“The first step is to distinguish the loving parts of your personality that are active from the frightened parts of your personality that are active- in other words, to learn to distinguish love from fear in you. The second step is to choose love no matter what.” – Gary Zukav
At some point, you have probably had a frustrating conversation while trying to help a friend who was going through a difficult time. This person did not seem to be themselves, at least not the person you believe they truly are inside. From your perspective, this person was acting out of character and you felt like you were talking to someone else. Did they want to listen to you, but weren’t able to? Did you sense that there were things they wanted to tell you, but did not have words for? Or that the words they said were cover-ups for a truth that was too painful for them to acknowledge to themselves, let alone to you? The Internal Family Systems (IFS) model of psychotherapy would say that you were talking to a “part” of this person, not to their “Self.” This part took over the conversation as a form of protection or a defense mechanism due to past traumas and emotional injuries they have not dealt with. An IFS therapist would work with your friend to see what parts needed to be heard, so that they could then release these traumas and be set free. In this post, I am going to introduce you to the concepts behind IFS and why I believe it is the best tool for treating depression and preventing relapses .
IFS is an evidence-based therapeutic model that has been shown to improve: phobia, panic, and generalized anxiety disorders and symptoms; physical health conditions and symptoms; personal resilience/self-concept; and depression and depressive symptoms. It is now being applied to other fields outside the mental health world, including the medical field, executive and health coaching, legal mediation and schools. IFS has also been used in peacemaking efforts, and by military chaplains and prison counselors. At the end of this post, I have included some resources where you can learn more about IFS.
IFS is a teaching of self-love and is based on the premise that you have the power to be your own greatest healer. This is made possible by tapping into your “Self (with a capital “S”) or the “real you.” If you are spiritually inclined, you may think of the Self as your core personality, your inner essence or your soul. Richard Schwartz, Ph.D., founder of IFS, says that the Self is characterized by “calmness, curiosity, clarity, compassion, confidence, creativity, courage, and connectedness.” When we are born, all we are is “Self,” but as we live our lives and experience different types of loss, abuse, or any number of emotional traumas, we develop parts whose purpose is to protect us from ever entering situations that re-trigger the original source of that pain. As a result, each of us has an inner family of parts or sub-personalities that conflict with each other and cause suffering. If you have mental health conditions such as OCD that require their own specialized types of therapy such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), IFS can be used as a complement to your treatment plan for those conditions so that you have the self-love to see your Self through to recovery.
Our parts have good intentions. Their goal is self-preservation. They don’t want us to ever be hurt again. But, when we act from our parts, we work against our Self and our parts gets the opposite of what they want. We experience intolerable pain that leads to depression. The more we avoid the pain and repress our exiles, the worse the depression gets until we can no longer deny it is there. Many of us become so lost in the fray of our parts that we forget who we really are deep down inside and what our Self is capable of giving to ourselves and to others. Some memories of past traumas are so painful that we unconsciously let our managers shove them in the closet because that feels safer than facing them. In these cases, we don’t realize there is a part we haven’t dealt with until a life event brings it to the surface and the part is re-injured. These are the hardest parts to deal with because they take us by surprise. You may think you successfully dealt with a part in therapy in the past (not knowing it was a “part”), but you never addressed the exile that created the managers to begin with. That’s what makes IFS unique. Most therapeutic models only address the managers and firefighters. They don’t dig deep enough to heal the exiles. In traditional psychotherapy, you may end up never getting through to your Self. If the therapist does not realize they are only talking to a part of you, you will only put a band aid on your pain. Your wounds will re-open and the exiles will continue to re-surface. That’s why people often relapse and end up back in their therapist’s office or give up on therapy altogether. IFS addresses the root causes of your suffering so that you have a toolbox of strategies the next time your symptoms are triggered. This makes it possible for you to manage your parts on your own so that you don’t relapse.
The goal of IFS is to reach a point where your parts trust your Self to take care of the exiles. That way, the managers and firefighters can step aside. This is called being “Self-led”- when you can speak for (or on behalf of) your parts rather than from them. Otherwise, your parts become “blended” and there is no separation of the Self from the parts. Once you learn how to be Self-led, you can carry this energy into all areas of your life. As Dr. Schwartz explains it, “instead of being overwhelmed by and blending with their emotions during a crisis, Self-led people are able to hold their center, knowing that it is just a part of them that is upset now and will eventually calm down. The Self is the “I” in the storm.” This is called Self-leadership.
Now that you understand the basics of IFS, you may be able to flip around my example at the beginning of this post and think of a time when a friend was trying to help you and you were taken over by a part. (I started by using the friend example because it’s usually easier to look at someone else objectively than to look at ourselves). There is no shame in this. Everyone on the planet has “parts,” regardless of whether they have a DSM-IV diagnosis or not. It’s called being human. Unless you have lived in a cave your entire life, you’ve experienced pain and you have parts that are protecting you from experiencing situations that could trigger that pain again. But these parts are denying you the joy you deserve, the joy your exiles don’t believe is possible for you to ever experience. In future posts, I will discuss Self-led activities you can engage in which will help you on your path toward Self-love.
Once you learn to own your parts and express their needs to people you are close to, you will find that all of your relationships improve. IFS is a great tool for marriage and couple’s counseling because one person’s parts may trigger the other’s and vice versa. Or one partner may be looking to the other to heal their parts, when only their Self can do that. A prerequisite for improving your relationships with others is improving your relationship with your Self. IFS teaches you to love your Self first and foremost and how to be the primary caretaker of your parts rather than looking to other people or circumstances to meet your needs. Your partner should be the secondary caretaker of your parts. If you are single, IFS can still be extremely valuable in identifying patterns in your relationships and seeing how your parts may have contributed to the outcomes.
Now, you may wonder what would be less painful? Facing my parts or avoiding them? This is often a question people ask, sometimes unconsciously, when deciding whether to try therapy. Based on my own experience, I can say that the path of least resistance always leads to more pain. Coming to terms with a part is like putting salt water on an open wound. It stings for a little while, but then the wound heals. If you don’t treat the wound, it will get nastier and find new ways to cause you suffering. We are conditioned to avoid pain, but pain is a necessary part of healing. A well trained IFS therapist will not ask you to work on your parts until the parts trust your Self enough to do so. The goal is to listen to your parts, have compassion for them, and see what wisdom they have to share with you. If you listen to your parts, you may be surprised how simple their needs are. Sometimes things have to get worse before they get better, but it’s definitely worth it in the end because then your heart will be free. Never again will you be tormented by these parts. You will have your life back and you might even discover a life you didn’t know you could have.
When you experience pain, you have two choices. You can repress your exiles, which ultimately leads to more pain later in life or you can transform the pain and see it as an opportunity to grow closer to your true Self and discover who you really are. On the other side of pain is insight. IFS will ask you to be more emotionally aware and honest with your Self and your parts than you have ever been, but the reward is that through compassionate investigation, you will be introduced to your Self, perhaps for the first time. You will have new love and appreciation for what feels like a new person even though that’s who you have been all along.
For the purposes of illustrating IFS, I have chosen to use a personal example of a time I allowed my own parts to take over before I knew anything about IFS.
When my mother died from cancer in 2003 (at the beginning of my junior year of college), I did not give myself permission to grieve. A part of me (an exile) was mourning and wanted to take a semester off to deal with my loss, but it was very important to my mother that I go back to school immediately after the funeral. After everything she had helped me through, she did not want anything to get in the way of me finishing my degree. As a result, I was only home for two weeks. Since I did not allow my Self to take care of this exile, a manager part shoved my grief in the closet so that I could honor my mother’s wishes and function. The manager told me “Mom sacrificed too much for you to throw it all away now.” Grieving felt like a luxury that I had no time or opportunity for.
I was a classic case of “high functioning depression.” I threw myself into academics and extracurricular activities. I got straight As my junior year, but not because I cared about school. I was horribly depressed and had no motivation to do much of anything for my own sake; however, no one knew that. I was interviewed by a local TV station for starting a support group for students dealing with loss and for founding a chapter of the intercollegiate organization Colleges Against Cancer. The following year, I was interviewed by the same station as chair of my campus’s Relay For Life event. I knew I was depressed, but thought I was coping with my loss well by channeling my grief into constructive outlets. I thought my mother would have been proud of me. No one was concerned I was falling off the deep end. My manager parts were doing such a good job of protecting my exiles and helping me function that I did not realize just how depressed I was. Because I did not deal with my grief, my exile found new ways to get attention. I was physically ill several times that year and ended up in the emergency room.
The bubble burst when we had some recruitment issues with Colleges Against Cancer and the organization was no longer doing well. This happened around the one year anniversary of my mother’s passing and it was too much for me to handle. I cracked. Instead of looking to my Self to take care of my exile, I had become dependent on external sources to cope. I had been managing my exile, not caring for it. Now that the tool I had used to manage my grief was no longer available, my exile came out of the closet. I could not ignore my depression anymore and I started to relapse. I couldn’t function. Getting out of bed was impossible. I was turning in papers late. Instead of studying abroad as planned during my school’s J Term program between semesters, I had to fly home to Boston to see doctors. I wrote my senior thesis in bed at my father’s house. I had severe gastrointestinal issues, but no results showed up as “positive” in the slew of medical tests I got. That’s because it was all psychosomatic. All my physical ailments were connected to the depression I didn’t realize I still had. Mid-way through my last semester of college, no one knew if I would graduate. One professor asked me “Why are you depressed now? Your mother died a year ago.” Now, my firefighter parts came out to extinguish the flames and help me graduate. My managers had to shove my exiles back in the closet yet again so that I could make it through the year in one piece. Only after I graduated did I finally start to grieve and take care of myself.
I went to several therapists who specialized in grief during this time and none of them helped me. Had I known about IFS during college, I might have had a better toolbox of coping skills. I could have asked my manager parts if they would mind stepping aside for a few minutes each day so that I could be in touch with my grief and offer Self-love to my exile. This would have enabled me to care for my exile while still functioning. Eventually, my managers would have learned to trust my Self and they could have found other roles. Instead, I repressed my emotions in a tightly sealed bottle and hid it deep in my heart. The managers’ job was to keep the lid closed, but when they failed, the contents overflowed and I couldn’t clean up the mess.
This is just one example of many that I could have used. If you would like to share your story of a time when you struggled with your parts, please contact me!