When It’s Hard To Be Home For The Holidays

How IFS Can Help Singles (and Others)
by Rabbi Ari Poliakoff, LCSW-C

Pesach is a joyous (if taxing) time for many—new clothes, yummy meals, lively sedarim.
The crowning glory of this yom tov, however, is family—kids coming home, family getting
together, traditions honored and cherished memories evoked. We have the all-important central
theme of v’higadeta l’vin’cha, connecting generations by transmitting the story of our heritage.
Yet for others, this joy is stilted. There are singles returning to (or still living in) their parents’
home without a spouse year after year, already having reached the age of 25, 30, 40, or older.
There are those unable to spend Pesach with family who must fend for themselves, returning to
an empty space after eating every meal at different hosts. There are couples who haven’t been
able to have children. There are those who have lost parents, siblings, or children, r”l. For them,
the focus on family makes Pesach difficult to celebrate fully. If you are one of these individuals,
this article is for you.

I am directing the language of this article towards singles but the concepts presented
apply to individuals in any of these categories. There are numerous reasons for me to focus on
singles, but the main one is that I myself was single for a long time and experienced those
particular challenges firsthand. I remember one seder night a number of years ago my parents
asked me (jokingly) what I wanted for the afikoman. I responded (not-so-jokingly) that I wanted
to get married. I also remember spending time on yom tov reading the “Dating Dialogue” section
in the BJH, trying to see whether I could relate to the questioner’s quandary (or whether I
thought I’d dated them). I’ve since gotten married and started a family, baruch Hashem. Aside
from my passion to help others, leading me to become a psychotherapist, my personal
experiences have made me extra passionate to help singles, leading me to engage in various
activities that include writing articles.

Let me introduce you to Internal Family Systems (IFS), an excitingly refreshing form of
psychotherapy that is well-established, rooted in research, and incredibly effective in my
experience. According to IFS, we each have a core, inner Self that is a natural source of
leadership, healing, and connection. We also have inner parts that hold emotions and direct
actions. These parts make up an inner “Family.” There are three types of parts: exiles,
managers, and firefighters. Exiles hold taboo feelings such as shame and guilt, and are exiled to
the corners of our consciousness by managers. They are called managers because they run our
day-to-day lives in ways that keep exiles from entering the forefront of our consciousness. For
example, a manager might push you to regularly stay up late wasting time until you can’t keep
your eyes open. It’s not immediately apparent why you do this. If you asked the manager, it
would say that it wants to avoid getting into bed while you’re awake enough to think. That would
mean entertaining painful thoughts about being single. If somehow those thoughts do creep in,
firefighters are activated. Firefighters, as their name implies, work to extinguish fires of
emotional pain triggered by exiles overwhelming the system. They use any means necessary,
and can cause one to react in extreme ways. This can range from indulging in unhealthy
snacking and other minor excesses to such activities as binge-eating, substance overuse, self-
harm, or suicidal thoughts. So, at 1am you’re perusing the BJH instead of sleeping, and see on
the engagements list that your old classmate got engaged. The one you thought had a lot less
going for them than you do. This triggers an overwhelming emotional reaction and you find
yourself downing a huge bag of chips AND a babka, or polishing off that vodka in the freezer.

The inner Self has the power to heal exiles. However, when managers and firefighters
take over, they obscure the Self the same way clouds obscure the sun. The key to uncovering
Self is to build trust between managers and Self. Then managers will move aside and allow Self
to heal exiles. So, if you reassure the stay-up-late manager that your Self can bring healing to
the pain-of-being-single exile, it will allow you to do that. The goal of IFS is to bring unity and balance to the system by providing every part with what it needs. When exiles receive healing,
managers and firefighters are freed from rigid and extreme jobs and can switch to healthy,
productive roles in the system.

Here are some IFS tips to help get you through Pesach:
Use difficult moments as an opportunity to get to know your parts. Next time a part expresses a
negative thought (such as self-criticism, doom-and-gloom predictions, or bitter resentment),
notice your automatic internal reaction. Does a manager step in to push away the part? Can the
part express itself without overwhelming you? Can the manager step aside and allow the part to
be heard? If not, what is the manager afraid of?

Decrease anxiety by recognizing that internal conflict is normal. Next time you experience two
conflicting emotions at once, make space for both of them. It’s okay for one part of you to feel
joy when playing with your nieces and nephews while another part feels sad that you don’t (yet)
have children.

Work on your relationship with Hashem by speaking to Him through the lens of parts. For
example, you can tell Him that a part of you is grateful for His blessings. Then you can share
that another part has faith that He has your best interest in mind, and there’s a good reason
you’re not married. At the same time, a third part is resentful that He has made you wait so long,
causing so much pain.

Improve communication with family members about sensitive topics. Instead of saying: “I’m
angry with you, Ima, for constantly asking when I’m going to get married,” say: “A part of me is
angry with the part of you, Ima, that asks me constantly when I’m going to get married.” By
using the phrasing of parts, you’re preventing anger from controlling your entire being and
you’re not demonizing the entirety of the other person. This leaves room for other, calmer parts
to be present in the conversation. This can then result in a constructive discussion about difficult
feelings, and not a yelling match between everyone’s firefighters that were triggered by exiles.
(Shout out to my parents for not putting that kind of pressure on me, but my heart goes out to
parents who are so anxious about their children.)

I want to end by encouraging singles not to give up hope. I was in your situation and
Hashem led me out of a seemingly endless night to find my bashert. Along the way, though, IFS
can be an incredibly powerful and empowering tool in addressing difficult life circumstances.
This was the case in my life and those of many of my clients. It is my t’fila that singles (and
others) find this article helpful in alleviating some of their pain this Pesach.

Rabbi Ari Poliakoff, LCSW-C is a therapist in private practice who is trained and certified in
Internal Family Systems. He also provides dating coaching services. More Information about
therapy services can be found at aripoliakoff.com. Rabbi Poliakoff can also be reached for
questions and comments at aripoliakoff@gmail.com.

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