I love a good mystery!
When I was six, my little neighbor, Ricky, called me over to look through the hole in our shared wooden fence. Then he stabbed me with a sharpened pencil, darn-near blinding me. After I got over the shock, hurt, anger, and fear, Mom sat me down and tried to explain why Ricky may have done that. Like I cared.
But Mom stimulated my curiosity and, ever since I was young, I’ve been intrigued by what makes people tick. I love a good mystery!
We are complex and beautiful creatures and deserve to be seen, heard, understood, and accepted. We can see the value of doing that for others, but to be fully human, we must begin by doing it for ourselves. As Socrates so wisely counseled, “Know thyself” is imperative in understanding the beauty, dignity, and purpose of who we are. Scripture also bids us to know our hearts, test ourselves, get the log out of our own eyes, and ultimately love ourselves as we love our neighbor.
But we’re usually too rushed tired, or afraid to take the time to go into our interior. Scary things may lurk there (they do, by the way.) The key is not to go there on our own but to enter with a trusted guide, using maps and tools designed for the journey. For me, IFS has proved to be one of many simple but effective aids for my own adventure into the interior.
What is Internal Family Systems?
Recently, Dr. Richard Schwartz, Ph.D. formulated a new way to look at timeless truths about the human person which he calls Internal Family Systems. The name is not about your family of origin, but the community of parts that are within you. God is a Communion of Persons, and in a sense, so are you.
- Each of our inner parts contains valuable qualities of who we are,
- All our parts are good, but some of our parts are wounded,
- Wounded parts are not always thinking or acting in healthy ways,
- It is the Core Self—connected to God–who can bring healing to those parts.
Catholic psychotherapists have taken up the truths found in this model and integrated sound Catholic spirituality and anthropology into the psychology. What’s the goal of IFS?
Mental, emotional, and spiritual health, all leading to union with God. And not just in heaven, but entering more deeply into that union right here on earth.
This blog can’t adequately describe IFS, but let it be a start. Before we meet the “family,” let’s revisit some sound Catholic theology.
God is ONE but also THREE
Clearly, God has revealed that he is One:
Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. (Deut 6:4)
And he has also revealed that he is more than one; within that oneness he is also three distinct Persons. We first see this in Genesis:
And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness… (Gen 1:16)
It’s a mystery! But it’s not outside our general understanding that within God’s beautiful unity is also a mysterious multiplicity.
We are made in God’s image
We are his sons and daughters and bear his divine DNA; we, too, can know that we are also unity and multiplicity. Our multiplicity is not pathological, as in split personalities or supposed past lives, but parts of our inner self. As Catholics, we commonly understand that:
- Scripture teaches we have we are body, soul, and spirit.
- Paul cautions about the war with our spirit and flesh.
- The Church teaches we have intellect, emotions, and will.
- Man has discovered the id, the ego, and the superego
- Some men are counseled to get in touch with their feminine side
- Some people have both an introverted side and an extroverted side
- The Church has long taught that we are each a combination of two separate temperaments.
It should not then be a struggle to understand that within your own, unique oneness there is also a community of parts. And these are not just descriptors, memories, or ways we are wired, but parts of our whole person that participate in our thinking and acting.
Who’s driving the bus?
Before man’s fall, our parts were in balance and working together in harmony. With the devil’s temptation, a “part” of Eve began to doubt God’s goodness. Those thoughts gave rise to fear and self-protection. Her inner “parts” were already beginning to push against one another.
Do you recall what we learned from our Baltimore Catechism? Sin:
- Darkened our intellect
- Disordered our desires
- Weakened our will
Parts! Within Eve was still that part that knew, loved, and trusted God, but the doubtful, worried part got up from the back of the bus, made its way forward, and took over the steering wheel. And Eve, along with her weak copilot Adam, ran all of mankind right off the road.
When you and I have problems, it is still because the wrong part of us is trying to drive the bus. The solution, then, is finding our strongest, most loving part and putting that one back in charge.
Meet the Family
The Core Self (Parental)
This part is your base of goodness, truth, and virtue. It trusts and is connected to God. It knows what God wants and through baptism and his graces is empowered to overcome sin. Your Core Self is:
Calm * Clear * Confident * Compassionate * Courageous * Curious * Creative * Connected
But your other parts are over-attached to their desires, fears, anxieties, or disordered beliefs. They don’t always trust the Core Self. They’re like runaway children, but because they are part of you, they can’t really run away. But they will try!
Imagine your inner self as a household of unruly children. The babies just want to be fed, the children just want to avoid hard work and play, and the teens are caught somewhere between childhood and adulthood. Chaos in your inner family can be calmed when the parent comes in, establishes trust and authority, and brings peace.
The Exiles (Childish)
These are the wounded parts of you who hold trauma from the past. They experienced, remember, and still fear rejection, hurt, shame, and even terror. Like children, they tend to think in extremes and irrationally. They can’t always see the big picture and are often stuck in a childish self-focus.
Also, like children, they desire to be seen, heard, and loved. They carry the sweet, tender, silly, childlike parts of you that are good. But they are suppressed, lack life and relationship skills, don’t trust, are vulnerable, and feel the need for protection.
The Protectors (Adolescents)
These are the parts of you who take immediate action to protect your exiles. There are two general groups of protectors:
These are the parts and the voices that we hear most often. They are the ones responsible for day-to-day safety. They manage and self-soothe.
- Their primary job is to prevent feelings of distress.
- They will do whatever it takes to prevent painful feelings.
- They keep the exile suppressed.
- They want to control things. (Depending on temperament they might control with charm, avoidance, criticism, over-management, and threats of anger)
The sad thing is, to keep the exile “safe”, they can use just as much shame as outsiders! You idiot. You’re fat. They may be “parenting”(managing) the way they were parented, out of habit, instead of drawing from the guidance and leadership of the Core Self.
These parts are the emergency protectors who act immediately when an exile has slipped past a Manager.
- They also serve to keep the exile safe from pain, but in a much more reactive way, to “put out the fire.”
- They resort to more drastic and less acceptable means by using flamethrowers or escaping into addictions.
- They will use any thought, activity, or substance to prevent and escape the pain.
We need managers and firefighters for real times of distress or danger. The problem is not the part because they serve us. It’s when they operate separately from the Core Self that they (and the exiles they protect) get into trouble.
The Path to Healing
The root problem is disorder in the family structure. Healing will come with reordering. Healing is not about blending all the parts or making any of them disappear, but by bringing right order and calm. All our parts are good, welcome, and necessary. Using the family analogy:
- the Exiles (kids)have been unhealed and neglected.
- the Protectors (Managers and Firefighters) are like the teen-aged babysitters who have been left in charge of the children for far too long.
Healing happens when:
- The Exiles know they are heard, understood, respected, safe, loved, and cherished.
- The Protectors know they are not alone and there are better, safer, holier ways of protecting.
The Core Self is Parental
In our family analogy, imagine God the Father as the source of power, authority, provision, protection, love, and all that his human family needs. Each of us, called into spousal union with God, has that part of us we call the Core Self, who is the caretaker of all parts. Like a mother, the Core Self shares in God’s power, authority, and love. The Core Self draws its strength and love from that intimate union with him. Thus—in that sense—the Core Self may be seen as maternal.
In no way does the masculine get sacrificed, for “he” shows up in all parts of the Self, in varying degrees, by sex or even temperament.
The Core Self Must Step In
The Core Self may have forgotten or been unaware of some or many of its parts or has been neglecting or even indulging them. Now it must become more aware. Like Mom waking from a nap. Always there, but not as involved as she should have been.
Regardless of your sex, your Core Self must commit daily to being aware of being present to all parts and to function as a loving parent. That will mean taking the time to do the job properly. The Core Self must recall and draw from what it knows of God, his love, his power, his promises, and his authority.
If the Exiles and Protectors are afraid of, and self-protecting from, past negligent or abusive parenting, the Core Self will have to be patient in the work of replacing and rebuilding trust.
The Problem is Fatherless families
Without God the Father, the Core Self and all of our parts would be lost. With grace, the Core Self can and will bring God’s love and peace into the internal family. Your Core Self must come back into the day-to-day in a slow, safe, and ever-present way to bring order and calm. This is done:
- By intention – desiring change, accepting the necessity of it, and being willing to do the work
- By habit – making the time to think and engage with all parts until it becomes the natural default
- By self-talk – when an exile is threatened, the Core self steps in and listens, leads, and loves.
In a scheduled quiet time and place, or even in an unexpected instant of upset or fear, the capable Core Self unites its mind and will with God and:
( 1 ) Talks to the Protectors
- to listen and develop trust
- to thank and not shame
- to counsel the doubtful
- to console the sorrowful
- to instruct the ignorant/teach healthier management styles
- to show love and compassion
- to admonish as necessary
- to assume full loving authority
- to literally bring Jesus to them
( 2 ) Talks to the exiles
- Doing the same as with the Protectors.
I’ve personally found this a helpful and powerful tool in my own life and relationships. It can help cut through the chaotic thinking into which we can all fall, and I love to introduce the “family” to my clients who are open and ready. For more on IFS through a distinctly Catholic lens:
Understanding Your Parts – Part 1
(Being Human Podcast)
VIDEO; Dr. Peter Malinoski and Dr. Greg Bottaro introduce IFS
Understanding Your Parts – Part 2
VIDEO; Dr. Peter Malinoski (soulsandhearts.com )and Dr. Greg Bottaro (CatholicPsych.com)