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Play It Through

Internal Family Systems – Parts of self

As a dramatherapist I like models of therapy which explore parts of self “part of me things this and part of me thinks that”. During my therapy training I learnt about the Internal Family Systems by Richard Schwartz. In this blog I describe how I explain this model to some of my clients (mostly Richard’s model, my wording).

True Self

Your true self or soul

Once upon a time, there was a brand new you, just formed. Your eyes not yet opened, you hear the sounds around you; some which were new and some which sound familiar.

Your true self is full of potential. There are 7 qualities associated with this true self:

  • Calmness
  • Compassion
  • Courage
  • Clarity
  • Creativity
  • Curiosity
  • Connectedness

Inner Child parts

One day you are squeezed, pushed or pulled to get from the womb to this outside world which is cold, dry and bright.

In those first hours, days, weeks, months and years, you began to interact with those around you. The ones who feed you, the ones who rock you and sooth you, the ones who bring toys and play with you. Your child like parts grow and interact with the world. Some of those parts might be playful, some might be timid, some creative, destructive, imaginative, trusting or sensitive.

But the world is not always safe for your child parts and as you mature, you are expected to become more responsible. At some point, something happens to one of your child parts; maybe they get hurt (either by their own actions or by other people taking advantage of their vulnerability or maybe there is some kind of hurtful event like a storm or accident).

Maybe your child parts are expected to “grow up”, “act your age”, “don’t be silly”, “be helpful”… The world, which has been the playground for your child parts, begins to expect something different from you.

Manager parts

Manager parts begin to emerge to meet this new need and to emulate the adults around you who have cared for you so far. The managers have two jobs

  1. Look after the child parts
  2. Show the outside world that you can do it (or not)

Your managers might criticise your child parts or they might develop strategies to manage life – you learn how to spin lots of different plates in work, in relationships, in all the responsibilities you have.

The managers build a tower for the child parts to live in and to show to the outside world. Perhaps they install frosted windows so no one can see in to the messy child parts. They plant a garden around the tower, sometimes full of showy flowers, sometimes full of keep out thorns. They paint the outside of the tower with the things they want everyone else to see.

Some child parts are allowed to come and go from the tower at different times, other child parts have a strict curfew (allowed out at certain times or with certain people only) and others are grounded for bad behaviour. Your manager has to always think about “is it safe” for the child part to be allowed out and “can they be trusted” not to spoil everything your manger has worked so hard to build.

Child parts become the Exiles

Some child parts are locked away permanently, the manager parts have to tightly control them, either for their own good or to stop them causing harm. But when the child parts are locked away, the other parts loose access to their good qualities as well as their bad qualities, so maybe it is harder to be playful, harder to cry when upset, harder to be creative.

Your child parts do not like being locked away and they try to escape but often your manager is one step ahead of them. The harder the exile tries to escape, the harder the manager works to keep everything under control. And the longer this goes on the harder the manager has to work because that exiled child part is getting angry, upset and unpredictable. If they let them out now who knows what they would do – worse than a 2 year old throwing a tantrum, worse than a teenager with mood swings, worse than world war 3, it would be total chaos. Letting out an exile, who is so out of control, leaves that exile at serious risk of harm and also jeopardises everything the manager has worked so hard to build.

Sometimes a child part does escape and your manager can not get them back under control. The escaped child sets fire to the tower and the manager needs to call for back up.

Fire fighter parts

Like the managers, the fire fighters want to get the out of control child parts back into control. Unlike the managers, the fire fighters do not care about outside appearances.

The fire fighter comes in and tramples over the garden, crushing the plants. They break the frosted windows. They put out the fire with water from heavy jets which also makes the paint run and which damages the plaster on the walls leaving holes and cracks for all to see. If the fire fighter finds a suspect package which could a bomb planted by the child part they carry out a controlled explosion and destroy it.

This will look different for different people, some fire fighter strategies might include drug use, eating disorders, self harm, compulsive behaviour, binging, violence or aggression, lying, running away.

In the worst case scenario, if the fire fighter believes the fire can not be put out or that the flames will spread to other people around us, the fire fighter might attempt to demolish the whole tower with all of the parts still inside, as the fire fighter believes they just can not be saved. Sometimes people survive a suicide attempt, sometimes they do not.

When the Firefighters have finished their job, the fire has been put out and the child has been temporarily soothed and is handed back to the manager. But the beautiful tower is in serious need of some DIY and redecorating – and some of the neighbours (other people in your life) have noticed the cracks!

The managers might have asked the fire fighters to help but they are not very happy with the damage! They blame the fire fighters who in turn blame the manager and child for causing the problem in the first place. Parts often don’t like other parts and express this as “I hate myself“.

The child is once again Exiled and while they may be quite for a while, eventually they will try again to escape. Sometimes it is easier for the child to break free a second time – once they learn to pick the locks or find the secret passage out then they might use it more and more.

In therapy

The role of therapy is to identify what is going on in your internal family system (to treat the different parts as if you were all in family therapy together). Which parts are in conflict or crisis, which ones are working really hard, what are the parts worried about, what do they want. To work out what is needed for the different parts to take a step back and work together for the benefit of all the parts. It is not the therapists job to take sides against a part which only did what it did because it was trying to help. No part is bad or “a problem” – all parts are welcome.

The therapist helps the parts to reconnect with that True Self or Soul part which has been there from the start and saw everything that led up to where the parts are now. That part is not like the other parts – the other parts might be in conflict with each other and have their own agendas. The soul can understand the needs of all of the parts, knows why they are there and what they want. The soul part is ready to help them (if they are ready to accept that help). It is a source of deep inner wisdom and self compassion. IFS talks about self leadership; learning to trust and be guided by that deep inner wisdom.

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