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  • Writer's pictureLisa Barrett

From Overwhelm to Awareness: Noticing Our Internal Family System

Updated: Mar 6

When we have strong feelings, sometimes they can overwhelm us. They can seem like the most important or even the only important thing going on in those moments.

Sometimes we have a part of us that wants to explain and can create a story about our feelings (or actions) which is ...well, a Great Story! There are no end to the stories we tell ourselves.

It is important for parts of us to make sense of our experiences, what we see, hear and feel. Most people are familiar with some kind of internal tug-o-war over some issue in their lives. In this case, our rational, logical parts can be desperate to put some sort of sense around our intense annoyance, sadness or 'socially unacceptable' reactions or behaviours. To make someone or some part of us responsible and have an explanation. Brene Brown sums this up when she says 'I want to know whose fault it is. I can make up one of these meaning-making stories in a heartbeat.’

As Brene says, this can happen very fast. We manage to feel something, make up a story and act on it, within seconds. We are meaning-making creatures so this is not abnormal. But, it can be problematic if we are not aware when we are doing this. An important thing to realise is these stories don’t come out of nowhere. There is always a good reason for where they come from- and can be very helpful for us to discover this.

You may know the expression ‘feelings are not facts’. You may have also heard the expression ‘do what feels right’. How do you know what to do? Especially when some feelings are so loud and overpowering yet different parts of us hold conflicting feelings.

The first thing to know is that feelings are real and important -and they are also temporary. They are physiological, a felt sense of our emotions, of what is happening for us inside. We experience them in our body. A combination of people, places and things in our present or from our past can trigger them. Parts of us hold different feelings and memories and perspectives and will turn up in certain situations or moments.

It is important that we acknowledge and recognise our feelings. Most of us know the unpleasant experience of having them dismissed. This tells us that it is not helpful to disregard our feelings or those of others. Yet, it is also important that we do not give too much weight to our feelings, to let them dictate or drive our decisions. There is a good reason not to make big decisions that impact our future in times of emotional turmoil. In such times, it is not helpful or wise to allow them to have the final say.

Feelings are facts of life. We all have them, regardless of their volume or intensity. Feelings are a part of our humanity! There is no such thing as a ‘wrong feeling’. A feeling just ‘is’. It is easy to categorise them into ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ yet what is most helpful is to welcome all of them. Most people find joy easier to be with than sadness but that does not make one feeling better or worse.

Feelings are important to inform us and we also need to see they are simply a part of the bigger picture. They are temporary sensations and experiences that can sometimes be experienced by other parts of us- or other people - as unpredictable.

We can appreciate the information or experiences our feelings give us. We can acknowledge their importance without letting them run our lives. As children, when tired, we threw a tantrum- our feelings dictated our behaviour. Of course there is a freedom, even somewhat enviable, in this at times. We may want to lie on the ground screaming and waving our limbs around to express our discomfort. Can we recognise the feeling we have that is driving this? As kids, we could not -so we lay on the ground and screamed.

As older kids, we may find slightly more socially acceptable alternatives- eg. giving someone the silent treatment, sulking, slamming a door and as adults where we have learned to be even more 'socially acceptable', we most likely try to internalise it or to push it down.

Yet, although we may have pushed a feeling down or away, often we are still being driven by it, consciously or unconsciously. We can learn to not be a slave to our feelings. We can learn to express ourselves in ways that feel authentic and are also appropriate to the context we are in. But firstly we have to recognise what the actual feeling is and what the needs are from the part of us that holds this strong feeling. Brene Brown’s research showed that most people are only able to identify three emotions as they are feeling them- happy, sad and pissed off.

Humans can fall on different parts of the spectrum when it comes to feelings. When we place too much value on our feelings and instantaneously react to them , we may cause damage to ourselves and others. At other times, we may cause similar pain to ourselves and others by our disregard for our feelings.

Being too far on either side of this spectrum can cause dysfunction or lack of peace in our lives. A sign of adult maturity is a willingness to recognise where we fall on this spectrum- which can vary depending on the feelings and the circumstances -but most of us lean more towards one end. As we notice where we land, we can be aware of the impact that has on our lives. Developing this awareness is an ongoing life process.

Our feelings are important, they have so much information to give us about our wants, needs, desires, our history, who we are and who we can be. You may be wondering how to navigate them, if there are others who share your experiences, if others have this overwhelming experience when feelings are very intense or there are many all at once, or who find themselves acting from them in ways they did not intend to.

Learning about the parts of ourselves is a great first step. Internal Family Systems (IFS) is a really helpful way to do this. For more information and resources, click here or here.

We can travel through some stages of our self-discovery journey independently however it is always helpful to have some support along the way. You may wish to start with a therapist or counsellor or IFS practitioner.

You may wish to connect with others as you become more aware of the different people, places or things that activate certain feelings or reactions. There are many tools and groups that can help us learn to to do this - Authentic Communication, Non Violent Communication, Twelve Step Programs & Alternatives. These can help normalise what is going on for us and they may also bring up other feelings that we had not recognised before. In this case, we may wish to process them with some more individualised support.

Therapy is a great place to explore this aspect of our lives in a supportive environment space that allows all parts of us be seen and heard. To find out more or make a booking, follow this link.


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