Richard Schwartz, PhD, is the founding developer of Internal Family Systems (IFS), a therapeutic model that synthesizes systems thinking and the multiplicity of the mind, suggesting alternative ways of understanding psychic functioning and healing.
Dr. Schwartz coauthored, with Michael Nichols, Family Therapy: Concepts and Methods, the most widely used family therapy text in the United States. Recently, Dr. Schwartz sat down with Jenn Brown (JB), from 1440 Multiversity, and the two talked about Dr. Schwartz’s innovative approach to mental health:
JB: How did you develop the Internal Family Systems (IFS) model of therapy?
Richard Schwartz: I was trained as a family therapist and was one of those obnoxiously zealous people who thought he found the Holy Grail and wanted to prove it. So I did an outcome study with bulimic clients in the early 1980s and found that even if I reorganized families just the way the textbooks said to do it, still some of my clients kept binging and purging.
Out of frustration, I began asking what was happening inside them, and they basically started teaching me about what I eventually came to call the IFS model. They would describe these parts of themselves and at first I thought that was an interesting metaphor for their feelings. But they described these parts being able to make them do things they didn’t want to do, so I wondered if these were multiple personality disorder clients.
Then I noticed I had these voices too, so I got real curious about it.
JB: Are these voices the internalized voices of our parents or society?
Richard Schwartz: That’s what I thought at first—that the inner critic was some kind of internalized parental voice and the binge was an out of control impulse. But as I worked with them and got to know them, it became clear that they were like inner personalities, most of whom were just trying to help my clients stay safe.
JB: Are we born with these parts?
Richard Schwartz: A lot of the field believes that these parts are either the product of trauma—that they’re the fragments of once unitary minds—or that they are the internalized voices of our parents and society. But after years of asking questions of these inner systems, my conclusion is that we’re born with them and that it’s the nature of the mind to be subdivided—and that’s a good thing.
Researchers talk about five or six discrete states that infants pass through, and I believe these are the parts that are online when we’re born. For example, there was a time when I put my compliant two-year-old to bed and overnight the part that says no to everything showed up. Outside of these parts, the others are dormant until the time is right.
JB: What happens to these parts as we grow up?
Richard Schwartz: When an extreme emotion enters your system from some kind of trauma or attachment injury, the emotion or belief attaches like a virus to some of your parts and organizes the way those parts operate thereafter. What happens over time is that parts can be at odds with other parts, causing disharmony. When I realized this resembled a family system—with some parts protecting others and other parts fighting with others—I decided to work with my clients to see if they could form better relationships with their parts.
JB: How do these parts organize themselves internally?
Richard Schwartz: After traumas, they organize into two main categories of extreme roles: exiles and protectors.
As we go through life, we inevitably get hurt, and our most sensitive, young, childlike parts are the ones that take those hurts personally and carry the burdens of worthlessness, terror, shame, fear of being abandoned, fear of not being protected, and so on. After they’ve been hurt that way, we don’t want to spend any time with them because they make us feel bad, and they can pull us back into those dreadful scenes. We lock them away in inner basements or caves, so I call these parts the exiles.
To keep these parts from getting retriggered, and to keep us from being consumed in the flames of those raw emotions again, we need protectors. Protectors organize themselves into two categories: managers and firefighters.
Managers are all about control. They try to manage our relationships so nobody gets too close and/or the people we depend on don’t get too distant. They manage our bodies so we look right. They manage our performance so we avoid rejection. Managers can be caretakers, people-pleasers, hypervigilant, etc. They have the ability to numb our bodies or get us to dissociate—whatever it takes to avoid anything that might trigger an exile.
If an exile does happen to get triggered, then that’s an emergency and the firefighters, who think you’re going to die, come to the rescue. To fight the fire of an exile’s emotion, they create an even bigger fire or distract you from the fire until it burns itself out. Firefighters are impulsive and reactive and unconcerned with the collateral damage of their actions. They just know they need to do whatever it takes to stop the flames of the emotion.
Almost everybody has some version of this exile-manager-firefighter system, and it’s often more extreme for those who have been hurt more acutely or chronically.
JB: What did you discover as you started to have clients work with their parts?
Richard Schwartz: At first it didn’t go well. If I had a client talk to a part, another part that didn’t like that would often jump in. As a family therapist, when you have two people talking and a third interferes, your job is to protect the boundary around the first two. So I would have clients ask the third one to just step back from the second one and relax, and it turned out my clients could do that.
And when they did, spontaneously and suddenly this other person would emerge who knew how to relate to these parts in a very human and loving way.
Out of the blue would come this curious, compassionate, confident person.
When I would ask clients which part this was, they would respond that it’s not a part like the others and that it felt more like who they really are, like “myself.” So I came to call that the Self, with a capital S.
And 35 years later I can safely say that we all have this Self, or inner essence, that’s just beneath the surface of these parts. This Self can’t be damaged and knows how to heal people once it’s safely released.
JB: How do you work with the exiles and protectors?
Richard Schwartz: We learned the hard way not to go to the exiles first. We start with the protectors, and we listen to them and learn what they protect. We honor them for that service and then negotiate with them for the permission to go to what they protect so we can heal those exiles.
Once the exiles are healed, we come back to the protectors and find they’re very interested in changing roles. We help them look into what they’re designed to do, which is always something valuable.
All of your parts are valuable, but they’re forced out of their valuable roles by the burdens of traumas and injuries.
They’re frozen in time, and once you unburden them they revert to their naturally valuable states.
For example, when the critic is freed of its burdens, it often becomes a person’s biggest cheerleader or motivator. That’s what IFS does. It helps people access the Self and then help these parts begin to transform.