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Mapping and applying “inner physics”

Dick Schwartz has mentioned that he wants to write a book on the “physics of the internal world.” I don’t remember when or where he made this statement, but the idea has lingered with me. A part of me still wishes for this book. What would be in it? How it could be helpful to our parts?

In the meantime, I’ve started exploring and noting the differences between the external world and the internal world, attempting to apply my insights to help my clients, consultees, and myself. Physics—the study of matter, energy, and the fundamental forces of nature—uses mathematical models and laws to understand the behavior and properties of the physical universe. I’ve come to believe that matter and energy work differently in the internal world than they do in the external world.

Based on observation, experience, readings, and trainings, I’ve noted the following about “inner physics”:

  • Parts don’t die. They may be unable to be accessed at times or can integrate into Self energy when unburdened. But they cannot die.
  • The use of force is ineffective (e.g. making parts change or go away).
  • The intensity of a protective part’s reaction to a triggering event matches the intensity of terror, shame, and pain experienced by an exile holding a burden.
  • Truth and love are the same. (This one is hard to explain; it is more something to be experienced).
  • Each system is balanced by energies of order and ease (e.g., managers and firefighters, both burdened and unburdened). Even if there is an imbalance (e.g. an extreme protector), both energies are present in the internal world.
  • Parts are more powerful to exact change in the external world. Self is more powerful in influencing change in the internal world.
  • Parts can exact change in the external world on behalf of Self, which is often more effective than parts attempting external change alone without Self.
  • Shame and powerlessness can be experienced as worse than physical death.
  • What is not feared cannot hurt you in the internal world.
  • The internal system is porous (and parts and ancestral energies filter the flow of energy in and out of the internal system).
  • The human mind is multiple in order to effectively navigate the external world. (This is why parts exist.)

Before reading on, maybe take a moment to notice what resonates and what does not. How your parts are responding?

We live in an external world that can often be constraining, difficult, harsh, cruel, unfair, dangerous, harmful, confusing, unpredictable, disappointing, and unforgiving. As a white, cis-male with many other significantly privileged identities, and who works mostly with well-resourced clients, I only see a small fraction of the constraints the external world has to offer. Our parts, their burdens, and their burdened beliefs develop distinctly as a result of what happens in the external world. Parts, burdens, and burdened beliefs are critical to safely navigating the external world.

However, the internal world works differently than physical reality. Parts are often not aware of this fact. When they are shown the difference, their relationship to both the internal and external world changes. Through experimentation, I’ve found that my clients and their parts benefit from learning about inner physics.

Parts of myself and clients that find inner physics helpful are often frightened parts and Self-like parts (e.g. caretakers). First, I get informed consent from parts to share about the physics of the inner world; then I ask parts afterward how the information is impacting them. Some parts are relieved by the truths of how the internal world works, while others can find it threatening (shame is a common theme).

I’ve found it common for thinking, problem-solving, and achievement-oriented parts to feel upset when the physics of the internal world is revealed. I take a moment to inquire how parts respond to the information I share, apologize if the intent did not match the impact, validate the experience the part has, and affirm that its strategies are extremely useful in the external world and have helped keep the system alive and functioning.

For example, I once spoke to a client’s internal caretaker part, which had the agenda of calming an exile. I informed the caretaker that using force in the internal world is ineffective. First, I checked if this part was open to receiving some potentially helpful information. After it consented, I explained that while force can be effective for external change, it doesn’t work internally. I acknowledged its good intentions and clarified that using force internally, such as trying to make a part feel differently, often leads to further shaming a part already burdened by shame. I explained the forceful approach sends the unintended message that it’s not okay to simply be and feel as one does. The caretaker part immediately understood and softened, allowing both my Self energy and my client’s to connect with the targeted exile.

In another, more complex example, I engaged with a client’s thinking part. With consent, I shared the same anecdote about the ineffectiveness of force in the internal world. Before seeking consent, I voiced a prediction that the thinking part might not like the information but might find it helpful in the long run. After sharing, I asked how the part was responding. The thinking part expressed upset, anger, and insecurity. I validated its feelings, apologized for the impact, and further explained my intent and how it might have affected it. I acknowledged its effectiveness in navigating the external world and its ongoing importance. Additionally, I recognized that my information might have triggered feelings of shame in the thinking part. Though the thinking part remained upset, its shame was witnessed and not compounded.

I’ve found this approach especially useful in situations where parts feel trapped by forces that are constraining in our current external world. These situations include feeling stuck in jobs where profits are valued over human needs, feeling ignored and/or unseen by family members who are struggling with their own cultural and personal burdens, financial constraints, unemployment, parenting struggles, social injustice, crimes against humanity, election dread, and the climate crisis.

Even when the external world is extremely constrained, there is freedom available in the inner world. Sharing how the internal world works can bring awareness to this freedom (e.g. Self-energy). My invitation is to notice the light inside the internal world and to attune to how parts respond to it.

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Author´s Bio

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  • Max Littman

    Max is an IFS-informed therapist and consultant in a private practice based in Oakland, CA. www.maxlittman.com

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