The first time I recognized my own Self-energy feels like yesterday – even though I was practically still a teenager at the time, slaying it with my mini mohawk and an attitude to match.
Maybe you’ve had a similar moment. For me, it occurred several weeks into trauma therapy. I was sitting on my IFS therapist Carolyn’s sofa feeling great care for a young girl inside myself. All of a sudden, I recognized:
I was both me and cradling me (a young part of me) – all at the same time!
I was astonished by what I can only describe as light filling my chest. Because I instantly knew:
This is the real me.
Learning that IFS knew about this “real me” – aka Self – and had a way to get back there sent my faith in my own healing into the stratosphere. And yet, not understanding Self made it hard to recognize it – which made it hard to enhance and return to it.
Determined creature that I am – and if you’ve found this article, you probably are, too – I went on a quest to get back to the real me (Self). I pursued my master’s degree in therapy, a Level 3 IFS Certification, and …. you know what? You don’t have to do all that to find your way to Self. To get started, you simply need:
- Lists of the 8Cs and 5 Ps of Self-leadership
- Two memorable metaphors
- … and a dash of reassurance from an IFS guide who’s been where you are!
So I’ve created this article as your handy reference. It’s here to consult when you need clarity – or just a little inspiration – to find your own Self again. On its own, this article won’t be enough to get you into Self energy. But if you add what you’re about to read to your work with an excellent IFS therapist, a solo IFS session – or simply gentle noticing during your day – you are likely to recognize your naturally present Self more and more.
And all the while, you can imagine me here, cheering you on in finding the real you. It’s perhaps the greatest quest we can undertake.
Let’s talk about:
- Definition of Self in IFS
- The 8 Cs and 5 Ps of Self
- Best Metaphors for Self-Energy
- When it’s hard to find Self
Let’s start with a simple definition of Self in IFS:
Self is is our wisest core, the most grounded, deepest version of ourselves. It’s innate to every single adult in the world.
In Internal Family Systems therapy, “Self” is central to healing. Because it’s the state we need to be in – get to be in – in order to unleash powerful, permanent change and growth. It’s the ultimate self-healing resource.
We can start to recognize Self by looking at the two simple lists below: the Cs and Ps.
These lists of Cs and Ps can help you recognize Self-energy
Before IFS was a thing – before its founder Richard C. Schwartz introduced the language of “Firefighters” and “Exiles” to the world – its inquisitive founder noticed something strange amongst his patients:
When Dick’s clients settled into their wise center (after much therapy!), “almost the same person” emerged in every single one of them. A person that was compassionate, curious, caring, and plenty of other wonderful qualities.
It wasn’t a fluke. As you’ve probably figured out, Dick’s clients were all showing the same “personality” because they were all in Self.
Systematic thinker that he is, Dick compiled a list of these shared characteristics of Self-energy: the Eight Cs of Self Energy and Self-Leadership. Later he added the 5 Ps. These alliterated lists offer us a memorable way to identify Self, our native wellspring of healing. Here are the lists:
The 8 Cs of Self
The 5 Ps of Self
Learning these common traits helps us define Self. And that helps us recognize when we’re in it, which can enhance Self-energy even more.
But wait – Don’t hold these as a checklist to go down! (That will invite in a Self-Like Part, taking you away from true Self.)
When we’re in Self we’re not going to be simultaneously experiencing all of these feelings. (It took Dick many, many sessions with many, many clients to compile these lists!) Instead, we’ll likely be feeling one of these feeling-states intensely, and that will lead us to the next right step for our healing. As that unfolds, more classic Self traits will emerge in response to what’s happening with our parts.
Think of the Cs and Ps as a general guideline. A sketch of Self-energy, not a finished drawing. Because every person’s experience of Self will be richer – and more nuanced – than any list could capture.
When these C and P qualities are in action, we feel different modes of Self. Read on to get a grasp on these varieties.
What’s it feel like to be in Self?
2 Beautiful Metaphors for Self in IFS Therapy
Poets turn to metaphors to share the indescribable, so how about we do the same?
Look at the list of C qualities. (The Cs: compassion, curiosity, courage, confidence, clarity, connectedness, creativity, calmness) What kind of energy do most of them have? I call it active. By contrast, the P qualities fall more more in the being arena. (The Ps: patience, perspective, presence, persistence, playfulness). It’s not a perfect split, but you get the general idea.
Hence, two metaphors you can visualize to orient to Self:
- Self is the sun, actively shining down its rays of C qualities
- Self is the sky, solidly in the P qualities
Just as Father Sun and Mother Moon form a pair, when these two metaphors join together they cover a full range of Self.
Metaphor #1: Self is like the sun (NEW!)
This metaphor recently appeared in my mind’s eye, inspired by a convo I had in the comments section of the official IFS Facebook page. As far as I know, it’s a totally new way of describing IFS’s Self. (G-d I dislike Facebook, but it sure is good for connecting around IFS!)
Throughout cultures there’s an understanding that the sun is active. It has a doing energy to it.
How does it feel when a warm ray of sun touches your cheek on an otherwise chilly day? You notice that sunshine on your skin, your attention moves towards that lovely spot, you bask in it. That’s how your Parts feel when touched by the warm rays of Self’s attention.
Now imagine what it’s like to be the generator of those concentrated rays. You feel a profound turning-towards the recipient of that ray.
This is being in the active version of Self. You shine, you dance in that pure beam of compassion, curiosity, courage, confidence, clarity, connectedness, creativity … or perhaps playfulness or persistence. You’re oriented to the Part as it laps up the sunray of your C-qualities.
When we’re in the sun version of Self-energy, we’re rapt with that focused intensity.
This is the kind of experience that most of us associate with Self, perhaps because it’s aligned with the active bias of our Western culture. We’re wired to notice it.
Metaphor #2: Self is like the Sky
More subtle – but there if we know to notice it – is the P-qualities dimension of Self.
In my very first training in IFS a decade ago this metaphor was shared: Self is like the sky; Parts are like the clouds. I still remember it, because it’s not just a pretty – if vague – aphorism. We can follow the parallels directly!
Like the sky, Self is infinitely bigger than all of the clouds (Parts).
It’s always there, whether or not it’s visible between the clouds. The sky (Self) is everlasting — no matter if the clouds (parts) are rain clouds, thunder clouds, fluffy white clouds, or clouds shaped like unicorns.
When the clouds separate, and we can see a bit of that blue sky, it’s like dawning awareness of the Self energy already in our System.
I often tell my clients: All we need is a pinprick of space in the clouds, and the sky is already there — and has been there, the whole time. Whether we sense it in a particular moment or not, we’ll get back there.
Isn’t that reassuring when you’re drenched in a downpour?
… and our Parts are like the clouds
Parts, on the other hand, move between us and the sky.
They’re a completely different structure from Self – even when they overtake our consciousness. When we look up, we can identify them: Dark clouds that signal a coming rainstorm, or wispy white clouds that dance across the sky. Worried Parts giving us a warning, or Self-Like Parts trying to lead our healing.
When we consider the aspects of Self — those Cs and Ps — it’s easier to distinguish between those cloud-like Parts and our real, genuine Self. Parts may move in front of our Self, but our Self is always there when our Parts make space for it.
Self, like the sky, never goes away.
Troubleshooting IFS: When you can’t find Self
What if I don’t have Self-energy?
Does everyone have Self? Is Self is Always There?
If Self’s so great, why didn’t it help me when xyz awful thing happened? (That’s of my favorite questions we unpack in the Soul-Led IFS Mastermind.)
Are you worried because you don’t feel your own Self energy? Well here’s the great news. You definitely have Self. Awareness of Self, however, is a different thing.
And if you don’t have much – or any – conscious experience of Self, even if you’ve tried to tune in, shame can enter.
Does this feel familiar?: Something is really wrong with me. Maybe I don’t have a Self at all!
Let me help you breathe some truth in: You definitely do. And there’s a reason you might not (yet) feel it.
Most adults’ inner systems need to learn we have Self – they need an “update.” When we’re children, we primarily depend on the adults around us to give us their Self energy. (Nature also seems to bring up aspects of Self.) If we’re fortunate, there are adults around us who can be in their wisest core and give us an internal model for Self. When we reach adulthood, this means our Parts already have have an internal model to help them recognize this empowered Self energy.
Not everyone has this childhood experience, however. If we didn’t have sustained contact with an adult in Self, it can be hard to recognize Self-energy in ourselves. This is why these Cs and Ps and metaphors can be a great way to gain awareness that Self is in you.
If your Parts don’t know you have Self, when those Parts blend with you (aka take over your consciousness) they can convince you that Self is missing. Like storm clouds blocking the sky, these Parts don’t know they aren’t the sky. Or that there even is a sky (aka Self).
One key thing to remember is that it isn’t necessary to be aware you have Self in order to actually have it. In my work with clients, I often see the shape of Self in their histories and their stories. I see it in their patterns of past behavior and the small voice turning towards healing as they handled things they were experiencing. I can see it in how they navigate their inner and outer worlds as they become healthier.
That is Self-Leadership. Self can be in the in-between spaces. We don’t have to feel Self to have it.
And in case the Cs and Ps lists got you worried: Self doesn’t simultaneously give you the experience of all these Cs and Ps at once. At different periods in your life, different aspects of Self might show up more, while others might be more in the background. For myself, courage and creativity were big leaders in my 20s. Connectedness and confidence in my 30s. (Remind me to tell you about the 40s when some years pass.)
And playfulness throughout! Tell me in the comments: What P or C quality is most present in your current life stage?
Summary: Self is in you!
Cs and Ps… Sky and clouds and sun…
Beneath all of these lists and metaphors is one foundational truth:
Self is there.
It always has been, and it always will be there.
Not only is it possible to get into Self, but you can find a reliable pathway there. And from Self, you can heal yourself wondrously.
If you are interested in diving deep into soul-led IFS with a group of like-minded soul-seekers, I invite you to join my 9-month Soul-Led IFS Mastermind. Each week we meet and you’ll deepen your own self-healing capacity (even when you’re not feeling very Self-like!) Early-bird registration is open – Click here to reserve your spot today.
Tell me in the comments: What was it like the first time you noticed your Self-energy? And if you haven’t yet, what do you sense is getting in the way?