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Balancing internal conflict: Cultivating compassion and Self-leadership

One evening, as the sun dipped below the horizon, a seasoned sailor shared a story with his young apprentice. They stood on the deck, the salty breeze whispering tales of the open sea.


"Inside every sailor," the experienced seaman began, "there are two competing currents that influence our journey. One current pulls us towards the shores of safety and caution. This current is driven by the need to avoid danger and stay within familiar waters. It brings feelings of fear, doubt, worry, and hesitation."


He paused, letting the words sink in, then continued, "The other current pulls us towards the open sea of adventure and discovery. This current is driven by the desire to explore new horizons and embrace challenges. It brings feelings of excitement, curiosity, courage, and ambition."


The apprentice looked puzzled. "But if these currents are always pulling us in different directions, how do we ever reach our destination?"


The sailor smiled, a knowing look in his eyes. "It's about understanding and balancing these currents. If we let the cautious current dominate, we may never leave the harbor, missing out on the wonders of the world. If we let the adventurous current take over completely, we might face unnecessary risks without preparation. Both currents have their purpose, and neither should be ignored."


"How do we find that balance?" the apprentice asked, eager to learn.


"By listening to each current and understanding what it has to say," the sailor explained. "The cautious current keeps us safe and helps us plan our journey wisely. The adventurous current inspires us to take bold steps and discover new possibilities. We need to use the wisdom from both currents to chart a course that respects our need for safety while also fulfilling our desire for adventure."




Applying the Sailor’s Wisdom: Internal Family Systems (IFS) Perspective


This story beautifully encapsulates the concept of polarization in our internal world, a core idea in the Internal Family Systems (IFS) model. Just as the sailor described the two currents, we all have internal parts (voices) that can pull us in different directions. Understanding and balancing these parts is crucial for navigating our lives effectively.


The Two Currents: Our Internal Parts


1. The Cautious Current: Represents the parts of us that prioritize safety, caution, and risk avoidance. These parts manifest as fear, doubt, worry, and hesitation. They play a protective role, trying to keep us from harm.


2. The Adventurous Current: Represents the parts that drive us toward exploration, challenge, and growth. These parts show up as excitement, curiosity, courage, and ambition. They encourage us to step out of our comfort zones and embrace new experiences.


The Struggle of Polarization


Much like the sailor's currents, these internal parts can become polarized, creating tension and conflict within us. The cautious parts may resist change and push for stability, while the adventurous parts urge us to take risks and seek new opportunities. This internal tug-of-war can leave us feeling stuck, anxious, or torn between opposing desires.


Finding Balance: The Role of the Self


The sailor’s advice to listen to both currents mirrors the IFS approach of valuing all parts of ourselves. In IFS, the Self is the core of our being, embodying qualities like calmness, curiosity, compassion, and confidence. The Self plays a crucial role in mediating between these polarized parts and ensuring they are heard and respected. When the Self takes the lead, it listens to the concerns and needs of each part, helping them find common ground and work together harmoniously. This leadership allows us to draw on the strengths of both the cautious and adventurous parts, creating a balanced internal system where all parts feel valued and understood.


The Self does not judge the parts but instead approaches them with curiosity and compassion. It recognizes that each part has good intentions, even if their methods might seem counterproductive. By fostering a compassionate and non-judgmental internal dialogue, the Self helps to soothe the fears of the cautious parts and channel the energy of the adventurous parts in constructive ways. This integrated approach ensures that we can navigate life’s challenges effectively, embracing both safety and growth.


Practical Steps to Achieve Balance


1. Cultivating Curiosity and Compassion: Approach your internal conflicts with curiosity and compassion. Recognize and differentiate the cautious and adventurous parts within you. Understand their roles, intentions, and fears. Encourage each part to express its concerns, desires, and fears. By approaching each part with an open mind and a non-judgmental attitude, you can start building a trusting and empathetic relationship with your internal family members.


2. Facilitating Dialogue Between Parts: Encourage open communication between your parts. Act as a mediator to help them express their concerns and viewpoints. Facilitate a dialogue where each part can listen to and understand the other's perspective. This dialogue allows each part to feel heard and respected, reducing internal conflict.


3. Acknowledging the Positive Intentions: Help your parts understand each other's motivations. Recognize that every part within the internal system carries positive intentions, even if their methods or behaviors are counterproductive or conflicting. Appreciate the positive intentions behind each part's actions, which fosters compassion and paves the way for finding more adaptive strategies to fulfill those intentions.


4. Identifying and healing the underlying Root: Often, polarized parts are protecting a vulnerable (exiled) part carrying pain, trauma, or unmet needs. An important step towards healing is to provide a safe and supportive space for your vulnerable parts to share their feelings. Use gentle methods, like guided meditations or therapy, to help these parts release their pain and integrate their experiences into your Self. Healing these deep-rooted issues helps resolve internal conflicts.


5. Finding Common Ground: Guide your parts to find a compromise or common ground where they can coexist and cooperate. Develop new, balanced strategies that address both their concerns, leading to a more harmonious internal system. Assist them in collaborating and integrating their strengths and positive qualities, fostering a sense of wholeness and harmony within your internal system.


6. Nurturing Self-Leadership: The concept of the Self in IFS is crucial for resolving polarization. The Self embodies qualities like calmness, curiosity, compassion, and confidence. Connect with your Self and cultivate self-leadership throughout this process. The Self can provide stability, guidance, and a compassionate perspective that can help resolve conflicts and promote integration.




The story of the sailor and the two currents illustrates how we can balance internal polarizations. By recognizing and valuing our internal parts and using the Self to mediate, we can navigate life more effectively, embracing both safety and adventure. However, sometimes, these conflicts are so complex that professional support is needed. A skilled IFS therapist can help untangle these conflicts, leading to a more harmonious and fulfilling life.

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