Internal Family Systems Therapy

As one more avenue to quieting the mind, overcoming anxiety, or integrating the mind and body, Internal Family Systems Therapy has evolved as an offshoot of the unblocking and clearing practice deveoped by Eugene Gendlin, called Focusing.

The Internal Family Systems Model (IFS) was developed by Richard Schwartz, Ph.D. over a 20 year period as an evolving family therapist. He synthesized two major paradigms--systems thinking and the multiplicity of the mind. Out of this he conceived of the idea of "parts"--conflicted subpersonalities within one's mind. It was a natural evolution from earlier related ideas, such as the id, ego and superego--and object relations concepts of internalized objects.

It is my idea that we can think of one individual mind's system of parts as being a microcosm of the "minds" of larger collections of "parts" of people, communities, governments and countries. It is also my thought that if each individual and family can begin to heal its own parts, then there will be a ripple effect around the world. Or another way to make that shift, could be to approach cross cultural communication among larger collections of people, with the IFS model as a guide.

If IFS views a person as "an ecology" of discrete minds, which is disrupted or unbalanced by traumatic experiences, then we could view communities and countries as a similar sort of "ecology" which also gets disrupted by all sorts of trauma--natural disasters, environmental decay, disease and epidemics, and social, political and economic inequalities. Schwartz suggests that family values and interaction patterns can also create polarizations that escalate and are reflected in other relationships. Similarly, political, cultural and religious values can create polarizations that become evidenced in some of the major international conflicts of our time.

Schwartz has divided his notion of parts into categories that have specialized functions.

There are the managers that try to keep the person functional and safe by controlling inner and outer environments--personal preferences, habits and discipline. A parallel in the larger sphere could be the role of government with rules, regulations and defense departments.

Then there are the exiles--the parts that carry the hurt, humiliation and fear from various life experiences. The managers try to keep those feelings out of consciousness, for fear of flooding the person with overwhelming vulnerability. The parallel in the larger culture could be people who are marginalized by society--the poor, the mentally ill, certain races and cultures.

The third group is the firefighters, who resort to extreme efforts to protect the person when exiles get triggered to unbalanced emotions and increased vulnerability. These firefighter behaviors are impulsive acts that seek to override or dissociate the person's feelings from awareness through excessive use of alcohol, food or sex, for example. In this case the parallel could be extremist groups that try to take the law of government into their own hands-- groups such as certain terrorists and religious fundamentalists.

Finally there is the Self which is the core being of a person, representing confidence, compassion and has the ability to take a balanced perspective in the service of providing leadership. The parallel here could be interpretations and enactments of the Constitution or the Bill of Rights--the core principles that guide the formation of a group of people or society.

So, what to do about this "theory"? How can it be applied in a practical and effective way to cross cultural relations? To me, education and good old consciousness raising could be a great way to spread the word and practice the experience of knowing one's parts. "Know thyself" is almost a prerequisite for successful relations at all levels.

In psychotherapy, the path to a balanced internal system and a strong sense of Self, comes first from being mindful. Quietly listening, but not getting overly attached to one's inner chatter, can help to differentiate the managers from the exiles and firefighters. In this way a core principal of IFS-- acceptance-- allows that we can never eradicate any of our parts, but we can learn to respect their intentions in their initial formation-- and we, as adult selves, can request that they "step aside" temporarily, in the service of hearing from all parts.

For many people, certain beliefs, behaviors or defense mechanisms of "parts", were developed in childhood out of necessity--for survival-- seeing as children cannot live alone, independent of their families. So, it was brilliantly adaptive for certain managers and firefighters to emerge, protecting the exiles from further danger. But as adults, many of these behaviors and defenses persist, despite the fact that they are no longer needed in the sense of survival. It may "feel" that way, but in reality our Self has much more capacity to take care of us than we give it credit. By persisting in our old ways of coping, our evolving relationships can be disrupted by the rigidity of childhood learning and the absence of a strong, compassionate Self.

I believe, with education and modeling behavior, that it is possible to extrapolate this model to improving cross cultural relationships, greater interdependence, balance and peace on a global level...

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