Internal Family System Therapy is a powerful, cutting edge approach created by pioneering psychologist Richard Schwartz. It recognizes that our psyches are made up of subpersonalities, called parts in IFS. This short article discusses the roles that parts play in our lives.
Each part has a role to play in your life; it brings a quality to your psyche and your actions in the world. Each tries to advance your interests in some way (even if sometimes it has the opposite effect). Some parts govern the way you handle practical tasks in your life. Some protect against external threats or internal pain. Some are open and friendly with people. Others hold unresolved fear or shame from your childhood. Some are performers; others solitary thinkers. Some care for people, while others affect the way you feel about yourself. And so on.
Many parts perform roles that are healthy and functional. They make sure your life works well. They may help you connect with people or get work done. They may help you assert yourself or comprehend the world. Many parts have positive qualities that enhance your inner experience and external life, and allow you to cope with difficulties that come your way. They may manifest charisma or humor. They may bring you creativity, aliveness, joy, or peace.
Other parts, however, have taken on more extreme roles in a desperate attempt to protect you from pain, vulnerability, or harm. In IFS, an extreme role amounts to any action, feeling or thought that is dysfunctional. Quite simply, a part playing an extreme role causes problems in your life; it hampers it at best and cripples it at worst. It can act in ways that are self-defeating or create conflicts with people. It can cause you to have distorted perceptions, inaccurate beliefs, or obsessive thought patterns. It can flood you with pain or body tension-anything that cuts you off from the richness of life.
Many extreme parts protect you even when it isn’t necessary, thereby causing you to act in abrasive ways that offend people or distance you from them. Some overdo it by pushing you to be perfect in all things, like a demanding parent. Others distort your perceptions of people or situations so that you believe they are threatening, causing you to act defensively or controlling and overbearing. Some parts have intense emotional reactions, while others close you off to all feelings.
Many parts play roles that are a mix of healthy and extreme. Their normally healthy approach turns extreme at certain times. For instance, I have a part that handles the details of my life with clear organization and efficiency. That’s fine. It isn’t fine is when it does this in a mechanical, driven way that takes the joy and presence out of my life. I don’t want to sacrifice aliveness just to get things done.
IFS focuses on parts that play extreme roles in order to heal and transform them, which is what you will learn to do in this book. There are two kinds of extreme parts–protectors and exiles.