The People You’ll Meet Within!

by Larry Larson

When I decide not to have a second piece of pie, and suddenly grab the knife and cut the second piece, what made me do it? Straightforward answer: a part of me wanted more pie and that part took charge and got more. Something within me went against my decision to abstain. It is as if I were “possessed” by a renegade part of myself. The comedian Flip Wilson was famous for his TV line “The Devil made me do it”. If I don’t blame the Devil, I am left with something within myself.

The One and The Many – an ancient philosophical conundrum. Souls can be troubled by conflicting ideas, desires, motivations. Is it more useful to view the psyche as a single center of action beset by contrary influences, or as a family of actors operating with a variety of motives? The practice known as Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS) finds abundant experiential evidence that we are both One and Many. We are One – the psyche has a central core, but we are also Many – this core is often covered over by a variety of other actors. These other Parts have a variety of conflicting hopes and fears. Their views of themselves and of the world can also be in conflict. Therapy can assist this core Self to bring compassionate order to an otherwise chaotic and self-destructive internal system. Thus emerges a harmony of the One and the Many.

If we treat our various tendencies, emotions and cherished beliefs as “real people within”, then we are able to develop friendly relations with these personalities, and they will emerge to speak with us and explain their roles in our systems. Clients are comfortable referring to these personalities as Parts of themselves. Parts have issues and agendas, judgments and fears. The therapist gets acquainted with these Parts by asking each about its issues and its role within the internal system.

A profound experience arises when no further Part steps forward and the Self emerges as the rightful center of consciousness. The therapist asks about the agenda and fears of this Part only to find no agenda, no fears—only compassion, caring and connection. The client intuitively knows that this is not just another Part; this is something different: “This is my Self.'” The Self is our central core, a shining light of spirituality within each of us.

When in Self and thus beyond fear, the client is capably able of easing the polarities and burdens carried by the Parts. This highlights the attractiveness of IFS: the client is directly engaged in facilitating the process of therapy.

IFS recognizes two types of internal family member, the Exiles, those who are in pain, and the Protectors who defend against this pain. The Exiles are our inner children who lived through trauma that could not be processed and digested at the time. The price was a frozen knot in the psyche carrying immense pain and constituting serious unfinished business. Since the pain was too great, the Protectors arose to hide this pain from awareness.

A ready example in such a system in action would be an individual with an Exile carrying fear of abandonment. When this Exile becomes triggered, a Protector might leap into action and the individual will pour himself a stiff drink.

Defense against pain. Freud built his system around this dynamic, so it is hardly revolutionary. Parts operating on their own is an approach pioneered by Jung. But both defense and parts are re-evisioned in IFS, with its open invitation to find a variety of parts never envisioned by Jung operating a variety of defenses never seen by Freud. At the heart of IFS is this new twist: we learn to relate to defense and pain as if each element were an individual agent/actor/person. A lump in the throat, tightness in the jaw, anxiety in the solar plexus, a wave of sadness, a burst of anger or bout of depression – each of these can be an opening onto a family member in need of a voice. Each of these parts has its own internal life, with its own views of itself, the other parts, the whole person, and the world in which the person lives. Try this for yourself: in your meditation, when some typical distraction arises, rather than watch it float across your mental sky, engage it in a dialog. Ask it what it is up to, what it might want. You might be surprised at the results.

A key task in IFS is to get the Self into a position where it can manage the life of the individual. Perhaps when a childhood trauma occurred, the Self was incapable of managing the overwhelming situation. Some young part then had to take over a Protector role to ease the pain, and in taking over, it eclipsed the Self. How to tell if a Protector is dominating consciousness? The clues include fear, judgment, intellectual coldness, depression, or any other form of negativity. The Self is always courageous and compassionate. It can be an eye-opening experience to ask a powerful burst of sadness or fear to please step aside to allow the Self enough room to operate.

In order to get to an Exile, the therapist must first be on good terms with its Protectors. Once sufficient trust is established, the protectors become willing to step back. When a protector steps aside, it becomes possible to contact the protected Exile. In some cases, it is the therapist who makes this contact, and in other cases is the client’s own Self. Once access to an Exile is possible, therapy proceeds by befriending the Exile, finding out about its burdens of pain and suffering, and then actually removing these age old burdens. IFS has discovered that the Exile and Self can together devise a ritual for the removal of this pain. Thus it is that the long lost Exile can be given nurturance and support.

IFS views Parts as intrinsic to any psyche. The Parts are not created by trauma and do not go away upon successful therapy. Trauma leaves some Parts burdened by pain and associated Parts burdened by the protection from this pain. Once the pain is removed, the parts involved can direct their energies to tasks more to their liking. This inner child can find a new role within the present life of the individual, and the protector is relieved of its long and arduous task of shielding the Exile. The Protector can find something new and appealing to do with its own time. Under Self-leadership, the parts learn to live in the present and so does the person.

This view of psychic parts came officially of age in 1995 when Richard Schwartz published the seminal work on IFS: Inner Family Systems Therapy. The recent Self-Therapy by Jay Oakley provides step by step procedures for work on oneself, with help in resolving typical obstacles.

IFS is a powerful therapy; it opens the door to an effective self-therapy; and it is fundamentally a spiritual approach to human life. We can bring our troubled parts, our internal family members, explicitly into our conscious lives and help them to shed their burdens of compulsion and pain. We can do this because we are at core a Self which is compassionate, connected, and caring. IFS helps us to live within this essence of what we are, and provides us the ability to befriend the parts who are managing to keep our lives off balance. An IFS therapist helps us to live within Self. In Self-Therapy we work to accomplish this on our own. Under Self leadership, we move toward an operational and coherent inner family of parts. With compassion and connection, we emerge feeling and looking like the embodied spiritual beings which we are.

Larry Larson is a retired Professor of Philosophy at the University of Denver and a practicing Hakomi Therapist. He will lead a Heart of Service lunch hour reading/discussion group on IFS on Wednesdays in May and June.

People House: a Center for Personal and Spiritual Growth