It’s become almost a joke to talk about one’s inner baby, one’s inner Barbie, one’s inner monster. It’s a cultural assumption that human identity is pretty much a committee. What the culture does NOT assume but the Internal Family Systems therapist does believe is that there is, somewhere, a Self that is capable of being intelligent, lovable, a good and capable identity that manages the others. The therapist looks for three groups of selves: the inner managers (mom, the scolder, the planner, et al), the exiles (parts frozen by trauma, the Peter Pan, the Whiner, the I-Don’t-Get-It, the Abused), and the firefighters who will either create uproar or bring down the curtain (perhaps forever) when things get dangerous or too painful.
What follows is little bit role-playing, a little bit asking for permission, a little bit interacting with the therapist’s inner parts, but particularly inner Self, and so on. The therapist tries fo find the burdens the parts carry, maybe the feeling that they should save their families or maybe rage at betrayal. The IFS therapists asked the part to describe the burden in metaphor: black muck on their head, pockets full of rocks -- and then imagine putting it down. For me, one of the most attractive part of this approach is its playfulness, its permission asking, its refusal to blame or force.
When a part seems very very dangerous, the therapist asks the person to imagine it confined to a room where it can be viewed through a window. Metaphorically, what does it look like? A dragon? A cannon? A lion-tamer? Discussing it this way often makes it safe enough for the person to pretend to enter the room and talk to it. What do you say to a dragon? You ask it why it’s giving you so much trouble! What’s remarkable is that people in this sort of dialogue can and will speak for the dragon! The dragon might say he was scared! This is all very exclamatory if you haven’t done it before.
The author of this book I’m reading *Internal Family Systems Therapy" by Richard C. Schwartz, cautions those without their own inner parts settled and trusting each other enough to let the Self function, not to rush into rescuing the exiles or the dragons or the busybodies. Oh, my inner busybody! Meddlesome Mattie, my mother called her. Of course, my mother’s mantra was “I’m going to get to the bottom of this.” These parts don’t come out of thin air.
Lately the Div School Diva has been around quite a bit. When I feel as though I haven’t “achieved up to my potential” as used to be scribbled on my grade report, the Div School Diva steps in to point out my credentials. At this weekend’s sign language conference she waved them around a bit. It was all right -- it was sort of putting the cards on the table and turned up another Div School Grad (a real person) who was more of a diplomat than I am. I’m joking around, but this second Div School person does organizational development and conflict resolution for a living. He will know what I mean when I say this Internal Family Therapy technique will work in congregations, towns, or even nations.
Human beings are fractal, meaning that their big versions are often reiterations of the patterns in the little versions. So the internal parts or “puppets” of each of us, those little voices who say, “You put that down now,” or “you can do it if you try” or “I want to go home now” are repeated in families: Mom: “You put that down now.” Dad: “You can do it if you try.” Child: “I want to go home now.” And then in the whole nation those “parts” enact themselves all over again.
So on the national level some of us are Exiles -- too afraid, too dirty, too poor, too disabled, too old -- and some of us (the Managers) keep trying to figure out how to help and reorganize all the time. Whenever that doesn’t work, the Firefighters (who sometimes seem more like the fire) rush in to stop any change, to hide the exiles, to deny everything. And the Exiles are more terrified than ever.
If as individuals we learn how to sort and listen to our internal voices, then perhaps we can understand the dynamics of our families, our communities, and finally our nations. If we vote for people who are in touch with their inner parts and prepared to protect the Exiles while dealing with both Managers and Firefighters, maybe we could get somewhere. Where is our healthy, patient Self?
Schwartz repeats again and again what an optimist he is about the capacity of people to be their own Self therapists and manage the conversation among their inner selves. He says he speaks from experience over many years. It’s a matter of setting examples, demonstrating that you don’t have to flay yourself alive in order to change, and always asking permission from the inner gatekeepers, the guardians, the fierce monsters, so as to be able to talk to the exiles they protect.
Tim uses a very similar technique with chairs -- the person exploring his or her self sits in one chair and pretends another inner or other person is in the other chair. Schwartz says he’s worked with some people who had a whole circle of chairs, going from one to the other to “be” each part. Other stay in one chair but lean this way for one part and that way for another part. Play therapy is not so different, nor is art therapy or dance therapy. Anything that will reveal the pattern of interaction and provide identifying metaphors for the entities. The real bottom line is that almost everyone can be their own auteur, their own puppet-master, their own puppet conversation. It’s what the young ‘uns now are calling the “meta” and they’re pretty good at it.
Here’s Robinson in “Internal Family Systems Therapy” (p. 135): "From a child to a family, from a company to a country, a human system needs time in a sustaining environment for healthy development. I do not subscribe, however, to the concept that a single critical period spent in a constraining environment destroys or severely curtails the system’s chance for health.” And “No matter how early in development a human system has been constrained -- whether by abuse, neglect and deprivation, or by being subjected to extreme values, responsibilities and trauma -- it still contains an undamaged, fully capable Self that can restore some level of balance and harmony once the constraints are released.”
In short, do not make an Exile of your optimism! Do not make a Fire of your Firefighter. Do not let your Manager shut out your real unified Self. Talk it out.