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?

The Stork Returns. I mean, REALLY!!!!

My partner is in love with the Stork.

As we interviewed couples’ therapists and fired one after another (nicely, since I now practice Buddhism), she finally started crying and saying how sad she was we couldn’t see the Stork any more.

I told her if he meant that much to her she could always see him alone, so we went back in to do closure as a couple so she could see him as an individual, and he turned out to be kind of great (meaning honest, sorry for his mistakes).  In his Stork way.  He even kind of got me, for the first time.  (I seem to be heavily inscrutable to these people–it took him a year.)  So closure turned out to be let’s-check-it-out again, and I started tagging along while my partner did the sessions.  Once I fell asleep while she talked to him.  The Stork was like, “Lyralen must finally feel safe if she falls asleep.”

My partner was like, “Am I that boring?”

I was like, “Hey, it’s all you, all the time, don’t complain.”

Of course, I’m still traumatized from the therapist who fell asleep on me when I was 21, but who’s counting.

Meanwhile, the Stork yawned through the only session I talked in, so I can only say that payback is a bitch.

And there is this–comedy reigns in sessions with the Stork.  He’s more or less promised not to cook rice or make telephone calls during our sessions, so things are looking up in the sanity department.  I expect it to last a month or two, tops, before he goes super annoying again and provides me with much blog material.  Stay posted.

Of course, get this–even though I knew, in that super intuitive way I have, that my partner and I belong with the Stork, I insisted we try out another couples therapist who is smart and boundaried.  I knew it wouldn’t work with her–no, not because she’s smart and boundaried.  She has this funky dark edge to her energy that seems pretty judgmental (not my favorite).  But really, I had to actually apologize to her, because me fighting reality (that I am destined to a farcical couples therapy with a very honest Stork) isn’t a good reason to start some therapeutic relationship that has no chance of succeeding.  I mean, I didn’t mind firing the other 7 therapists after mostly 1 session interviews.  We were spending money we didn’t have; and the therapists were either out there controlling (that’s partly the couples’ model, but hey, supposedly they have a brain…they could figure out it’s controlling and get innovative)  (What am I saying?  Most therapists would not come anywhere near Mensa status.  Or any award in independent thought, either.) or completely insane (the one with the gorilla puppet stands out in my mind particularly).  Like, who cares about firing them?  They totally deserved it.

But, my fight with reality causing us to go to someone I know we’ll not ending up seeing who I kind of liked when I met at Kripalu…that felt lousy.  So I apologized last night in an email.  That’s my second apology in a month to a therapist, so the practice of Buddhism is seriously changing my personality.  It’s quite frightening.  Almost as frightening as the occasional lack of chatter in my mind.  I’m like, “Whoa, that is way too quiet.  I’ve gone stupid.  I’ve gone boring.  What am I supposed to do without all these neuroses?”

Of course, that doesn’t stop me from attending the Letting Go of Fear meditation practice group on Tuesday nights.  People in the group laughed when, after announcing I had no fear, I had to ask the meditation leader to repeat his descriptions of unskillful reactions to fear because I kept forgetting everything he said as soon as he said it.  Clearly I am about to join my partner in the land of Garcia Marquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude in which a whole village loses its memory and everything has to be labelled with its name and function.

Hmmm.  Fear.  Why am I taking this workshop?  Well, we’re supposed to acknowledge 3 moments of fear each day.  I had my 3 by 5am yesterday, though I ended up acknowledging only one of them.  So I guess I have fear.  Hello to worry, panic (that was in a traffic jam…I’m claustrophic…oh, right, that’s a fear, I must have fear), anxiety, terror, etc.

It should be said that after acknowledging the panic, calling my partner, and pulling over to sit with it, I was able to do a terribly long drive in relative peace.

I practice Buddhism because it works.  Unlike therapy.  In which the therapist gets to act like they’re way more enlightened and sane…a complete lie.  At least in Buddhism we’re all insanely constructing realities that don’t exist.

I am nothing if not egalitarian.

A Little Self-Aggrandizement…Or NOT

The best thing about me is that I truly know how full of shit I am.

No, really.

Having spent last week in the company of so many therapists, I realized that the deepest danger is in believing your own bullshit.  In other words, believing that you are somehow better and more enlightened than other people.

Of course, I often believe this.  But, back to the first sentence, all the meditating has taught me just what a load of crap that belief ALWAYS is.  And when you face that belief in people who invest in it, who live from it, well, it is definitely cringe-worthy.  As in, “I can’t believe I act like that sometimes.”

The enlightenment of the cringe and identification can only resonate if you recognize that you probably act like that a whole lot more often than you realize in the present moment.  Then you can descend/ascend (it’s not clear) to new levels of humility, making you much more bearable to live with.

Of course, this is me we’re talking about.  And therapists.  So I’m like, “Thank whatever/whoever I’m not as stupid as you a*(hol$#S.”  I mean, give me a break.  Do I really have to practice enlightenment with therapists?

It seems I do.  Though since my partner and I have gone through 6 couples therapists since last September (okay, 3 of them we only saw for one-two sessions, and we only saw FUH for 3 sessions), with the Stork-man the hands-down favorite (we lost count of how many session with him, but it’s probably more than 15), I still have to be grateful to the grief counselor with her animal-patterned socks and keep myself from yelling at the new IFS therapist who dresses like an interpretative dancer and continually explains things to me that I ALREADY KNOW.

From the point-of-view of Hindu philosophy, I am obviously exploring my samskara truly, madly and deeply.  (Samskara are life patterns, complexes, re-enactments of old issues that re-occur forever or at least until you reach enlightenment.)  I would like to say, for the record, that I hate it when people don’t seem to recognize how smart I am (telling me things I already know) and when they limit what I want to explore.

I don’t know how to have humility about how smart I am.  I’m really smart.  Maybe I could practice thinking that intelligence is a gift I didn’t earn, awarded at birth through some accident of genetics.

Naw.  I’m just really smart.

But not better than other people.

Oh, comparison.  The truth is that therapists go around thinking that they’re better because the human condition is truly overwhelming and we really have no idea what we’re doing, though we keep telling ourselves that we do.  Just getting up and facing how little we truly know is an act of courage.  I’d much rather criticize the therapeutic profession than admit that I’m terrified I’m going to miss the boat entirely, off on some samskara or another.  Smart–yes, but that can be just another way to create some super-intellectual bullshit that has no relevance to how to live a life well, in search of enlightenment, grounded in peace.

When I know how full of shit I really am, when I fully admit how little I know, there is only surrender, which is unconditional and exists as a possibility in every moment.  In other words, I don’t know what I’m doing and I don’t have to.  I ground into the moment, and I trust in some source of Light or goodness that will open up a way I can’t see yet, and that it will be hard, wonderful, right.

That may just be another story, but it’s the one I’m going with for now.  Because guess what?  Samskara often falls away in the light of surrender.  I don’t know why, but it truly does.

FUH, Part 2

I would like to have another topic besides couples therapy.  Especially because right now, at this very minute, I should be studying for my yoga teacher training test, which is tonight.  If I fail, it’s the blog’s fault.

Wow, a cool new thing to blame!

But, back to wanting a new topic, I don’t really have one.  There is just the new couples’ therapist, not long for this world, because I think she’s psychotic.

Why do I think this?

Because I told her that interrupting me when I’m telling my partner I’m hurt didn’t win her any points, and I don’t really like therapists, etc, etc.  Then she says, staring directly into my eyes:

“How will this affect us?”

I put a jacket over my entire head and squealed a little.  I could feel my partner laughing next to me.  Finally, I took the jacket off of my face and looked at FUH.  She was still staring into my eyes, but now at least she didn’t quite know what to do.

I’m like, “That is just way too intimate for me.  I don’t even know you.”

I did not say, but will say here, “US?  What the f*&( do you mean, US?  There is no us.  If you want to ask how it affects the therapy, fine, but at least acknowledge that it is a business relationship, not some kind of deep bond or collaboration because the truth is I don’t even like you and I really think you desperately need a fashion consultant!!!!”

My partner and I agree that when FUH looks at you like that, she’s trying to suck your soul out of your eyes right into her super intense need for a life that she clearly does not have.

In other words, couples therapy continues to provide us with a common enemy, thereby fulfilling its purpose of keeping us bonded and getting along.

But I really don’t think I can look at FUH’s wardrobe for much longer.  It kind of hurts my eyes.

Heigh Ho, Heigh Ho, Back to Therapy We Go

Tuesday night my partner came to the theater from her meditation class to nab a ride with me.  I asked her to drive and then went off on a rant, so I’m sure she wished she had waited for the T instead.

The precursor to the rant happened on Monday, as we ventured back into couples therapy with a therapist I have now named F$#^ing Ugly Head.  But I was not content to go off on only Monday night’s ridiculous couples session.  I had to include the fact, which I will now confess, that after Don’s death and the end of the theatre production, I went back to individual therapy as well, to see a grief counselor (more on this later).  And then I decided to try my partner’s new love, Internal Family Systems, so somehow I ended up with two therapists, which, considering how much I truly, and I do mean TRULY hate therapy, is beyond ironic.

Anyhow, we’re driving down Longwood, past the hospitals and the library where my partner works, the streets empty with those circles of light falling on the pavement, with the buildings in shadow, only the occasional doctor or nurse in green scrubs scurrying across the street.  I was like, “OH MY GOD, can you believe last night?”  My partner’s like, “I know.”

And that was all the permission I needed.  The rant went something like this:  “What is with her hair?  I mean, it doesn’t even have a part.  And that shirt.  I mean, it squashed her boobs, and frankly, I don’t want to see my couples therapist’s cleavage under any circumstances.  And if she asks one of those questions like “How does it feel to be seen by me and your partner?” again, I am going to scream, puke, and then walk out the door.  I mean, I don’t even know her.  I don’t f*&%ing care what she sees or doesn’t see!  Just get a new wardrobe, for Christsakes!  What is with these people?  I mean, the IFS one looks like she’s ready to burst into an interpretative dance at any moment and the grief counselor has little animals on her socks!”

My partner couldn’t stop laughing.  Then she’s like, “Wow, I don’t think this couples therapist is going to last long.  I mean, ‘F$%^ing Ugly Head?’ You must hate her a lot.”


Then I made the mistake of asking her this:  “What do you think about my problem with the Interpretative Dancer’s tendency to diagnose and use labels from the DSM whatever?”

She said, “I think you have a point, but it’s also a really good trailhead for something big underneath.”

Trailhead is an IFS term for any event that leads to pain from the past.  I’d much prefer my partner had been referring to the South Kaibab Trail or Bright Angel, both paths at the Grand Canyon, where we met.  No such luck.

It took me a couple days to find the rant on that trailhead, which was not funny and was all about having my humanity diminished twice, the first time by people who hurt me enough to send me to therapy, and the second by the therapists, who reframe my experience, label me, analyze me, tell me who I am, and/or seem to get into how sexy, interesting and compelling I am, either hitting on me or telling me they wish they could be my friend/mother/student, etc.  I was crying during this rant, and fashion problems were not mentioned.

I do truly hate therapy.  And here’s the funny thing–the grief counselor, who I actually like, and, in spite of the animals on her socks, is often wise in how she handles me, is the one I seem least interested in working with.  I mean, she let me come in and talk and cry about Don for two months, barely saying a word (which, frankly, I think all therapists should learn to do–KEEP THEIR MOUTHS SHUT).  It’s clear she’s not diagnosing in an extreme way.  She’s irritating, occasionally, but she’s kind, and she’s just really good at seeing and witnessing instead of asking, “How do you feel about being seen by me?”  (To which, BTW, I responded, on Monday, with, “I don’t feel seen in couples therapy,” thereby confounding expectations and pissing FUH (acronym for F$$^ing Ugly Head) off enough for her to add, rather aggressively, “Do you want to be seen?”  I did not say, “Absolutely.  I’m going to start a new trend in streaking any moment now.  I hope your neighbors don’t mind.” <She sees people in her house.>)

Anyhow, the grief seems to have gotten better, and I’m no longer blaming myself for how powerless I was to save Don and get him better medical treatment, so therapy with the Grief Counselor has gotten kind of boring.  I’ve stopped going, at least for the next month, which is incredibly busy with work and yoga teacher training.

But couples therapy–my partner and I have gotten really happy and sweet again, which I attribute to having a butt for my jokes who is not her, and aligning ourselves against the common enemy: the couples therapist.

So while I think that FUH isn’t long for our world, I might as well milk her stupid questions for all they’re worth and just let myself behave miserably while I can.  I am so sick of being Buddhist and skillful with these people.  I am planning on going in to the Interpretative Dancer and saying, “So I suppose you have a thing for Isadora Duncan?”  I am planning on saying to FUH, “Have you read my blog on new fashions for therapists and wearing clothes that are not a size too small?”

I mean, would anyone die?

Of course, my partner reads this blog, so she’ll probably talk me out of the FUH idea, and I’ll have to be all skillful and say, “Let’s get real.  If this is going to work, you can’t ask me those therapist questions.  And, by the way, the next time I’m all vulnerable and telling my partner that she hurt my feelings, which is not easy for me, I’d suggest you not change the F$%^ING SUBJECT!”

Really.  What is WITH these people?

3 days and counting….

So.  It happened.

The fight.

Not a blowout.

Unclear who started it.  I mean, you could trace these things back to the caves, if you know what I mean.

Also, I suppose I kind of started it, but only in the vaguest possible way.

We had just returned from interviewing the new couples therapist, and she had a scented candle we were both allergic to, so really, it’s her fault.

Anyhow, it looks like year 25 is still going to happen, fight or no fight.  We’re being all mature and talking about it.

Does this mean I can no longer text, “i hate u 4ever?’

I think it does.

I may lie down and die.  Because those texts really get me through the day.

Also, I am considering starting a whole new business.  Like, I plan new web pages in my head when I’m meditating.

I’m just a whole bunch of enlightenment in one body, let me tell you.

5 Days and Counting!

Mush, mush, mush, mush.

That’s what it’s like around here these days.

Though there was some talk about whipping someone with wet spaghetti.

And we have two, count them two couples therapy sessions this week, (Final sayonara to the Stork and trying out someone new we can’t afford because she wants us to do our own insurance billing…what is WITH these people?).

Yesterday my partner texted me: “I love you.  OMG, intimacy!”

I texted her back: “Me 2.  I mean I hate you 4ever.”

She reported later that she laughed very loudly in the middle of a silent writing exercise in her how-to-do-therapy workshop.  (My partner texts during her therapy workshop!  There may be hope for her yet!)

I would also like to state, for the record, that I am very disappointed that not a single person voted on whether or not we’d have the big blowout fight.

But I bet you could guess who it was that brought up the wet spaghetti idea.

5 days and counting.

I think it’s now just a question of how creatively neurotic we become as the 25 year mark inches its way toward us.