Last year I spent months studying a style of therapy called Internal Family Systems (IFS) as a Continuing Education journey. I do some counseling work with clients, desire to experience more wholeness myself, and find it applies to my work in mediation. I read the foundational book on IFS, called Self Therapy by Jay Earley published in the late 1990s, and took an online course. I began meeting with one of my counselor friends every other week to practice the book’s exercises using this style of therapy with one another.
The basic idea of IFS is we all have various parts within us developed over our lives. You’ve said, “Part of me is feeling angry right now,” or something along those lines. This falls into that reality. The parts all have positive intent, even if it may not look like it. They seek to protect us from feeling deeper pain which is kept hidden away, in another part called an “exile.” which is an expression of the inner child. The protector parts are either managers or firefighters.
A manager part, as the name implies, manages a situation. Managing takes many forms — being excessively critical, strident, joking, withdrawn, dazed, etc.
One of my parts “manages” tense conversations with my wife by erecting a wall within me. I then come off really strong over against her! This part has often come up in the kitchen when Karen and I are working on preparing a meal. Once when the part came up, I stepped out of the kitchen knowing a part had come up. I spoke to the part, saying, “Could you step aside so I could get to know you?”
Immediately, I got the picture of this chef, wearing his hat, in this crazy outfit holding several knives in each hand with a wild expression on his face.
“Please stop flooding me,” I said, and the hot emotions I was feeling immediately dissipated. “Now, stop helping for today. I will talk with you later, okay?” He agreed.
I then stepped back into the kitchen without the disrupting hot emotions or wall of defensiveness.
Later when I returned to speak with this part, he told me his name was Clives! After he trusted me enough to step aside from guarding the exile, I met the exile, an inner-child. I walked into this dark room, and found this little boy (me) tied up, naked and gagged. I untied him, whispering comfort to him, and asked him to share his powerful, painful story with me. To be heard helps immensely. Jesus came, unburdened all the pain, and dressed him in a white robe. Now joyful, not terrified, this little guy came out of the room with me and met Clives. Clives was shocked to see “little me” healed and free. I told Clives he had done a great job, but could have a new job now. Thrilled, he laid down all his knives. Just like that! “I’d like to bring joy to the kitchen now” he said.
This is what happens in this type of work. The parts get new jobs and exiles are healed. It’s beautiful to watch happen.
Last September, a friend in another state hit an emotional wall in his life and needed help sorting his heart. We began to meet by phone weekly. This method was just what he needed. It gave him tools for handling emotions on his own and allowing Jesus into his pain. For six months we talked weekly and God slowly but surely unraveled the pain held within. Over those months this friend faced off with huge points of pain and fear, and came out a new man. He’s never felt so free.
The second type of part is called a firefighter. This part uses a more extreme way to distract us from the pain within, such as overeating, sex, emotional outbursts, substance abuse, etc. IFS therapists have discovered how multiple parts can be connected to addiction, even. Once the client gets to know these parts and can meet and unburden the exiles being protected, the person can find freedom from the addiction.
One therapist told the story of her client who struggled with bulimia. She had worked with this client for months to no avail, so recommended inpatient work. The therapist found her client a spot in a facility which happened to use IFS therapy with the patients. After four months at the facility, the client returned home and came to her first appointment back with her original therapist. In that session, the client described how she and her family had gone out to dinner after she returned. As she ate, she also planned to throw up afterward. But instead she didn’t, and was still free. The therapist was fascinated, this was the first time the client had ever been successful over against the bulimia.
The therapist asked, “How did you turn away from making yourself throw up.” The client said, “Well, I just went into the bathroom and instead of making myself throw up, I talked to my parts.” This astounded this therapist, who asked many more questions about what this meant. This therapist realized she needed to understand more about IFS, began to study it and became an IFS therapist.
Part of the IFS process is to learn to approach the parts within from the true self, which IFS describes as coming from a place of compassion and curiosity.
When helping a client work with a part, we are to ask our clients, “How are you feeling toward that part now?”
If the client is feeling compassionate and curious, then, she is in self and can continue. If she is feeling critical, angry, impatient, etc., then, another part has “come up” and needs to be asked to step aside for the time being.
I have had to ask clients to ask many of these other parts to step aside in the process of working with one part. But when in self, there is a tenderness and curiosity toward what is happening within. This self, the deep center of personality, seems to be the seat of God within a person.
In the Harry Potter book series by J.K. Rowling, her character Dumbledore, the headmaster at Hogwarts School, is the epitome of the self. Serene, calm, measured, compassionate and curious, Dumbledore is given all the best lines. Whenever I have read the series I meet deep wisdom in this character time and again.
In chapter 37, of the fifth book, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” Harry and Dumbledore are in the headmaster’s office in an intense conversation. Harry, grief-stricken because of decisions he’s made and resultant losses is filled with rage. This is like an angry part seeking to cover the deep pain! It is often easier to be angry and blame another (for Harry, he blames the headmaster) than express the deep sadness one feels. Harry, in his anger, has destroyed many items in Dumbledore’s office, “‘By all means continue destroying my possessions,’ said Dumbledore serenely, ‘I daresay I have too many.'”
Harry shouts, “I don’t care!” To which Dumbledore gently responds, “Oh, but you do care. You care so much you feel as though you will bleed to death with the pain of it. You have now lost your mother, your father and the closest thing to a parent you have ever known. Of course you care.”
Here is truth. Harry is not ready to hear it, but it is truth, nonetheless. His anger is birthed from the feeling “he might bleed to death with the pain of it.” What compassion Dumbledore shows Harry!
I am reminded as I walk with clients and walk with others in the world today, how much everyone needs to encounter compassion and curiosity in me. It seems it is not something people often give themselves, and is certainly not something we often give others. Yet, how essential, to be willing to be present with compassion and curiosity and see what fruit it brings.