What is Self? It is the answer to the question: “Who am I?” Whether you call it the Self, the soul, the Atman, or something else, the Self is who we are. It is Consciousness. It is the Divinity that resides within. It is the part of us that (many believe) never dies, always exists in some form even the we leave our Earthly body. Some traditions call the Self “the Witness”. To me this is an accurate description, but incomplete. The Self is ever present, able to act from a place of compassion and curiosity, courage and clarity, connection and creativity, confidence and calm*. When we feel held from within, from a place of calm and non-judgment it is often the Self that is holding us.
So yo may ask, if the Self is all of this and who I am, then what is all of this other stuff? What about the parent in me? What about the partner? The sibling? The child in me? What about what I do for work, my education, or how I like to have fun? Aren’t these all me too? Yes. They are. They are all parts of who you are, but they are parts that can shift and grow. The Self never changes; it doesn’t need to. To me, it is peace and the love of a warm inner embrace.
If you’re thinking, “I’ve never met this Self… I’ve never known calm or peace, compassion or inner love. Does that mean something is wrong with me?” The answer is “no”. It just means you likely have parts of yourself helping you function - they run the show often to protect you (your Self) and help you live. This often happens as the result of intense or (sometimes) extreme experiences. Allow me to explain. We all have parts** - we were born with them. These parts usually take on more “typical” roles like a school part or a sibling part or (for me) a dancing part. When this happens, our parts shift seamlessly in and out without us even noticing much. When something painful*** happens, our parts, intending to protect us take on a protective role to keep us (Self) safe. In some ways, it is great in the moment to have a protector when we need it and in some cases who may help us survive really troubling events and experiences. The problem is that these parts often get stuck in time with the skills available at the time of the troubling events and experiences so that as we age, even though their intentions to help are good, their way of handling things may be ineffective for our current age and situation. I mean, have you ever caught yourself responding to a present life challenge in a way that seems incongruent with your current skill set or age? If we’re honest, I suspect we all have. And that doesn’t mean we or the part doing the protective behavior is bad; everything parts do is done with good intention, even if with a deep underlying intention that may be hard to find. It’s just that the part’s response may no longer be effective or in line with how we want to show up in the world at this time.
So perhaps now we see or in some way understand what is happening, but how do we choose to do something else? In my experience, we can try to train ourselves to do something different, at least for a while. But often times, the underlying concern is still there and there is still a part of us trying to protect us from it. What I have found to be helpful in making these shifts, is working with the different parts of ourselves to acknowledge, accept, understand, and appreciate them, helping them release the burdens of past trauma, time-orient to the present moment, and then help them find a new role when they are ready. This process is what Richard Schwartz developed in the 1980s and called Internal Family Systems or IFS, to honor that we have a family of parts inside, an inner system if you will, with the intention of helping us survive the sometimes bumpy road of life.
As a trauma therapist certified in both Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) and Trauma Center Trauma Sensitive Yoga (TCTSY) in addition to my training in IFS, I want to say that IFS isn’t the only way to heal. There are a number of effective and evidence-based treatments to help people resolve their past and heal. And while that is true, I often find that when doing EMDR Therapy with clients or even TCTSY we are often met with the multiplicity of the individual, the many parts holding different pieces within the layers of self. And when these parts are acknowledged, understood, accepted, and appreciated, the rest of the work seems to unfold with greater ease. So when you notice a part of yourself that may be acting in a way that is not aligned with who and how you want to be in this world now, perhaps instead of the natural tendency to shame it or push it away, consider acknowledging it and maybe even tuning in to learn more about how it is trying to help.**** As we make space for an inner system of trust and acceptance of our parts, I find the rest - self-love, self-compassion, and skillful ways of showing up in the world - follow naturally from the Self.
* These are the eight qualities of Self from Internal Family Systems (IFS)
** For more information on multiplicity check out Richard Schwartz’s audio book: “Greater Than the Sum of Our Parts: Discovering Your True Self Through Internal Family Systems Therapy” and the book “The Mosaic Mind : Empowering the Tormented Selves of Child Abuse Survivors” by Richard C. Schwartz and Regina A. Goulding.
*** “Painful” is relative to each person. These could be big “T” traumas like abuse, a major accident, or natural disaster or little “t” traumas more unique to the individual like a hurtful look from a caregiver, “failing” at something important to the person, or a friend’s rejection.
**** If this feels overwhelming to tune into your parts or sit with your feelings on your own, consider connecting with your therapist (or finding one) for support and assistance.