“IFS is more than a therapeutic technique.
It is a conceptual framework and practice for developing love for ourselves and each other.“ (Richard Schwartz)
Introduction: Working with “Parts” of the Psyche
Following my training as a Jungian analyst I became interested in two similar styles of ‘parts’ therapy–that is “Voice Dialogue” and “Internal Family Systems” (IFS)–both approaches expand upon Jung’s understanding of the complexity of the psyche. What they share is an understanding of the healthy personality as being made up of many subpersonalities, or parts.
In the course of a day, many of us may think, for example, ‘a part of me wants to do this and yet, at the same time, another part of me wants just the opposite’. Sometimes, this is felt as an inner conflict or ‘stuckness’. Usually, we simply notice this conflict and override one of the arguments. In a healthy personality, there is a fluid shifting from one part to another depending on what approach is needed, what is appropriate, or what is necessary under the particular circumstances.
Often, some of us feel stuck. We feel like we have run out of solutions. We don’t know how to move forward. In other words, our usual approach doesn’t work anymore. We may have difficulties with a partner,or we may feel as if something is ‘missing’ in our life, or we may feel depressed. Most of us have, over time, become dominated by a few strong parts that ‘run the show’ pretty successfully. If we are asked to describe our personality, we would list these parts as our qualities. But sometimes, they hit the wall– they become tired. These few parts have served us well with their approaches, such as pleasing others or being efficient and organized. As hard as we try to solve some life problem or crisis, our usual approach just doesn’t do the job and our inability to find new resources can feel hopeless. In this situation, a psychotherapy which offers relief and gratitude to the tired parts and revives the buried parts, can expand the potential of the psyche so that the individual is able to make use of formerly inaccessible creative solutions.
When we begin to work therapeutically with our various parts, we listen to them all. At first, we listen to the parts that have worked so hard for so long– we listen to their fears, frustrations and beliefs about the situation. Eventually, we find that there are other parts that could contribute but they have been exiled– and with them go the creative dynamic approaches that could rise to the opportunities and problems appearing in life.
Both IFS and Voice Dialogue initially drew on several styles of psychotherapy, including Jungian approaches as well as Gestalt therapy. The IFS model also has extensive roots in family therapy. For those who are interested in the relationship between “parts” work and the Jungian theory, I will give a brief explanation of Jung’s understanding of the complex at the end of this article.
Because they share a similarity, and to avoid confusion, I will discuss Internal Family Systems (IFS) theory and leave Voice Dialogue to personal research. The Voice Dialogue websites listed below have a some articles which outline their process.
Internal Family Systems (IFS)
Richard Schwartz, who formulated IFS, began his career as a family systems social worker. Schwartz discovered that, in troubled families, individuals were often trapped in unconscious patterns of behaviour that caused conflict and unless these patterns could be made conscious, family dynamics were not likely to make significant changes. As his focus shifted to the client’s report of inner experience, Schwartz began to recognize that just as a family has individual members with different roles so too the individual psyche is comprised of what his clients referred to as “Parts”. A part, he began to realize, is not just a temporary emotional state of habitual thought patterns; rather, it is a discrete and autonomous system that functions with a particular role– as a sort of ‘subpersonality‘ . He learned about the autonomy of each part through experiences with his clients and his own Parts. While we are all made up of many parts, there is a central part or capacity which Schwartz calls the “Self”; other disciplines have noticed and referred to the Self as “witness consciousness” or “aware ego” or “observing ego”. Qualitatively, the Self, in Schwartz’s understanding, is different from the parts in that it is designed to be the natural leader of the psyche. The Self will be explored in more detail below.
Schwartz wove different approaches into his knowledge of family systems to formulate IFS therapy which he describes as collaborative, non-pathologizing and accepting. Rather than trying to get rid of our less desirable or difficult qualities, all parts of our personality are considered valuable.
When we experience an internal conflict, it is easy to identify the opposing parts. For example, one part of me (that loves to learn) may want to take a university course while another part of me ( a Banker part) takes an opposing position, arguing strongly and rationally that I can’t afford it, while yet another part (the Critic) may point out that I’m not smart enough and will probably fail. In this internal free-for-all, I will inevitably feel torn and indecisive. Even if I do make a decision, my internal critic part may launch an attack to make sure I feel guilty, stupid, ugly, awkward or selfish. Then, noticing this downward spiral, another part may flood me with feelings of sadness and hopeless because, according to it, nothing ever happens or changes and probably never will. This is an example of any number of patterns that may keep me stuck and do not allow me to expand and explore my life.
Our many parts function like members a large family, or tribe–with all its diversity. According to Schwartz, each part is with us from our birth, possessing its own temperamental style and gifts. Whether a Part takes a strong position in the psyche, or exists only in potential, has to do with the individual’s historical experience in her or his environment. Over the years, some parts are rewarded by the family or culture. With consistent positive reinforcement, they become stronger and achieve a centrality which would describe, what we think of as, our personality. These “Managers” initially helped us survive. Managers think ahead and help us fit in and be successful with others. Managers insure that people like us.
By contrast, we have Parts that have been rejected and/or punished or ridiculed by the family, school system, or culture. These “Exiles” are banished and exist in a sort of exile in the unconscious. Very often, they are vulnerable infant or child parts– although Exiles can be any part which has been subjected to disapproval or considered threatening in some way to the family of origin. Surviving for these parts is often done by becoming invisible. They are still young because they are frozen in the original time of their exile. Still, years later, they carry the burdens of fear, fragility, doom, anxiety.
All parts are valuable to the entire system in the same way that all parts of an ecosystem are necessary for the smooth running of that system. A “bad” part is simply a valuable part that has been driven into an extreme role by a traumatic situation. In IFS therapy, as Schwartz continually emphasizes, all parts are welcome.
At the centre of this diverse collection of Parts is the Self, which we may experience as a ‘core self’ or ‘true self’. The Self, Schwartz discovered in his research, has two factors. “The first factor (Self Qualities)”, he writes, “contained items relating to the experience of being “in Self”, i.e. feeling calm, balanced, worthy, connected, confident, joyful, peaceful, etc.. The second factor (Self-Leadership) contained items relating to the ability to bring oneself back to balance when one has been hurt or stressed, i.e., the ability to resolve inner conflicts, to stay calm under pressure, to self-sooth, etc..” The amount of ‘Self-energy’ present can be noticed by the presence of those Self qualities.
In an experience of trauma (including neglect of various degrees), certain parts take over the personality for survival purposes by assuming strong roles (a Pleaser, for instance). With a protective intention, they displace the leadership position of Self. In time, what was initially a protective measure, solidifies into patterns that are difficult to change– even though they may be clearly self-destructive. As protector parts continue to override the Self, the valuable, compassionate, internal leadership is lost. Other people may love and rely on their Pleaser part but the person who is dominated by a Pleaser may become exhausted with the demands of taking care of others by sacrificing the needs of her or his own parts.
Schwartz has found that when this kind of internal domination happens, other parts in the system lose confidence in the leadership capacity of the Self. They come to believe that the domineering parts have taken over the personality. It is as if a ‘coup’ was staged subsuming true leadership of the psyche. The dominant parts come to believe that they are, in fact, the total personality. Whenever we describe ourselves as “procrastinators” or “weak-willed” or “bossy”, or any number of critical assessments, we are identified with a primary part which believes it is ‘who we are’ .
A major goal of IFS therapy is to distinguish between the parts and the Self and reestablish relationship. This is the heart of the work. Through continual, patient efforts at consciously locating the nonbiased position of the Self and separating from the parts, the Self will resume its role as the calm, compassionate leader. Then, as a solid, democratic leader, the Self will consider all the arguments of the parts involved in the issue in question in order to arrive at decisions of benefit to the total personality. In that case, the system heaves a huge sigh of relief because democratic, compassionate leadership is restored. All parts are welcome at the new table.
Like any tribe or community, the parts have different roles and they group into factions according to their interests and capacities. In the IFS model, the parts fall into three categories: Managers, Exiles and Firefighters.
The Managers and their Exiles
The “Manager” parts exhibit typical roles such as an inner Critic, Pleaser, Organizer, Judge, Intellectual. Our Managers work hard anticipating what others want from us and they feel anxious when criticized, rejected or abandoned. They like to keep us in line and in top form with their ambitions, goals, and lists. We all have (and need) primary Managers who have taken on (or react against) the rules of our culture, family, and experiences of trauma. They crack the whip to keep our behavior in line with their rules and beliefs. Manager parts like to keep us well behaved (relative to our chosen group) so that the outcome is positive. Because of their work, we are more likely to be well-regarded.
There are different styles of Managers– some keep us always on guard while others are more assertive. Some Managers dislike intense emotions and may also counsel against hoping if they fear other Parts will suffer disappointment. Other Managers protect by taking care of others. Some are great organizers, doers, thinkers. We usually have a good variety of Managers so that we can participate and survive in our relationships with family, friends and in the workplace.
The strength of Managers is proportionate to the vulnerability of those they protect– our Exiles. Often child parts, these exiles are stuck in an earlier time, frozen in the pain and fear of those experiences.
Locked away, hidden deep in the psyche, the younger parts are often barely detectable. Acting like Exiles, they are locked away in an earlier time, still feeling the same hurt, they are just as scared and sometimes speechless (if their origin is from preverbal times). These fragile young parts carry burdens of fear, shame and worthlessness. Any part can be exiled if it has been shamed, frightened or devalued by the family or cultural context. Because of their isolation, they are completely unaware that anything has changed since the times of the original trauma. In their time capsule, they are unable to understand that other parts (Managers) have grown up, learned skills and become competent in the world. While the Managers may be fully aware of how the individual’s life has changed, the Exiles live completely unaware, in the former time . They seem to be inaccessible in this ‘time-warp’. This is why our self-defeating behavioral, emotional patterns are so tenacious and resist our conscious desires and efforts to change. And it is also why we sometimes have a feeling of being a ‘fake’ or inauthentic. If a number of parts are not available and cannot bring their gifts to the total personality, we are, in fact, operating with a narrow version of our potential. Exiled parts are essential to the feeling of authenticity.
Exiles exist undetected until they are triggered (by experiencing a situation similar to the original trauma or even, say,viewing it on television). Then, an Exile may break out of its isolation and flood the personality with strong feelings of grief or fear. The Managers consider this to be a dangerous situation and they react with punishing harsh criticisms (i.e. “You are such a baby!”; “I hate myself when I explode with anger.” “You are lazy and useless!”). Manager parts expect “good” adult behavior and use any means they can to make sure that we behave. If you listen more closely, you may notice that they sound much like parents or former teachers or coaches.
Manager parts arose in the face of threatening situations (such as abuse, neglect, or unavoidable trauma in infancy and childhood or a traumatic situation) in order to protect the vulnerable parts. The Self was too young to exert leadership over powerful external forces. Over time, however, Manager parts become extreme in their methods. These methods can be guilt and shame inducing, and critical to the point of rendering the person ineffective. Despite their often punishing techniques, the manager’s goal is to keep the fragile Exiles from feeling the powerful emotions which seemed (at the time of the original trauma) capable of destroying the Self and the total personality. Manager parts exist in a state of vigilance, anticipating these triggers. They are always on the job, exerting their control in their particular ways: by internal criticisms, or by having us please others, or by being “good” or “efficient”, or “intelligent”, or “entertaining”, or any number of behaviors based on their beliefs in what is necessary for survival. The goal of these protectors is to make sure that the person (the Exiled parts) never again feels that fear, humiliation, shame or helplessness. They are rarely off duty. Consequently, when asked, they will often admit that they are very tired, or that they’re worried because their strategies have lost their effectiveness. Hence the feeling of crisis.
disconnecting from thoughts, feelings, the body and threatening situations (including therapy) with, for instance, foggy thinking .
Another level of defensive parts can emerge which Schwartz calls the “Firefighters” –because of their tendency for quick rescue. The suddenness of their arrival is their signature. While they share the same goal as the Managers (to protect exiles), these parts are often associated with addictive behaviours. Whenever unbearable feelings are stirred up, a Firefighter suddenly appears with strategies involving a quick escape. Firefighters drown or bury (seemingly soothing) the threatening feelings with addictive behaviors involving, for instance, alcohol, food, gambling, sex, shopping, or sleep. They can distract from the situation or numb the person or suddenly flare up into irritation or anger. Firefighters that react with anger are often triggered when they feel trapped or shamed, hurt or frustrated. They can disconnect us from thoughts, feelings, the body and threatening situations (including therapy) with, for instance, foggy thinking . There is a powerful driven quality to all Firefighter behaviours which is hard to resist or argue against. Will power strategies are often short-lived and ineffective against the compelling urgency of Firefighter energy.
Sudden and destructive Firefighter reactions are designed to protect vulnerable parts; but because their methods are so drastic, they are at odds with the Manager parts whose style tends more to anticipating, and thus preempting, threatening situations by controlling the personality. Where Managers are trying to please, appear perfect and be acceptable to others, the Firefighters tend to alienate, frustrate and anger other people. Their attitude is that they could care less. Firefighter tactics are judged as reactive and destructive. And invariably, when the dust settles, Firefighters will be soundly criticized in a big backlash by Manager parts who come in (for example) ‘the morning after’ with a list of shame inducing judgments.
Schwartz named them “Firefighters” because they are completely geared for immediate rescue. Remember, ALL parts have good intentions for the personality. Initially, they arose out of necessity. In a traumatic, threatening situation, a firefighter protector emerged to save a vulnerable part with immediate action, often involving escape. Eventually, their escape would develop into the escape of self-soothing behaviours. Unfortunately, like the Managers, a once helpful (and normal) behavior becomes, over time, entrenched in the personality as difficult, repetative, stubborn and often destructive self-harming behavior patterns.
Having said all that, in a healthy system where the Self shows leadership, parts that react spontaneously and seem to live more in the moment can bring an aliveness to the personality with their soothing qualities or sudden pleasures and joys. Their choices may be a little more vibrant and spicy than those a manager would make. A variety of these parts makes for a rich palate of a personality. It makes sense that the more aware we are of our the diversity of our parts, the more fully we will be equipped to participate in the diversity life offers.
The overall personality is a diverse collection of parts. Schwartz describes this model:
“…it is useful to think of an internal system as a collection of related people of different ages, like a tribe. Some of these inner-family members are young, sensitive, and vulnerable children; others are older children, adolescents, and adults. In addition to different ages, they have different temperaments, talents, and desires. In a person whose Self is leading this group and the parts are relating harmoniously, the person will not experience each part distinctly and is likely to feel as if his or her mind is unitary. In this respect, the mind is like any other system, from an anthill to a basketball team to a corporation: When it functions well and all the members are in sync, it will seem like one unit. The individual members still exist and , once separated from the group, remain distinct and autonomous. Yet they are so coordinated that they create a kind of unity.
It is in polarized systems, at any level, that the members stand out in bold relief. This is why troubled people report feeling so fragmented–not necessarily because they have more personalities than ‘normal’ people, but because their personalities are fighting with one another rather than working together. Thus, the goal is not to fuse all these smaller personalities into a single big one. It is instead to restore leadership, balance, and harmony, so that each part can take its preferred, valuable role.”
As Schwartz points out, IFS works to restore the leadership of the Self so the more vulnerable parts may feel safe and the Protectors can relax in their strategies of defense. This work is gentle, respectful and increasingly amazing to therapist and client who work together towards retuning the psyche. IFS techniques work because they are not only about understanding one’s history but understanding in an experiential way We talk not about the parts of the personality but with the parts. Often for the first time, those parts feel seen and heard. They regularly sigh with relief and gratitude that they are heard and appreciated by the Self and the rest of the personality.
Jung’s understanding of the psyche as a multiplicity of complexes:
One of a group of ground breakers in the new field of psychiatry was C.G. Jung. Early in his career (1902-1903), Jung spent a term in France studying with Pierre Janet– a great pioneer in the modern psychiatry who first coined the term “subconscious” and identified the phenomenon of subconscious fixed ideas. At the same time, several of these early psychiatrists were trying to understand this new frontier–the subconscious–using word associations. In delayed reaction times to certain words, Theodor Ziehen discovered what he called emotionally charged complex of representations— more simply, a complex. Inspired by these leaders, Jung, in his position at the Bürgholzli Clinic (a psychiatric hospital in Zürich) developed and refined the word association test in order to detect and analyze the Ziehen’s complex (Ellenberger, 1970) . With a psychogalvonometer, Jung recorded a patients association (and physical response) to a list of words demonstrating that the complexes operate in the psyche, through the body. In his research, the young psychiatrist came to understand that, although the mind appears to act as a single entity, it is comprised of a number of subpersonalities. These internal structures, Jung noticed, acted independently and autonomously. Normal complexes (often characterized by Jung’s idea of gender roles) were distinguished from accidental (acquired in life) and permanent complexes (dementia praecox and hysteria).
Years before his first meeting with Freud, Jung had published his research on the detection of complexes in “The Word Association Experiment”. In the ensuing years, personal crises and suffering led Jung deeper into his own inner work where he gained firsthand knowledge of psychic structures such as the complex, the unconscious and the collective unconscious.
A complex, Jung concluded, is a psychic fragment consisting of a core (that is connected with one or more archetypes) around which cluster ideas and images collected from the person’s life experiences. Each complex has a definite emotional tone of, for example, irritation or love or anger. Complexes, Jung argued, are born during early life experiences and afterward they behave ‘like independent beings’ (The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche, para. 253). Everyone has mother and father complexes, as well as money complexes, and so on. How charged they are depends upon personal experience. For instance, a missing father, or a punitive, or a loving father, would result in very different father complexes. Jung also asserted that the archetypal aspect of the psyche would carry the essence of ‘fatherness’ that he believed has existed in the human psyche for all time. The variety of complexes is expressed in dreams where they may show up as people (known or unknown), forces of nature, animals or situations. Jung considered the complex so fundamental and important that he referred to it as the ‘via regia’ to the unconscious.
As long as a complex operates unconsciously, Jung concluded, it can rule with an uncanny power, feeling– as if it has a direct connection to a “truth”. When we become possessed by a complex we feel adamant that we are “right”. If our “truth” is challenged, we may become aggressive, upset, or in some way, touchy. Until we are able to question and critique our own truths, the complex rules. As Jung says, it “has” us. Complexes, then, live in our blind-spots; as such, they are unknown to us but glaringly obvious to others. Our blind-spots are protected by the a variety of defenses– the primary one being denial. So while a complex may be obvious in another person we risk reproach by pointing them out (no matter how tactfully) and setting off the denial strategies. Complexes prefer to stay unconscious.
A central part of the work of Jungian approach is to begin to make our complexes conscious so that they no longer rule our lives from the unconscious. As complexes enter the “adaptive process” in therapy, Jung said, “they personalize and rationalize themselves to the point where a dialectical discussion becomes possible.” (On the Nature of the Psyche, CW8, par 384). In analysis, the process of understanding the complex may begin with the personification of a strong feeling. One can have a dialogue with the personified feeling by journaling in a method which Jung called “Active Imagination.” Sometimes feelings can be expressed in colour, shape or line. The goal is to get to know them. Since complexes are the structures of the psyche, we will never get rid of them. Jung suggested that in the process of becoming conscious and therefore more known, our complexes become less like enemies and more like partners.
IFS takes Jungian work a step farther– past ‘talk’ therapy (where we speak aboutthe complex) into an intimate, respectful encounter where the complex (part) can speak for itself to a new relationship with an attentive, compassionate, curious Self. I was in analysis for several years previous to my training at the C.G. Jung Institute and analysis continued throughout the five and a half years at the Institute (300 hours of personal analysis are required to become a Jungian Analyst). So for nearly ten years, my ‘complexes’ were scrupulously journaled, painted, walked through labyrinths, detected in association experiments, danced and endlessly discussed. They entered (or were dragged) into years of psychodramas. In exasperation or to highlight our therapeutic insight, we students would point them out to each other (“I think you are in a complex..”). These insights were rarely happily received. Safe to say, I knew a lot about my complexes. I knew the stories inside out.
Not until I began working with a ‘parts’ therapist who invited the parts to speak for themselves were they willing to shift. Not until they were invited to speak directly–to express their point of view, feelings, history in their own words to me (who was now present and connecting through ‘self energy’) and the therapist– did they feel heard and seen. It would be like working with a troubled family in which most of the family stays home and is subsequently described by other members. The storyteller may arrive at some understanding but the rest of the family would remain untouched. In my ongoing therapy, and with my clients, parts regularly express surprise (or astonishment) that they are finally given a chance to speak for themselves and that, most importantly, their Self is now present and willing to listen. The healing is in that relationship.
Many times parts have thanked me for respecting their autonomy and giving them the chance to speak their own truth which usually differs in tone and content from the ‘story’ through which one part has learned to understand the past. When I say they thank ‘me’, I mean that when I am in ‘self’ energy and connect with them, they have learned that they are in a stable system in which the leadership is restored. There will be no more ‘coups’. The parts will be respected no matter how the managers judge them. It is a democracy. With that shift in my inner world, I experience a feeling of refreshment, of space, of possibility.
For me, this is the real beauty of IFS.