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You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today, my guest is Dr. Richard Schwartz. Friends and associates call him Dick. Dick Schwartz earned his PhD in marriage and family therapy from Purdue University, and he coauthored the book, Family Therapy: Concepts and Methods, the most widely used family therapy text in the United States. Dick is the developer of internal family systems, which is a model that he developed in response to client’s descriptions of experiencing various parts—many of them quite extreme—within themselves.
With Sounds True, Dick has written a new book. It’s called No Bad Parts: Healing Trauma and Restoring Wholeness with the Internal Family Systems Model. What so impresses me about Dick is that he developed the family systems model based on actual client experience, empirical feedback from working directly with people really suffering, people suffering from bulimia and forms of self-injury. You’ll hear about how he developed the model [for] getting client feedback, seeing what was alive and real in clients in the moment. What a pioneer he is. This is powerful work, looking at ourselves and welcoming every part of who we are. Here’s my conversation with Dick Schwartz.
I wanted to begin, Dick, by talking about the title of your new book, No Bad Parts. I think a lot of us would say, “I’m not so sure about that. This part of me that procrastinates a lot, this part of me that has a tendency to overeat”—fill it in—“I think that might be a part of me that’s not so good.” Can you explain this idea that all of us have no bad parts?
Richard Schwartz: Yes. It took me a really long time to come to that conclusion, and a lot of work with clients testing that out—and clients who not only had parts that procrastinated, but parts that had done heinous things. It turns out that if you can focus on whatever the part is—say it’s a part that makes you addicted to something, or has made you hit somebody, or one of these nasty, nasty inner critics—if you can just get curious about it and ask inside about why it does that job, why does it do this inside of you, and wait for the answer—don’t think of the answer—you’ll begin to hear about how it got forced into this role that’s in, and a lot of the time, most of the time, how much it doesn’t like the role but feels like it’s necessary, usually to protect you or to protect other parts of you that are vulnerable.
That’s a big paradigm shift. I try to make [it] clear in the book, because our culture, and also a lot of psychotherapies, demonized various parts of us, and think they are what they seem to be—which never turns out to be the truth.
TS: You said it took a lot of work with clients, a lot of experiences, before you saw this very clearly, No Bad Parts; tell me how you came to see this through your own practice, through your own work with clients.
RS: Well, yes, this goes back maybe 40 years now, so I’m pretty old. I […] was one of those obnoxious family therapists that thought we’d found the holy grail, and that people who mucked around in the internal world were just wasting their time because we could change everything you needed to change by just reorganizing families. I decided to prove that, and did an outcome study with bulimia, and brought together a bunch of bulimic kids and their families, and found I could reorganize the families, just the way the book said to, and still they kept bingeing and purging, much to my frustration. I began asking why, and they started talking this language of parts and would say some version of “When something bad happens, this critic attacks me inside and it brings up a part who makes me feel worthless, and empty, and alone, and that feeling is so dreadful that the binge comes in to rescue me from it, but the act of the binge triggers the critic again.”
It sounded, as a family therapist, familiar, because that’s what I’d been studying, these patterns and families. At first, I thought, “Well, that’s a nice metaphor for different emotions and thoughts, and we can work with that.” But they were talking about these things as if they had full personalities and a lot of autonomy, and that they couldn’t control them. Then I got scared; I thought maybe these are people with multiple personality disorder, till I started listening inside myself, and “Oh, my god, I’ve got them too, and mine has full personalities, and sometimes as extreme as theirs.” Then I just got curious and have spent the next 40 years studying these internal systems.
In the process of doing that, and trying to get my clients to relate to them, initially, because I assumed they were what they seemed, tried to get my clients to stand up for themselves to the critic, or control the binge, or things like that, clients were getting worse and worse, but I didn’t know what else to do. Then there was a client who had a part that made her cut herself, and decided to try and control that part, so it didn’t do it to her that week, and had her fight with that part for a couple hours until finally it said, “OK, I won’t do it.” Then of course, she opened the door, and she had a big gash on the side of her face.
I collapsed, and just out of the blue said, “I can’t beat you with this.” And the part said it didn’t want to beat me. That was the turning point, because I just became curious and I asked the part why it did what it did, and it talked about how it needed to protect her when she was being sexually abused as a child, and one way to do that would be to get her out of her body, and you could do that by cutting.
Then I shifted again. Now I have an appreciation for the heroic role it played in her life. I conveyed that to it, and it broke into tears because everyone had demonized it. So, in talking to that part more I learned that it was still frozen in time during those sex abuse scenes and lived as if it thought she was five years old, and it protected other vulnerable parts and so on. It carried these extreme beliefs and emotions that came from those traumas that drove the way it operated, like a virus almost, like the coronavirus.
With all of that, I started thinking maybe these parts aren’t what they seem, maybe like kids in a family who get forced into an extreme role because of the dynamics of the family, who can be released from that extreme role by changing the dynamics of family, maybe that’s what they’re like. I proceeded to do that same process of just getting curious, getting my clients to get curious with these very damaging parts. Now, 40 years later, having worked with parts that have killed people, parts that have molested little kids, I can pretty safely say, there aren’t any bad parts, they’re all just stuck in the past, trying their best to keep you safe, and carrying these burdens, and beliefs, and emotions.
TS: [Yes.] You mentioned parts that have molested kids, and I know you write about how you worked as a consultant with the Onarga Academy for seven years, which is a treatment center in Illinois for sex offenders, and I can imagine a listener who immediately says, “Hold on, I was listening, I was interested, I was going along with everything, but when you talk about no bad parts, even the part that is a sex offender, you lost me Dick, you lost me there.”
RS: Yes. It was one of those things where I would try this process with this one and I can’t imagine that this one isn’t bad either. Then, in listening to it, it turns out it’s not.
TS: Talk me through that. Help me appreciate it.
RS: OK, yes. So, as I had my client focus on the sex offending part and the processes, to find it in their body, and then get all the parts that hate it or fear it to open space, to just get open minded, curious about it and ask questions, it took us back to its abuse scenes when the perpetrator was being abused as a boy. When that was happening, there was a tremendous feeling of powerlessness, and this part stepped up to try and protect the whole system from the abuser and said, “Who has power in this room? It’s this guy doing this to me. I’m going to take in his energy to try and protect the system from him,” and then gets stuck with the perpetrator energy and the desire to hurt vulnerability. That’s the burden that that particular protector wound up carrying.
The nice thing about IFS is there’s a way to unload that thing, and when you do, when the part’s willing to give up whatever burden it carries, it’s almost like a curse is lifted and it transforms immediately into its naturally valuable states, and even those parts will do that as well. As you’re getting, and I’m sure a lot of your listeners are getting, this is a radically different paradigm for understanding the human mind that has lots of implications for lots of things in our culture, including the way we treat sex offenders and prisoners in general.
TS: OK. I want to get more into this whole notion of unburdening or unloading and how a part can do that. But before we do, the notion that this is a radically different paradigm, you start out the book, No Bad Parts, and you say that we live in our culture with the myth of the mono mind, and I can imagine a lot of listeners right now have that view of, “Yes, there’s something inside me that is a mono mind,” meaning, “I’m not just all these parts; there’s some central person who’s putting all these pieces together.” Tell me what you mean by the myth of the mono mind. And how do you get people who are listening right now to accept the idea we actually are all more like multiple personalities than this myth of the mono mind?
RS: Yes. So, the idea that the mind is unitary has a history that I covered to some degree in the book and is also related to the fear of being thought of as a multiple personality, which I alluded to earlier, or the fear of hearing voices means you’re crazy—which is true in some cases, but that’s a totally different phenomenon. The delusional voices of schizophrenics, for example, are not the same.
There’s that stigma that’s come from the mental health system. So, you wind up thinking that “I’m just one mind with a bunch of different thoughts and emotions that are fairly ephemeral and not necessarily worth getting to know because it’s just a thought.” And that has really kept people from doing this process inside where it turns out that what I’m calling parts are ubiquitous, it’s the nature of the mind to have them, and that’s actually a good thing because they’re all valuable. They have valuable talents and resources to lend to us to help us in our life.
But like I was saying, they get forced out of those naturally valuable states into destructive roles sometimes. The mono mind is a big obstacle for me because it’s not uncommon that as I would start to introduce this to people, they would say, “What do you think I’m crazy? I don’t have these things inside.”
TS: OK, let’s move along with the person who says, “I definitely know that I have different voices inside of me that are saying different things to me in different situations. What I want to understand more is the positive, powerful intentions of these parts of me that currently don’t seem to be supportive; they’re screwing me up.” Let’s just take the classic, the inner critic. “I don’t experience the inner critic as helping me, I experience it as making me terrified, keeping me from doing things, shutting me down if I don’t do it perfectly.” How could there be a positive function that the inner critic is providing?
RS: Yes. Tami, are you speaking of your own inner critic or just in the—
TS: How’d you know? I picked it just as an example that I could relate to, but I think many people can relate to as well.
RS: Yes, for sure. I could offer to help you find out about your own if you’re up for it, but I don’t want to pressure you into anything you don’t want to do in public.
TS: Let’s keep going in general terms for now, but we’ll see what happens.
RS: All right, sounds good. If you were up for it, I would have you focus on that critical voice, find it in your body. Most people find that particular part in their head somewhere. And I would ask you, “Tami, how do you feel toward that critical part of you?” And it’s likely you’d say something like, “I hate it. It just makes me feel really bad, and it keeps me from doing what I want to do in my life and holds me back.” But we would ask the ones who hate it to give us the space to get curious, and I wouldn’t have you talk to it until you at least had some open mindedness toward it.
At that point, I would have you ask it, “What’s it afraid would happen if it didn’t do this to all day?” It’s likely it would say some version of, or you would hear without thinking, “Just wait and see what comes back to you from that part,” that it’s afraid if it didn’t do this to you, you’d get hurt maybe, or people would judge you, or you wouldn’t be perfect and then you’d be abandoned, or there’s always some protective reason. Then I would have you say to it, “If we could go to the part of you that it protects, that has been hurt in the past, and heal that so it wasn’t such a threat, would this part have to keep doing this?” Most of the time they’ll say, “No, they wouldn’t have to.” And I might ask, “What would it like to do instead of being this critic?” Often, oddly enough, the answer is the opposite role. You might hear it say, “I’d like to be your cheerleader. I’d like to help you get out in the world. I’d like to help you feel good about yourself.”
We would then negotiate permission from it to go to what it protected, that vulnerable, hurt part, and we have a process for actually unburdening that part so that it felt much, much better and less vulnerable, and then bring the critic in to see that what it was protecting is no longer needed, and see now if it would like to shift into that other role. So, that’s in a nutshell the process we do.
TS: [Yes.] Help me understand when you say, “unburdening.” The inner critic is protecting some burdened part of me, some scared part of me that’s afraid of failure, the end of my career, disappointing people, whatever, being made fun of—we could keep going; how is this part going to get unburdened so that the inner critic can go become my cheerleader? I like that notion.
RS: Yes. So, I would again have you focus on that one that felt that way, any of those ways you just said, and I would ask you how you feel toward it. And often you might spontaneously say, I feel sorry for that part of me that feels so bad. And I would say, could you internally convey that compassion to that part, often it’s a younger part of you, maybe a little girl in your case, and tell me how it’s reacting to your compassion. And you would say, she doesn’t totally trust me because I haven’t been there for her. OK. And we would spend time helping you connect with that little girl, for lack of a better word, until she did trust you. And again, all this is happening spontaneously without you imagining anything or making it happen.
At some point, I would say, “Tami, ask this little girl what happened in the past that made her feel so bad.” You would maybe see scenes, you might start to feel the emotions, you might start to feel the sensations. I would help you stay with all that until the girl felt like you finally got what happened and how bad it was, because most of us, when we get hurt like that, as the rugged individualist society that we are, we just try to leave it in the dust, and don’t look back, and just move on. So, we have all these, what I call exiled parts of us, who get locked in inner basements, in abysses, and are still hurting; they’re still frozen in those scenes.
We would do that until the part felt like now you get what happened. Then I would have you, in your mind’s eye, enter that scene and be with her in that terrible time, and the way she needed somebody, which is a process we call a retrieval. We would do that until she was ready to leave with you and come either to the present with you or to fantasy place that was safe. Once she was there, I would have you ask if now that she trusts she never has to go back there again, if she’s willing to unload the feelings and beliefs she got from those times. Most of these exiles are at that point willing to give all that up because they know now they’re safe.
There’s a ritualized process for that: find, ask her where she carries the belief that the world is terribly dangerous, ask her where she carries that in her body; the part can tell you; and ask what she’d like to give it up to. We have the menu of the elements really: light, water, fire, wind, earth, or anything else; maybe she wants to give it to light; we have the light come in; she lets it go out of her body. As soon as she lets it go, now she feels much lighter, she wants to play, and then we can bring in the critic to see that it doesn’t have to protect her anymore, and now see what it wants to do.
TS: That’s very helpful, those specifics. Now, Dick, something that’s interesting to me is I’ve heard Internal Family Systems therapy now described as an evidence-based approach. I know that you are teaching at Harvard Medical School, and as you’re describing this to me, this process, I’m like, “Is this evidence-based now?” What does that mean? I mean, is the evidence the thousands of people that you’ve worked with, and IFS teachers have now worked with?
RS: Well, that’s one form of evidence, but we have done several outcome studies, and, based on them, have achieved what’s called evidence-based standing with an organization called SAMHSA, which is a federal agency. So, yes, we’ve done a lot of our homework.
TS: Like what studies? Just impress me. Go ahead.
RS: The study I like best actually was done here in Boston at Brigham and Women’s Hospital with 30 rheumatoid arthritis patients as compared to another group of 30 rheumatoid arthritis patients. The first group got six months of IFS therapy, the other group got educational control. The focus was on their arthritis on the joints, number of joints, the amount of pain, but also on level of depression and anxiety and a number of other things like that. After those six months, the therapy group, the IFS group, showed vast improvement in all those areas including the rheumatoid arthritis as measured by blinded physicians, much more improved than the control group and followed for some months afterwards, and some people went into complete remission.
To give you a sample of how that worked, these were, to generalize, Irish Catholic Boston mothers who had these what become massive caretaking parts that took care of everybody else but never let them take care of themselves. As we had them focus on the pain and ask it questions, the parts that were giving them the pain began to talk about how much that they hated the caretaking part because they wanted to have a life, they wanted to assert themselves, they wanted to have more balance or justice in their lives. And as we worked that out, that polarization out, again, the pain really started to change, because these other parts didn’t have to keep pushing the arthritis button to get their attention. And so that’s just one of the outcome studies, and it’s published in a very reputable medical journal called, The Journal of Rheumatology.
TS: Wonderful. Now, towards the beginning of No Bad Parts, you say, here are three discoveries that you made in terms of Internal Family Systems and parts. The first, that even our most destructive parts have protective intentions. I think you’ve done a pretty good job pointing to that. So, for example, in the rheumatoid arthritis study, just to ask a question, that part of us that’s the over-caretaker, that part, like “I’m so sick of it. I spend all my time taking care of other people, other people, other people,” what is its protective intention? How does it transform through IFS?
RS: Yes. Again, if you were to ask that part, what’s it afraid would happen if it didn’t constantly do this? Usually, there are beliefs about your value. It’s afraid that this is the only value you have, is to do this for people, and that it comes from the messages that many women get in their lives. And it carries that particular burden, but it’s also protecting parts that are afraid to lose the love of the people around them if they don’t constantly do this. So, it’s generally just trying to make everybody happy and there’s some belief in there often that they don’t deserve to be taken care of or to take care of themselves. And that’s an exile that we often will have to get to before this caretaking part is willing to lighten up.
TS: OK. This word “exile,” that’s a very powerful word. I think even people just hear that and go, “What? Oh, my god, you talked about it hidden in the basement this part of ourselves.” In the model you talk about exiles and then broad categories, protectors. How did you come up with these two broad categories?
RS: Well, as I was interviewing parts in people about their parts in the very early years, back 40 years ago almost, I was hearing about parts, and I got hip to the fact they’re not what they seem but they are in these roles. I was clearly making mistakes early on because clients were having pretty bad immediate reactions after leaving my sessions, and they were often sessions where we were working with these hurt parts that the client would talk about.
I got very scared by that, because some of the reactions were quite severe, and I almost backed away from it, but then I got curious. And again, I’m a systems thinker; I’m trying to figure out how this whole inner system works. And in interviewing clients, I learned that I was violating the rules of these, what we call now protectors, who had spent 30 years trying to keep these exiles locked up, and here I was coming in and opening the door and trying to bring all that raw emotion forward. So, my clients were being punished by these other parts for doing that.
Then I just started to, again, learn from clients the various distinctions in there between these parts. The big distinction that’s held up over all these years is between these exiles who generally, before they got hurt, they were these what are called playful inner children; you’d love to be around them, because they have so much creativity and delight in the world, and want to be close to people, and a lot of innocence and playfulness. But after they get hurt, or terrified, or shamed, because they’re often the most sensitive parts of us—so traumas, they’re the ones who take in those burdens the most of fear, or worthlessness, or emotional pain, or sense of abandonment, or so on—once they get burdened by those feelings, we no longer want to be around them anymore because they have the power now to overwhelm us with that and make it so we can’t function or think a lot of the time.
Everybody around us tells us, “Just move on. Don’t look back.” So, we lock them away, not knowing that we’re locking away our juice, and thinking we’re just moving on from the memories of the trauma or the emotions of the trauma. When you get a lot of exiles, you feel a lot more delicate, the world feels a lot more dangerous, and other parts are forced into these protector roles out of their naturally valuable states, and they become the critics, or they become the bingeing parts.
Like we’ve been talking about, their MO is to keep the exiles contained and to keep the outside world from triggering them. So, they become very controlling of what happens in your life if they can, or keep you in your head so you don’t feel much in your body. There’s a whole variety of common protector roles, some of them are trying to manage your life and preempt anything that might trigger these exiles, so we call them managers. The critics are one class of manager for example.
Then others react after the fact, after an exile has been triggered. These flames of emotion explode out of your inner basement and threaten to consume you; somebody’s got to do something to get away from that. So, there are parts that will then scramble to dissociate you or scramble to binge on something, to get higher than the flames or douse the flames with some substance, or gets you into a rage. So, instead of feeling powerless, you feel strong, or go write another article so that you get accolades and you counter the worthlessness. Those we call firefighters because they’re fighting these flames of exiled emotion. And most all of us have both kinds of parts, managers and firefighters, trying to protect these very raw exiles.
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You mentioned, Dick, that early on when you were starting, you would start having a conversation with the exile part and then you saw that your clients afterwards were having trouble after the session. How did you change the approach of IFS to make it work better for your clients?
RS: Yes, as I said, I just started to ask clients, “What am I doing wrong?” They started to teach me that I’m not being ecologically sensitive. These are delicate ecologies we’re entering when we do psychotherapy, especially this intense inner work. These ecologies have their rules. I was bypassing protectors and going right to exiles without their permission, so they were what we call backlashing on a client. I had clients get into an accident just leaving my office, didn’t see the other car, or a spike of big fever right afterwards. At some point I got hip to the fact there’s a connection between what was happening in the session and these big reactions afterwards and decided to just try and learn what I was doing wrong.
TS: Right. Then you learned a different approach, and that’s what I want to make sure is clear. What is your approach now in IFS that doesn’t have people getting fevers when—I hope—walking out? Yes.
RS: Yes. So, what I learned the hard way was the importance of respecting these protective parts. And so, if you, Tami, were to say, “I’ve got”— I’m not saying this is true for you—“but I’ve got this really young feeling inside that feels so worthless. Can you help me with that?” I would say, “We can get to that, but first I want to talk to the parts that don’t want us anywhere near that. And let me just see if there’s some fear about going there, and let’s start there, let’s focus on that one first.” That would be a protector.
We would just get to know all the fears about going to that place. There’s a way to get permission, to go with permission […]. Some therapies are very effective at bypassing protectors—and then triggering these protector backlashes afterwards and not understanding that’s what it’s about.
TS: So, one of the things that you say in your book No Bad Parts is that our parts actually are sacred beings—and I think I have an innate appreciation of that, as you’re talking—but also that they have bodies. I thought that’s interesting. What bodies are you talking about, like astral forms or what are you talking about?
RS: I don’t really know how to describe it other than, as you ask these questions inside—I’m talking about literal bodies—but, for example, if we did a piece of work with that worthless part, and we got it out of the past, and we got it so that it trusted you and you were taking care of it now, and I wanted to know if it was ready to unburden, to release the extreme beliefs and emotions that it’s been carrying since the time it felt so ashamed, and I would have you ask if it’s ready to unload all this stuff, and it said yes, the next question would be [to] ask where it carries that in its body or on its body. It would give you an answer. “It’s this fireball in my gut.” Or “It’s this weight on my shoulders. It’s the slime on my arms.” And I would say, “OK, is it ready to let that go out of its body?” And it would say yes.
I’m a, what’s called an empiricist. I’m a phenomenologist. I just study the reports from clients. Do I absolutely believe in all of this stuff? I’m not sure. But if you ask, parts will describe their bodies.
TS: OK. And you talk about the possibility of permanent unburdening, like the part of me that feels worthless could have a permanent unburdening of this feeling. I was really curious about that. I was wondering if you in your own life have experienced this type of permanent unburdening of parts that you previously found really difficult to live with?
RS: Yes, many. Yes. So, I don’t know how much to go into my history, but I came out of my family—part of the reason I mentioned worthless so much is that was a big, big one for me.
TS: I’d rather go into your history than my history, so let’s go there.
RS: All right. All right. My father was a big-name academic physician. I’m the oldest of six boys and I was supposed to be something like that. And I just didn’t have a head for school, and it frustrated the hell out of him. Three of my brothers followed in his shoes. So, I felt, coming out of my family, like I really didn’t have any much value at all; parts of me felt that way. But I had reasonably well exiled them and became dominated by protectors that could be quite arrogant, and angry, and dissociating in a way, which is part of why I wasn’t a good student, because it was very hard to concentrate; I probably qualified for ADHD or something like that.
I also had a part that was determined to prove him wrong, which actually gave me the drive to get this far, to bring IFS to where it is. Once I started to have these discoveries and thought, “Wow, this is really interesting. I don’t see it anywhere else. Maybe I could get some self-esteem from doing this.” So, I did, and took a lot of hits along the way, and relied on a part of me that didn’t give a shit about what people thought, and just kept doing it.
Then I became a leader and had a community, and all of those protectors were getting in my way, in a big way as a leader. I was lucky to have some colleagues who could point that out to me, and basically said, “You better do your work, your own work. Here you are espousing to everybody else, ‘This is what you got to do,’ and look at you.” After getting very defensive and fighting with them, I started to actually listen.
So, I went to the part that felt so worthless and saw scenes of my father saying, “What the hell is wrong with you?” and just shaming me in a merciless way. I mean, to be balanced, he was also one of my two parents that I felt a lot of affection for. At other times I was pretty disconnected from my mother, so just to be fair. But those intense shaming episodes really went into my heart.
I was able to witness all that very painfully, and then go in and get that boy away from him and bring him to live with me and unload a lot of the worthlessness. I’m still finding some here and there, but ever since that, I just haven’t felt that all. Then all these other protectors could come down and I could lead this journey of bringing IFS to the world from what I call Self, which we really haven’t talked about yet, in a much different way.
At that point, it started to become received by the listeners in a different way, because before, I would have to put down all kinds of other therapies and say, “This is the best” […]. Anyway, I hope all that made sense.
TS: I think it did. In talking about matching these exiled parts of ourselves with the protectors, in No Bad Parts, you describe it as discovering a clove of garlic within a whole cluster of cloves. I thought that was a curious metaphor that I was wondering if you could explain a little bit why you went to a head of garlic to explain how this all works, these pairings, and groupings, and constellations of parts.
RS: Well, the vegetable that psychotherapy has been compared to the most is the onion where you peel away the layers, you get to this core, heal that and the therapy is over. But I was finding that we would work with one set of parts around one particular trauma, and we could unburden them, and the client would feel better, but there were all these other little inner systems that hadn’t been touched by that particular work. So, the onion didn’t work for me; I had to find another vegetable. It is like we have all these clusters of protectors and exiles based on one trauma in our life, and we work with that, and then we got to go to the next clove of the garlic that’s about some entirely different trauma maybe, some entirely different episode and we work with that, and then so on.
TS: Nice, smelly, stinky, big clove of strong, powerful, healing garlic, I like it. OK, you mentioned the Self and that we hadn’t talked about it yet, and we have to. You write in the book that the centerpiece of the IFS model is self-leadership. Right here at the beginning, I want to understand how discovering ourselves and being self-led is different from this idea of having a unitary vision of the mind, the mono myth that we refer to, how are these different?
RS: Yes, so as I was doing this work, and once I got hip to the fact that parts weren’t what they seem, I would try to get my clients to be respectful, and listen, and learn the secret histories of these parts, and they weren’t cooperating, my client would—let’s say, about the critic again: “How do you feel toward it?” “I hate it.” “OK, well, try to talk to it anyway.” And you can imagine how that went. At some point I started thinking maybe this is like working in a family session where you’re trying to have two people talk to each other but there’s a third person who’s jumping in and muddying the water. So, I would say, “Tami, can you find the part that hates the critic, and could you get it to just relax and step back inside or open space?”
To my amazement, clients could do that. When they did it, it was like some other person popped up and would take leadership inside. That person, instead of hating the critic, would be curious about it, would be calm, would have confidence relative to it, might even have compassion—“I feel sorry that it has to do this job”; they also would be clear and courageous. I’m naming what we call the eight C’s of self-leadership. So, connectedness and—I forgot which ones I’ve named. I’m missing one.
RS: Creativity. I think I said courage.
TS: Creativity, good.
RS: I would do the same process with other clients, and it was like the same person would pop out, who knew how to relate in a healing way to these parts. When I would ask clients, “What part of you is that?” They’d say some version of, “That’s me. That’s not a part. That’s myself.” I came to call that the Self, with a capital S, to distinguish it from the common use of the word “self.” And now 40 years later, thousands of people are using this all over the world; we can pretty safely say that that Self, with those eight C qualities, is in everybody, can’t be damaged and knows how to heal both inside and in relationships, and is just beneath the surface of these parts such that when they do open space, you become that person.
That person is what people meditate to get to, that person in other traditions would be called Buddha nature, or Atman, or there’s analogies in most every spiritual tradition, and I stumbled onto a way to access that person pretty quickly, and not only have it become a kind of observing presence, as in mindfulness, but to become an active leader.
TS: How do I increase being self-led in my own inner experience as I’m starting to become aware of these garlic clusters? I want to be more self-led, so that I can understand how these parts are interacting with each other and have more of this witnessing the eight C’s that you mentioned. How do I do that? I want the eight C’s.
RS: You have them. Luckily, you already have them.
TS: All right, that’s a good start.
RS: But how do you access them? That’s what you’re asking. In the book I have a series of exercises designed in different ways to help people do that, which generally involve—one exercise would be, “So, Tami, think of a person that generally triggers you in your life.” It may well be that there isn’t anybody in yours anymore but—
TS: I can come up with a few, Dick. Don’t you worry. Yes.
RS: At least come up with a politician that triggers you, and then put that person in a room by him or herself. You’re outside the room looking at him through a window. And have him do the thing that gets to you. As you watch, notice what happens in your body, what comes up, what kind of thoughts, what kind of emotions. That would be mindfulness; you’re just noticing. But then pick one of those protectors and begin to focus on it and notice how you feel toward that protective part of you that tries to protect you from this person. Ask any other parts that don’t like it or are afraid of it to just relax inside.
People will, just through that much instruction, often start to feel open to this protector they didn’t like and will begin to have this dialogue spontaneously. It really turns out to be just that simple, just getting parts to open space releases the self, and a lot of those exercises are designed to help people do that on their own.
TS: One of the things you write about, in a chapter called “How Parts Blend,” is that there can be parts of us that we experience as blended with the Self, and we have to try to tease that apart. Can you talk to me more about that? How might various parts be blended with my own sense of self?
RS: Yes. So, let’s say you make a mistake. All of a sudden, you have this rush of shame, and you see yourself as this really worthless person. That would be that critic totally blending with you. And you became that part and walked around feeling totally worthless, for some period of time, often, until it does unblend and you have a little more access to Self again.
I think I mentioned that our little dog just died yesterday. Both my wife and I are finding parts that will blend and make us feel like, “If only we had done this, if only we had done this, and why didn’t we spend more time,” and you’re just in it. You just feel like you should have done—and then to help each other separate and find the part that’s feeling so guilty and begin to work with it. Then I shift from being this little kid who feels like I really screwed up, to being in these eight C qualities, feeling really bad for that little kid and wanting to help him. That would be unblending from that part.
TS: As much as I like the eight C’s (and I wrote them down: curiosity, calm, confidence, compassion, creativity, clarity, courage, connectedness) as these qualities of being in the self, there was a part of me that was like, “This is all getting catchy. Starts with a C.” I wondered if you could explain to me what it feels like to be self-led without using any of those C words. The reason I’m asking you that is it makes it start feeling a little like path to me, and I just wonder what the inner experience is like, like “This is what it feels like in this moment being self-led,” or in an example with the grief that you’re feeling with this loss and how that can come in and trigger you into other parts blending with that self-leadership.
RS: Yes. As you get more into this, it becomes a daily practice. So, as I go through my day, and particularly if I’m facing an interview like this, [because of] which there are parts of me that would have some anxiety about it, I’ll just notice the anxiety; and it typically happens in my chest, in my throat, across my forehead; so, I can physically notice the parts that are scared. Part of the practice then is to just ask them to relax a little bit and let me handle the interview. Because I’ve done this many times, they trust it’s safe to let that happen. As they separate, in response to my request, I just start to feel more what might be called centered, for example, I don’t feel afraid anymore, there’s an energy running through my body that’s vibrating, and I see you clearly. I don’t see you as some big, scary authority, although you have a lot of authority.
I feel my heart open, I feel very interested in engaging with you, relating to you, so I’m just checking. I have four or five common markers, I check, “Do I have a big agenda here? Do I want to really impress Tami? Do I really want to sell this book? All right, all you guys need to open space too, so I can just be there and have this interesting conversation.” Is that helping? Is this—
TS: It is. It is. Just to say, Dick, part of me gets anxious too.
RS: Good, I’m glad we have good company.
TS: We clarified that. One of the sections in the book that I could really relate to, in terms of a part blending with ourselves and taking over, is when we get reactive in a relationship dynamic. I think a lot of people can relate to this with their intimate partner—something gets triggered. When that trigger happens, it’s really hard to access that curious, open self. It’s like, “Well, I’ve been hijacked,” hijacking has occurred. What I loved in the book is you talked about how it can be healing, once you get sane after you’ve been hijacked, to describe how a part of me felt this way. I wonder if you can talk more about that for those of us in intimate relationships who find ourselves getting hijacked and how we can work with that with our partner.
RS: Yes. So just the language of parts is very useful in relationships because if I were talking to you and we had a big conflict just now, and I said, “Tami, I hate it when you do that,” that’s me blended with this protector. It’s not an accurate statement, because all of me doesn’t hate that, all of me doesn’t feel angry too, there is a protective part that you triggered. If instead I was to stop and listen to that protective part, and learn about what it was protecting, and then spoke for it, in the sense of saying, “When you said this thing, Tami, it triggered this angry part of me, and I learned it was protecting this worthless part that I’ve been talking about.” That’s a very different message to you than “I hate when you do this to me this way.”
A lot of times when we’re working with couples, we’re inviting what we call a U-turn in their focus. As they get into it, instead of continuing to have these parts battle with each other across the person, have them both stop, focus inside, notice the parts that have been doing the talking, separate, unblend (in the way we’ve been talking about), get to know them, and don’t come back until you can speak for them from Self rather than from them. We find that when people can do that, it’s a very different conversation, Self-to-Self communication is entirely different from protector-to-protector communication.
TS: Once again, I’d much rather talk about you than me. Would you be willing to give me an example of you and your wife having a conversation like that that works? You can give me a positive example of how maybe it didn’t work and then it worked, something like that.
RS: Yes. OK, I won’t give you the content about our fight because it makes me look pretty bad.
TS: That’s fine.
RS: But we did have a recent row that lasted quite a while. And this protector of mine, when it comes out—I think I alluded to [how] I wasn’t close to my mother, and I had a lot of resentment about the fact that I think she liked my brothers better than me. So, that part that felt that way about my mother—which is called transference, of course—starts to feel that way about Jean. When it takes over, it really makes a very compelling case about why I’m right and she’s wrong. And actually, if I look through that part’s eyes, she shifts from being very attractive to not being that attractive. I start having these thoughts about, “Why am I with her again?” Then my interactions with her are all quite surly. And again, I’m making myself look pretty bad here.
RS: Yes. Then we both learned, though, the value of separating—I […] mean just getting away from each other for a few minutes, and going in—and I would notice, “OK, there is this part that got triggered by her,” to it being very critical of me about something I’m not doing, and I could get it to separate; and once it separates, I can say, “Well she has a point, I’m really haven’t been coming through in that way.” And I can hear from a lot of other parts, where I can’t when I’m totally blinded with that one.
I can then come back and say, “There’s this part that really didn’t like what you said and made me feel like you really don’t get me, you don’t care about me. But then I got a little distance from it, I listened, and you do have a point about this thing, and I do apologize for that. And I’m going to keep working with this part, so it doesn’t totally blend the way it has. And I’m sorry that I haven’t been able to control that, I know I’ve been angry and mean lately.” So, I don’t know if this is doing what you’re asking but—
TS: No, it’s a great example.
TS: OK, Dick, I have two final questions for you here as we come to a close up. The first is one of the things I loved reading about in No Bad Parts, when you were writing about the Self, is you were taking us through this inquiry, this investigation about looking at the Self as an individual, more like a particle or more of like a wave, using physics to have this exploration, but then you said, “What if it’s more like a field? What if the Self is like a field? And what if when we’re in this field of the Self, were resonating with the self in everyone?” I absolutely loved that. Just intuitively I thought, “Dick is really onto something here looking at being in the Self as a field,” and I wanted to understand more about that.
RS: OK. Yes, that’s the way I’ve come to see Self, that it isn’t individualized; it’s not this little particle inside of us; but that actually, it is a field or a wave; and that when you enter that (and mystics have entered that for years; people can enter that these days through psychedelics often or meditating) you lose the boundaries around your individual body actually a lot of the time, and enter that field, you do feel this enormous connectedness and sense that we aren’t really different, we aren’t disconnected in the way we have been. And that then if you can bring that awareness, that C word, connectedness, back into your individual, body-bound Self (which is a lot of the impact I think of psychedelics now) it really changes many things in people’s lives, just that knowledge that we’re not these isolated little units. So, I think that’s what you’re getting.
TS: Yes. And then finally, believe it or not, for my last question—and I had to be careful here what I pick, [as] I only get one more—I’m going to ask you a really practical one, which is: Now I’ve been exposed to IFS through your writing and your audio work, and I’ve had a couple conversations with you, but I’ve never actually worked with an IFS therapist; I’ve never said, “I’m going to go do a series of X number of sessions or something.” And what I notice is that as I learn about it, I have so many aha’s, I have so many insights, and I have such great respect for the model. And I’m suspecting that it can only go so deep unless I do a body of work; I’ve got to commit to working with a therapist for a certain number of sessions or something like that. I wonder, we may have listeners who are in a similar position; they’ve listened to this conversation and they’ve made certain connections they never made before. But in order for IFS to really have real transformation in someone’s life, do they have to commit to do a certain number of sessions, something like that?
RS: It varies a lot. So, there are people who amaze me, who can take some of the exercises in the book or some of the meditations I have online and can do an enormous amount just from that. Then there are other people, like myself, because I can’t do that. When I start to go to my own exiles, I definitely need somebody in the room; it’s too scary. I can get to know a lot of protectors by myself, but to do the really deep healing you’re talking about, I need someone to guide me. So, yes, there’s just a range.
TS: All right. We’ll make that the penultimate—we’ll make this the ultimate question: What do you hope the legacy, the impact of IFS will be in the world? You’ve been at this for 40 years. What a terrific pioneer you are. You said you had to go through and do all this personal work in order to be able to hold this mantle properly. And it’s clear that you’ve been at this with a lot of heart and soul and perseverance for a long time. What do you hope the legacy will be?
RS: Well, if this were to pan out and go as far as it could, it does change the way people understand themselves and each other in a very profound way. If everybody knew that there was this undamageable, intact, eight C-word Self inside of themselves and everybody else; and that they were connected in the way we were talking about before; and that these protectors aren’t what they seem and they don’t have to fight inside with them (instead, love helps them transform), and it’s all parallel; the more you can love your parts that drive you crazy ordinarily, the more you can love people who resemble those parts the same way; then it does change many, many aspects of human interacting, and will have a big impact on the culture.
I used to think this sounded very grandiose because I had my own worthlessness that I had to combat, but now, I am convinced that this paradigm is one of many—and it’s not the only one—but it’s one of many that are starting to become available now that could make a profound change in human interacting.
TS: I’ve been speaking with Dick Schwartz. He’s the creator of Internal Family Systems. With Sounds True he’s written a new book. It’s called No Bad Parts: Healing Trauma and Restoring Wholeness with the Internal Family Systems Model. Dick, thank you so much. I always learn so much every time we talk. It’s terrific. Thank you.
RS: Thank you, Tami. I always love talking to you as well, and I’m very, very honored by your publishing this and your interest now in IFS.
TS: Thank you for listening to Insights at the Edge. You can read a full transcript of today’s interview at SoundsTrue.com/podcast. If you’re interested, hit the Subscribe button in your podcast app. Also, if you feel inspired, head to iTunes and leave Insights at the Edge a review. I love getting your feedback, being in connection with you, and learning how we can continue to evolve and improve our program. Working together, I believe we can create a kinder and wiser world. SoundsTrue.com: waking up the world.