IFS View of the Human Psyche

Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS) was developed by Richard Schwartz, PhD.

IFS provides a new and startling view of the human psyche. Mostly we think of ourselves as having sensible emotions and taking practical, rational actions. Of course, we recognize that occasionally irrational feelings like rage or fear pop up. We realize that sometimes we don’t act in our own best interest, like when we can’t discipline ourselves to live a healthy lifestyle. This kind of behavior upsets us because we see it as a deviation from what should be a unitary, sensible personality. When these aberrations happen a lot, we think there must be something wrong with us.

In fact, human beings are not so simple and straightforward as we would like to think. We are complex systems of interacting “parts” with a variety of emotions and motivations. Parts are natural divisions in the psyche, sometimes called subpersonalities. Suppose one part of you is trying to lose weight, and another part wants to wolf down a ton of sweets. When you crave that piece of cake late at night, it isn’t just a desire that comes up from time to time. There is an entity inside you that repeatedly needs a sense of sweet fullness. It has reasons why it feels it must have that dessert. It might need to push down anger or fill an unbearable sensation of emptiness. This part has memories that drive these needs–for example, feeling emotionally hungry as a child.

You may hear a different inner voice saying “Eat a piece of celery instead,” or “You should be a shamed of how you gorged yourself!” You may think of these as just thoughts that pop up, but they come from another part of you whose job is to control your eating. It could be concerned with your waistline or your health. It might believe that you won’t be loved if you aren’t thin. And it may have memories of being ridiculed for being overweight in grade school.

You can think of parts as little people inside you. Each has its own perspective, beliefs, feelings, memories, and motivations. You may have heard of the “inner critic” and the “inner child,” the most famous of our parts. But these are simple concepts that only begin to touch on the richness and complexity of our inner life. Our inner family may include a lonely baby, a wise mentor, an angry child, a stern mother, a calm meditator, a magician, a happy animal, a closed-off protector, and so on.

These parts inside us are frequently shifting and changing. One of them takes over for a while, and we act and feel a certain way. Then we enter a new situation, and another character comes to the fore. Usually we view these changes as no more than slight shifts in mood or perspective, but, in fact, each shift marks the emergence of an entirely new subpersonality.

Each part gets activated at certain times. When I am in a large group of strangers, a part of me feels shy and wants to withdraw. When a supervisor criticizes you, a part of you may be thrown off balance and feel utterly incompetent. When Jill’s husband acts arrogant, a part of her wants to strangle him. When you get rejected by a lover, a part of you may feel devastated, like an abandoned child. When you feel threatened by a powerful person, a headache may come on because a part is clamping down on the muscles in your head to defend against terror. Any feeling reaction, thought sequence, behavior pattern, or body sensation can indicate the presence of a part.

Some of our parts are in pain, and others want to protect us from feeling that pain. Some try to manage how we interact with people. Some are locked in battles with each other. And all this is going on largely outside our awareness. All we know is that sometimes we feel content and sometimes we are anxious, depressed, frustrated, or confused, and we don’t know why. We hold a simplistic view of ourselves that can’t penetrate to the richness and turmoil within.

Many people spend their whole lives thinking that this surface view is all there is to them. They never taste the juice or sit with the pain, and they don’t plumb the depths of themselves. Underlying this cast of characters, every human being has a true Self that is wise, deep, open, and loving. This is who we truly are when we aren’t being hijacked by painful or defensive voices. The Self is the key to healing and integrating our disparate parts through its compassion, curiosity, and connectedness. It is also the natural leader of our inner family, a guide through the adventures of life.

Yet if the Self is truly at the center of each of us, you may be asking, why don’t we know it better? Because over the years we have experienced hurts, trauma, and grief, which have burdened us with shame, fear, and negative beliefs. These events have prompted some of our inner characters to take over in a desperate bid to protect us from harm. They blot out our pain, and, in the process, the light of the Self gets dimmed or lost. We don’t see what’s really happening because they cover over much of their activity as they construct a conventional life for us.

IFS can help you access your Self, and from that place of strength and love you can connect with your troubled parts and heal them. Your parts are naturally endowed with qualities such as joy, freedom, perceptiveness, and creativity, but these have been lost because of childhood wounds. The Self can help heal these wounds and allow these parts to reclaim their natural strengths and goodness. They can come to trust you to lead, if you do it from Self. They can learn to work together with each other as a harmonious inner family that supports your flowering in the world.

When you really understand this view of the psyche, you see yourself in a whole new light. You perceive your depth and beauty. You reclaim your true nature as a garden of healthy, effective, vital plants growing in the deep, rich soil of the Self. This perspective also changes how you see other people and the world. You realize that even the most destructive person is driven by parts that are doing their best to protect him or her. You see that everyone has a loving Self, even if it is deeply buried. You understand that at our deepest level we are all connected, and peace and harmony may indeed be possible in the world.