I find the “bids and boundaries” framework from my previous post to be very useful, but also a little… sterile, perhaps. Imagine prefixing every request you ever make with “it’s okay to say no, but…”; or always refusing bids which you think you might come to resent; or always asking people if it’s okay to flirt with them before doing it. That makes relationships less risky, but also shallower and less spontaneous.[1] Can we get the best of both worlds? I think so, via the two skills I discuss in this post: self-leadership and self-love.

These terms have straightforward meanings, but also more specific connotations in the IFS framework. In IFS, the “Self” is the aspect of you which mediates between other parts, and which is present when those parts aren’t active. Self-leadership is the ability to consistently engage with the world in a way that all your parts endorse, rather than letting some of them seize control in ways that others will later resent. It’s a difficult skill because when somebody hurts you, the hurt part often feels a strong drive to express itself, and will only let you intervene if it trusts that you’ll treat it fairly, and defend its interests, even when it’s less emotionally activated.

Having said that, self-leadership doesn’t mean never getting angry—it just means never fully giving in to that anger or wielding it with the goal of hurting another person (or another part of yourself). Self-leadership might involve telling the other person that you feel angry at them, but without launching into a tirade; or telling them that you need to go on a walk to calm down, but giving them a reassuring gesture before you leave. In other words, self-leadership means that while your angry parts can’t seize full control, neither can the parts of you that want to suppress your anger. And on the receiving end, it involves being able to face someone who’s angry at you without either retreating into yourself or lashing out in response.

For some readers, expressing anger at all might be scary. But suppressing anger doesn’t make it go away; once something starts to bug you, even small examples can trigger the underlying feeling of hurt. Eventually you end up with a conversation like:

A: [finally hitting their breaking point] “I can’t stand how you never treat me with respect.”

B: “What the hell? I was just doing [X]; you’re massively overreacting.”

A: “I hate it when you [X], but you don’t care and just keep doing it anyway.”

B: “I had no idea; why didn’t you say anything? I would have stopped ages ago!”

A: “I kept giving you signs, but you never paid any attention to them.”

B: “If you’re so indirect, how on earth am I meant to figure out what you mean?”

Even this argument is better than just letting the disagreement fester (like the long-married couples who constantly snipe at each without ever expressing their needs openly). But ideally A would be able to express a bit of annoyance much earlier, in a less accusatory way; and B would be able to listen to it open-mindedly, without feeling defensive. That not only makes more progress on the object-level issue, but also makes it easier to handle future issues productively: anger is a mechanism for ensuring that you enforce your boundaries, and the security of knowing that you’ll do so even when you’re not very angry means that your angry parts need to be less active in the first place.

One reason that people might avoid bringing issues up early is fear of falling into the opposite failure mode—of raising too many issues, and thereby frustrating or even manipulating their partner. I do think that this can be a problem, but typically more because of the way it’s done than the amount that it’s done. It’s easy to think that your job ends once you’ve raised an issue, and it’s now the other person’s responsibility to fix it. Instead, though, you should think of solving these problems as a joint effort (or sometimes, depending on the issue, as your responsibility, which you're asking the other person for help with). One good way to shift into that attitude is to cultivate a sense of curiosity: if your annoyance or anger is a signal of something deeper, what might that be? In my experience it’s hard to have too much curiosity-focused communication with close friends or romantic partners.

Another case where self-leadership can be very important is when you’re just starting to build trust with someone. When a part of you really wants to connect with them, it's sometimes tempting to jump straight into the deep end by making a leap of faith and strongly committing to them. But without self-leadership, this is coercive both towards the parts of you that would prefer to be cautious, and towards the parts of the other person that don’t want to feel responsible for potentially hurting you. Self-leadership doesn’t rule out strong, rapid escalation, but it requires first asking yourself: is this driven by a part that doesn’t want to set boundaries because it’s scared of losing the other person? Or is it driven by excitement about them and trust that they’re capable of setting their own boundaries when necessary? Once you’re able to recognize and cultivate the latter, then it becomes not only much healthier but also much easier to throw yourself into something new.

The leadership analogy allows us to harness many of our existing intuitions about what good leadership looks like: setting a vision and direction, weighing the interests of all participants, and motivating them to do their best. But self-leadership needs to be gentler than leadership of others, because many of our parts are less like adults with well-developed emotional self-regulation skills and more like young children. So a crucial complement to cultivating self-leadership is cultivating self-love.

Self-love is in some sense another self-explanatory concept; but it’s also counterintuitive for many people for whom self-judgment and self-critique are second nature. To visualize unconditional self-love, picture the love that a mother has for her newborn child—love which doesn’t depend at all on what the child has done, or what it’s achieved, or what it might grow up to become, but rather an unconditional acceptance of it as it already is. The safety provided by knowing that you’ll always love yourself, no matter what, is incredibly powerful in healing trauma, by providing a visceral counterexample to implicit beliefs about love being scarce. (You can find one personal account of its impacts here.)

Some people have asked me: won’t unconditional self-acceptance make us “too soft on ourselves”, leading to us slacking off or hurting others? I think not, for two main reasons, which the multi-agent model helps explain. Firstly, there’s not just a single dial on how you feel about yourself—you can have some parts that are totally self-accepting even if you have others that are strongly self-critical. And indeed, almost everyone does—it’s just that most people’s self-critical parts try to shut down their self-accepting parts whenever they try to speak. So self-acceptance is usually less a matter of developing a new skill or part, and more a matter of developing the self-leadership required to let the part of you that loves you (and always will) express itself clearly.

But secondly, there’s a different aspect of self-love which actually makes self-criticism more useful: knowing that you’ll never give up on yourself. When a boxer returns to their corner between rounds, a good coach might encourage them, or might criticize them, but in either case will be driven by one goal: helping the boxer win. This type of self-love means knowing you’ll always be in your own corner, and knowing that you’ll never sabotage yourself. That makes it far easier to absorb criticism in constructive ways—just as having a loving and supportive family makes it easier to navigate the rest of the world.

How can we cultivate self-love? The easiest way for me to evoke self-love is to think of my inner child, who’s trying his best in a complicated, confusing world. It’s hard to criticize a child, or hold them in contempt, because even when they misbehave they often simply can’t help themselves, or don’t know any better. A more general framework for this is Ideal Parent Therapy, which involves visualizing how ideal parent figures would respond to you telling them about your problems. Empathy-enhancing drugs can also have a big impact, even long after using them, by unlocking the perceptual shift required to view yourself from the perspective of someone who loves you unconditionally. Once you see how that's possible, it’s hard to unsee it as an attitude you could hold towards both yourself and other people.

Meme by Nick Cammarata.
  1. ^

    In the shell-shield-staff terminology from this blog post: carefulness in making bids and setting boundaries is a shield which protects you from risk, and is better than staying in your shell, but still weighs you down—as opposed to a staff, which helps you move lithely, but which requires that you can absorb and recover from the consequences of making mistakes.

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Man that meme at the end sure is adorable.

I don't know if we have enough expertise in psychology to give such advice correctly, or if such expertise even exists today. But for me personally, it was important to realize that anger is a sign of weakness. I should have a lot of strength and courage, but minimize signs of anger or any kind of wild lashing out. It feels like the best way to carry myself, both in friendly arguments, and in actual conflicts.

Curious if you feel like the advice I gave would have also helped:

Having said that, self-leadership doesn’t mean never getting angry—it just means never fully giving in to that anger or wielding it with the goal of hurting another person (or another part of yourself). Self-leadership might involve telling the other person that you feel angry at them, but without launching into a tirade; or telling them that you need to go on a walk to calm down, but giving them a reassuring gesture before you leave. In other words, self-leadership means that while your angry parts can’t seize full control, neither can the parts of you that want to suppress your anger.

I think that "anger is a sign of weakness" is directionally correct for some people but that "minimize signs of anger" is the wrong long-term goal. (I do agree that minimizing wild lashing out is a good goal though.)

Yeah, I think this is right.


My partner and I have for a good while used a similar approach, and so I do generally agree. I thought I would also add some of my thoughts on where it hasn't quite worked as planned, or where we stumbled across limitations.

We have both experienced various degrees of trauma, including attachment-trauma, and there seems to be some aspects that are more easily "healed" than others. And it makes sense that the more extensive the trauma(s), the more issues crop up. For example, picturing a loving mother; I do not picture loving as in unconditionally, but "loving" as in strictly conditional. But since that is the "love" I grew up with, that is also what my body craves and is used to. 
I have even, wrongfully, believed I am unconditionally loving, and it isn't really that easy to spot. 

In this sense, we discovered that we had parts that weren't really "ours". There is still a lot of exploration to be done, but the two hypotheses are either that in a very deficient and lacking environment, we had to fill in the blanks with regard to a functioning inner climate, and these blanks were based on examples that aren't very healthy. Or, that similar to a parasite, ways of seeing and understanding the world were "instilled" into us, forcefully, to ensure compliance and to make us feel more "okay"/"confused" about the neglect and trauma. 
Whatever the case, it isn't so much that we can't develop self-love or even self-leadership, but more that the faculties with which we see/experience the world are skewed towards a self-perpetuating, self- and other-damaging way of feeling/seeing. 
Love might equal some kind of emotional slavery, and leadership some kind of forced labor. It doesn't feel wrong, it might even look like a useful strategy, a healthy choice or a way towards connection and a good relationship - but sadly, it is not. It is succumbing to the numbing terror of the poison wrecking havoc on many parts of the system, where even the "Self" doesn't seem spared.

The kind of fundamental challenge healing has been for us, is not like putting out the fire in a house, but trying to put out a wildfire with a garden hose. We have had to, and still are, wary of the all too present possibility of you getting so used to the fire, that it becomes a normality, similarly to how drinking water when you are thirsty feels pleasant, so can letting some fires simply continue burning, or even spread them, feel soothing, relaxing or even self-loving. 

From experience, it seems that the layers and bundles of grief, pain and suffering that are hidden beneath the poison cumulates into a kind of cocktail, a cocktail which charms you into believing that letting things be, is the right choice. And even using self-leadership and self-love can become toxic, even when it isn't so in and by itself.

To me, at least, it seems that even the "Self", the part which is the highest developed and functioning, the true Ich, can still be corrupted. Maybe that isn't the case for everyone, but to me, it has been important to acknowledge that fact. Without doing so, it wasn't possibly to start working on more extensive deprogramming. 

This comment isn't to warn against anything you have written, nor is it to give any feedback. It is more a way to acknowledge our road to healing, and also I guess as a nod to others who read this and might feel the same way:
That even when the process is similar, and uses similar tools, the damage can be much more extensive, be more hard to heal and take much, much longer to get to where there are some actual fire poppies sprouting from the still smoky, charred soil.

Sprouting the seeds of kindness, gentleness, curiosity, understanding and compassion needs not only time, but usually other people. And it doesn't feel great, rewarding or as some kind of happy occurrence where the stars align, when they start to sprout. No, it is more the transition between being terribly ill for a long time, and then slowly getting better. It becomes clear as day which is the direction you truly want to go in, and which is the one you are healing from. Even when the experience is laden with a sobering and grief-laden tint, as you start to feel all that which you haven't had the energy to feel, whilst battling the illness. 

Wish everyone the best.


This is great. Emotional intelligence is an important component of rationality and living the life you want.

I'm bouncing off of this post in particular as just one example of many IFS posts. But not disrespectfully. Hopefully.

I think one possible branching is that the "head" self is the one that sees itself as lasting for the duration of ones biological lifetime. What I mean by this is, in the eyes of the head self, all these other parts have their identity mostly encapsulated within one or another cell of experience. "I need my partner to do X"-part, may "heal" into, "I need to feel X kind of safety"-part.....but on either level the part is parted around a discrete situation.

The "head" feels a compulsion to reframe the other parts' violent or destructive goals into integrative goals. It can do that in a way that is patronizing and reductive. For example, part A calls part B a fascist and wants to set part B on fire. The head steps in and says "part A I think you really don't want to set part B on fire, you really have a deeper desire that is compatible with being one living system, now given that, I'm going to try to get to know you and listen to what you have to say."

Honestly I think that psychoanalyzing can be a way of killing these parts if only by petrification. When you tell a part of you, "you exist FOR x desire or, you are moving FOR x fear" it is reductive, parts are alive and thus are moving with such complexity that any "for" is going to be a petrification. (Like, as a metaphor that is not isomorphic, saying a cow in a factory is "for" milk does not actually describe the cow's intentions and movements and reasonings. Metaphor ENDS THERE.) So essentially the head is saying " I believe all parts need to negotiate nonviolently" but hypocritically so, since any part that doesn't perform integration gets for-ed.

The alternative is that you allow the reality of violence. Let one part set another on fire. I think that can be OK honestly. I think that we all know that parts can actually die and can actually kill each other, but (regardless of whether we are modeling IFS or don't even psychoanalyze at all) we keep a narrative that all the fighting is play fighting, or maybe just the tone of the narrative. If we accept that the violence is actual real violence then we can feel the actual pain and damage (and relief and freedom of movement from other parts), and loss of predictability, which is progress.

(Interpersonally I'm hugely against the type of "I feel angry and hurt that I am not being cared for in x way" and more for the "you are being selfish and disrespectful". To me the second will carry the emotions in the voice (covering the first) and also recognizes that we are actually affecting each other and, imo expresses higher regard for the listener). Sorry if that doesn't make sense.

To me, I do model the "nonviolent" bossy, narrativizing, resistant to change, part, as living in my big forehead, while other parts live in other parts of my body. They make emotions that get narrativized by my forehead, but are usually more precise in the emotional form, and sometimes they just move without emoting. They don't like getting paralyzed (for example my forehead stops my ears and nose from moving freely, and locks my eyes) but the paralysis struggle is not all or most of what they "think" about, and even the paralysis struggle can be layered in with day to day movements that don't have anything to do with the forehead.