Internal Family Systems–A Life Philosophy or Therapy?

Why am I writing this blog?  Because I am very attracted to the ideology of Internal Family Systems and its promise of healing, and find it very disturbing at the same time.  I’m hoping I may convince myself to have a more integrated point-of-view if I explore it.

I studied English literature and, at the same time (approximately), read philosophy voraciously.  I found statements, scattered here and there, written by novelists, poets and philosophers, about how metaphysics and the definition of human nature had fallen out of the hands of artists and philosophers, and that in modern life, psychotherapists had taken charge of defining reality and human nature, if not the relationship between heaven and earth.  Like most writers with a philosophical (and metaphysical) bent, I resented this.  And because I am a Pisces and hold on to resentments into eternity, I still resent it.  In fact, as time has gone by I’ve come to be horrified by the hold psychology has on our modern consciousness.  This doesn’t keep me from going to therapy, BTW.  But then, every time I go (particularly to couples therapy), I blog and make fun of the therapist.  So at least I get some amusement out of it.

Internal Family Systems, developed as a discrete model for approaching therapy, was developed by Dick Schwartz and is now the hip therapy to learn (along with Diane Fosha’s AEDP, which I am not attracted to) .  He’s an interesting guy–fairly unassuming as therapy gurus go–but then, since his model is derived from what his clients told him, he would have to be.  And he seems to encourage other therapists to apply his way of thinking to all aspects of life–coaching, co-counseling, political models, etc.  He’s not obsessive about holding onto and controlling his own ideology.

This is all to the good.

Internal Family Systems in based in Jungian theory (among others) that we all have a multiplicity of subselves that operate to protect us from life’s vicissitudes.  They may be archetypal, but they are, of course, a family of subselves, and family systems theory may therefore be applied to an understanding of the individual.  Schwartz classifies the different types of subselves and their relationships in this way (simplified):

  1. Protectors–Subselves who work to prevent an individual from experiencing unpleasant emotions.  For example, after a bad experience, a “Manager” Protector will come up with a strategy to avoid any experiences that might resonate to the original painful experience.  If a repeat starts to occur, a “Firefighter” Protector will introduce an extreme and immediately numbing behavior (like drinking, overeating, blaming/yelling) to shut the experience down asap.
  2. Exiles–Young subselves who carry the unwanted and painful emotions.  The Protectors want to keep the Exiles from being reactivated.
  3. SELF–The essential core of any person, creative, confident, compassionate, and able to heal and coordinate the other parts.

Of course, in all therapy, language is taught:  “I” statements, for example.  My partner and I joke all the time about saying, “I feel that you are an asshole.”  Or, “From my perspective, you are an asshole.)  We like to call this recovery with a license to kill.

Anyhow, in IFS (Internal Family Systems), languaging is taught as well, but goes even further.  Clients are taught to identify parts and to speak of them in the third person–to speak for parts rather than from parts. But IFS goes beyond languaging.  In order to do this type of therapy, in order to learn the language, the client must first agree to the construct–that there are subselves or parts, and that there is a dominant and central spiritual self with certain qualities and abilities.  Introspection as well as communication is guided by this understanding–the client looks internally for typical experiences of exiles, protectors, inner critics, etc.  And the client must seek, always, to be “Self-led.”

By the way, I do accept the construct of subselves and I also empirically understand the experience of an enlightened “self” within me.  I even find the concepts for introspection really interesting.

So what’s the problem?

Think of it this way.  Feminism teaches us to 1) listen to each other rather than to assume any one opinion or world view is best (opposite to the paternalistic, one right way approach), and 2) that empowerment comes from facilitating and supporting a person’s own vision and point-of-view, rather than correcting, reframing, controlling, or dominating.  In other words, basic respect comes into play.  It’s easiest to do this from a relativist philosophy, or from a Catholic (as in, pluralistic) understanding that incorporates many different perspectives or systemic approaches to the world and being human.

This is where IFS can run into trouble.  In IFS, the education is very explicit, and therapists can and often are dogmatic in practice.  In a session, for example, if you say how you feel, the therapist is likely to say, “You mean a part of you feels that.”  Then the therapist will explain to you whether that’s a protector or an exile, and may give lectures about how the different subselves relate to each other.

I may or may not disagree with this in any particular moment, but I have to return to feminism and say, isn’t it dangerous for someone to interpret another human being’s internal world, label its construction, and insist that this construction be memorized as a set-in-stone interpretation?  I have heard IFS practitioners say, “Managers ALWAYS elicit firefighters.  They can’t ever get along.”  I was like, really?  Subselves have prescribed relationships that never vary, individual to individual?  Man, that is a SCARY way to think.

Then, while I strongly believe that spirituality is the true foundation of human healing and human change, I worry about how specifically Self is defined in IFS, and how practitioners will say, “That can’t be a Self thought because of x, y, and z.”  The spirituality implicit in IFS is both its strength and its great danger, because often spirituality is taught as a belief system, and if people are taught a belief system, that’s usually called a religion or a cult.  And if clients are pressured into beliefs, the name is malpractice.  (I grew up Catholic, and believe me, there’s not a lot of difference between, “If you don’t accept x, y & z then you are going to hell,” and, “If you don’t accept x, y & z and see the world this way, then you won’t heal or your healing will take decades longer.”  Both are threats; both contain language to invoke shame.)

I do understand that Dick Schwartz developed IFS through observation, and since I took a workshop with him, I also know that he explains IFS specifically as a collection of observations about what clients had in common in explaining their inner lives.  I suppose, therefore, part of my problem is simply with the practice, with making the observation of IFS into dogma, and losing the impulse that Schwartz had originally–careful and present listening as the way to truly help.

I bristle at being told what to do, what to think, or how to speak, just as a matter of principle, and also, truth be told, because I like to rebel and be different (or I can’t help rebelling and being different, or I have subselves who rebel–firefighters and managers).  But I also find that the greatest challenge for all of us humans is to be present to what is, congruent to the present moment in our thoughts and behavior, and to be endlessly creative and adaptive.  We can’t phone it in.  Accepting thoughts or constructs or the stories we tell ourselves about why other people do what they do as gospel–well, I study Buddhism so as to quiet that insanity.  And it is insanity…all the righteousness, all the one correct way, is insanity.

So philosophy or therapy?  It is both.  And therein, as the man says, lies the rub.

The good thing is that thinking about IFS calls into question all therapy–which always contains a life philosophy, always contains a definition of human nature and the human mind, and must therefore always and continually be questioned.

Therapy, as a practice, is an art form, not a science.  (Sometimes science is an art form, but I won’t go into that.)  And we must be careful of each other.  Because one side of the couch or the other, we are flawed, even with our best intentions.  We can hurt each other.

As for me, I’ll probably keep trying this stuff, because I’m ridiculously curious.  But I’m also arrogant, so let me say that I hope to try it with someone who is close to my level of intelligence.  Otherwise, it’s all war, all the time.  Because no one gets to tell me what to think, what to say, and what inside me is nearest to the light.  If I let them, then I abdicate my independence of mind and spirit.  And how can that help anyone?

Click to access Fosha_Meta_Therapeutic_Processes_2000.pdf

Traveling Broadens What? OR Costa Rica with My Partner

Ricky Gervais sent his friend, Karl Pilkington, round the globe to ostensibly see the 7 Wonders of the World.  Of course, Ricky arranged for Karl to be fake kidnapped in Israel, to eat insects and the genitalia of animals in Egypt and China, to stay in terrible noisy hotels, to visit indigenous tribes and to dance in Carnival in Brazil.  Karl basically agreed to be a travel host, and instead was the butt of a sadistic practical joke which regularly made him vomit, miss sleep, and complain bitterly about life.  One has to lose sympathy, of course, when Karl agreed to a 2nd and then a 3rd season, but throughout the 1st season, when he doesn’t know what’s coming, you just want to wring Ricky Gervais’ neck.

Still, watching this very funny and disturbing series, I found myself seriously considering  the question of how disrespectful and insulting it is to suggest that someone–anyone–else change who they are–to have his mind broadened, even, because someone else thinks he or she is superior.

And so, I come again to nominating myself for sainthood.  Mind you, in order to do so I must tread lightly, because only by enduring with gritted teeth the neuroses of my lovely partner do I nominate myself.

Here’s how our most recent trip to Costa Rica went.  First, she was anxious about traveling.  Really anxious.  When I’m anxious, I plan, research, organize, manage, repack, etc.  When she’s anxious, everything goes to hell.  On the Monday night before we left, I was teaching film auditioning in the living room while she was in her bedroom with everything she owned and might bring spread over the floor, bed, chair, dresser, suitcase, etc.  It looked like her bedroom had been ransacked by thieves (except the clothes, some of them, were folded).  In the three hours I was occupied with film and filming, she moved some things around.  From bed to floor.  From floor to dresser.  From closet to bed and back again.  When I was done teaching, she asked me to help her choose some outfits and to pack (I’d already given her a list, printed from the Internet, of what to bring).  I gave a few suggestions, and then sort of passed out in the other bedroom, occasionally awakened by the loudest tiptoeing you can imagine.  Or by occasional banging of something dropped onto the floor.

She didn’t sleep at all.

The phone rang a little before 4am, she answered, and the taxi appeared in the street.  I took our luggage out to the curb, got in the back, and waited, watching the meter run.  Five minutes later, she stumbled out onto the porch, locked the front door, and got in the cab.  I have no idea whatsoever what she did in those five minutes.  She probably rechecked the automatic light things.  Or found something else to put in her carry on.  I don’t know if she even knows.

We got to the airport and went to check in her luggage.  But there was a huge snafu about our tickets, because her passport has her full name, which was not on her ticket.  It took about an hour to figure that out and get it fixed so that she would be allowed into Costa Rica when we got there.

Then we went through security and her carry on set off the buzzer (again–this happened on the last trip, too).  Apparently she packed not one, but two, Swiss army knives in her bag.  The security guy looked at me.  I said, “She’s done this before.”  He smiled and said, “Two–I think we’ll have to put her away for a while.”  Then there was this long discussion (again) of whether she’d mail them to herself or just give them up.  She decided to give them up (last time she mailed them to herself and for some reason beat me to the gate, so I was the one who almost missed the plane).

You might be getting the idea that this is life as usual, and you would be right.

There was also anxiety about the fact that our layover between Fort Lauderdale and Costa Rica was only 25 minutes.  But that worked out–we got out of one plane, walked across the hall, and got on another.  Only my partner, who is blind as a bat, left her glasses on the first airplane.  She discovered this on the second one when her contacts started bothering her, and she had to take them out.  So, I became a seeing eye dog.  And then we had to visit the Jet Blue office first thing so she could check out the lost and found and see if she could get her glasses sent to her at one of our hotels.

It was 11am in Costa Rica by then (1pm here) and she’d been awake for I-don’t-even-know-how-long and I’d been awake since 3:30am.

We managed to find our hotel and she went to sleep by the pool.  While she was sleeping I gave myself a talking to about saying nothing and not trying to change her because after 27 years it’s not like it was going to do any good.

The rest of the vacation commenced.  She took about 1000 pictures, got photo dermatitis (this means she was allergic to the sun, which also regularly happens when we go away), was obsessed with monkeys, sloths and toucans (no amount of sitings was enough), was bitten by tropical bugs and somehow had an allergic reaction so it looked like welts.  Since I must have been anxious, we didn’t even have to go to a drugstore–I’d packed the most comprehensive first aid kit EVER.

I should say that I am an inveterate traveler.  Since the age of 17 I’ve traveled all over the US, Mexico, Europe, North Africa, Japan, Hong Kong, etc.  I did much of my traveling alone.  I took pride in often being mistaken for Canadian or Australian, because face it, North Americans are loud, take 1000 pictures, get obsessed with monkeys, sloths, toucans, monuments and whatever else.  I am, basically, cool.  I am a cool traveler.  I take few if any pictures, hang out with the locals, speak or learn bits of the language, and make friends with odd people and artists wherever I go.  Tourists who take 1000 pictures and are obsessed with monkeys, sloths, toucans really embarrass me.

Should I mention that this was a fantastic vacation?

I have been doing imitations of my partner since we got back, but in Costa Rica, and on the airplane, I complained very little and restrained (sometimes with gritted teeth) from commentary.  She was like, “So, how are you?”  I was like, “I’m fine.  I’m tired.”  Then, an hour later, she was like, “So, how are you?”  and I was like, “I’m fine.”  And then, a half hour later, she was like, “So, how are you?”

I was like, “Why do you keep asking me how I am?  You’re driving me crazy!”

She was like, “You’re not talking.  You’re freaking me out.”

I was like, “I spend all day alone, not talking.  You just get me at the end of it, when I finally have something to say.”

I’m not sure anyone really believed that, but it was a sort of truth.

Anyhow, the point of our traveling neuroses is this:  We had a ton of fun on this vacation.  My partner says she’s very grateful I kept my mouth shut because she started noticing her own compulsions without my commentary, which was a new experience all by itself.  And then I came home and watched the show An Idiot Abroad and recognized that gritted teeth or no, allowing my partner to just be her own crazy self is an act of love.  I mean, she’s actually really cute holding that fucking IPhone up to her blind eyes, and shifting her weight back and forth being all innocent with security officers and custom officials who ask her if she has anything to declare.  She says, “Umm, I bought 2 t-shirts.  Is that what you mean?”

I would like to follow my partner around with a camera as she travels.  I would entitle it, “An Innocent Abroad,” or “Child in Adult Body Visits Central America.”  I would not need to torture her, as she seems pretty good at doing that all by herself.

I will also say that Karl Pilkington reminds me of my partner.  He so doesn’t want to disappoint the local people he’s been set up to meet–not even the female impersonator who’s made him so uncomfortable (Karl’s a tad homophobic).  He is struck by poverty and disease and he loves his creature comforts.  The big heartedness and essential goodness–that also reminds me of my partner.

And, in the interests of telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth, I would like to say that in my twenties I ran with the bulls, skydived, tubed down the Gila River in flood season, went free-climbing in the Alps barefoot while not…um…sober, hitchhiked across Spain, Portugal and Japan, and taught whoever wanted to learn about how to do inverted shots.  In other words, I might be cool, but seriously, who’s the real Idiot Abroad?