Frequently Asked Questions
“Once I was able to set aside my preconceived notions about therapy and the mind, and began to really listen to what my clients were saying, what I heard repeatedly was descriptions of what they often called ‘their parts’…” Richard C. Schwartz, Ph.D. The Internal Family Systems Model.
While many others have spoken about these “parts” within us (including Freud and Jung), Dr. Schwartz discovered the importance of paying attention to the interactions between the different internal parts of ourselves.
This was an extremely important discovery. From that he was able to develop a way for therapists to help their clients finally understand all of those confusing and sometimes devastating internal conflicts that we feel and the equally confounding behavior we often see in those around us. He discovered that we have a kind of inner family inside our brains, with different parts of this family playing specific roles. He was able to make a map of the way these aspects of ourselves organize within us. The Internal Parts Map consists of one Self and a number of parts in each of the other categories: Managers that try to keep them functional and safe, Exiles who are vulnerable and needy parts managers lock away in inner closets for safety, and Firefighters who try to put out bursts of inner flames of extreme feeling and/or vulnerability as quickly as possible.
The ultimate goal of IFS therapy is for the Self to resume leadership of our lives. As little children we developed Exile parts when we were hurt. Managers and Firefighters came along to protect us from the outside world. Just as in any external family, these parts of ourselves were born along the way and now exist within us.
The work with an IFS therapist begins by learning to step back when you are fused inside of one part and to actually see or sense it in front of you. From this perspective you can talk to or sense the feelings of the part. Once you can do this, you are on the route to deep and lasting healing.
One of the biggest gifts Dr. Schwartz has given to the world of therapy, in my view, is that he takes the existence of parts within us seriously. While many of us sense that we have different aspects of ourselves inside there, we tend to ignore or discount that fact. This is one of the reasons that it is so hard for us to heal sometimes. A big part of the IFS process is to stop ignoring our internal parts and start really listening to them, just as we would our own children. Over-reactive parts of ourselves need to tell us about their fears and worries. When we ignore them, just like children, they act out more and more. Until they get heard and trust your core Self again, they will not let go of the extreme role they have within your system.
"Exiles" is the name used in IFS for those parts of each of us formed where a person has been hurt, humiliated, frightened or shamed in their past. They will have parts that carry the emotions, memories and sensations from those experiences. "Managers" often want to keep those feelings out of consciousness and, consequently, try to keep these vulnerable and needy parts locked in inner closets. Those incarcerated parts are known as the Exiles.
"Managers" are parts within us that try to keep us functional and safe -- they try to maintain control of the inner and outer environments by, for example, keeping them from getting too close, or dependent on others, criticising their appearance or performance to make them look or act better, and focusing on taking care of others' rather than on their own needs. These parts seemed to act in a protective, managerial roles and therefore are called the managers.
It is a strange fact that we all walk around and take ourselves to be a me, but have no real clarity or understanding about it. From the outside it cannot be found - hence most psychiatrists tend to reduce behaviour down to chemicals in the brain. Francis Crick: (the discoverer of DNA) wrote that: “You, your joys and sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. . . . You are nothing but a pack of neurons.”
Western academic psychology gave up exploring experience directly - William James, the professor of psychology at Harvard - said early in the 19th Century that he knew of no way to steady the power of attention so that it was possible to just watch the flow of experience. Sadly he did not know about the experience of the Buddha, who learned to watch the flow of experience, and discovered the power of mindfulness. In being the knowing, we recover our power to see clearly and be unified with Life. The Buddha called this the experience of 'No-Self' - in that all the apparent divisions between a separate 'me' and the universe fall away - this same experience (beyond words) is called the Self in IFS.
The Self is a key aspect of the IFS Model that also differentiates it from other models. This is the belief that, in addition to these parts, everyone is at their core a Self that contains many crucial leadership qualities such as perspective, confidence, compassion and acceptance. Working with hundreds of clients for more than a decade, some of whom were severely abused and show severe symptoms, has convinced me that everyone has this healthy and healing Self despite the fact that many people have very little access to it initially. When working with an individual, the goal of IFS is to differentiate this Self from the parts, thereby releasing its resources, and then in the state of Self, to help their parts out of extreme roles. It is through getting to access your real Self - which is in all of us - that you can heal yourself.
IFS just has a very simple and efficient way to explore and heal the obstacles to relaxing into the Self, from here you can begin to offer the understanding and compassion that your parts may have desperately sought from others...
It is often said that depression is caused by a chemical imbalance of serotonin. It has taken 30 years for the Royal College of Psychiatrists to admit that depression is not caused by a chemical imbalance. There has never been any evidence of a lack of serotonin in the first place. Their website now states that some people, who undergo similar conditions such as divorce and redundancy, get depressed and others don’t.
What this points to is that depression (and other forms of mental suffering) all depend on how we learn to see ourselves, and how we live our lives. It is not the pain we experience that hurts us, but the ways we learn to defend ourselves. It is only through seeing and understanding the beliefs you have about yourself, that you can let go of them. Whatever has been constructed can be de-constructed.
Suffering then is the tension we feel betwen our natural self, and the ways we have divided and defended ourself from life itself.
Internal Family Systems therapy ( I have been trained in a number of modalities, but use IFS when I can because my expeience is that it is much more efficient) is a useful way of working because
It has a simple way to negotiate with the parts of you that are trying to protect you, and run your Life for you, so that they are willing to take the risk of trusting its safe to step aside. This cuts through the process psychotherapists call resistance: because IFS understands how these parts are doing their best for you, and how to negotiate with them to step aside.
In helping you separate from your parts, it enables you to taste the curiosity and compassion of the real self – the seat of consciousness - which alone is capable of healing.
In stepping back into the natural Self, and tuning into your parts, you learn what your emotions are upset about, find out what they need from you, and calm them down.
It understands how the different parts of the mind interlock – if one part of your mind is trying to get you to be more assertive, and another part is holding back, these parts will drive you around into an increasing polarity. One part on its own cannot be healed without attention to the other part.
It puts you in charge – and gives you the tools to understand yourself: to become your own therapist - so that you are not dependent on a therapist, or a system of interpretation.