Are The Days of Rugged Individualism Numbered?


In my life, one bright spot of blessing in the past crazy year has been a daily “parts check in” with my friend and former housemate Emma, who is an Internal Family Systems (IFS) practitioner who really gets the IFS model. We’ve been beautiful support for each other as we navigate our own trauma healing journeys, and since both of us are without partners right now, it’s been so healing for us both to have one other person who tracks, mirrors, and validates the healing work we’re both doing. Because she’s in England, we do our parts processing via WhatsApp voice message, sharing with each other new parts of ourselves we discover every day. I wake up to her voice. She wakes up to mine.

To have all parts of us accepted by another human who loves and cares for even the most potentially despicable parts of us is a huge gift to us both. I love Emma’s parts- even the ones that are sometimes hard to love. Especially those, because they’re often the most love starved. And she reciprocates. Honestly, it’s been the best part of the pandemic for me, those daily check in’s with Emma.

One of the core tenets of IFS is that “You are the one you’ve been waiting for.” In other words, all the neediness we project onto other people- all the ways in which we want our partners, friends, and family members to show up for us with unconditional love and acceptance, even when we behave badly, all the ways we desire attention, approval, affection, and validation- all of those needs can be best met by the Divine inside each of us, which is called “Self” in IFS lingo.

From the IFS perspective, we tend to burden other people with the weight of our neediness, and then we have an exaggerated sense of disappointment or anger when they fail to give us the unconditional love and acceptance we so desperately desire. While other people can become the secondary caregiver of your parts- as I’ve become for Emma and as Emma has become for me- humans are imperfect, and we’ll all let others down from time to time, especially when we blend with parts and are no longer Self-led. The relationship of our parts with Self, says IFS, is the one relationship that has the potential to never let you down.

Self Can Soothe Reactive Parts

For the most part, this parts-to-Self love relationship I’ve spent the past seven years developing has served me well. Whenever another human lets me down, as my last partner did when he walked out with little warning and wasn’t willing to get couple’s counseling, I’ve learned to rely on the unconditional love I can have for my own hurt parts. When my parts panic and are crying, “He’s leaving! He’s leaving!” I can hold them in my heart and say, “Yes, but I’m not.” It doesn’t take away their grief, but they do calm down and let me hold them. They also show me where they’re stuck in the past and overreacting to the abandonment because of past hurts, so my therapist and I can unburden them and bring them into my system in an integrated way, where their natural gifts are unveiled.

When the pandemic hit and parts were scared, “We might die!” I was able to say, “Yes, but if we do, I’m going with you and you won’t be alone.” When I picked up some bad habits during quarantine, my Self was able to extend love to those rascally parts that were trying to protect me, even if their attempt at protection was also destructive.

But yesterday, when I was chatting with Emma, I shared with her a part that comes up frequently in my IFS therapy sessions. This part resists when my therapist suggests that certain needs that I crave having met by other people can be best met by Self. For example, months into the pandemic, I had parts that absolutely craved touch- not my own touch, someone else’s touch. I also felt so overwhelmed with the mounting responsibilities weighing on my shoulders during the past year that I craved a partner who could help me shoulder the load, so I didn’t feel so pressured to handle the complexities of life- as the sole bread winner and employer for distressed and financially dependent employees, for example.

When my spiritual teacher got sick, my parts freaked out at the idea that she might leave this earth. “We need her,” they said. When I tried to move their attachment from her to my Self, my parts mocked me and told me I’m a crap substitute for the most significant mentor of my life. “It’s okay for us to need her,” they insisted. I haven’t gotten very far convincing them otherwise.

Whenever I reach outwards, expressing my need for other people and my dependency on them, my therapist tends to direct me inward. “Lissa, what do your parts need from you right now?”

Self Can’t Replace Connection With Others

That’s when this resistant part jumps in. “No!” Some of my parts want somebody else to meet those needs- not my Self. This resistant part feels gaslit when my therapist guides me back to myself. It’s not buying it. It gets very annoyed whenever anyone suggests it’s not okay to need other people. This part loves IFS, but it’s not drinking the Kool-aid of relying solely on Self to meet all parts’ needs.

My inner struggle- between parts trying to get IFS and Self-leadership right and parts insisting dependency on other humans is natural- got me thinking… The idea that I am the one I’ve been waiting for is so comforting in some ways, signaling the end of seemingly endless seeking and a relief from the desperation I feel when I feel the pain of not having a romantic partner or the kind of close-knit, tribal interdependent community I crave. It’s an easy sell for some of my parts. They’re so willing to substitute Self love for the often less reliable (and far more conditional) love from others.

But this one part acts out whenever I try to ask it to do the “You-turn”- turning back towards Self instead of reaching out to others to help me get my needs met. Its mantra is “Humans need each other,” and it sometimes rejects all attempts from me (or my therapist or Emma) to turn it back inwards.

So I’m wrestling with this part and listening to its arguments. It says “Rugged individualism is killing our country” and “It’s normal to need other people to meet needs we can’t meet on our own.” It insists that my exaggerated Self-reliance is part of my problem, that it’s normal and natural and oh so human to admit our vulnerability and neediness when it comes to other people. It says it’s not the same if I touch myself as if someone else holds me and caresses me and co-regulates me. It says it’s okay to wish someone outside my internal family system, someone not on my payroll, would help me shoulder some of life’s burdens. This part thinks that the whole story that we can meet all our own needs, while attractive because it gives other parts a sense of being in control of a largely uncontrollable universe, is a load of crap. It repeats, “Humans need humans to survive” and starts quoting the scientific data to prove it (which is spelled out in detail in my book Mind Over Medicine and in our Surgeon General Vivek Murthy’s timely book Together, which came out, ironically, in March 2020.

The Paradox of Self Help & Genuine Need For Others

This part says the self-help movement is part of a greater problem and reinforces the idea that you don’t need anyone else because you can “do it yourself.” This part thinks many religions further reinforce the notion that you can handle anything life throws at you- with God’s help.

This part insists that we are tribal beings- we need each other for our very survival- and any suggestion that we don’t can only cause more harm. This part loves IFS, but it thinks IFS might lead to an overreliance on Self- at the expense of the truth of our genuine need for other human connections and the gifts they can bring- safe touch, help during hard times, empathic resonance when we are suffering, the generosity of other people’s support when we’re struggling, mentorship, emotional bonding, secure attachment, and sex.

This part points to one of the paradoxes of healing I wrote about in my book Sacred Medicine– “You can heal yourself, AND you can’t do it alone.” It quotes what we know about cutting edge trauma therapies- that we need at least one other person to hold us when we’re hurting and vulnerable, that we need others to help us celebrate life’s pleasures, that we need to touch others and be allowed to rely on others, that the human need for human connection is as much a biological survival need as food, water, and shelter. Our nervous systems need other nervous systems. Our Self needs other Selfs.

I’ve spent so much time with this part- and it even resists being called a part. “I am Self,” it asserts. “Self needs other Selfs.” I can’t tell if it’s what IFS would call a “Self-like” part, parts that masquerade as Self and try to trick you.

So I just say yes. Everything it’s saying makes sense to me, and I want to validate its truth. Humans need humans- and that doesn’t suggest any kind of weakness. It’s true that I can meet a lot of my own needs and avoid being overly dependent on other people, but it’s also true that I don’t thrive and my mental health suffers when I try to convince myself that extreme self-reliance is enough. I mean, sure, maybe Tom Hanks in Cast Away survived on his own, but he had to turn a soccer ball into Wilson, his best friend. And he wasn’t exactly thriving.

We Are Interdependent Beings

This past year proved to us how interdependent we really are, how it simply doesn’t work to just do your own thing without impacting someone else. It became crystal clear that we rely on essential workers for our very survival- and yet the people paid the highest wages in our culture (sports stars, rock stars, movie stars) were entirely expendable. This part wants me to understand that it’s okay to need each other- that we already DO need each other, and it’s okay to sit in the vulnerability of that dependency.

When I was processing this with Emma yesterday and talking about how dependent we are on each other and on the earth, she felt comforted and calmed by what I was saying, even though it’s a challenge to one of the core tenets of the central IFS message. I certainly don’t think anyone in the IFS community would say we DON’T need other humans or the earth, but that sometimes it feels like it gets lost in IFS.

Emma said, “If I know that I am dependent on other humans, and I cannot live as an island in the rugged individualist story, then I have to care about how I treat other people. I have to care about maintaining and developing relationships because my survival is dependent upon it. If I extend that awareness of my dependency to the earth, then I have to care about the earth and its health, there’s just something in that that’s so obvious and so important.”

I don’t know whether there’s a lonely part in me that needs more healing, and this resistant voice is just needing more love from inside of me. Or maybe this part doesn’t fully grok the IFS Model and is missing something. But something in me relaxes when I just say to this resistant voice, “You’re right. We can’t do this human thing alone.”

And then I write this…so I can share it with Emma. And…you. And there we are, connected in some way, maybe even needing each other.

It’s Okay To Need Support

We have three offerings in our community to help support you right now, so tune into your own Self and see if you feel resonance with any of these offerings.

A Day Of Recovery With The Muse – If you live in the Bay Area and want to join us for the first live Bay Area retreat A Day Of Recovery With The Muse in Sonoma, CA on July 10, sign up below!

Healing With The Muse – If you’re needing IFS- informed support from both Self and other Selfs, we invite you to join us at Healing With the Muse.

Whole Health Medicine Institute – If you’re a health care provider and therapist and need deeper education about trauma-informed medicine and spirituality in medicine, “Heal The Healer” support from other health care providers, pandemic recovery, and alternative career ideas, we’re now enrolling for the Whole Health Medicine Institute Class of 2021.

Lissa Rankin

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