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Internal Family Systems: Playing on the Same Team with Yourself

As a therapist, I’m always looking for new ways to think about how people think and for metaphors that will help clients understand what’s going on inside them. Recently, I had my first ever appointment with an osteopath – a physician who manually works with joints, muscles and the spine to improve the holistic health of the body. This particular osteopath was a very personable man who chatted quietly to my body (not me!) most of the time he was working. He said things like, “Oh, little muscle, thank you for working so hard, but you need to relax now, you are too tight and causing pain. Yes, I know the pain is your way of asking for help. We are here to help, we are listening, just relax.”

He was working from the assumption that all my muscles and tendons are connected in a sensitively balanced system and if any one part is too tight or overworking it will affect the whole. From listening to my pain, he diagnosed that my hip flexors were overworking, and some other muscles were trying to compensate and getting sore as they struggled to do their job. So he asked the hip flexors (with physical manipulation as well as his words) to relax so that other muscles could do their job properly and reduce the pain in my back. I chuckled to myself as I listened to him talking to my muscles because he had just given me a new way to illustrate similar conversations I request to have with the different psychological parts of my clients when I am using the Internal Family Systems Approach (IFS).

Dr. Richard Schwartz developed the Internal Family Systems (IFS) model of therapy over 40 years of his counselling practice as he realized that clients talked about different parts or subpersonalities of themselves playing roles and interacting with each other in a similar way to how he had seen family members interact with each other in family systems therapy. According to Schwartz, parts are like little people inside you that have feelings, beliefs, motivations and memories. They do everything for a reason, even if you aren’t consciously aware of the reason. You can get to know them, negotiate with them, encourage them to trust you, and give them what they need to heal and transform to be able to take on healthier roles. (Earley, J., Self Therapy, p. 20).

Schwartz learned a lot about parts while working with young women struggling with eating disorders. He saw that the part that was driving a young woman to starve herself, binge and purge, or compulsively eat was convinced it was protecting her from another part of herself that was in extreme distress or pain. Schwartz called the protective part a “protector” and the distressed part “the exile” because it was exiled out of conscious view in an attempt to keep her from feeling unresolved feelings from an earlier time in life. The eating disordered part was keeping her distracted or busy trying to perfect or punish her physical body in an attempt to keep the exile from breaking through with its pain. Exiles usually carry extreme beliefs about themselves such as: “I am unworthy (of love, help, kindness, success), I will always be rejected, I am not good enough” or about the world, “People cannot be trusted and will always let you down, the universe is against me.”

Protectors come in many different forms, with the more extreme, like eating disorders, given the title of Firefighters because they jump into action when the exile’s feelings get through other defenses. They try to distract from the pain, or numb it out through addiction (alcohol, eating, sex, drugs, self-harm) or other extreme behaviours. When literal firefighters put out a house fire they don’t care if they soak your furniture and break all your windows while doing it, they just want to dowse the flames however they can. Similarly, the parts of us that are emotional firefighters don’t care if your addiction to drinking could cost you your job, or an eating disorder will harm your body, or a sex addiction could cost you your marriage. They just know they have to put out the fire of painful emotions immediately no matter what the collateral damage.

Schwartz calls the less extreme protectors Managers because they often play a pre-emptive role of managing your life, feelings and situations so that you never get close to feeling unresolved fear or pain from the past and avoid painful situations and relationships in the present. A manager might take on the role of trying to protect you from criticism by driving you relentlessly towards achievement and proving you are “the best”. Another manager might move you into your intellect to analyze a situation rather than feel your feelings. Yet another manager might keep you busy planning and organizing so you don’t have space to feel lonely or purposeless.

One of the most common managers I meet in the counselling room, and I have personally met in my own life, is the inner critic. The critic usually develops early in life as a way of protecting oneself emotionally from some form of disapproval or judgment that is communicated through unreachable expectations, scolding, correction, or criticism, or through more intense rejection, neglect, or even abuse from a caregiver. The critic takes on the role of criticizing you before a caregiver or teacher can so you will hopefully be “good enough” to avoid criticism altogether, or to prevent being caught off guard hoping for praise and then receiving disapproval.

the critic will project its own criticism out onto others and suspect or blame them for thinking it and experience judgment that doesn’t exist (other than in their own heads).

This critic often develops into perfectionism as it tries to help you become “good enough” and banish the hurting exile forever. It often succeeds in driving people to become skilled and successful in their professions, or whatever they set their minds to, but it can also suck the joy out of those successes because it is never satisfied that what you’ve achieved is good enough because you aren’t good enough. It needs to keep criticizing you in an attempt to disprove its extreme belief that you aren’t good enough and keep the pain of that belief out of consciousness. The Critic will even “protect” one from absorbing praise or the celebration of achievement, convinced that you can’t let your guard down for a minute or you leave yourself open to criticism. Even if the criticism isn’t coming from the outside world, the critic will project its own criticism out onto others and suspect or blame them for thinking it and experience judgment that doesn’t exist (other than in their own heads).

The good news is that IFS is a model of hope and transformation and our parts don’t have to stay stuck in these extreme beliefs and destructive roles. In IFS the key to transformation and mental balance is to access our seat of consciousness, which Schwartz calls the Self or Self Energy. The Self isn’t a part, it’s the real you. Various spiritual traditions have tried to define or name the concept of Self, using such terms as: The Image of God (Christianity, Judaism), Inner Light (Quakers), Rigpa (Buddhists), Atman or Self (Hindus), Godseed (13th century theologian/philosopher Meister Eckhart), or Beloved or God Within (Sufis). (Schwartz & Sweezy, Internal Family Systems 2nd edition, p.43)

Whatever we name it, one way of knowing if the Self is leading is that it is characterized by the qualities of creativity, clarity, calm, connectiveness, curiosity, courage, compassion and confidence. (Schwartz & Sweezy, p.43) When the Self is leading it relates compassionately to the parts and instead of judging them, it is curious to get to know them and their stories. It compassionately allows them to unburden their extreme beliefs and releases them from their rigid roles so they can act more freely. The Self can re-harmonize the relationships between the parts for the health of the overall system without compromising the health of any of the parts.

The phrase I found myself using over and over again to help them was, “It’s time to play on the same team with yourself!”

I taught music for many years, long before I knew about IFS, and what I intuitively knew was that the perfectionism in my students was more than half the battle in their learning. They might have practiced techniques diligently but when it came to actually making music, which involves letting go and letting the Self shine freely, the critical protectors would make them uncontrollably nervous, constrict their expressiveness, and shame them for their imperfections. I realized that my job as a music teacher was at least as much about helping them deal with their perfectionism as it was managing their instrument.

The phrase I found myself using over and over again to help them was, “It’s time to play on the same team with yourself!” And we’d have a discussion about getting the demanding, critical parts to relax and gently coaxing the scared parts to try new things and celebrate their small wins in a safe environment.

That’s basically what IFS therapy is – learning to heal and help your parts work together for your own good. It happens very much like it did with my osteopath – gentle discussions with parts of yourself that you don’t usually think to talk to, listening to their pain, helping them release their extreme beliefs and relax to allow other parts to come forward and do their jobs so your Self can lead you in balance and wholeness.

Seeing a therapist who uses an IFS approach is a great way to start working with your parts. There are also many resources available to help you do some of this work on your own. See the list of resources below to help you get started moving towards a more Self-led way of living a creative, courageous, calm, clear life connected compassionately to yourself and others.

Joan Dosso MA, MTS is an Arbour Counselling therapist who works with individuals affected by anxiety, depression, grief, low self-esteem, shame, eating disorders, OCD, spiritual questions, identity, relationship issues and life transitions.

IFS Resources:

Earley, Jay. Self-therapy: a step-by-step Guide to Creating Wholeness and Healing Your Inner Child second edition (Pattern System Books, 2009).

Schwartz, Richard & Gordhamer, Soren. Becoming Whole: Healing the Exiled & Rejected Parts of Ourselves (Podcast).

Schwartz, Richard & Sweezy, Martha. Internal Family Systems Therapy second edition (The Guilford Press, 2020).


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