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IFS: Embracing and Listening to Our Multiple Selves

Photo credit: Mariana Montrazi

“Most of the world’s problems arise from a misunderstanding about parts and burdens,” Dr. Richard Schwartz asserts. In IFS, which he founded, the “parts” are our multiple internal selves, and the burdens are the trauma and wounds they try to manage on our behalf. The simple but radical proposition of IFS is that these multiple selves arise for good reasons and have a lot to offer—if we can help them change with the seasons of our lives.

“There is something incalculable in each of us,” EM Forster wrote nearly a century ago, “which may at any moment rise to the surface and destroy our normal balance.” Generations earlier, Walt Whitman put it more joyfully: “I am vast, I contain multitudes.”

Storytellers and poets, in other words, have suspected it all along: we are far more than a single, unified Self. Within us are numerous selves, whole or partial, with functions and perceptions that may clash or contradict. Traditional psychological and mental health practice has tended to see this as a threat, a state in need of correction. Restore the whole! Round those parts up and sew them back together!

But the Internal Family Systems (IFS) approach takes a much more Whitmanesque view of things. In this short, easy-to-follow lecture, Dr. Richard Schwartz provides a thumbnail introduction to the system he developed. IFS, he explains, posits that these psychological parts are perfectly natural, and beneficial in origin. They arise to perform specific jobs in our lives, such as protection from trauma or interpretation of complex lived realities.

“As we go through life and encounter trauma and attachment injuries,” he says, “they shift from their naturally valuable states into roles that can sometimes be quite destructive.” A protective self, for example, might still be fighting the toxic parent we haven’t seen for decades.

“Parts carry burdens,” he says, “defined as extreme beliefs and emotions that came into your system from the outside world and graft onto and attach to these parts…and drive the operation of the part thereafter, almost like a virus.”

The point, then, is not to eliminate these parts but to help free them from their burdens. To do this, Schwartz takes a page from his early practice as a family therapist. In counseling sessions, he notes, the person kept out of the room often became the target for anger, hate, or misunderstanding. What to do? Sometimes, the answer is to bring them back into the room—or in the case of our buried parts, bring them out of hiding and listen to what they have to say.

This video is a wonderful eight minutes of compassion and insight. Hope you find it useful.

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