'These parts will fight to the end to protect you'
In a nutshell, what is Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy?
Through my decades of work as a researcher and therapist I found the natural state of the mind is to have what I call ‘parts’ – to be multiple, to have these internal sub-personalities. These ‘parts’ are natural, not the product of trauma, and when they start out all of them have valuable qualities and resources that help us in our lives. So we’re born with them, either manifest or dormant, and they pop out at different times in our lives and start to help. But at some point trauma and attachment injuries force them out of their naturally valuable states into roles that can be destructive, that might have been needed when you were young to protect you but that later became anachronistic and outdated.
What specifically happens to these ‘parts’ during trauma?
A lot of the time these parts don’t know that you’ve grown up. They’re ‘frozen’ in the time of the trauma and keep doing whatever extreme things they did to protect you when you were young. So they carry into adolescence and even adulthood what I call ‘burdens’, which are extreme beliefs and emotions that came either from direct experience of the trauma or attachment injury, or through family history, culture or the ethic group you were in. The extreme beliefs and emotions attach to these parts almost like a virus and drive the way they operate.
What kind of roles do these ‘parts’ take on?
The roles that we talk about with parts are ‘exiles’, ‘managers’ and ‘firefighters’ – these are the roles they were forced into by what happened at the time of trauma. When you’re rejected, traumatised or hurt by a caregiver for instance, these parts pick up the burdens of worthlessness, powerlessness, emotional pain or terror, and become not so much fun to be around. So we try to lock these parts away inside and they become what I call ‘exiles’. And when you have a few exiles, the world feels much more dangerous and you feel much more delicate, because there are things that could happen that could trigger those exiles into flames of emotion. So we develop other parts who are forced into these protective roles to try and keep the exiles from being triggered and to keep them contained. We call these parts ‘managers’ because they’re trying to manage every facet of your life so that no similar injury or trauma ever happens. They’ll keep you a certain distance from people so they can’t get close enough to hurt you or they’ll make it so you don’t go out without looking perfect so you don’t get rejected. Or they’ll get you to perform at a high level so you get accolades to counter the worthlessness.
Can you say more about these ‘managers’? I’m fairly sure I have one.
Usually because these managers are also inner children, they’re in over their head. In family therapy we call them ‘parentified children’ – children who may tend to take on the responsibilities of a parent because the parent abdicated, physically or emotionally. And often they become the inner critics because they’re trying to get you to behave and they don’t know what to do other than to yell at you. Or there may be caretaking ‘managers’ that don’t let you take care of yourself and instead try to take care of everyone else. Or the intellectual ‘managers’ that got you through graduate school – that keep you in your head and don’t let you feel the rest of your body. So there’s a whole list of common manager roles but again that’s not the essence of the part – it was the role it was forced into.
And what role do ‘firefighters’ play?
Any time the defences set up by ‘managers’ are breached you – or more specifically one of your ‘exiles’ – get triggered. When that happens it’s a big emergency because there’s so much emotion that you just don’t think you can handle it. So there’s another set of parts to get you away from that – we call them ‘firefighters’ – who immediately go into action, often in a very impulsive and destructive way. Their singular role is to take you away from the exile’s feelings – either by hiding you from the pain or distracting you until it all burns out and you feel okay again. A lot of the addictions are related to ‘firefighter’ activities because for them they don’t care about the collateral damage to your body or your relationships. They know they’ve got one job and that’s to get you away from those feelings regardless of the cost.
How can IFS help someone to heal?
The good news about all that is that once a part believes it is safe to do so, they can unload these extreme beliefs and emotions, at which point it’s like a curse has been lifted and they transform into their naturally valuable states. And so a lot of the work is designed to achieve that kind of transformation. The biggest discovery of IFS is that if you get these parts to open space inside there’s a kind of essence of people that will be released – something in IFS we refer to as the ‘Self’. The ‘Self’ is in everybody. It can’t be damaged, it knows how to heal us both internally and in our external relationships and it contains wonderful qualities all of which begin with the letter ‘C’ – courage, creativity, commitment, caring, compassion, calm, curiosity and clarity. That’s what we call the ‘8 C’s of self-leadership’. So IFS is a way to access that place of ‘Self’ and it can be accessed far more quickly than maybe the other traditions thought possible simply by getting parts to open up the space.
Can you give an example of how you would work with these ‘parts’?
If you’re working with someone who is feeling anxious, for instance, it’s about helping them to speak from the anxious part and then opening up space for the part that dislikes the anxious part. We generally go to protectors (managers and firefighters) first, to honour them for doing their service in protecting the individual. Not to tell them to change or to stop doing what they’re doing. And then to learn about what they protect and negotiate permission to go to the exiles they protect. When we get to the exile we go through steps to unburden the exile and then come back to the protector who now can see that the exile doesn’t need its protection.
We then ask the protector what it wants to do instead now and often it’s quite amazing – it’s the opposite of what they’ve been doing. We help them into that new role. By separating and acknowledging the two parts suddenly the individual taps into this ‘Self’. They become calm and also curious about those parts, they feel compassion for them and confident to handle them. They also feel connected to these parts in ways they didn’t before. They find new creative ways of relating to these parts and the courage to go to places inside that they were afraid to go to before. There may also be greater clarity – where initially these parts may have looked kind of monstrous, they’re now seen as a child inside.
Is the essence of IFS to really acknowledge the ‘parts’ of ourselves we otherwise ignore?
That’s only one aspect, a kind of first phase. Mindfulness takes the first step, which is to separate from thoughts and emotions. And when you do you’ll access some degree of the ‘Self’ we described. That’s why meditating is useful; as you sit there you’re accessing some of those ‘8 C’s’ and observing your thoughts and emotions rather than being in them. But then the next stage is to get to know these parts, to listen to them and help them feel seen and heard as I described. And as you do that they start to tell you more and more of what happened to them in the past when they became extreme and so you can then become what we call a ‘compassionate witness’ to your own history, which can often be quite emotional.
So we’re also encouraging the individual to ask the part, to really let them get what happened and how bad it was. And we do that until the part feels fully witnessed. But then that’s not quite enough because the part is essentially still living back in the time of injury or trauma. So I would work with the individual to go back into the scene and be with that boy or girl in the way they needed somebody. They might up wind having to talk to their parents for them or deal with a bully for them. We do that until the part feels fully cared for back then and feels ready to trust you to take care of them. At which point most of these parts become willing to unload the feelings and beliefs they took on from those times. So there’s more to it than just having these parts feel seen. It’s also doing the work of helping them to unburden.
It sounds like a transformative approach.
IFS can be quite life changing in a way because as individuals do the work, they no longer fight inside – they no longer hate themselves for having certain feelings or doing certain behaviours. There are four goals for IFS. The first is releasing these parts from the extreme roles they’ve been forced into so they can be who they were really designed to be. The second is what we call restoring trust of the parts in the leadership of the ‘Self’. The third is helping the parts get to know each other, collaborate with each other and work together in a new way. And the fourth is to become more and more ‘Self-led’ in the outside world.
You’re the founder of IFS. How did that come about?
I grew up in a medical family. My father was a well-known endocrinology researcher and was head of medicine of a hospital in Chicago where I grew up. I’m the eldest of six boys, three of whom are prominent physicians, and I was supposed to be that. I was, in fact, a failure at school in terms of getting the kind of grades in science that would get me into medical school. And so I picked up these burdens of worthlessness from my father because he was very frustrated with my performance. But he also got me a job on a psych unit in the medical centre that he was head of medicine at when I was in college. I was what was called an ‘occupational therapy aid’ in an adolescent unit so I was mainly just being with these adolescent kids, taking them bowling and playing games with them. It was a psychoanalytic unit back in the day when these kids would be hospitalized for long periods of time. These kids would tell me about their psychotherapy sessions where nothing about their outer lives were being talked about. They would tell me about their families and when visiting on the weekends I would watch those same families tear into the kids for shaming the family for being so troublesome. I learned from the kids that none of that would ever come up in the therapy sessions. One of those kids who I was close to died by suicide shortly after a family visit.
Wow. Where did you go from there?
I started thinking there’s got to be a better way to do this therapy thing. At the time, in the mid-seventies, the new field of family therapy was emerging and I also got excited about systems thinking, particularly the work of Gregory Bateson and this idea that you should examine problems in their context. And the kids I was working with – their context was their family. So instead of just seeing the child as having a diagnosis or some kind of problem you have to fix, you start to examine all of the forces that are impinging on them to make them act in this extreme way. And you also learn that the individual won’t stop doing what they’re doing until you’ve changed a lot of the family dynamics that are driving it.
I got a PhD, then was hired in a prestigious family therapy training centre in Chicago and became kind of a rising star in the field in the sense that I was co-author of the most popular family therapy textbook at the time called ‘Family Therapy Concepts and Methods’ and had also written a bunch of papers.
So how did the transition from family therapy to IFS happen?
I was all excited to prove family therapy’s effectiveness and in one study we gathered together 30 bulimic adolescents and their families to do our structural strategic family therapy with them. I was certain that we’d have these great outcomes – but we didn’t. Out of frustration I began asking my clients about what kept them in these same cycles. And they started talking a strange language of ‘parts’. They would say some version of, ‘there’s a part of me that if anything negative happens in my family, starts to attack me and call me names’. I had clients who were hugely articulate about the phenomena and really able to describe each of these parts and how they related to each other.
Like almost everybody at the time I thought that the parts were signs of an underlying pathology and I started to get scared that maybe these kids were sicker than I thought. At first I thought that maybe they had multiple personality disorder because they were talking about these parts as if they had a lot of autonomy – as if they were little people inside with full personalities. But then I got curious about it. I got very interested in how these inner systems organised after they were traumatised. As a systems guy I kept asking about sequences and patterns and distinctions and started to think that maybe these parts, rather than being a pathological symptom, were more like kids in a family. And maybe like kids in a family they weren’t what they seemed. Rather, they were these loveable and sensitive inner children who before they got hurt would give us feelings like love and awe and playfulness and had been forced into these protector roles by the dynamics of this internal family.
And so I started to play with that idea and now, almost 40 years later and thousands of people using this all over the world we can safely say that it’s true; that parts are natural and helpful are sometimes forced into damaging and extreme roles, and that they long to be released from these roles. So the Internal Family Systems name is related to seeing these parts as an internal family just like an external family.
Does what you’re saying effectively challenge the foundations of the DSM?
Yes, pretty much. For me the DSM is a sometimes reasonably accurate description of the ways that certain clusters of parts operate to try and protect people. That’s a very non-pathologised view because there’s a lot we can do with those parts to help them not do that. So the DSM has nothing to do with illnesses; it’s a description of the way these protector parts sometimes organise. It’s about how we see individuals. If you see someone as sick or having a syndrome of some kind you’re likely going to treat them one way, and in my world it’s not a very effective approach. If instead you see it as a way they’ve protected themselves and that the key is to help those protector parts, suddenly they can unburden and don’t have to keep doing the behaviour. And people feel much more empowered not to have that diagnosis – to not think ‘I’m a borderline’ or ‘I’m schizophrenic’ or whatever the diagnosis is, and instead that I’ve got these parts I have some agency over and that I can begin to get to know and work with.
The mistake that most of psychotherapy and wider culture in general has made is to try and fight these different parts, to ignore them or block them or get rid of them in some way. And these parts will fight to the end of their ability to protect you. And in many cases I mean ‘the end’. In the eating disorder field, for example, the status quo is still to pit the client against the eating disorder and to ‘beat’ the eating disorder and that’s partly why so many anorexics die, because eating disorder will beat you to protect you.
What are the opportunities for IFS in today’s world?
Over the past five years in particular I’ve been called to try to bring IFS to larger systems and to make it more a part of the culture because it is a major paradigm shift in the way we understand human nature and how we see and relate to each other. What we’re finding with Covid-19, for instance, is that there are reasons to be afraid that have nothing to do with your history – a lot of scary things happening right now. But because the virus has brought up so much fear in people we’re also having access to exiled ‘parts’ of individuals we may have had trouble getting to before. It’s been a boon to the work in that sense. We can now get to these ‘exiles’ and unburden them pretty quickly because the increased anxiety of people who are focused on Covid will often take them to the places they got this original fear from in the past.
I’ve also tried to look at the US as if it had its own ‘exiles’. For instance, we’ve never had a larger income disparity in our history. There are many, many people living paycheck to paycheck and then also the richest people in the world. Any system that has a lot of exiles is going to have a lot of extreme protectors and a very extreme president was playing out his own internal system in our country. He took on his father’s burden of nasty energy and contempt for vulnerability, and he exiled almost every other part of him and that was all playing out in our country. Examples of how these ‘protectors’ polarize are all around us. My goal is to keep bringing more ‘Self’ to some of these polarized systems at all these different levels.
What do the sceptics say about IFS?
Different criticisms come from different places but just the idea that there are these little inner beings that you can communicate with is pretty foreign. It is still a very tough sell in certain circles. There are also a lot of people, particularly people involved with attachment theory, who have trouble believing that ‘Self’ can be inherent. Attachment theory says that to have any of those internal resources – these loving and caring qualities – you had to have gotten that from a relationship, such as from a parent at a critical time in your childhood. There are many things about attachment theory that I love and think are quite accurate. This is one basic assumption that I disagree with and catch a lot of flak about.
What is something people would be surprised to know about you?
I would say that I’m a very ordinary person. I don’t have a lot of talents or even interests outside of this one thing. I’m one of these very lucky people who found what they’re good at and have been blessed to do it for much of their life.
What’s the most important lesson life has taught you recently?
I think the most important lesson is that we’re here to learn lessons – that’s what this world is about. The lesson plan is in the set of burdens we carry and as we unburden we’re doing what we’re here to do. I’ve worked with people whose inner systems are so polarised and it seems like there’s no hope whatsoever. As we gradually bring in more and more ‘Self’ everything starts to change very quickly. And I’m certain that’s going to be true for this planet as well if we can do it. Whenever you’re helping an individual to heal you’re helping them have a bigger perspective on what they’re doing and adding to the larger collective amount of ‘Self’ that’s present in the world. That has an impact – it has ripples.
What advice would you give to aspiring psychologists?
It tends to much easier to train non-therapists in IFS because there are so many things psychologists have to unlearn. What I mean by that is often psychologists are taught that they have to provide something to their clients that their clients don’t have, whether that’s insight or advice or directions. And when you have that responsibility and feeling it’s very difficult to trust that you don’t have to do that – that you can really step back and help your client to find, with a little bit of guidance, their own ‘parts’ and then their own ‘Self’. It’s then that all of the answers start to come. So that’s what I would say; take with a grain of salt the models that tell you that you have to be the expert - that you have to provide what clients lack.
How would you define success in your own life, or in the lives of others?
Success in a personal way involves continuing to do my work and trying to be more self-led in general. And then success professionally would be for the IFS model to be at least part of a transformation in the way people understand human nature, which then leads to a totally different way of relating, both internally and externally. Because for me it’s all parallel – the way you relate to these ‘parts’ of you translates into how you’re going to relate to people when they resemble those parts of you, and vice versa. When you hate people it means you hate the ‘parts’ within you that resemble those people. If you can bring love to both realms, it changes everything.
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