Tuesday, August 21, 2012


Psych treatments tend to form around some assumption about humans, then to “handbook” them into certain techniques, and in the crowning moment convert their description into an acronym, which then becomes a “brand” to promote in YouTube, at conferences, and in certifying protocols.  That’s just the way it works.  Of all these in “Treating Complex Traumatic Stress Disorders,” a book of essays about these systems, the one I would sign up for is “Internal Family Systems Therapy.”   (IFS)  It’s the one that rings true with my own experience both as counselor and counselee.  And there’s the least new vocabulary to learn.  

Devised by Richard C. Schwartz when working with anorexic women, you can find YouTube vids at the links I’ll append.  I like to see the faces of these people and Schwartz does not set off my bullshit detector -- some of these guys do.  (Even some of the fans do.)  He seems a quiet, earnest man, a little younger than most, at least in this vid, and describes clearly how he came to his ideas.  Standard family therapy has always seemed sensible to me, even the account of a therapist who called in the whole crew including the family parakeet -- these people had gotten in the habit of addressing each other indirectly by talking to the parakeet.  I’ve known people who only talked to the dog.

His ideas about the inner “parts” seem to me to line up well with both the brain thought-processing theories of a guy like Damasio or Gazzinaga.  Also they’re easy to reconcile with Freud’s “ego, superego, and id or libido.”  The ideas are entirely practical and even familiar.  How many times have YOU been accused of being “two people?”  Only TWO people??  Parts is parts and most of us have many.  They say you can see them form and re-form on an fMRI as the person goes from one attitude to another.  (They may exaggerate.)

But Schwartz is walking perilously close to the skitzy and flammable notions about possession, multiple personalities and all the voodoo juju encouraged by movies.  “Three Faces of Eve” and “Sybil” have been revealed as semi-hoax, pretty much invented by the patients to please beloved therapists.  Oh, let’s say “reframed” since “hoax” is another media trigger for rabble-rousing.  But IMHO Internal Family Systems Therapy would have helped both Eve and Sybil.

I was entirely enthralled by the patient/therapist transcription in this IFS chapter, much more than by the wooden accounts of other chapters.  Schwartz was working with a Vietnam combat veteran with intense PTSD.  Asked to describe in an image what his inability to end the grief was like, the man said he had a “shrouded heart.”  When asked to imagine the terrifying memories and feelings that constantly attacked him -- but safely thinking of them confined in a room and looking at them through a window -- he said they were dark spirits swirling everywhere.  Just like Harry Potter.  You think screenwriters and novelists don’t know about this stuff?  But it’s mythic in its power.

So Googling revealed that at least one person with vulnerable and disowned parts, acting out possession and fantasizing the Devil in classic witchy fashion, attacked one Schwartz (not Richard) with a lawsuit.  Far from being either an attacker or a suppressor (familiar “parts” of many institutional leaders) Richard Schwartz admits that he did damage in his early pursuit of results.  He pressed the “vulnerable parts” -- “the exiles” -- too hard, which brought the defending Maenads screaming for his head.  Anorexics are notoriously resistant to help.  Freud might call them hysterical, which isn’t particularly helpful.

For my “Bone Chalice” manuscript, I’m interested in the notion of “parts” or “aspects” of a person’s “Core Self” in two ways.  One is the idea that when one inhabits that Core Self what emerges is a kind of spiritual confidence and centeredness.  Consider this quote from Schwartz at: http://www.selfleadership.org/the-larger-self.html

But even those clients, once they experienced a sense of their own core, began to take over and acquire what looked like real ego strength on their own, without my having to shovel it into them. And yet, almost no Western psychological theories could explain where this newfound and quite amazing ability to contain and understand their inner turmoil had come from.

The more this happened, the more I felt confronted by what were in essence spiritual questions that simply couldn't be addressed in the terms of problem solving, symptom-focused, results orientated, clinical technique. I began my own novice's exploration into the literature of spirituality and religion and discovered a mother lode of esoteric writings by sages, holy seekers, wise men and women, who emphasized meditative and contemplative techniques as a means of coming to know their Self. ("Esoteric" here means not exotic or far out, but derives from the Greek esotero, which means "further in.") Though they used different words, all the esoteric traditions within the major religions – Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam – emphasized their same core belief: we are sparks of the eternal flame, manifestations of the absolute ground of being. It turns out that the divine within – what the Christians call the soul or Christ Consciousness, Buddhists call Buddha Nature, the Hindus Atman, the Taoists Tao, the Sufis the Beloved, the Quakers the Inner Light – often doesn't take years of meditative practice to access because it exists in all of us, just below the surface of our extreme parts. Once they agree to separate from us, we suddenly have access to who we really are.

I recognize this place.  We're back home in the Perennial Philosophy,  [http://books.google.com/books/about/The_Perennial_Philosophy.html?id=l1fs25HbCY0C ] that dependable resource for Sunday sermons.  We've arrived from far places, seeing the ideas new as if for the first time!   Protectors, persecutors, vulnerabilities, flights of fancy and screaming banshees all sitting at the Core Self’s table asking for someone to please pass the insights.  It's up to the therapist to prevent the table from being overturned.

Just because it’s not new 
Doesn’t mean it’s not true.

We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.
 -- T.S. Eliot

But as Schwartz points out with considerable emphasis, the therapist as the host had better get there first so his or her own Core Self is clear and relaxed so as to pick up on what’s cookin’.  That’s why I wanted to see who was talking on these tapes with my own eyes.

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