by Jay Earley, PhD
This article is written for Diamond Approach students and assumes a fairly detailed knowledge of the Diamond Approach. The opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect the perspective of the Ridhwan School.
This article describes how Internal Family System Therapy (IFS), developed by Richard Schwartz, can contribute to our inquiry as Diamond Approach students and teachers. I am a long-time student of the Diamond Approach (DA). In my professional role as a therapist, I have been using IFS since 2003 and have found it to be extremely effective. It is a relatively new model which I think is the cutting edge in psychotherapy today. I have been integrating it into my inquiry, and it has greatly enhanced the precision and effectiveness of my work on myself.
I have also done IFS sessions with about 15 Diamond Approach students. Some of them are my therapy clients, some have taken a class from me on IFS, and others came to me for IFS sessions to complement their DA work with their teachers. Most of them have found that IFS significantly contributes to their ongoing inquiry. I also know quite a few Diamond Approach students who have been trained in IFS and find it valuable in their work on themselves as well as their work with others.
All of this has led me to the conclusion that IFS has a lot to offer the DA. It provides a method of working with the ego that has many advantages. IFS doesn’t have much to contribute to our inquiry into essence or the unfolding of true nature. Its contributions are largely in the area of personality work, but here it has a great deal to offer. This article discusses aspects of IFS that could be usefully incorporated into DA inquiry. It is not an overall comparison of the two models, except where that becomes necessary to make certain points. Since they have different aims (psychotherapy and spiritual realization), they aren’t really comparable. And I don’t touch on all that the Diamond Approach has to offer IFS.
Internal Family Systems Therapy
Despite the name, IFS is primarily a form of individual therapy. It recognizes that our psyches are made up of different parts, sometimes called subpersonalities. Each part has its own perspective, feelings, memories, goals, and motivations. For example, one part of you might be trying to lose weight and another part might want to eat a lot. We all have parts like the inner critic, the abandoned child, the pleaser, the angry part, and the loving caretaker. At first I thought that IFS parts corresponded to ego identities or self-images in the DA, but I don’t think that is accurate. There doesn’t seem to be any equivalent concept in the DA for IFS parts. IFS does have a concept that is similar to DA self-images, which I discuss below.
IFS also recognizes that we each have a spiritual center, which it calls the Self, which is compassionate, curious, and grounded (among other things). The Self in IFS is a broad concept that includes many possible states of consciousness. From the DA perspective, being in the IFS Self may include (1) essential presence in any of its myriad forms, including the boundless, (2) the effects of essential presence without experiencing the aspect directly, e.g. feeling compassionate or curious or relatively grounded without directly sensing the Green, Yellow, or White Essence, (3) a good-enough mix of these with ego structures, as long as enough curiosity, compassion, etc. are available for the work of inner healing. (The IFS Self doesn’t correspond to either the Point or the Pearl).
In the IFS system, parts can be in extreme roles or not. Because it is psychotherapy, IFS tends to focus on parts in extreme roles in order to heal them. There are three kinds of such parts—managers, firefighters, and exiles. Managers are the parts you usually encounter first in exploring yourself. Their job is to handle the world and protect against the pain of the exiles. Exiles are young child parts that hold pain from the past, aspects of the soul child. Managers protect against pain in a wide variety of ways—closing down feelings, anger, caretaking, pleasing others, avoiding situations that might evoke an exile, judgment of self and others, and much more. This includes what are normally called defense mechanisms and what the DA calls filling a hole.
Firefighters also protect against exiles’ pain, though I won’t get into the distinction between managers and firefighters in this article. I will refer to both of them as “protectors.” IFS helps you to understand the systemic relationships between parts—how some parts protect against others, some are polarized with other parts, some are aligned with others.
IFS has a structured method for healing. You start out by getting to know a protector and developing a trusting relationship with it while you are in Self. Then you ask its permission to get to know the exile(s) it is protecting. You never try to work with an exile until you have permission from all its protectors. Once you get to know an exile, you ask it to show you where it originally took on its burden of pain and negative beliefs as a result of a childhood incident or family situation. You witness this story and pain from a place of Self, which means with compassion and understanding. You help the exile to unburden the extreme beliefs and feelings it took on, which means releasing those beliefs and feelings so the part can be what it truly is. Then its role is no longer extreme. This is similar to the dissolving of a self-image in DA. At this point, positive qualities emerge (similar to aspects of essence) in the exile, and then the protector can let go of its protective role (which is its burden) and choose a non-extreme role.
The concept of burden is a central one in IFS. A burden is an extreme belief or feeling that was taken on by a part as a result of something in the person’s history. I believe that IFS burdens correspond roughly to ego structures or self-images in the DA. In both cases, a burden or a self-image is something that doesn’t change but can be unburdened (IFS) or dissolved (DA) through the work. In IFS, parts can change, especially through releasing burdens. The DA doesn’t seem to have a concept that is equivalent to IFS parts. My best understanding is that parts are differentiations within the soul.
The DA is about being where you are and understanding where you are. IFS has a compatible philosophy that is phrased as “All parts are welcome.” IFS provides a structured approach to working with parts that embodies this philosophy in concrete practical ways. Integrating IFS with Diamond Approach inquiry actually helps to embody the DA philosophy in a consistent way, which I will explain in the rest of this article. It provides a precise method for doing certain things that we would do anyway if Diamond Guidance were ideally operating. (The exception is superego defense, where IFS suggests a somewhat different way to work.) Each of the following sections describes one way in which IFS methods can contribute to DA inquiry.
Working with the Superego
The DA sees the superego as a set of structures in the soul that have been introjected from the parents (or other caretakers). It attempts to maintain the status quo in the soul by keeping you away from certain feelings that it considers unmanageable or unacceptable and by directing you toward certain ego ideals. This is seen as an introjection of your parents, who originally did these things. Once created, the superego is assumed to operate more or less automatically. If your father judged you as incompetent, then your superego will judge you in a similar way because it is an introject of your father. It may judge you for something other than competence, but it will judge you in a similar way to your father.
IFS believes that each person has one or more parts that have a superego-like role, judging and controlling you through attacks. Where the DA sees each component of the superego as an introject, IFS sees each component as a part that carries a burden which is an introject. In IFS each part has a current motivation for what it does, including parts that have a superego function. This motivation is always an attempt to do something that the part believes is positive for you (even if the part actually ends up doing something painful or destructive). In the above example, if you get to know the part that is judging you as incompetent and find out why it is doing that, you might discover that it is doing this in order to make you try harder so you will be successful. It might be trying to get you to succeed so you can get people’s approval instead of their judgment. Or it might have some other motivation.
The Diamond Approach would agree that the superego might be trying to make you work harder, but if so, it would see this as an introject of the father’s desire for you to work harder. From an IFS perspective, the superego part is judging you for its own reasons now, which may or may not be modeled after your father. A superego part’s current motivations are colored by the past, but they aren’t a mechanical recreation of it. IFS would agree that the part might be carrying a burden of being judgmental that was introjected from the father, but this burden is seen as not intrinsic to the part itself, and therefore the part can change this attitude. This has important ramifications for how to work with superego parts, as we will see below.
From an IFS perspective, a superego part is a protector. Whatever its motivation, it always involves a positive intent, even if it doesn’t have a positive result. The IFS approach to working with a superego part (as with any protector) is to get to know it from a curious, accepting, compassionate place, and to find out what its positive intent is for you. In our example, the judging part is trying to get you to work harder to protect you from being judged as incompetent by people. The part is actually tearing you down and making you feel bad about yourself because it carries a judgmental burden (introjected from the father); however, it is doing this in a distorted attempt to help you. Notice the irony here. The superego part is trying to protect you from feeling deficient, which is the very thing it is causing you to feel.
Understanding the positive intent of a superego part usually begins to shift things. You begin to see it not as a powerful opponent, but rather as a part that is concerned about your well-being but is acting out its concern in a destructive way. You realize that it cares about your being judged by people and wants you to get approval. This makes it easier for you and the superego part to cooperate. This part took on this burden of attacking when you were a child, and so it is really a child part that is puffed up to look powerful.
For many people, seeing a superego part in this way immediately reduces their fear of the part and helps them to feel more powerful with respect to it. It takes away the ability of the superego to intimidate and derail them. The next step in IFS is to find out what exile the superego part is trying to protect you from. In this case it would be the part of you that feels deficient because it was judged by your father. Then you access and understand this childhood experience and unburden the painful feelings and beliefs that are associated with it. Once this exile part is healed of its feelings of incompetence, the superego part no longer needs to protect it, and the superego part can let go of its judgmental role.
This has some similarities to the Diamond approach to the superego, which involves first defending against the superego and then later understanding its origins in the father’s judgment. The difference is that with IFS there is no need to defend. You can understand the superego from the beginning. However, the understanding you start with is not how it was introjected but what its current motivation is. Later in IFS work, sometimes in the same session, you may access and understand the origins of a superego part’s role.
I have worked with my superego in both ways over the years. Now when it comes up, I get curious as to what my superego is trying to protect me from, usually some inner state it thinks is dangerous. Once I realize what this is, I reassure it that I can handle this state, and it relaxes.
The IFS approach to the superego has a number of advantages for the Diamond Approach. Some students have difficulty in feeling powerful enough to defend against their superegos. With IFS that isn’t a problem; you just need to be in Self, which means that you have enough curiosity about a superego part and are open to learning about it without judgment or fear. Since Self doesn’t necessarily imply presence, it is not that hard for most people to access a good-enough degree of Self early in their work. In IFS, this is accomplished through purposely disidentifying from ego structures that are contaminating the Self. Since IFS understands that the Self is who you truly are, once you have disidentified from those ego structures that are most prominent at a given moment, what is left is the Self.
Most DA students also have the experience of their superego returning after they have defended against it and attacking them repeatedly. With IFS, once you have accessed and unburdened all the exiles that a superego part is trying to protect, it can be unburdened, and it usually stops attacking you for good. In other words, once you have released the pain and negative beliefs of the exiles, then the superego part can release its burden of trying to protect against this pain by attacking you. Of course, there can be more than one superego part, each one protecting one or more exiles, so each of these will have to be worked with.
To me, the IFS understanding of the superego (and of parts in general) seems consistent with the Diamond Approach understanding of the soul. The soul is an organism of consciousness, an alive presence. Since parts (including those with a superego function) are differentiations within this alive medium, it makes sense to me that they would exhibit the aliveness of the soul and that therefore they would have their own current feelings and intentions (even though filtered through the veils of the past) and they would be able to change their attitudes. Parts often seem to be fixed and mechanical because their attitudes are shaped by painful incidents from the past and they respond in repetitive ways that aren’t attuned to present situations. And the burdens that parts carry are fixed structures similar to DA self-images. However, the parts themselves have their own current motivations which can change through IFS therapy.
To my mind, the biggest advantage of the IFS approach to the superego is that it is actually more aligned with the overall understanding of the DA and with inquiry, which is to be where you are and understand where you are. In every other situation, the DA brings acceptance and understanding to our work with our personalities. We don’t disengage from our experience or try to change it. We feel it and understand it. The superego work is an exception where we try to disengage from part of our experience. Hameed has said that the DA superego work is not inquiry per se; it is an exception to inquiry which is meant as a support for inquiry. However, by incorporating the IFS approach to the superego, there no longer needs to be this exception. All of the personality can be approached with the curiosity and openness of DA inquiry.
You may argue that the Diamond approach to working with the superego helps to access the Red essence, especially through directing aggression at the superego in the process of defending. However, there are many other internal situations where aggression can be encouraged as a way of accessing the Red.
Going Through a Hole
The Theory of Holes describes a central way that ego structures are transformed in the DA. However, it is quite problematic for many of us to approach holes and to stay with them. There is usually a lot of pain involved in going through a hole, and this makes it difficult to stay with the process. In many cases, students find subtle ways to avoid holes. In DA inquiry we are supposed to do this from presence, but this is not necessarily easy to do, and it is my experience that students are sometimes encouraged to enter directly into the emotions of the soul child whether or not there is enough presence available.
Holes are especially dangerous when they involve trauma. In fact, to go directly into a hole that involves trauma can be retraumatizing, so our psyches have good reasons to throw up strong defenses against this. Frequently when students are inquiring into childhood pain or holes, defenses keep cropping up. We keep getting distracted or going into our heads, going numb or getting angry or defending in other ways. This can make the work quite difficult.
IFS has a way of approaching childhood pain and trauma that in my experience is less frightening and dangerous. This makes it easier to approach and stay with a hole or any childhood pain. In IFS you stay in Self and get to know the exile. You witness its pain and its story. If the exile were a lake, instead of diving into the lake, you sit beside it and look in the water. Being in Self means being somewhat grounded and not being identified with the ego identity (and object relation) that is the exile. In my own inquiry, when I am in Self relating to an exile, it involves essential presence, often Compassion or Will. I experience this at the same time that I am experiencing some of the pain of the exile. This has made it much easier for me to approach and stay with the pain. This is not inconsistent with DA inquiry; IFS just provides a more explicit way of maintaining presence during exploration of childhood pain.
In IFS, while witnessing an exile, if the pain threatens to get too intense or defenses come up, this means that the Self has been flooded with the exile’s feelings. You are no longer in Self and separate from the exile. IFS has a variety of techniques to help you return to Self. One similar technique in the DA for accessing presence is sensing your arms and legs.
According to IFS, once you have connected with the exile and are witnessing its pain, you may not need to stay separate from it. If you are solidly enough in Self that you can feel the exile’s pain without being overwhelmed or retraumatized, then it is OK to allow yourself to feel the pain as fully as is safe. This later step in IFS brings it closer to the Diamond approach to holes, which involves fully experiencing the hole while being present and disidentified. However the IFS approach gives you a more structured way of remaining present and titrating your exposure to the pain so that you can handle it. This makes it much easier to approach childhood pain and holes, and helps you to stay with your experience without defenses popping up. And yet it still allows you to fully experience the pain or be in the hole when you are ready for that.
Being Where You Are
There are a number of ways that employing IFS methods can help you to embody Diamond Approach inquiry in the way it is intended. One has to do with being where you are.
In inquiry, when we encounter a defense, we often try to push past it. This is not ideal inquiry, but it seems to happen fairly often in work I have seen. Suppose you are exploring an underlying feeling of deficiency and you suddenly realize that you have lost touch with all feeling and are completely in your head. You know this is a defense, and your first response may be to try to get back to your feelings. You are trying to push past the intellectual defense without inquiring into it. There may be times when this is appropriate, but pushing in this way can bring up the defense more strongly or stimulate other defenses. For example, as you are trying to get back to your feelings, you might get distracted or go numb. In addition, pushing past a defense goes against the Diamond Approach philosophy of being and understanding where you are.
With IFS, when you realize you have gone into your head, you know that this is an intellectual protector part that is trying to protect you from the pain of the deficient feeling. You access the intellectual part and ask it if it would be willing to step aside and allow you to continue your inquiry into the deficiency. (You may need to explain to it why this is a good idea.) Stepping aside is similar to disidentification. If the part will step aside, your feelings will naturally become available again without pushing. If it won’t, you inquire into the intellectual part. Once you have understood it and developed a trusting relationship with it, you can ask it for permission to work with the deficient part it is protecting. Notice that you are asking the part to step aside, not making it step aside. In IFS, you never use force. This approach allows you to both honor the defense (where you are) and also continue the deeper inquiry when that is appropriate.
Staying with Your Thread
In the DA, as you understand your experience, it naturally moves deeper toward true nature. IFS also has a way of moving toward depth. IFS is structured around a fundamental truth of the ego–that it is organized to protect against pain. Remember that every part is either a protector or an exile. The role of each protector is to protect you from the pain of certain exiles. So whenever you are inquiring into a protector, you know that eventually you will ask for its permission to inquire into the exile(s) it is protecting. This moves you toward greater depth. (This depth is still within the ego, but when you unburden an exile, this can open you to essential depth as well.)
In ordinary DA inquiry, when a defense arises and you don’t push past it, sometimes you may explore it in a way that loses sight of the deeper issue. (Again this is not ideal inquiry, it just happens frequently.) Suppose that while you are exploring that feeling of deficiency, you suddenly feel angry. You start exploring the anger. While you are exploring it, another feeling emerges, such as fear of the anger or a need to be nice to people. So you start inquiring into this. This can happen repeatedly. Each time a new feeling comes up, you inquire into it, and your process moves on. In time you may forget that you started out exploring a feeling of deficiency. You may lose the thread of your work and not get back to the underlying issue. A number of IFS-trained Diamond Approach students have reported observing this happen in people’s work in DA small groups. Of course, at times it may be appropriate to switch the focus of your inquiry to another issue, but only when guided to do that.
The IFS approach to the angry defense is to realize that this is a part that is trying to protect you from pain. You access that protector and ask if it would be willing to step aside. If it will, you continue inquiring into the deficient feelings. If it won’t, you start inquiring into the angry part. However, you are unlikely to get lost because with IFS you know that you are inquiring into a protector, so you know to eventually ask permission to work with to the exile it is protecting (the deficiency feeling). If more feelings pop up, you ask them to step aside. This helps you to stay with the thread of your inquiry, to keep track of where it was originally focused—the feeling of deficiency. If it seems right to switch focus to a different part, that decision is made consciously.
There is another reason why a succession of parts may pop up. Some of them may be fighting each other. In IFS, this is called polarization. For example, suppose you are working with that angry part and then you feel frightened and want to be nice to everyone. IFS would see this as a part that is polarized with the angry part. It feels frightened of your anger and wants to be nice so people won’t reject you because of your anger. The polarization comes because the angry part may partly be reacting to the frightened part’s being overly nice to people and giving yourself away. So both parts feel justified in their extreme positions because of the need to counter the other. This is how polarization works. Polarized parts sometimes correspond to the two sides of an object relation in the DA, but often they are not related in this way.
Though it is helpful to explore each polarized part as it comes up, in IFS it is especially valuable to understand that they are polarized and to hold both parts in awareness simultaneously or have them dialogue with each other. This helps to dissolve the polarization. (You may also need to unburden the pain of the exiles they are protecting.) Holding both in awareness is something you might naturally do as part of DA inquiry, but having the IFS concept of polarization makes it more likely to happen. And IFS contributes the technique of having them dialogue and work out their relationship under the guidance of the Self.
Your Attitude toward Your Experience
In the Diamond Approach, it is sometimes important to recognize your attitude toward your experience and inquire into this. For example, at a time when you are feeling hurt, you step back for a moment and ask what your attitude toward the hurt is.
IFS gives you a precise way of asking this question that is built into the method. Each time you encounter a new part, you ask what you are feeling toward that part in order to determine whether or not you are in Self with respect to that part. If you feel compassionate, curious, open, or something similar, then you are in Self. If you feel judgmental, angry, or frightened of the part, or you want to get rid of it, then you aren’t in Self, and you don’t try to work with that part until you are. This is an excellent way to ferret out subtle attitudes you may have toward your experience that are not in alignment with the approach shared by IFS and the Diamond Approach. If you aren’t in Self, that is because there is a part that is feeling judgmental, angry, etc. IFS has techniques for either returning to Self or inquiring into the part that is interfering with your being in Self.
Charting and Tracking the Ego
IFS naturally differentiates the ego into parts. Sometimes you even name parts that you encounter repeatedly. This makes it easy to keep track of them. IFS also helps you to understand the systemic relationships between parts—protection, polarization, and alignment. All of this makes it is easy to systematically chart your ego structure.
In IFS you are encouraged to keep track of your parts and to keep up your relationships with some of them. Because they are seen as parts, they have an alive, personal quality that makes it easy to check in with them periodically, to form a healing relationship with them, and to become aware of when they are activated in the moment.
Inquiring into Parts and Memories
IFS provides a number of techniques for asking questions of your experience that tap into the unconscious in natural ways.
The Diamond approach to inquiring into an experience is to sense it and allow its meaning to unfold. In IFS, sensing is also an important way to inquire into parts, but there are other ways that can yield additional information. You can ask questions of a part, such as “What makes you feel so closed?” “What are you hoping to accomplish by contracting?” “What are you afraid would happen if you didn’t space out?” The part can answer in internal words or through images, as well as through body sensations or emotions or essential experience. Of course, asking questions is also natural to DA inquiry, but directing them to parts adds an aliveness and personalness to the process that often yields more detailed information. IFS also has a structured method for asking certain questions of parts at particular points in the process that brings precision and depth.
IFS also provides a natural way of inquiring into the childhood origins of issues. Once you have gotten to know an exile and discovered what it feels and what makes it feel that way, you can ask questions of the part that lead back to childhood. For example: “Please show me an image or a memory of when you learned to feel this way in childhood.” Or, “Please show me the first time that you took on this role.” Because you are asking the question of a part, it tends to bring up spontaneous images from the unconscious rather than intellectual speculation about known memories.
Let’s now revisit the question of what parts correspond to in our experience of Diamond Approach inquiry. This is still an open question for me, but here is my best understanding so far. In the process of inquiry, we encounter various phenomena, such as the superego, defenses, the soul child, and object relations, which are actually manifestations of the activity of parts that carry burdens. However, we don’t see them as parts; we see them as manifestations of ego structures, which is accurate but isn’t the whole story. The ego structures are the burdens that the parts carry. Parts are differentiations of the soul while ego structures are fixed contractions in the soul. IFS teaches us how to work directly with parts, which have an aliveness, responsiveness, and ability to change that ego structures don’t. This can give the work an additional power and precision.
IFS provides precise ways of working with the superego, approaching holes, working with defenses, staying with your thread, and other processes that can aid us in our inquiry. These should not be seen as better ways of working than those of the DA because most of them might be done in DA inquiry anyway. What IFS provides is a systemic understanding of the personality and a structured method that can often help us proceed in an effective, efficient manner that can be consistent with DA inquiry.
However, there is caution needed into doing this. You may have noticed that much of what IFS has to offer comes from its structured method and systemic understanding of the personality as opposed to the more open-ended Diamond Approach. This open-endedness is very important for the unfolding of essential experience, whereas IFS has a goal which is healing the personality. Therefore the logos of the DA could be lost if IFS is applied in its usual goal-oriented way. For DA students, if you are just learning IFS or you don’t feel really solid in your understanding of DA inquiry, I recommend that you keep them separate. In any session of work on yourself, be clear about whether you are employing inquiry or IFS.
Once you have enough experience, it is possible to use IFS in an open-ended way. In fact, though therapists learn the structured method during an IFS training, we are encouraged to let go of that structure and allow ourselves to guided by intuition once we really understand IFS. If you are an experienced DA student who really understands inquiry, then once you know IFS thoroughly, you may be able to retain the open-ended nature of inquiry by simply allowing Diamond Guidance to include the understandings you gain from IFS. This way you are still solidly in the DA logos and can allow your inquiry to be enhanced by IFS. I am still exploring this in my own work on myself.
For a short article of mine on IFS, see Introduction to Internal Family Systems Therapy. I have published quite a few books on IFS, the most important of which is Self-Therapy, which is a manual for IFS which can be used both by therapists and the general public. I have also published a book on using IFS to work with your Inner Critic (superego) called Freedom from Your Inner Critic. The Center for Self-leadership offers professional trainings in IFS in many cities throughout the country and in Europe. Information about the IFS books and trainings and much else can be found at the IFS website www.selfleadership.org. I offer telephone classes on how to use IFS for self-help and peer counseling.