I love a good mystery!
When I was six, my little neighbor, Terry, 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 Terry may have done that. Like I cared.
But Mom stimulated my curiosity and, ever since, I’ve been intrigued by what makes people tick. I love a good mystery!
Years late in therapy I dug more deeply into the fence incident. I learned that, in response to trauma, a little “protector” part of me emerged. Like a little cartoon angel on my shoulder, she interiorly echoed Mom’s words: Be careful, not everyone is safe. But another part of me did not want to give up on Terry. I didn’t want it to be true that some people were not safe, or that I could not play with them. That made me sad. So another little protector emerged to cheer up the little sad part: You don’t have to be sad! Maybe we can go over there and see if he is nice again. Thus began a long and constant inner conflict where I would be hurt or used by others and, instead of reconciling to reality, I’d go back again (and again), hoping that maybe this time I would be safe.
We are marvelously mysterious!
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 venture on our own but to enter with a trusted guide, using maps and tools designed for the journey. For me, Internal Family Systems (IFS) has proved to be one of many simple but effective aids for my own adventure into the interior.
What is Internal Family Systems?
A decade or so ago, Dr. Richard Schwartz, Ph.D. formulated a new way to look at ancient 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. You may have heard someone talk about the “committee inside your head,” or the “inner child within.” IFS fleshes this reality out by identifying and categorizing our parts.
- Each of your inner parts contains valuable qualities of who you are,
- All your parts are good, but some of your parts are wounded by trauma,
- Wounded parts are usually reactive, and not always thinking or acting in healthy ways,
- It is the Core Self—most immediately connected to God–who can bring God’s love, wisdom, and healing to those parts.
Catholic psychotherapists have taken up the truths found in this model and have beautifully integrated sound Catholic spirituality and anthropology. What’s the goal of Catholic-oriented 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 in a mysterious sense, 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. If, in a certain sense, God is a Communion of Persons, and you are made in his image, then in a sense, so are you.
However, we must not reduce the Trinity to our human understanding of parts. St. Anselm of Canterbury declared, “There are no parts in you, Lord; neither are you many, but you are so much one and the same with yourself that in nothing are you dissimilar with yourself.” God does not have separate parts. St. Anselm is not denying the uniqueness and identity of the Persons of the Trinity, but assuring us of God’s divine perfection.
We are made in God’s image
We are his sons and daughters and bear his divine DNA; we can know that (in a sense) we are also unity and multiplicity. Our multiplicity is not pathological, as in split personalities or supposed past lives, but various parts of our inner self. (If it helps, you may also call these parts different modes of operating; it’s a way of explaining our conflicting thoughts, feelings, and responses.) 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
- Others can be both optimistic and pessimistic.
- The Church has long taught that we are each a combination of two different 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 actively 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. In IFS, that is called our “Core Self.”
Meet the Family
The Core Self (Parental)
This part is your base of goodness, truth, and virtue. It trusts and is most quickly and intimately 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. Because they learned not to trust others, they often don’t trust the Core Self, and aren’t sure they can even trust God. 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, empathy, love, clear 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. They are the parts of you that feel dumb, stupid, worthless, fat, ugly, pathetic, weak, and not good enough. 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. They are still looking for someone to care for and rescue them.
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.
Beyond our original exiles, we often also disown parts of ourselves when we are in a relationship, in order to make our partner and ourselves feel safer. These are “neo-exiles,” parts of us that are suppressed or even banished because they are seen as threatening to the relationship. My husband doesn’t like when I talk about my faith, so I don’t. My boss hates my political party, so I must hide that part of myself to be safe in my job.
The Protectors (Adolescents)
These are the parts of you who have emerged when trauma hit. They take immediate action to protect your exiles. Whenever one or more of your exiles are triggered by fear or shame, they rush into action with all manner of management styles. 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 (shame/fear/anxiety).
- They will do whatever it takes to prevent painful feelings.
- They try to keep the exile suppressed.
- They want to control things. (Depending on temperament they might control with charm, avoidance, criticism, over-management, threats of anger, and more)
The sad thing is, to keep the exile “safe”, they can use just as much shame as outsiders! You idiot. You’re fat. It’s not rocket science! These shame-based comments are meant to help them feel a sense of control and to push you down or away. 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 a 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 of 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 parental.
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 a parent waking from a nap. Always there, but not as involved as she should have been.
Or in her efforts to lead, she has been overwhelmed.
I recall taking my 4-year-old stepson into the deep end of the pool. Clinging to me he felt safe. But when some rowdy kids swam by he was triggered by fear and wrapped himself around my neck so tightly I could not breathe. Instantly I knew I would go down, too, if I did not create some space between his grip and my throat so, without letting go, I pushed him away far enough that I could breathe. His eyes grew big with terror as he thought I was going to push him away and abandon him. So I kept a firm grasp, stayed closely connected, but shifted him into a position where I was not overwhelmed and could talk to him, soothe him, and get him to the side of the pool. THIS is what the Core Self must do with triggered exiles and their protective parts.
The Core Self Replaces Shame with Trust
Your Core Self must commit daily to being aware of being present to all parts and function as a loving parent. That means taking the time to listen, develop trust, establish authority, lead, and love no matter what happens. Acknowledging appropriate guilt, making ways for reparation, but getting rid of shame. Isn’t this exactly what Our Lord did with everyone? 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 shame, and self-protecting from past negligent or abusive parenting or relationships, 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 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)