Community safety from the inside out

What I learned from the 2020 uprising for justice in Minneapolis led me to discover oppressive policing where I least expected it: in my own mind. That discovery led me to the liberating model of community healing I use in my coaching today.

Community safety from the inside out
Queer people decorate the barricade protecting the First Precinct building in Minneapolis on June 28, 2020. 

How I learned about the cops in my head

Yeah, the cops are in our heads and hearts … . We often reenact cop behavior among each other. — Mariame Kaba

Minneapolis, where I live and work, became a global emblem of oppression at the end of May 2020. But that summer, even as the ashes of the Third Precinct station were still smoldering, local healers and activists were already organizing the rest of us to reduce the harms of our police violence and mass incarceration, empower poor and minoritized people to keep each other safe, and build lasting community power. By volunteering in some of those organizing efforts, I encountered radical ideas that I’d never contemplated before — ideas like prison and police abolition, restorative justice, and mutual aid — which led me into whole new lines of inquiry in the months that followed.

What I was learning about identity, power, and oppression changed how I understood the world around me. It also focused my attention on the ways power and oppression seemed to be working within my own mind. When I started paying closer attention to the behavior of my familiar “inner critics,” I soon realized my consciousness was just as over-policed and under-protected as the city where I lived. That troubling discovery led me directly to a liberatory model of human ecology called Internal Family Systems (IFS), which is the foundation of my coaching practice today.

Human beings as internal communities

The IFS model invites us to think of our own inner lives as social systems. As we experience our own awareness, most of us can readily identify several individual sub-personalities within us — inner children, inner protectors and critics, inner coaches and champions, that sort of thing. These parts of our inner world seem to be with us from birth, and they’re integral to who we are — not least because they their best to keep us as safe and happy as possible as we go through life.

  • Some parts of us react quickly to protect us from immediate threats of emotional overwhelm.
  • Others carefully manage our lives to minimize risks to our well-being.
  • Still other parts of us, who bear the burdens of the trauma or oppression we’ve survived, are forced out of our day-to-day consciousness entirely.

By the time we’re grown-ups, many of us have inner communities where parts of ourselves shamed into silence, locked up behind bars, driven into exile, or otherwise excluded from full membership in the community of who we are.

My internal community was just like that in the summer of 2020, when I found IFS: a dark and violent place where children were never seen, armed patrols beat up on “undesirables” with impunity, and the very possibility of safety seemed to depend on the constant threat of violence. Unlike any other therapeutic method I’d ever encountered, IFS described what my inner life actually felt like — and it offered a clear and powerful theory of healing.

Why we oppress some parts of ourselves

Individual trauma and structural oppression tend to take very similar forms, the way the veins in the leaves of a tree are fractal miniatures of its branches. The protective strategies various parts of us adopt look like social oppression, and feel oppressive, because they are. Just like protective systems in the external world, protective parts of ourselves don’t act oppressively just because they’re cruel (though they certainly can be) — they truly believe that there is no other way to keep us safe.

Our protective parts arrive at that belief from hard experience. Especially when we’re small, socially minoritized, economically impoverished, or otherwise extra-vulnerable to harm, letting some parts of ourselves oppress other parts is a matter of daily survival. (If you’re a Black or Indigenous person who’s been pulled over by the Minneapolis police, for example, silencing the parts of yourself who feel terror or rage might literally save your life.) Over time, many of us become so accustomed to the oppressive police state in our own minds that we simply can’t imagine being safe without it.

But sometimes — often around midlife, it seems — our internal protective strategies start to fail. Protective parts of ourselves, exhausted by decades of thankless toil, sometimes break down, act out, or go on strike. Shameful parts who’ve been carefully hidden since childhood suddenly start rattling the bars of their cells, often at the most inopportune times. What used to work stops working. That moment in my life was when I discovered IFS. Today, my clients find me at similar moments in theirs.

How our inner communities can heal and get free

Though folks usually express their concerns in the language of mental-health symptoms, my working theory is that my clients are suffering because some parts of themselves are oppressing others. So as a coach, I go along in solidarity with my clients, side by side, as they explore the social dynamics of their own internal communities. I keep them company as they learn about how the various parts of themselves interact, and I model how to treat every member of their “internal family” with patience, respect, and compassion.

As we explore their internal world, here’s what usually happens:

  • Learning about the past. My clients and I discover the historical reasons why the parts of them adopted their current configuration.
  • Honoring protectors. We identify the protective parts of them who are acting oppressively, honor their positive intentions and years of service, and gradually work with them to find ways to secure the system’s safety without coercive internal policing.
  • Liberating exiles and restoring justice. Once those protectors are willing to take a chance on a different approach, my clients are ready to liberate the parts of themselves who’ve been kept out of sight, bear witness to the harms they’ve suffered, and arrange for restorative justice among all their internal inhabitants.
  • True safety for all. And then, once every part of who they are has been restored to full membership in the loving community of their selves, they can go forth to live their lives in safety, with joy and inner harmony.

I can describe this method of healing with confidence because I’ve experienced it in my own life. Getting to know the protective parts of myself has not only decarcerated my inner world — it’s allowed those parts to take accountability for harms they’ve done to other parts of me and repair their relationships on a foundation of mutual respect and shared liberation. As a coach, I now get to accompany my clients as they help every part of who they are heal and get free in the community of themselves.

Thinking into the work ahead

Practicing in this way helps decolonize mental health care simply by making the IFS model for healing — which is still overwhelmingly practiced by mental-health clinicians — available entirely outside the categories of mental illness, diagnosis, treatment and financing.

The non-pathologizing IFS approach I offer as a coach can provide an alternative route to healing for folks who have been poorly served, or actively traumatized, by mental healthcare in the past. It can also work very well as a complement to traditional mental healthcare for people who, like me, have diagnoses that benefit from medical treatment.

But as a coach who practices one-on-one, the support I have to offer is still so costly, even with a sliding scale, that it’s effectively out of reach for most people — particularly those who, carrying heavy burdens of generational trauma and intersectional oppression, could use this kind of liberating internal work the most.

For just that reason, like-minded IFS colleagues, here in town and internationally, are starting to experiment with new ways to make the model’s healing power more accessible to more people for less money, and to organize other IFS practitioners in support of the liberatory and anti-oppressive version of the model that many of us practice. As my practice deepens, I hope to work with local organizers and healers to adapt the IFS model to be useful as a mode of mutual aid and community care. If that’s you, I would love to talk!