Internal Family Systems What are they
When I returned from my fellowship in Sri Lanka, India, and Nepal, I began practicing a form of mindfulness-based psychotherapy that I called Effortless Mindfulness-Based Therapy (EMBT). This was a unique mindfulness approach that was not based on cognitive therapy but instead on the body and subpersonality psychotherapies, such as Jungian, Gestalt, and Psychosynthesis. In recent years, I’ve been collaborating with Richard Schwartz, the founding developer of the Internal Family Systems (IFS) model of psychotherapy.
We have had long talks and discovered we were each using similar systems of Self and parts. He had originated up with a simple and clear way of accessing and defining parts, and I had focused on developing a simple and clear way of accessing and defining Self. As a result, I have adopted his elegant and thorough map of parts when I work with clients.
What we teach complements each other, and we have taught a number of workshops and retreats together. The IFS model describes the countryside of the human psyche as organized into sub personalities, or parts, that all come together within the Self. The goal of this treatment is not to judge or grow rid of these parts, but instead to notice and lovingly embrace all of our parts from our interconnected Self, which is also within all parts. Both models of psychotherapy EMBT and IFS—present paths toward the relief of suffering and becoming more whole and authentic.
The centerpiece of each is our “capital-S” Self because only a limited level of psychological healing and growth can happen without realizing Self. What’s more, this approach is allowing because it shows us that it is our own true Self—rather than another person or external teachings—that actively provides the warm and most complete healing.
Internal Family Systems: What are they?
Schwartz clearly explains how what we often call the ego personality, the psyche, or the small self is a composition of parts or subpersonalities that take on certain roles and interact with each other. For example, we may experience a part of ourselves that feels anger and then another share of ourselves that feels shame about the anger, and then another share of ourselves that tries to manage what we should do about that anger and shame.
In this way, our views and beliefs can be experienced as little personalities within us that behave according to their own worldview. It’s the usual state of the mind to be multiple. Events from childhood burden parts, force them into extreme roles and make them feel disconnected from Self. For example, many of us have had early shame-based thoughts that are about trying to understand.
These are the mistaken views that are the burdens carried by our parts. When these burdened parts take over, our view of life is limited by their perspective. As we get to see our parts, even the most difficult ones, we can discover the insight of IFS therapy that all parts are looking for love, and there are no bad parts. I’ve combined Schwartz’s insights with my method of experiential ways of accessing the Self—the whole of who we truly are beyond any part—as a technique for embodying and living an awakened life. I particularly find this the most effective way of healing our shadows—those unconscious, repressed, or denied parts.
This approach helps to create a positive response loop for awakening:
First, our practice of effortless mindfulness helps us access our greater context of true Self, through which we can work with our parts. In turn, doing our parts work heals and unburdens us on a psychological level so that we can more easily uncover and maintain the wholeness, coherence, and peace of our true Self that can allow for sustained awakening.
Learning effortless mindfulness as a foundation can change what would have been a “dark night of the soul” into more of a detox or thawing-out process, with more growing pains than unconscious suffering. The way of easy mindfulness gives admittance to the reserve of Self, which can bear what seemed to be unbearable. Knowing and Liberating Parts The clouds that obscure our already awake loving nature often take the form of hurt parts of us that are all trying to find safety and love. Our parts fit into distinct categories, each with different reasons for being.In the IFS model, our parts are categorized as
We experience our subpersonalities when we say things like, “One part of me is angry at my partner, but another part understands why they said that.” Or we might discover in psychotherapy how a young part of us was burdened. For example, someone dealing with low self-esteem might remember something like this: “When I was a child, my mother took a long time to come and feed me.
I felt the pain of hunger and grew terrified that I had been abandoned. On some level, I started to believe that there must be somewhat wrong with me: I must be worthless or unlovable.” The burdens of exiles, bosses, and firefighters emerge organically for everyone, regardless of the type or style of parenting we experienced.
Internal Family Systems (IFS)
IFS and EMBT are ways of doing shadow work with parts that are hidden, denied, or repressed, such as exiles and firefighters, to effectively bring such unconscious parts into the conscious light of healing. These patterns create neuronal nets in the brain that are like scenes from a movie that keeps replaying. When these networks are activated and reactivated in the brain, nervous system, and body through a triggering event, they overtake us with primal force.
This can cause us to regress, making us think or even behave as if we’re at the age when the trauma originally occurred. It can feel like we are that hurt child looking through our adult eyes. We may feel passed by a damaged worldview or by strong feelings and motivations, such as protective, defensive rage.
A causing event is an event in the present that is similar to a traumatic event in the past that was too overwhelming. Even though the experiences may have been real when they happened, they are not happening in the present. Parts are not “you” now, but when triggered, they feel and act like they are you.
If they are frozen like they are only thoughts or feelings arising, they may seem to go away temporarily, but they return. Even though it seems counterintuitive, talking to these parts of us as if they were the little beings they think they are is the radical shift I offer in this healing paradigm. When parts can be loved and healed back to their innocent childlike nature, they are liberated by your whole Self.
Growing Emotional Health in Our Children: Gardeners at Heart
When the inward child is listened to, the misunderstandings unburdened, and its emotions felt by Self, parts frozen in time or stuck in an emotional loop can become integrated elements of a complete, healthy human. Some of the initial work that needs to take place for this synthesis to occur can be done prior to initial awakening through psychotherapy and other personal-growth techniques. However, it is only possible to do this work of stirring up and growing up fully from the Self, which is why practicing effortless mindfulness is key.
It provides the capacity to access ourselves. When we’re able to shift our identity in this way, we have more capacity and deeper love to care for our parts. Much of this remedial can be done in our daily lives, but there is also a great benefit to having someone, such as a therapist or experienced meditation teacher, guide and support you through the introduction of parts to Self.
This procedure leads to the moment when we realize that parts exist, why they arose, and that they are not ultimately the true Self. It is then that we can decide our true Self from the parts. Often, the first step is experiencing our parts from our mindful witness, which is a Self-like part. A Self-like share is a manager, a spiritual ego that has many of the qualities of Self but still has the agenda of a part.
we can cram to access the Self to embrace our parts with love and to integrate toward deep wholeness. Eventually, we can treat other people’s parts with the same understanding we’ve given our own, so when we encounter someone acting from a hurt or manager part,
It’s important to notice how we might be in the habit of trying to find solutions for our troubles by using tactics of our small minds and small self. Often, when we view our emotions from our small self, we view some emotions as “good” and some as “bad” and then try to transform destructive emotions into constructive emotions. In doing so, we may reinforce the manager part or small self that is trying to heal our emotions.
However, no small self, managing part, or ego identity can live a fully intimate, emotional life. This attempt will lead to some form of neurosis, anxiety, depression, or addiction. Instead, we can study to access our original Self, which has the natural capacity to feel, create, and love.
Some parts react to this by trying to help, by becoming smart workaholics, angry managers, or protectors of the exiled inner children. For example, if an inner child part feels needy, an angry protector part, who believes that neediness will lead to rejection from others, may jump in, and in a faulty attempt at protecting my self-blame, telling the child part to “stop crying and get a grip” The unique beauty of the IFS approach is that we don’t try to fight our protector parts, get rid of them, replace them, or even transform these “negative” managers or protectors into positive feelings.
Instead, like the exiled child parts, these manager and firefighter parts need love to be unburdened and release the role they feel they have to play. This is done when our true Self understands, respects, and appreciates the “difficult” parts and thanks them for trying to help as they deemed best. I’ve learned from my own experiences and from my psychotherapy clients that it is best to meet each part in the way it appears.
So rather than just witnessing thoughts and beliefs, the most healing approach seems to be listening to and unburdening these parts by interacting with them with love. The primary way is to have a therapist lead you through this process to go inward and feel each part within your body and locate its shape and emotional tone. Then honor and thank the part, and ask the part if it would give you some space.