Could Internal Family Systems Heal Those Who Oppress The Culture’s Exiles?

*Because I’m giving my parts a break from potential attack, I won’t be posting this on social media and we have disabled comments on this post. For those who want to discuss this post- and many other controversial topics- we have a safe forum for unpacking these ideas as part of the Spiritual Bypassing Recovery 101 program. I also will be interviewing IFS founder Dick Schwartz about the material in this post, so you can see us hash it out (and then digest and integrate it with other students in the program.) Non-bypassing presence teacher Thomas Hubl, founder of the Collective Trauma Summit, also just joined our faculty to add his wisdom about a spiritual path beyond spiritual bypassing.

Registration ends at noon Monday, December 14th.

Yesterday, my very wise Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapist Nancy Morgan dropped something that has left me boggled, so I wanted to share it with you all here since I’m taking a break from Facebook. (Those of you who are new here after migrating over from Facebook, big welcome!) Nancy offered for my consideration the idea that we live in a culture that for many millennia has been built upon systemic exiling of certain people, ideas, or narratives. What/who has been exiled in our culture?

  • Women have been exiled from equality and justice
  • Most religions have exiled the Divine Feminine
  • A culture of white supremacy has exiled Black and Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC)
  • We have exiled all LGBTQIA+ gender and sexual identities that are not cisgender and heterosexual
  • We have exiled the large-bodied and all others who don’t meet artificial standards of beauty and certain body types
  • Unlike other cultures that venerate their elders, we now exile our elderly, putting them in nursing homes where hundreds of thousands are dying of Covid-19
  • In a country that once promised “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” we now exile our immigrants.
  • The feminine principle and all of the qualities that accompany it (collaboration over competition, surrender over domination, sharing rather than accumulation, empathy, and compassion over righteousness and judgment, interdependence over rugged individualism) have been exiled.
  • We have exiled our financially disadvantaged.

Internal Family Systems is based upon the idea that we are all a multiplicity of parts- hopefully led by our Divine Self- that can be broken down into protectors (manager parts and firefighter parts that try to ward off danger and prevent you from feeling pain at all costs) and exiled parts (the hurt, vulnerable inner children that carry intense burdens of painful emotions, physical sensations, and extreme beliefs like “I’m not lovable.”)

We can get to know and become intimate and compassionate with the makeup of our Internal Family Systems by categorizing our parts into:

Manager parts- Managers are the first line of defense to ward off danger (think Inner Critic parts, Perfectionist parts, Time Manager parts that remind you of your to-do list when you try to meditate, Thinking parts that Buddhists call “the monkey mind,” etc.)
Firefighter parts– If painful emotions flare up like a brush fire because the managers failed to keep you from feeling emotional pain, the firefighters rush to duty (think Addict parts, Rage parts, Violent parts, Dissociative parts, Suicide parts, Eating Disorder parts, Abusive parts.)

The job of all protectors is to keep you from feeling the pain of your “exiles.” Internal Family Systems is based upon the idea that we exile hurt parts of ourselves, locking them up in our psyches so we don’t feel the parts that might feel helpless, hopeless, lonely, worthless, not good enough, disposable, ashamed, terrified, unlovable, and abandoned. It is the job of our protectors to avoid those feelings- to help us numb, distract, dissociate, deny, deflect, micromanage or otherwise keep us busy doing anything other than feeling what our “exiles” feel.

THE IFS TREATMENT: Self-Leadership

The treatment for these traumatized exiles includes becoming intimate with the “protector” parts, earning their trust, understanding what scares and motivates them. With an IFS therapist or on our own, we can learn to help the defended protector parts relax so we can approach the exiles with our hearts open, connected to our Divine Self. Self-leadership is the goal of IFS, as opposed to “blending with parts,” which usually means blending with manager parts or firefighter parts (protectors) who are busy trying to avert danger (managers) or getting into all kinds of naughtiness (firefighters) because the managers have failed to successfully keep the exiles (the hurt young parts) under wraps.

Successful healing means getting protectors to relax enough to back off and stand by so we can allow our exiles to be seen, heard, felt, retrieved from where they’re stuck in the past. Treatment includes “unburdening” those exiles- listening, caring, telling them that their stories make sense and that we get it. We then give those exiles a chance to “redo”- to fix what should have happened, at least in our inner worlds. Then the protectors can see that the exiles are really beautiful little children who carry magical, playful energies once their burdens are removed and we’ve performed a kind of soul retrieval on them, rescuing them from the painful past and integrating them into the wholeness of the present.

Bullying or demonizing or hating on our protectors never helps us heal the exiles in our inner worlds. If it did, we’d all keep our New Years Resolutions. What works is when we love them, even though it’s not always easy to love parts that harm ourselves and others. Thirty years of tens of thousands of IFS therapists’ experience proves that this is the ONLY way to heal the exiles and get the protectors to stop their often harmful and extreme behaviors.

Can We Apply IFS To The Outer World?

Could the same principles apply to those who protect our systems of systemic exiling in the world- the powerful men with white privilege, the abusive dictators, the religious leaders, the CEO’s of big corporate giants, those tasked with maintaining the status quo in all the ways we exile the marginalized? Let’s play with this cognitive experiment.

Here’s what my IFS therapist Nancy said that boggled me. (I’m paraphrasing in my own words from my memory of our therapy session.)

“What if the solution to the world’s many crises is to retrieve the world’s systemic exiles from where they’ve been exiled? What if we could apply the same methodology we use to retrieve exiles in our inner worlds to our outer world? What if those who protect keeping those systemic exiles in exile (our world leaders and those charged with anchoring the status quo and preventing reform, social justice, and transformation) could be treated with the same care, kindness, compassion, and trust-building that we use when we want to relax and move beyond protectors in our inner worlds? Just as bullying the inner critic or bullying an addict part never results in calming them down and changing their behaviors on the inside, why would we think it would be effective to bully an authoritarian politician or some guy who beats his wife to keep her submissive or some cop who puts his knee on a Black man’s neck?”

Nancy said she was hesitant to share her idea with me, and when I asked why, she said that there’s a lot at stake to keep those who are exiled by systemic exiling on the fringes. People are attached to their religions and the exiling beliefs that are entrenched in them. People are attached to white privilege and feel entitled to keep it. Freeing those in exile would be uncomfortable for a lot of people in positions of power and privilege. She didn’t want to activate any of my own protector parts with her ideas for freeing those in exile in our culture.

But I didn’t feel resistant to her idea. I felt boggled by it. In my humble opinion, I think even trying to undertake a mission this enormous would require nothing less than a full evolutionary upgrade- which would have to start with each individual on the planet being willing to open to healing their own trauma, rather than running away from it.

Considering Nancy’s idea nearly made my head explode, the way thinking about fractals usually does. What she is suggesting is a kind of fractal. IFS was founded upon the idea that we have inside of us a whole family of parts. Because founder Dick Schwartz was a family therapist who specialized in treating the families of girls with eating disorders, he realized that the strategies he had been taught to practice in order to restore harmony to an external family system (Mom, Dad, the kids) could be applied to the family of parts inside. Just as a family might have someone who protects the status quo (like a control freak, perfectionist mother, or a dominating rageful dad), our inner worlds have parts that protect the status quo so we don’t feel the pain of our exiles. Just as in family therapy, you might ask Dad to step outside the room to give the child some space to speak; healing our exiles requires getting the inner Dads to step back and give us some space so we can hear our exiles speak.

Since IFS was already a fractal- turning the external family system inside and applying the tools of family therapy to the practice of treating traumas inside of us- it makes sense to consider applying IFS to systems to social justice activism. Just as protectors inside are afraid that if the exiles are released from our inner prisons, protectors of the status quo are afraid that all hell will break loose if we give freedom to those we have exiled in the culture.

Consider #BlackLivesMatter, for example. Right now, the Rankin family that lives in Ohio is gathering to attend a rally because yet another Black man Casey C. Goodson, Jr. was shot three times in the back while carrying a bag of sandwiches outside his house (News Article). Those who are not in favor of stricter punishments for cops who commit police brutality say they fear that Black people will just run rampant and cause criminal chaos in the streets if cops don’t keep them under control (ie. oppressed and in exile.) This is the same fear our protector parts inside carry- that if our exiled parts were allowed to feel their pain, they would just run rampant and cause us to be unable to function and keep things together.

Trump and his cronies fear that if we don’t build a wall, immigrants will just dominate our country and make us unable to function. Religious leaders are afraid that if we endorse and celebrate gay marriage, this will wreak havoc on the Christian family unit as we know it. Those who oppose the equal rights for women are afraid that if women have equal rights and equal power, women will just leave their posts as mothers and wives and run off to become President.

Through Nancy’s lens, those who want to keep certain people or ideas in our culture exiled will try harder and harder to oppress those in exile, ramping up their attempt to dominate the exiles, just as protectors inside of us do when we’re trying to bully them into behaving better or going too quickly to treat our hurt exiles inside.

We know without a doubt from IFS that bullying, demonizing or hating our protectors inside never works to help us heal the underlying wounds. Yet those protectors inside are often bullies, bullying the exiles they think they’re protecting.

How Should We Deal With Bullies?

So how do we deal with bullies effectively? Those charged with keeping systemic exiles oppressed are also bullies. How do we get bullying parts or bullying leaders to back down?

Without IFS, typically, we deal with our inner bullies- personally and culturally- by:
Demonizing them

  • Imprisoning them
  • Medicating them
  • Hating them
  • Sending them to rehab or 12 Step programs
  • Trying to pressure them to stop
  • Harshly disciplining them
  • Threatening them
  • Hospitalizing them

Sometimes these reactions are necessary, because setting boundaries when our parts inside hurt other people or harm ourselves is an appropriate response. If your eating disorder or suicide attempt is life-threatening, you might need to be hospitalized. If someone has murderer parts, sexual predator parts, addict parts, or parts that break laws, sometimes we have to put them in jail or in rehab to stop them from hurting others. But setting boundaries with parts that do harmful things doesn’t heal them; it only restrains them, which is sometimes necessary.

What does it take to actually cure addictions, to stop eating disorder behavior, to prevent further suicide attempts, to cause sexual offenders to have a change of heart, to evoke remorse and a desire for change in people who commit crimes that hurt other people? Efforts at restraint do not heal; they only set boundaries. But what heals?

In Internal Family Systems, we don’t bully the protectors inside because doing so only strengthens them and exaggerates the harmful behavior. The only thing that works is to approach these protectors inside and find out what scares them. We ask protectors the 6F’s:

The 6 F’s of IFS

  1. Find
  2. Focus
  3. Flesh out
  4. Feel towards
  5. BeFriend
  6. Fears
  1. FIND: Find the protector part in, on, or around your body. This will be your “trailhead” to explore
  2. FOCUS: Focus on it. Inhabiting your Self energy, turn your attention to the part and let it know you’re with it.
  3. FLESH OUT: What does it look like, feel like, smell like, sound like? How close will it let you get?
  4. Assess how you FEEL toward it. This is your compass for assessing how much Self energy is present. If you don’t like this part, find the part that doesn’t like it and ask it to step aside. Your Self can be curious about any part without judgment, but some parts polarize with other parts, so make sure to protect the part that is revealing itself to you from other parts that might attack it. Once any polarized part steps aside, check in with how you feel towards the part now. If all the parts are relaxed, you’ll feel one or more of the “8 C’s of Self”- curious, compassion, clarity, calmness, confidence, connection, courage, and creativity.
  5. BeFRIEND the part by getting curious and finding out more about it. Engage in a series of inquiries
  6. Ask this part what it FEARS.

Questions To Get To Know Your Protectors

  • How did it get this job?
  • How effective is the job?
  • If it didn’t have to do this job, what would it do instead?
  • How old is this part?
  • How old does it think you are?
  • What else does it want you to know?
  • What does it want for you?

What is it afraid would happen if it stopped doing its job?

In IFS, we go inside and we show our protectors that we understand that they think they’re helping us when they cause us to overeat or drink too much or beat the kids or lash out at our partners in fits of rage. Because these inner protectors will do anything- even overdose or attempt suicide- to prevent us from feeling the pain of our hurt, unhealed exiles, they think they’re helping us by preventing us from feeling. Protectors only let us go to our exiles when we approach them with curiosity and care, letting them know there might be relief for those hurt parts if only we are allowed to retrieve them from exile.

What If We Offered The Culture’s Protectors Of The Status Quo The Same Compassion?

What if we did the same in the culture at large? Would there be any chance that those who bully others in order to try to maintain the status quo would respond to similar healing methods? Would it help if we approached the cop who just killed Casey Goodson to ask, “What are you afraid would happen if you weren’t so trigger happy when you’re around Black people?” If we asked Trump “What are you afraid would happen if we let immigrants in or put women in the White House?” What would they say if we approached the traditionalist Methodist ministers who keep fighting over whether it’s okay to marry gay people in the church and asked: “What are you afraid would happen if we allowed gay marriage in the church?”

Lest you misunderstand me and attack me for being soft on perpetrators, I’m not suggesting perpetrators of abuse deserve the same kind of tenderness and care as those they victimize. I get that there’s a time for restorative justice, and this might mean that we need to take a firm stand in solidarity with victims against the perpetrators and protectors of systemic exiling. Personally, I think these “protectors” of “law and order”– like the cop who killed George Floyd- need to go to jail and be held accountable for the consequences of their crimes and abuses. I hope Donald Trump and so many other cult leaders who are getting called out right now get their time in court to be held accountable for their behaviors with fair trials and fair punishment. Restraining people who harm others is appropriate. But it won’t heal the conditions that create such abuses.

This Is Not A Time For Moral Relativism

So how do we hold the paradox of taking a firm stand on behalf of the culture’s exiles while not demonizing or exiling the perpetrators of those charged with maintaining the culture’s status quo? I’ve gone back and forth (we cannot seem to find a place where we quite agree) with my long time friend and colleague Charles Eisenstein, who has been under fire on the Conspirituality Podcast for failing to take a firm stand for anything, as well as perhaps covering up his unwillingness to take sides with a lot of utopian fluff during dystopian times. Charles just wrote an article about QAnon, From QAnon’s Dark Mirror, Hope. While I agree with some parts of the article, I take issue with this:

“I have been counseled to issue a public denunciation of QAnon, to which I reply that I am not in the business of denouncing anyone. In clarifying who is friend and who is foe, denunciation reduces the target to the status of enemy. I won’t take sides in the culture war, not because I think both sides are equal or that all viewpoints are equally true, but because (1) I believe that the blind spots both sides share are more significant, and more dangerous, than their disagreements, and (2) Beneath the conflict is a hidden unity that will emerge when all parties humbly try to understand the other.”

I am one of those people who called on Charles to renounce QAnon and take a stand on conspiracy theories. I also get why Charles is so vocal about resisting the tendency to divide and polarize. I have innocent, naïve parts that hate when people fight, and these young parts so want to believe Charles is right! I have other parts that think those young parts need to grow up and realize that people like Donald Trump and many of the powerful upholders of the status quo are not interested in doing their trauma healing work and do not have the humility to even have insight into how much their own exiles are hurting. Right now, as the culture shifts quickly, those parts think others in positions of power need to take a firm stand to renounce fascist cults like QAnon and do what we must to keep them from causing further harm that might lead to the next Civil War or Holocaust.

I have to wonder, is Charles not taking sides because he’s so non-dual that he’s just more spiritually advanced than me? Or is he not taking sides because young parts in him are conflict avoidant and just want everyone to stop fighting? This is where I struggle! Personally, I think his error is in conflating taking a stand for one side with demonizing the other side. He confuses firm boundaries and taking a stand with being self-righteous and sanctimonious. It seems to me that anytime someone takes a stand either way, Charles perceives it as divisive. But when I finished reading his article, I still didn’t know where he stands on pretty much anything. Did he vote for the cult of Trump or the cult of Biden? Will he get a vaccine or will he not? Is he fascist or socialist? I know him personally, so I know more than the average reader about where Charles might stand, but can the reader tell? And if you’re a white, cis-gender, heterosexual, able-bodied male in a position of privilege and power- and you fail to take a stand on any side- are you not contributing to systems of oppression?

I think we can both take a firm stand and renounce QAnon while not dehumanizing those who went down the rabbit hole or cutting them out of the wholeness of humanity. I think we can try to understand why we lost loved ones down that rabbit hole while also boundarying ourselves from their abuse when they ramp up their intensity to try to convert us to their point of view, if necessary. This is what I had to do on Facebook. Extending my compassion to both sides only got me abused by both sides. The same is happening in the comments on Charles’s article. The moral of that story is that when you try to extend compassion to both sides of polarizing issues, you sacrifice belonging with those who want to demonize the other side.

So how do we take a firm stand without “othering” the other side of a polarizing issue? I think we can both claim what we believe to be true but do so in a way that keeps us open to being curious about how the other side thinks and feels- as long as it’s not harming us to do so. (In my case, I had to set firm boundaries around the QAnon people in my world because my attempt to ask “What’s it like to be you?” meant I was spending hours every day listening to people insist that their misinformation and propaganda- things easily disproven- were real. It was a time and energy sink, and if I tried to dispute misinformation with facts, people treated me abusively, so I had to draw the line.) That line doesn’t mean I think they don’t deserve love, however, or should be cast out of the wholeness of humanity.

I think Charles’s article, while IFS-like in many ways- misses a big part of the boat because of his tendency towards moral relativism. To compare the QAnon cult and the cult of Trump or the Breitbart cult to the Democratic party cult or the New York Times cult or the CNN cult, as Charles does in his article, in the middle of global disasters and a war on facts, is dangerous- or so my parts say. Some truths are simply more true than others, and to suggest otherwise gives credence to those who are claiming Covid is a hoax, masks don’t help, vaccines are more dangerous than helpful, the climate crisis isn’t real, All Lives Matter, and Indigenous people don’t deserve truth and reconciliation after my country stole their land and murdered their people.

Charles writes, “QAnons and Black Lives Matter protesters actually have a lot in common, starting with a profound alienation from mainstream politics and loss of faith in the system, but having been maneuvered into false opposition they cancel each other out. That is why compassion – seeing the human beneath the judgments, categories, and projections – is the only way out of the social dilemma.” I get his valid point, but to suggest in any way that fascists and those who resist fascism are morally equal is a grave mistake, in my opinion.

I feel defeated sometimes around my friends in “non-dual” spiritual circles.” They seem to think that non-dual awareness absolves you of taking a firm stand and using your power and privilege to protect those who are less powerful and less privileged. I just keep thinking- isn’t real non-duality both duality and non-duality- take a firm stand and set clear boundaries- but extend compassion and inclusion in the wholeness of humanity to those who think differently than you do? Is this so hard to grok?

Anyway, I’m trying to wrestle with the parts of me that think we need to keep our hearts open and resist dehumanizing anyone but also be willing to call out, stand up, and boundary against dangerous misinformation and behaviors that harm the vulnerable in the name of being compassionate to everyone. I also think it’s important to understand spiritual bypassing and how this tendency is a trauma symptom, usually because reality is simply too hard for some wounded people to face, and some people simply can’t handle feeling their feelings. (There’s still time to join Spiritual Bypassing Recovery 101 if you’re one of those people trying to off-ramp from spiritual bypassing tendencies in a gentle, loving space. Register HERE.

Use Your Voice, Take A Stand, Resist The Temptation To Exile Anyone

I want to speak to those who might call me out for not standing up enough for those who our culture exiles. I have done my best to use my power, platform, and privilege to take a firm stand against QAnon, against unscientific conspiracy theories, against systemic racism, against colonization, against misinformation, against pharmaceutical industry abuses, and corruption. I had tried to take a firm stand for science and facts, for anti-racism, for Black Lives Matter, for the safety of our front line Covid workers, for safe, well tested, affordable vaccines. Doing so has cost me a great deal of social capital but I think anyone with my power, platform, and privilege who does not do so is taking a stand FOR systems of oppression. If my country goes the route of Nazi Germany, I want to go to my death bed knowing I took a stand for the marginalized and vulnerable, even as I refused to dehumanize and exile those who seem a lot like Nazis right now. Doing so has been hard, but it has felt necessary to live in alignment with my spiritual values and moral compass.

By calling for compassion for the upholders of the status quo, I am not saying I don’t also have equal- or even more- compassion for those who have been tragically harmed by the status quo. Those who have been hurt by systemic racism, colonization, homophobia, sexism, capitalism, and all the other “-isms”- certainly are entitled to our sacred anger, our horror at such egregious behaviors, our fury, our grief. It makes me feel enraged, frustrated, and aggrieved as well. And the responses on Facebook from those who disagree with me have been hard to bear, given how disrespectful people on social media have become.

I welcome all feelings, but all perspectives are not equally okay. I’m a total pacificist, but if the world had not taken a firm stand and set fierce boundaries with the European fascists in World War 2, what would have happened? If we do not do the same with armed fascists who are threatening election officials and Democratic politicians with violence, what could happen here? Would it be possible to literally and emotionally disarm those people who are blended with extreme” firefighters” right now? Would it make a difference if they knew we include them in the wholeness of humanity too?

Truth & Reconcilation- IFS Style

So let’s come back to whether IFS could potentially be applied systemically. Might it be possible that these gatekeepers of the status quo soften at all if we said to them what IFS therapists say when trying to get our inner protectors to back down- “Makes sense that you would feel that way…” If we were merchants of hope for those who keep systems of exile in place, if we promised them we might be able to help them work less hard by getting them help, if we suggested that there might be a better solution, if we offered to let them watch as we listen to those who have been marginalized and hurt, would their hearts open just a little? If we offered to keep those who have been exiled safe from the bullies while they told their stories, if we promised to listen and care and create safe havens for trauma healing, might we find some open-hearted way towards collective trauma truth and reconciliation?

It’s a firm Internal Family Systems teaching that, as IFS therapist Laura Schmidt says, “We can’t love on our protectors enough.” The way they relax on the inside is if we keep thanking them for working so hard to try to keep us safe. We keep getting curious about why they think and behave the way they do, We keep offering to help so they don’t have to work so hard because once we heal the exiles they protect, they tend to stop acting out and find other jobs that they like better. Even the parts that bully us inside don’t usually like being bullies. They’d rather chill out, get some rest, and play than have tantrums, if only we give them the chance.

I can hear my critics already telling me I’m being as naïve as Charles, and maybe I am. Maybe this is all some utopian fantasy to consider that IFS can not only heal us individually but that it could also be applied at the systemic level to heal systemic exiling. Maybe the world’s bullies are so recalcitrant and resistant to anything even close to trauma healing that they won’t soften under the light of our own compassion the way protectors on the inside will. Maybe Nancy and I are being naïve to even consider such a boggling solution to global chaos. But what if Nancy could be right? Then what?

How would this look? Maybe it looks something like South Africa’s attempt at Truth & Reconciliation when both the victims of apartheid and the perpetrators of systems of oppression were given the chance to listen to one another. Maybe there’s a 2021 solution, to take what we learned from Germany’s way of addressing the Holocaust and South Africa’s way of addressing apartheid. While far from perfect, both did better than the United States has done so far.

Maybe it looks something like the Collective Trauma healing work Thomas Hubl is doing with his Pocket Project. Maybe it means getting a team of IFS therapists and global conflict mediators to facilitate honest conversation between Blue cops and Black men, between white Republican men and Black women, between white government leaders and Native American elders, between immigration enforcers and immigrants, between QAnon and Black Lives Matters protestors, and between those in the spiritual and wellness industry who went the route of conspiratorial thinking and those who are trying to apply critical thinking and science.

Maybe we’re too damaged as a species for something like that to ever be possible. But a new year is dawning- and who knows what might be possible if we keep our hope in miracles open? Our parts will not know how to make this happen. But if we do enough of our own trauma healing to let our Divine Self take the lead, if enough of us do this inner work to heal the polarizations inside our own Internal Family Systems first so we can hold compassionate presence for our own parts and for the parts of others, even in the face of those we might be tempted to exile and hate, who knows what might be possible for Planet Earth?

Mother Earth, Father Sky, Divine Self- please help us.

If you’d like to learn more about IFS as a trauma-informed, non-polarizing, non-demonizing spiritual path, a path of social justice activism, and the antidote to spiritual bypassing, join us at Spiritual Bypassing Recovery 101.