we can see, hear, touch, remember and describe. This field is basically that which is manifest, or tangible. The essential quality of the infinite, by contrast, is its subtlety, its intangibility. This quality is conveyed in the word spirit, whose root meaning is “wind or breath.” This suggests an invisible but pervasive energy to which the manifest world of the finite responds. This energy, or spirit, infuses all living beings, and without it any organism must fall apart into its constituent elements. That which is truly alive in the living being is the energy of spirit, and this is never born and never dies.”
~ David Bohm
Parts of Our Inner World ~ Parts of Us
Parts are natural to our psyches and each have their own thoughts, desires, preferences, and styles. They each experience what being human is like in their own way and they show up in their own ways with their own capacities and proclivities. Some parts of us are liked more by the people in our lives (e.g. Mom & Dad, siblings, teachers) than others. Some parts dominate our inner worlds and have little tolerance for anything that would make it feel too vulnerable.
When we were children, the adults in our lives liked the Good Boy or Girl, the hardworking student, the sweet helpful child and usually dissuaded us from being a Bad Boy or Girl, a Lazy Child, or even a Crybaby. As adults now, we tend to keep showing our Good parts and hiding our ‘not so desirable’ parts, even from ourselves.
Over time, we naturally encounter difficulties, painful experiences and trauma, and our parts learn from these experiences and often take on specific roles to protect us. But the parts aren’t to be confused with the roles they serve.
Let’s go with the hard one first… the one no one wants to talk about or recognize exists… the parts of us that were disowned, banished or exiled.
These are fragments or versions of us that got hurt, deeply, and carry a burden of pain, shame, guilt, terror, or rage. The stuff we hate feeling – parts of us are feeling it but are cut off from the rest of our conscious mind, until they get triggered. Think, hurt inner child.
This is somewhat like the Shadow described by others (Jung, for example) – parts cut off from consciousness because they are not acceptable to the Ego.
If an exile gets triggered, by something that makes it feel vulnerable as it did in the past, there’s a chance that it can take over our seat of consciousness. We’re going to feel what they’re feeling, which is incredibly painful and distressing.
The psyche recognizes this is too much, and it finds a way to get that kid out of sight and earshot – locked away in some dark place within us – so we can continue to function in life without being overwhelmed and flooded by those intense feelings. We’ll feel other feelings, but not those specific to the exile.
The rest of our life is arranged to protect us, the system, from exiles getting out and flooding us with their painful emotions and beliefs, or burdens. Here are our greatest vulnerabilities, and opportunities for healing and transformation.
These burdens that most of us carry, these core beliefs, are the cause of much pain and suffering in our lives:
- I’m a loser,
- I’m an idiot,
- No one loves me,
- I’m a monster,
- I’m a freak,
- Everyone hates me,
- I’m not good enough,
- I’m worthless,
- I’m unlovable,
- I’m disgusting,
- I’m completely useless,
- I’m in-valid, I’m defective, I’m just all wrong….
The parts that try to protect the system from being flooded by exile pain and fear are called Protectors.
Protectors – Two Types
Protectors are parts that took on a role (or program) to keep us from experiencing more pain in life, as well as to keep the exiles locked away, so we can function in life. There are two major types of protectors – Managers and Firefighters (I like to call them Relievers or Rescuers).
When we got hurt, we took in a ton of information and made all kinds of associations, and summed up all this information in some rule or rules about how to be, and how not to be. What will keep us safe from harm and pain, even if it meant hiding many aspects of ourselves, which is a heavy burden.
Our managers enforce those rules and make us in the impression of the person we think we need to be to never get hurt the same way again, and ultimately to function well and succeed. They make us into who we think others think are good, solid, functional people.
These are our pro-active parts. Ones like the rule-maker, the inner critic, the perfectionist, the boss, the commander, the people-pleaser, the do-gooder, the charmer, and so on.
Inevitably, no matter what, something or someone, some event or situation is going to trigger us, which is like rapping on the cellar door where our exiles live, waking them up (inviting them into consciousness) and if they’re really triggered, they’ll take over our systems, and we’ll be hijacked.
What kind of things trigger exiles, and what’s that like?
- That stabbing pain when the perfectionist realizes he made a mistake in that email or social media post or in that presentation that the boss was watching.
- The crushing sense of shame felt when the inner critic not only reminds her of how stupid she is, it berates and abuses her till she’s in tears and vows never to let herself be so vulnerable ever again.
- The heart dropping, shock and pain felt when the tough exterior, soft interior guy or girl gets close to someone, lets them in, then gets ghosted.
- The panic and rage setting in when the controller realizes one of his employees made an embarrassing mistake that could cost the firm some business.
When these feelings – shame, humiliation, anger, rage, unworthiness, guilt,and fear reach a certain threshold, our other protectors come online.
The relievers are our re-active parts that come in to rescue us and take us out of pain – by any means necessary.
Repression, denial, avoidance, aggression or numbing. It is these relieving pathways that become our addictions and they don’t have to be to illicit substances – they can be to food, work, sex, procrastination, self harm, shopping, bingeing on anything including Netflix, YouTube, Social Media… anything that gets us out of pain temporarily but ultimately can have long term negative consequences that we can’t get ourselves to stop (Explore the work of Gabor Mate for a biopsychosocial framework of illness and addiction).
Relievers/Firefighters often get polarized with our Managers. This is what’s going on when we experience inner conflict.
Often, Managers are so critical and judgmental of Relievers’ actions, that they trigger the exiles and the Relievers start again. This cycle can be deadly.
Imagine this scenario: you work very hard on a presentation to the new team and the boss is watching. You don’t even make a mistake, which is what you were anxious and terrified about for weeks. But you don’t actually get any feedback. You got silence and what appeared like a bunch of people bored to death.
So, for the rest of the day, your inner critic is attacking you with all kinds of negative, hurtful, critical thoughts about you, your performance, your future, even your worth as a person. It’s repeating what it thinks are the worst parts and it’s giving you a beating.
It’s killing you but you keep a brave face at the office. You can’t let them know anything’s bothering you. It’s one of your other managers making sure you don’t look like a total loser, even though you feel that way.
You make it through the day without taking a drink, biting someone’s head off or quitting your job, but once you make it home, that’s it. The Relievers start doing their thing – they’ve had enough of the constant barrage of self criticism. They take you to the kitchen and there it begins – eating till you hate yourself. Downing a bottle of wine. Escaping into Netflix or some other medium. Perhaps porn. Perhaps you even swipe right and find yourself in someone’s bed or them in yours.
Whatever it is, by the time you wake up and recall the night you had, your Managers are already taking a piece out of you. Pissed at you for being such a weak, pathetic, miserable, disgusting P.O.S., and you get ready for work, make it there, put a fake smile on, and hide any trace of what happened in the past 14 hours from your mind.
This may seem too dramatic but this was the tamed down version.
The thing is, most of us aren’t aware this is going on. We don’t realize when the driver at the seat of consciousness has changed. We don’t really know why we do what we do, and can’t stop doing what we don’t want to do. We just roll on down the road with our protectors at the wheel of life, while the Self, eternal in its patience, remains unrealized or actualized.
If we start to get to know our parts, we’ll come to understand what fears and pains we’re still trying to avoid that are basically shaping our entire lives. We’ll learn what parts need healing and we can be instrumental in that healing by learning to trust the Self.
The Self – Take 2
As Self, we are a powerful, loving, healing force unto ourselves and to the world, including any life around us.
To be Self-Led, means that our true self is at the wheel steering the bus, full of our parts, monsters, gremlins, perfectionists and all. It’s not excluding any part of us, it’s inclusive, and transcendent.
When our parts begin to trust Self and believe that, as a whole, we are safer, more at peace, more balanced, more whole, more effective, and can thrive and flourish under its leadership, we begin to let go of our protective ways, our automatic defensive habits, our addictions, our ways of getting in our own way, our inner conflict, and we heal.
If you’ve ever felt like you lost a part of yourself, you lost your mojo, lost your passion or spark, lost your drive, lost your motivation, lost the will to live, you’re living from one of your parts and not from Self and owe it to yourself to find a way back to who you really are.
How do you find your way back to Self?
That’s a fundamental skill we’ll need to practice for the rest of our lives and there isn’t just one way or even the best way for you – there are countless ways. A shortcut is through the heart – connecting to your heart and generating a positive, appreciative vibe, is often quite effective. Learning this is incredibly rewarding and often a lot of fun.
With the map of parts laid out now, I will share more more articles on connecting to Self and communicating with parts in the future.
Is there a difference between Self Leadership and Inner Leadership?
There is. The difference between Inner Leadership and Self Leadership is that any one of our protector parts could embrace inner leadership from its own vantage point – a self-like part but not the Self. Still a good, and necessary thing. What this means is simply that we are doing our best to manage our inner worlds in healthy, positive ways – practicing mindfulness, nurturing positive emotion, managing difficult thoughts and emotions, managing our energy and stress levels.
Some things we might have backwards:
Pop Psychology tells us to have more self acceptance and more self compassion, as an antidote to the grueling effects of self criticism, self invalidation, and self devaluation. This is really hard if we’re blended with a part, meaning one of our parts is at the wheel. Some parts of us hate other parts and they don’t want to accept our ugly parts, or weak parts, or foolish parts and it won’t offer compassion either.
We might be able to connect to a part of us that is accepting and compassionate but it’s a part, it won’t stay at the wheel for long. It’ll be replaced at the wheel at the quickest hint of a threat.
But instead, we can see it this way: that, if we are in Self, we will BE more accepting, more compassionate, more loving, more powerful, more creative, more resourceful, more present, naturally. That’s just the way Self is.
It won’t be a fight to disown certain parts of ourselves, to discard them, to try to force ourselves to accept them and never trigger them. It’s not one of you giving Self the compassion, it’s the Self giving all of you compassion.
In Self, we are aligned – mind, body and spirit. When our scared or scarred parts get a sense of that, we can work with them to nurture them, and unburden them of their pains and their (our) limiting and disempowering beliefs, so they can claim a new role, their natural capacities to be used as freely as before they were forced out of consciousness or forced to bear the burden they carry.
It will be a healing – from the origin of the word – to make whole – it will be owning and including all parts of ourselves, and undoing what’s been done, unlearning beliefs, unwinding and untangling the web of lies we’ve been carrying and telling ourselves – that we’re not enough, not good enough, not lovable or acceptable as we are. This most likely won’t happen on its own – spontaneously and unaided. We’ll need help, most likely from therapy and deep inner work.
Where to From Here?
As far as coaching or self-directed personal growth is concerned, we can become more aware and connected to Self, more aware and compassionate towards our parts, and even do some transformational work to soften and re-skill parts like the inner critic and the perfectionist, for example. As a non-pathological framework, when we don’t see our parts as ‘inner enemies’ or a function of a disease, we’re no longer afraid, and we can each learn to speak with our parts and form positive, trusting relationships.
Ultimately, we aim to not only treat our whole selves with love, compassion, acceptance and kindness, while seeing the best in ourselves through a wise, sage perspective, we will be able to offer that same presence, wisdom and love for others, potentially helping connect them to their Selves.
Hear Richard Schwartz explain IFS in his own words: