You Are More Than the Sum of Your Parts
In 2015, Disney Pixar took a dive into the world of psychology and neuroscience with the release of the clever and entertaining movie Inside Out (2). In this film, the audience is privy to seeing inside the mind headquarters of the main character Riley, which is made up of several emotions: joy, anger, sadness, fear, and disgust. At the opening of the movie, we see a harmonious partnership between these parts which are working together tirelessly for Riley’s benefit. Fear comes in as an appropriate protector just in time to keep the toddler from running over an electrical cord. Joy comes in to help restore Riley to a place of emotional regulation and happiness (2). All seems to be going well until Riley’s family moves cross country, introducing a huge psychosocial stressor to the system. This results in Riley’s parts becoming stressed and burdened, so they start working against each other which causes young Riley to lose sight of her core self.
The storyline of this film is based upon the Internal Family Systems (IFS) model of psychotherapy which was developed by Richard Schwartz in the 1980s (4). While the Disney film uses emotions to depict segments of personalities, parts are actually more than emotions. The premise of this evidenced-based IFS model of therapy encompasses the belief that we are not one dimensional in our personality, but rather our personality is a family of parts. Each part is a segment of our personality, or ego state, that has a specific role.
In the first post of this three-part blog series, I will paint a picture of our soul map as understood by Internal Family Systems. Author and theologian Henri Nouwen (3) once said, “A part of you was left behind very early in your life: the part that never felt completely received. It is full of fears. Meanwhile, you grew up with many survival skills. But you want yourself to be one”. The underpinnings of this quote summarize the basic concepts of IFS. Our parts can fulfill healthy and unhealthy roles. According to Schwartz, we are all born with a core self that is inherently undamaged (4). The IFS map of the soul is made up of our core self, exiles, managers and firefighters. If we are living from our core self, our true spirit-led self, we will experience qualities such as compassion, clarity, confidence, calmness, creativity, curiosity, courage, and connectedness, otherwise known as the 8 Cs (4). Life events such as trauma, dysfunction, and neglect can force our parts out of healthy roles into roles that are burdened and extreme due to the perceived need to protect our system.
According to the Life Model, a neurotheological model of human development, experiences in childhood and life can position us to avoid pain like rejection, fear, abandonment, shame, humiliation, and guilt (5). Internal Family Systems calls these large unpleasant emotions “Exiles”. There are two types of protectors in IFS, Managers and Firefighters. Managers are proactive and strive to maintain balance in our system through exercising control with offenses such as perfectionism, anxiety, people-pleasing, procrastination etc. These offenses work proactively to prevent us from feeling the pain of the vulnerable exiled parts. Firefighters such as anger, addictions, eating disorders, media binges, and obsessions come in as reactors attempting to create diversion from, or smother, the Exiles (4). Sometimes our protectors and exiled parts can become so burdened due to life stressors that they blend with our Core Self, and we begin to believe this is who we are. Often this results in being overwhelmed, out of balance, and feeling as though we have lost sight of our identity.
By now you might be trying to identify possible protectors and exiles in your own personality and asking what you are to do next. You might even be feeling a bit of disdain or impatience toward these parts. However, the solution here might sound a little counterintuitive. Rather than condemning the aspects of ourselves that are troubled, we are encouraged to befriend our burdened parts, recognizing their need for healing. This requires courage and acknowledging that these parts came in as a response to pain to protect our system at some point in our lives. For example, you may have a part that became a burdened perfectionist because, as a child, you perceived your acceptance from caregivers was based upon performance. Extending curiosity, understanding, and compassion toward that protective part or exile frees up space to lead from our core, spirit led self, our true identity. The book Boundaries for Your Soul (1) summarizes this concept as extending hospitality toward the parts of your soul that are angry, fearful, anxious or sad…this is mature love.
Now that you understand the map of the soul, part two of this blog series on Internal Family Systems will journey into the steps of IFS, practical application, and what this might look like in a therapy session. Healing is found through connection, self-acceptance, calming internal chaos, and transforming parts into allies so that clients can experience living in the fullness of who they are created to be. Clients can also gain perspective as they realize their troubled part (e.g., operating in anger, anxiety, control) does not define them, rather it is a responder to life experiences and stressors.
- Cook, A. PhD. & Miller, K. (2018). Boundaries for your soul: how to turn your overwhelming thoughts and feelings into your greatest allies. Nelson Books.
- Docter, P. Inside Out [film]. Disney Pixar.
- Nouwen, H.M. (1996). Inner voice of love, a journey through anguish to freedom. Doubleday.
- Schwartz, R. C. (1995). Internal Family Systems Therapy. Guilford Press.
- Friesen, J. G., Wilder, E. J., Bierling, A. M., Koepcke, R., Poole, M. (2013). Living from the heart Jesus gave you. Shepherd’s House, Inc.