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What is the "Core Self" in Internal Family Systems?"

Updated: Nov 17

In this article, learn about the definition of "Core Self," what it feels like, how to access it for yourself, and how to bring it into daily life.




Natural State of Wholeness

When we are born, we are in a natural state of wholeness. We spend much of our babyhood present, in awe, attuned to our feelings, and curious about the world around us. However, while some of our early experiences can be positive, suffering is inevitable in life. As we start to interact with the world, we get wounded, and develop parts of the self that protect us from getting wounded again.


How We Develop “Parts”

People often come to therapy because something feels out of balance. Perhaps they are burnt out, experiencing anxiety, or keep getting caught in the same relationship cycles that cause suffering. These imbalances are often due to “parts” of the personality that have learned to act a certain way to keep the person safe, and are over-functioning. Examples of this could be a part that overworks to avoid criticism, or anxiety that is on high-alert because it learned early on that the world was unpredictable and dangerous. These parts of the self can continue to act in these extreme ways, even if they are operating on old beliefs that no longer fit the present circumstances. This causes internal imbalance.


Many adults walk around fully identified with these “parts” and lose contact with the essential wholeness and openness they had as children. Instead of identifying with our essential wholeness, we identify with being "over-achievers," "perfect," "smart," or "fun." When parts are out of balance, unfortunately, this can lead to restricted ways of thinking and acting. This perpetuates cycles of suffering.


This is not to say that any parts are “bad.” According to the Internal Family Systems (IFS) psychological model, all parts have a positive intention to help us, even if the result ends up causing harm to ourselves or others. For example, a part may overwork because it wants us to be recognized and loved, but it can cause exhaustion and depletion if it works too much. An in-depth discussion of parts is a subject for another article. In this article, I will introduce you to the concept of “Core Self”.


What is the Core Self?

Luckily for us, even if we have lost contact with our essential wholeness, it is always there, according to the IFS model. Core Self is what is left when all else falls away. It is like the sun, shining 24/7, even when it is covered by storm clouds. It's there, even when we can't see it. Everyone has a Core Self, even if they haven’t experienced it in a long time.


In the IFS model, the Core Self is characterized by words that happen to start with the letter “C.” Core Self has the qualities of curiosity, creativity, compassion, calm, confidence, courage, clarity, and connectedness. It is a pure state. In Core Self, we are able to be the compassionate, curious witness for ourselves and others. We feel present and in flow, wanting nothing to be different than it is. Once accessed and liberated, Core Self can serve as an inner healer, bringing all parts of the self into balance. Therefore, it becomes instrumental for healing in the therapy room and a satisfying daily life.


Experiences of Core Self

Many people experience spontaneous emergence of Core Self when they are in nature, experiencing awe and wonder, having mystical or spiritual experiences, feeling completely absorbed in a state of flow, feeling at peace with things as they are, or feeling deeply connected to people or animals.


But you don’t need to be having a peak experience to feel Core Self energy within. Accessing Core Self is not so much about “what” you are doing, but about “how” you are being. In fact, take 1-2 minutes right now to pause what you are doing, breathe, and just be. If you do this, you might experience glimpses of your Core Self!


People experience their Core Self in ways that are personal to them, but have striking similarities. Below are some accounts of how people experience Core Self.


"For me, it is expansive and open, and awake, active, and attuned in its connectedness. It’s beyond the ego and in tune with a higher self." -Joly Woehrer


"I experience it as stillness, silence and love, something that is very wise and able to witness and be compassionate without being triggered in any way." -Julita Lukaszuk

"For me, it is like a tingly glowing warmth and a lot of love, still but expansive at the same time."

-Anca Bjorklund


Guided Reflection on Core Self

As stated before, experiencing Core Self is not so much about “what” you are doing, but the energy you are bringing to what you are doing. However, many people experience spontaneous emergence of Core Self when they are doing yoga, meditating, spending time in nature, in a deep state of presence or flow, gardening, or walking, for example.


Remembering the Core Self qualities of compassion, curiosity, calm, connectedness, creativity, confidence, courage, and clarity, take a moment to write down some times when you have felt Core Self energy most strongly in your life. These might feel like “peak experiences.” Some examples of these in my own life were standing on a mountaintop in Bulgaria (curiosity and connectedness) and floating in the ocean in Nicaragua (calm and clarity). Perhaps even close your eyes and re-live those memories.


Now, refer back to what you just experienced and write it down. Savor that experience, and also write down how your own Core Self energy felt inside of your body.


Now, take a moment to write down a list of experiences that tend to help you experience Core Self, or have the potential to help you connect to Core Self, on a more regular basis. Examples could be playing with your dog, sitting and breathing, drawing, or gardening. Consider doing these activities more regularly or mindfully.


If you’d like, you can now make some sort of commitment to yourself to bring more Core Self energy into daily life. Some examples could be stopping to take 5 deep breaths once an hour at work, meditating every morning when you wake up, or bring more compassion and curiosity to your inner experience throughout the day. Accessing Core Self will do wonders for you when you are in therapy sessions, but it REALLY starts to pay off when you start to connect to it more in your daily life! People often find that, when they do this, they become less reactive, more present, and more fulfilled.


Meditations

One way you can connect to Core Self is through experiential meditations designed specifically to help you experience Core Self. I have made a meditation called “Deep Breathing with the Ocean.” This meditation helps you notice parts, unblend from them, and practice just “being.” I have also written a guided Core Self meditation that I do with all new clients (I haven't recorded this for Insight Timer yet). Another meditation is the “Path Meditation” created by Dick Schwartz, the founder of IFS therapy. If you're reading this blog post by phone, please download the free "Insight Timer" app before clicking on the links.


If you can begin to connect to Core Self more regularly, it could truly change your life. I hope you found this material helpful!


See you in session,

-Emma


P.S., if you are a current client of mine, you are welcome to request a session where we do some Core Self meditations together. Just ask any time!

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