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LW - Resolving internal conflicts requires listening to what parts want by Richard Ngo

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Welcome to The Nonlinear Library, where we use Text-to-Speech software to convert the best writing from the Rationalist and EA communities into audio. This is: Resolving internal conflicts requires listening to what parts want, published by Richard Ngo on May 19, 2023 on LessWrong.
We can resolve internal conflicts by understanding what underlying fears are driving the conflict, then providing evidence that those fears won't happen, thereby reconsolidating the memories which caused them. A simple example of this process comes from exposure therapy for phobias, which works by demonstrating that the phobia is much less dangerous than the person had learned to believe. A wide range of different therapeutic approaches apply the same core mechanism to deal with more complex internal conflicts. I'll focus in particular on the internal family systems (IFS) framework—which, despite the slightly kooky name, is one of the most powerful methods for dealing with internal conflict.
The core ideas of IFS are essentially the ones I've outlined in the last few posts: that you should think of yourself as being composed of many parts, some of which are implementing protective strategies based on your previous experiences (especially from childhood). IFS particularly highlights the idea that there are “no bad parts”—we should treat all parts as deserving of sympathy, even when the strategies they’re using are harmful and deeply misguided. The four posts in this section of the sequence will talk through how and why to apply these ideas to build trust between different parts. In this post I'll focus on the first step: identifying the underlying parts at play and what they want.
Our starting point can be any phenomenon that triggers an emotional response from some part of you. You might find one by thinking about an emotionally-loaded topic, like your work or relationships (especially with your parents); or paying attention to how your body feels; or paying attention to the way you choose your words or thoughts, and which ones you're suppressing; or to your dreams; or to character archetypes or symbolic motifs that particularly resonate with you. Many types of triggers work far better for some people than others—a fact which helps explain why so many different psychotherapy techniques exist.
However you find an emotional trigger, the next step is to work through the protective or defensive strategies associated with the part causing the response, to figure out what its underlying fear or need is. In doing so, it’s often helpful to name or visualize the active part (e.g. by identifying it with a younger version of you) and imagine having a conversation with it. The practice of Focusing can also be useful here—this involves saying a possible articulation of what the part wants out loud, seeing if it resonates, and adjusting it if not. Again, different techniques will work for different people; the important thing is finding some introspective technique for narrowing in on what the part "wants to say".
Doing so often requires navigating two types of defensiveness: from the part that's trying to articulate its perspective, and from other parts reacting to criticism of themselves. For example, suppose that you face a conflict between a part that wants to donate more to charity and a part that wants to spend more on holidays with your friends. The former might be partially driven by a fear of others thinking you’re selfish; the latter might be partially driven by a fear of not seeming cool enough. For each of them, criticising the other part helps it get more of what it wants, while admitting its own fear gives the other part ammunition to use against it. So each part might become defensive both when it's prompted to articulate its underlying motivations, and when criticized by the other part.
What defensiveness looks like varies by person, but it often involves angry pushback, refusal to engage, or redirection towards less sensitive topics (e.g. via ...