By Marika Hanushevsky Hull
How does a person disengage from the noise of living and get to the real self? Richard C. Schwartz answers this question with the internal family systems model, looking at the “family of parts living within us.”
This new and popular approach in the counseling field, also known as IFS or parts theory, is being widely appropriated into CPE programs and provides an intriguing view of human personality. Schwartz describes it in the 2001 book “Introduction to the Internal Family Systems Model.” The brief, easy-to-read introduction is worth adding to your reading list.
Schwartz views our thinking processes as an internal dialogue with different parts of us. The goal of his method is to change the way we look at and interact with our thoughts and emotions. The model encourages us to become curious about the various internal dialogues that represent parts of us and to listen more carefully. By listening to the internal dialogue, the IFS method leads to compassion for emotions and thoughts, which then leads to attempts to help the parts. The real self can then emerge, and healing can take place.
Schwartz names the terms that most characterize the IFS method as Exiles, Managers, and Firefighters. Exiles are the vulnerable parts of us that we try to lock up or leave frozen, “the parts of us that feel like losers and think we are worthless.”
Managers are “the protective parts that are responsible for our day-to-day safety,” Schwartz writes. “For many of us, they are the voices we hear most often, to the point where we come to think of ourselves as those voices or thoughts.” Managers are the parts that want to control everything, to prevent humiliation, abandonment, or rejection.
When the Managers fail to protect us, our Exiles are triggered. Then the Firefighters “do whatever it takes to deliver us out of the red alert condition.” It can be socially acceptable binges (overwork, overeating, excessive exercise or shopping) or more drastic methods (illegal drugs, alcohol, suicidal thoughts, compulsive sexual activity). The difference between Managers and Firefighters is that Managers anticipate and Firefighters react.
Schwartz’s IFS model can be very helpful in chaplain training and fulfill some of the standards for professional chaplaincy. The Common Standards for Professional Chaplaincy (TCP3) require that chaplains “incorporate a working knowledge of psychological and sociological disciplines and religious beliefs and practices in the provision of pastoral care.” The ACPE Standards and manuals (309.6) require that students develop the “ability to make effective use of their religious/spiritual heritage, theological understanding, and knowledge of the behavioral sciences in their pastoral care of persons and groups.” One of the ACPE outcomes (312.4) states that the chaplain must be able to “assess the strengths and needs of those served grounded in theology and using an understanding of the behavioral sciences.”
The IFS model can provide insight to both the chaplain and the patient. If we assume there are many parts in dialogue with one another, and that some of these parts are in conflict with one another, or hiding the self, then Schwartz says the goal is to change how we interact with our thoughts and emotions. His method is to listen to what the parts are saying. He maintains that this “curiosity” leads to “compassion for … emotions and thoughts” and that this focused listening produces real healing. By discussing the feelings and using the phrase “part of me feels” rather than “I feel,” Schwartz helps his clients to better understand their inner dialogue and in this way to begin to liberate the “good parts from the bad roles.”
IFS finds its place in the stream of psychotherapeutic as well as spiritual methods that look at the self and how to access it. For all its merits, this book comes up short in two areas: It lacks rigor because of the lack of academic references, and it lacks the anecdotal, energetic flavor of the self-help genre. Schwartz offers a framework for thinking that can help the chaplain and the patient to move away from pathologizing or catastrophizing behavior, and to a place of recognizing “the possibility of goodness.”
Marika Hanushevsky Hull, BCC, is a chaplain at St. Anne’s Hospital in Fall River, MA, and a supervisory candidate at the Holy Family Hospital CPE Program in Methuen, MA.