Making Sense of the Voices in Your Head

Part III of Subpersonalities: The People Inside Us

Image from Rutledge

Let’s begin to take a look at the many kinds of psychotherapies that address subpersonalities. My guide on the subject has been John Rowan in Subpersonalities: The People Inside Us(1990). But here, I must leave him for a bit to talk about one therapy that has come to dominate the field since he wrote his book, Internal Family Systems Therapy.

Whenever I tell other therapists and some clients that I’m working on a book about subpersonalities, they often have the same response, “Oh,” they say, “You must be doing Internal Family Systems Therapy.” Indeed, IFS has become ubiquitous since earning the coveted designation of an evidence-based psychotherapy. Therapies are designated as evidence-based by the National Registry for Evidence-Based Programs and Practices if they can show significant positive results. IFS has been able to do this because it’s effective, but also because it has a large number of certified therapists who all do the same thing and are able to define their goals in measurable terms.

IFS is largely the brainchild of one man, Richard Schwartz who began it all when he combined family systems therapy with a Freudian understanding of subpersonalities. We’ll have to talk about Freud later. He then described the subpersonalities as interacting as a system, like a family.

Schwartz’s special contribution has been the naming of three classes of subpersonalities and the relationship between them. First there are the disavowed parts called the Exiles. These are the memories you would rather not think about and the feelings that threaten to take you over. These are the alter egos you have wrapped in duct tape, hidden in the attic. Well, they’re getting pissed. Whenever they get the chance, they bust out of their restraints and all hell breaks loose.

The second class of inner characters is devoted to seeing to it that the Exiles never return. These are the Managers: the parts that, well, manage your life so the Exiles don’t get out. For instance, if you were obese as a child and got picked on a lot for it, then the part of you that gets you to the gym is a manager; so is the part that calls you a fat pig when you have a chocolate sundae.

Then there are the Firefighters. This is the class of subpersonalities who respond to emergencies. What emergency? The Exiles escaping. Like firefighters in the real world, who have license to bust down your door with an axe, go in the bedroom, carry you out, and soak everything with water, these Firefighters go to extremes to keep the Exiles under wraps. In the case of the formerly obese child, every now and then she goes to a bar and sleeps with any man who will sleep with her. She’s looking for affirmation, emergency affirmation. That’s one of her Firefighters doing that, so that the Exile, the shame-filled obese child, is kept under control.

You can imagine that when these three classes of characters get going, you feel very divided. The morning after the formerly obese woman gets laid, there are a whole slew of other managers getting into the act, reprimanding her for being such a slut. This threatens to let loose some other Exiles and then, more Firemen to keep them wrapped up and more managers to repair the damage made by the Firemen.

Isn’t there a better way?

Yes, says Schwartz, there is a better way; IFS is all about finding it.

In IFS, there’s one character who is always hidden, but is crucial to the success of the whole. Schwartz calls this character the Self. He compares the whole system to an orchestra. The Self is the conductor. You don’t directly hear the conductor. He plays no instrument but his baton, but his role is crucial in bringing all the parts together in harmony. When the parts are in disharmony, they’re paying no attention to the conductor. Maybe they don’t know he exists. Maybe the Self doesn’t know the players exist. Maybe awful things have happened that the Self was powerless to stop. Maybe they, consequently, don’t trust its leadership.

An IFS therapist spends a lot of time helping the client take inventory of the parts and identifying them as Exiles, Managers, or Firefighters. Special care is accorded to honoring all, including the Firefighters, for their contributions. There are no bad parts. Managers are respectfully asked to step aside so that the Exiles can be addressed directly. The IFS therapist is always negotiating with the parts on behalf of the Self, so that the Self can be put in charge.

The spot in Internal Family Systems Theory where I get stuck is when Schwartz starts talking about the Self, which he conceives as someone who’s been there all along. You know that you are in your Self when you’re feeling the 8 C’s: Compassion, Curiosity, Calm, Clarity, Courage, Connectedness, Confidence, and Creativity. There are 5 further attributes to Self, which are known as the 5 P’s: Playfulness, Patience, Presence, Perspective, and Persistence. You can also think of the Self as the absence of parts or the undamaged part of yourself.

I’m all for feeling these things, I just don’t believe they were there all along. I believe Schwartz’s Self is created in the therapy room. It’s not your soul, it’s a new, more effective manager that handles the Exiles respectfully. Remember part two of this series where I wrote about how subpersonalities can emerge from roles that we play? I talked about how I had a part that was a therapist and another part that was a hockey player. The necessity of the two roles shaped me into being the kind of person needed. My hockey team needed me to be one person and my clients, another.

What I really think is going on it that the client is learning to be an IFS client in the therapy room. She is enjoined to explore her subpersonalities with compassion, curiosity, calm, clarity, courage, connectedness, confidence, creativity, playfulness, patience, presence, perspective, and persistence. As time goes on, she gets better at this so that, even outside of therapy, she’s able to call forth this new manager, a kind of orchestra conductor, called the Self, to deal with her other subpersonalities.

You might think this is a moot point. If the client gets better at managing things, that should be good enough, even if this new manager is not the only true, ultimate being. It may be right to indoctrinate clients into the belief this Self is who they really are, if it’s what they need to believe. But I think we can do better than that and may be setting ourselves and our clients up for disappointment when we find that this new Self is not everything it promises to be.

I prefer to think of the true Self as unknowable. Rather, it’s too big, too complex, and too outside our capacities to fully know. I’m almost ready to believe, like the Buddhists do, that the Self is an illusion. However, this IFS Self, even if it is not the ultimate thing, is sure better than the self many people have when they start therapy. We should be happy that Schwartz has helped them find it.

In the next installments, we’ll be looking at some of the other therapies, predecessors of IFS, that deal with subpersonalities, to see what they can tell us about them.

Published by Keith R Wilson

I'm a licensed mental health counselor and certified alcohol and substance abuse counselor in private practice with more than 30 years experience. My newest book is The Road to Reconciliation: A Comprehensive Guide to Peace When Relationships Go Bad. I recently published a workbook connected to it titled, How to Make an Apology You’ll Never Have to Make Again. I also have another self help book, Constructive Conflict: Building Something Good Out of All Those Arguments. I’ve also published two novels, a satire of the mental health field: Fate’s Janitors: Mopping Up Madness at a Mental Health Clinic, and Intersections , which takes readers on a road trip with a suicidal therapist. If you prefer your reading in easily digestible bits, with or without with pictures, I have created a Twitter account @theshrinkslinks. MyFacebook page is called Keith R Wilson – Author.

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