PART ONE Edited on 28/01/2024 The Greek translation is now available
The Internal Family Systems Model and a poem by Walt Whitman
“Not only are we much more at our core than we could imagine, but the very aspects of us that we thought proved our worthlessness are actually diamonds in the rough. We are inherently good, through and through…… However, because we have all been marinating in Western culture’s negative biases about the human psyche, it is difficult for any of us to explore with an open, curious, beginner’s mind.” Richard C. Schwartz
“IFS can be seen as attachment theory taken inside, in the sense that the client’s Self becomes the good attachment figure to their insecure or avoidant parts. I was initially amazed to discover that when I was able to help clients access their Self, they would spontaneously begin to relate to their parts in the loving way that the textbooks on attachment theory prescribed. This was true even for people who had never had good parenting in the first place. Not only would they listen to their young exiles with loving attention and hold them patiently while they cried, they would firmly but lovingly discipline the parts in the roles of inner critics or distractors. Self just knows how to be a good inner leader.” Richard C. Schwartz
“The early lilacs became part of this child,
And grass, and white and red morning glories, and white and red clover, and the song of the phœbe-bird…” Walt Whitman
Today’s post refers to the Internal Family Systems (IFS) model, developed by Richard C. Schwartz, PhD, which is an evidence-based therapeutic model and theory of the human mind. IIFS is informed by many psychology schools, mainly the psychodynamic perspective and a systemic approach. Schwartz began his careeras a systemics family therapist and an academic. He has published several books and many articles. I have referred to this material before, and also, written about books relevant to IFS. Today I will be briefly presenting the model and referring to Schwartz’s book that I’ve just finished reading: You Are the One You’ve Been Waiting For and the one I’m currently reading: An Introduction to Internal Family Systems. I began with the first one because I was familiar with his work, but for people who are not, beginning with the second one would be a better choice because it introduces the basics of Schwartz’s work and model. Neither book is a therapy manual, and therefore, both books are suitable for the general public.
The IFS approach is based on the idea that the mind is naturally multiple, that everyone has inner parts, or ‘“internal families,” almost like a family, which contain valuable qualities. .In his book, Introduction to Internal Family Systems, Schwartz writes: “A number of intra-psychic explorers encountered what I call the normal multiplicity of the mind long before I did. Roberto Assagioli, an Italian psychiatrist, deserves credit as the first in the West to recognize this phenomenon and develop an approach based on working with subpersonalities, which he called Psychosynthesis..He also found that when people’s parts felt safe and calm, they “would experience spontaneously the qualities of confidence, openness, and compassion that Dr. Schwartz came to call the Self. He found that when in that state of Self, clients would know how to heal their parts” (IFS Institute website). This state of Self can help us balance parts, allowing us to develop and become more integrated.
There is a brief presentation of the model at the Internal Family Systems (IFS) website, which could be a place to start for someone who’s interested in exploring this modality. The basic assumptions of the model, as presented there, are that the nature of the human mind is to be subdivided into an indeterminate number of sub-personalities or parts. Every person has many internal parts, which reflect the way our internal psyche is structured and how it functions. In some sense it reflects the dynamics of people in a family and the relationships between each person and the system of the family as a whole. The intentions of each part are positive for the individual, and there are no bad parts, even if at times due to early trauma, socialization and our natural wiring, they take on extreme roles. As we develop our parts develop and they form a complex system of interactions among themselves. This is the reason that systems theory can be applied to the internal system; therefore, when the system is reorganized, parts can change, and changes in the internal system of our mind will inevitably bring about changes in the external systems of relationships and vice versa.
Another basic assumption is that everyone has a Self, with a capital S, as Schwartz has come to name it, which is that essence of our personhood that cannot be destroyed. This indestructible essence throughout our lives is not original to IFS, people have defined and termed this essence, capacity or aspect of personhood differently across time and place or culture. Schwartz writes the Self is: “The seat of consciousness…… The Self contains qualities such as compassion, confidence, curiosity, and perspective—qualities of good leadership. Everyone has such a Self, but it can be obscured by the extremes of parts.” He writes others refer to this as “a no ego or conditioned mind—what I call no parts….. People have known for centuries about this peaceful state that I am calling the Self.”
The basic goals of the IFS approach or therapy is not to eliminate parts, whose responses could be undermining our best living and ways of relating, but instead to help them differentiate and find their non-extreme roles, and also, for the Self to lead the individual’s internal system, in other words, to live and make decisions from this place of Self-leadership, as often as possible. Within the IFS approach when the Self is differentiated it is calm, centered, competent, confident, compassionate, curious and courageous and it can lead the internal system.
We all have parts, and even though experiences affect our parts, they are not created by the experiences. Schwartz writes: “They are always in existence, either as potential or actuality.” In describing the parts Schwartz has come to understand them through his decades of work as sub-personalities, which are aspects of our personality that interact internally the way people interact in their relationships out in the world. We experience our parts as thoughts, feelings, sensations, images, and more. All of our parts desire something positive for the individual and they use many strategies to gain influence within the internal system.
Our parts develop a complex system of interactions among themselves, and often polarizations develop as parts try to gain influence within the system, which we may experience as conflicting wants or aspirations. When parts become extreme this means that they are carrying “burdens”, such as extreme beliefs or emotions. Healing or growing requires us to “unburden” the parts and allow them to return to their natural balance. The IFS framework acknowledges that there are no “bad” parts, just parts that may have become frozen in trauma time or have taken on dysfunctional coping strategies. Also, without support or means to heal, our burdened parts and defenses can “blend” with or take over the Self. By identifying which of our inner parts are functioning in healthy roles and which have taken up more defensive and extreme roles we can grow and heal. We become more self lead and less influenced and pushed about by others.
The IFS model asserts that each person has at least some wounded parts, like fear, anger or shame, and parts that try to control and protect us from these wounded parts. The goal of IFS is to help people identify and reconcile these parts, so that the person’s core Self can become the leader of their inner world. Over decades Schwartz has identified common patterns and has classified three basic groups of parts, which he calls: the exiles and the neo-exiles, the managers and the firefighters. These terms describe the roles of these three general groups of parts in our mind.
For example, when negative or traumatic events happen, we’re often not able to process or tolerate the emotions or sensations associated with it. These emotions are referred to as exiles. Managers will work very hard to keep these exiles out of our awareness so that we don’t have to feel them in order to facilitate our day to day living; however this often comes with a cost in the long run. So, the exiles are usually the younger parts that have experienced trauma, neglect or bullying, and usually become isolated or buried to protect the individual from feeling the pain or fear of these parts. These aspects of our self can feel vulnerable and can become extreme or desperate in an effort to be cared for and to tell their story. The unburdening and transformation of exiles allows our protective managers to relax.
In his book, You Are the One You’ve Been Waiting For, which focuses on couple relationships, Richard Schwartz writes that the neo-exiles can be the parts that were exiled by the couple’s relationship for various reasons, and additionally, may have experienced being exiled in their earlier years. For instance, the parts of us that may never wanted the relationship in the first place, or when inevitably, intentionally or not, one partner hurts the other’s exiled or vulnerable parts, we engage in various defenses and strategies, which result in our ending up with neo-exiles, parts of ourselves that resent being shut out of the relationship and will react in one way or another. Schwartz writes that when both partners learn to be the primary caretaker of their own parts, they no longer need to create neo-exiles in the other person. For example, a husband might begin to lose the “mother transference” that kept him from really seeing his partner, and also, to lift the burden of caring for his vulnerable parts from his partner.
Schwartz writes men, for instance, have often been socialized to keep their vulnerabilities and fears at bay [exiled] through protectors that are competitive, aggressive and determined to never allow them to be hurt or humiliated, which might serve them well in professional contexts, but not so much in relationships. Schwartz writes: “A traditional, patriarchal form of child-rearing, dominant in our culture for many decades, was clear in its effects on the inner lives of boys and girls. In that pattern, boys were nurtured by their caretaker (usually their mother) until a certain young age—perhaps four or five—when, out of fear of their being sissified, they were wrenched away and often brutally shamed by their father or by peers for expressions of weakness or any emotions other than aggressiveness and anger—anything considered feminine. This pattern left many of the men I’ve treated with extremely needy and fearful exiles that were so thoroughly locked away that most of the time the men had no access to those vulnerable feelings. The term alexithymia has been used to describe such men because they are so cut off from those emotions that they don’t have words to describe them.”He refers to Terrence Real, the author of a book on the wounding of men titled I Don’t Want to Talk About It, which I have written about in a previous post.
Schwartz also discusses how traditionally raised girls were socialized to be caretakers. He writes: “They weren’t as abruptly abandoned as men by their early source of nurturance nor shamed for being soft, so they remained more connected to their vulnerability and to relationships……. On the other hand, the focus on caretaking others left them little ability to nurture their own vulnerable parts. Whereas men tried to abandon those exiles, women learned to find comfort for them in relationships. The parts of girls, however, that were bright and assertive, lively and competent, were exiled, and girls became dominated by self-critical protectors…..” The critical voice we all have is an example of one common type of a protector part. Its role is usually to try and keep us from taking risks by running down our confidence, and its intensity will depend on many factors, such as, our upbringing, our environment and gender roles.
The protective parts / protectors:
Schwartz found that all the people he worked with, including his own internal landscape, had parts whose role was to protect. He called these parts managers. The managers are those parts of our self that run our daily lives and try to protect us at whatever cost. Managers seek control over internal states and external environments. Managers try to keep us in control in our daily activities and interactions in order to protect us from feeling pain, disappointment, and so on, We all do this in various ways and through a combination of parts and strategies through over striving, controlling, caretaking, people pleasing, terrorizing, and so on. Schwartz writes: “Our protective managers are organized to make the external world less threatening and to keep us away from our internal world. Inside us lie the emotions they are trying to stay away from. In relation to his own therapy process he writes: “ I was an obnoxiously resistant client. Fortunately, she was patient with my inner guardians, giving them the reassurance and control they needed. Ultimately she passed all their tests, and they backed off and opened the gate. I let her accompany me on a painful journey into the land of my exiles.”
The firefighters are a group of parts that step in when exiles are activated [which they will be as we go about our daily interactions], in an effort to control and dissipate intense feelings. Schwartz writes that firefighters have the same goals as the managers, but different strategies. Firefighters emerge when managers are not able to contain the feelings of exiles, when the exiled parts’ emotional or psychological content is outside the window of tolerance for the person. Firefighters will take over to either numb or override the experience of the exile. They can be a whole range of behaviours and reactions like substance addictions, self-sabotaging or self-harming behaviours, over or under eating, being a workaholic, TV binge watching, panic, somatic symptoms and health problems, etc, etc.
Some techniques or tools to facilitate the process, mentioned in Richard Schwartz’s IFS website, include using internal dialogues, using the IFS terminology, locating the part in the body, exploring relationships between parts, journaling or creating art, imaging techniques like bringing parts to the present, since some of them might be frozen in the past, going back in time and healing the part or “unburdening” it, working with the Self to understand how not to blend with parts. When working with young parts of our psyche we can use play therapy techniques or art. One way to get to know our parts would be to look for polarization within ourselves or among family members because the ways we relate to our own parts often parallels the way we relate to those parts in others. There are different ways we can access parts in therapy or on our own depending on the various ways we experience our parts, whether this be images, thoughts, feelings, sensations, or a combination of these, and so on.
The IFS therapy model can also be used to work with families, groups and couples. The book mentioned above, You Are the One You’ve Been Waiting For, focuses on couples. Other books by Schwartz and others focus on different areas like PTSD, depression or anxiety, and so on. In the site and in the books mentioned above constraints to doing this work are discussed, as well as, mistakes that therapists might commonly make or problems that might arise like dealing with extreme parts, like suicidal parts or other extreme firefighter parts, which can manifest as destructive behaviours against self and others. Before engaging with this work it would be wise to become aware of the fears of our manager parts concerning the triggering of particular firefighters, and to also appreciate their role and efforts. Becoming aware of the firefighters or our most intense or destructive defenses is important. Finally, constraints in doing this kind of work might also stem from the person’s external context or life circumstances. Often our environments keep our internal structures in place or activate our guardian protector parts. Awareness of our inner world and healing bring about more freedom and independence. Time and safety are basic requirements.
Strengths of this therapy model mentioned at the IFS website include the fact that the model depathologizes symptoms, focuses on strengths and the undamaged aspect of each person, as well as, the ability for parts of the self to develop and heal, thus promoting integration. The model also provides a powerful language easily understood by non professionals, which facilitates working with our experience and healing from past burdens and unhelpful defenses. It provides an ecological understanding of the entire therapy system, including the therapist and his own parts. The clients are in charge and the therapist views the client as “co-therapist”, trusting the wisdom of people’s internal system. IFS can be used for treating a variety of mental health concerns, especially, complex post-traumatic stress. It has been found that the IFS approach is especially beneficial for those dealing with issues of trauma, but also addiction, as it helps people organize their internal systems, find healing from the past, and attain more Self leadership. It can also be used to help any person with a personal development goal, and as a means for simply understanding one’s self and living a more fulfilled and centered life.
As I end this piece I would like to mention that similarly to meditation practices and other tools and therapeutic interventions that I have written about, one needs to tread with caution. These are powerful tools and we need to have a support system in place, to read and learn further before we engage with the practices, to move in small steps, as well as, to seek support from informed and well intentioned professionals if the need arises. Finally, I might return to IFS and provide some questions or practices in the next post.
I will end with There was a child went forth, a beautiful poem by Walt Whitman about how children naturally incorporate sights, sounds, objects, people, emotions, and all experiences, into their own frame of reference, and then how as they themselves grow up they too become the sights, sounds, emotions and events to the next generation of children. I was gifted this book by the first friend on the island, Mina, decades ago. I found Walt Whitman’s language beautiful, but perhaps the poems’ length deterred me from reading all of them, and after decades I can confess that I haven’t finished reading the book, but some poems like the one posted today I found beautiful, and have returned to them over the years.
There was a child went forth every day,
And the first object he looked upon and received with wonder or pity or love or dread, that object he became,
And that object became part of him for the day or a certain part of the day . . . . or for many years or stretching cycles of years.
The early lilacs became part of this child,
And grass, and white and red morning glories, and white and red clover, and the song of the phœbe-bird,
And the March-born lambs, and the sow’s pink-faint litter, and the mare’s foal, and the cow’s calf, and the noisy brood of the barn-yard or by the mire of the pond-side . . and the fish suspending themselves so curiously below there . . . and the beautiful curious liquid . . and the water-plants with their graceful flat heads . . all became part of him
And the field-sprouts of April and May became part of him . . . . wintergrain sprouts, and those of the light-yellow corn, and of the esculent roots of the garden,
And the appletrees covered with blossoms, and the fruit afterward . . . . and woodberries . . and the commonest weeds by the road;
And the old drunkard staggering home from the outhouse of the tavern whence he had lately risen,
And the schoolmistress that passed on her way to the school . . and the friendly boys that passed . . and the quarrelsome boys . . and the tidy and fresh-cheeked girls . . and the barefoot negro* boy and girl [*the poem was written in the 19th century]
And all the changes of city and country wherever he went.
His own parents . . he that had propelled the fatherstuff at night, and fathered him . . and she that conceived him in her womb and birthed him . . . . they gave this child more of themselves than that,
They gave him afterward every day . . . . they and of them became part of him.
The mother at home quietly placing the dishes on the supper table,
The mother with mild words . . . . clean her cap and gown . . . . a wholesome odor falling off her person and clothes as she walks by:
The father, strong, self-sufficient, manly, mean, angered, unjust,
The blow, the quick loud word, the tight bargain, the crafty lure,
The family usages, the language, the company, the furniture . . . . the yearning and swelling heart,
Affection that will not be gainsayed . . . . The sense of what is real . . . . the thought if after all it should prove unreal,
The doubts of daytime and the doubts of nighttime . . . . the curious whether and how,
Whether that which appears so is so . . . . Or is it all flashes and specks?
Men and women crowding fast in the streets. . if they are not flashes and specks what are they?
The streets themselves, and the façades of houses. . . . the goods in the windows,
Vehicles . . teams. . the tiered wharves, and the huge crossing at the ferries;
The village on the highland seen from afar at sunset . . . . the river between,
Shadows . . aureola and mist . . light falling on roofs and gables of white or brown, three miles off,
The schooner nearby sleepily dropping down the tide . . the little boat slack towed astern,
The hurrying tumbling waves and quick broken crests and slapping;
The strata of colored clouds . . . . the long bar of maroon tint away solitary by itself . . . . the spread of purity it lies motionless in,
The horizon’s edge, the flying sea crow, the fragrance of salt marsh and shoremud;
These became part of that child who went forth every day, and who now goes and will always go forth every day,
And these become of him or her that peruses them now.