Internal Family Systems (IFS) Is A Game-Changer For Medicine, Psychiatry, & The Spiritual Path

In my blog “Why It Doesn’t Help To Demonize Your Ego, Your Mind or Your Protector Parts,” I alluded to how much I resonate with Internal Family Systems (IFS), the trauma healing method developed by family therapist Richard Schwartz, PhD. When I was first introduced to the therapeutic model, I had goose bumps all over my body, because IFS is the “how” of how to lead an Inner Pilot Light-led life.

What I’ve been calling your Inner Pilot Light Dick Schwartz calls “Self” (with a capital S). But after hashing out whether we’re talking about the same thing over breakfast at Esalen, Dick and I concluded that the Self and the Inner Pilot Light are the same thing. While he uses language that is more psychologically oriented and my language is more spiritual, when you boil it down, we’re talking about what Mark Nepo describes so eloquently— “Each person is born with an unencumbered spot, free of expectation and regret, free of ambition and embarrassment, free of fear and worry; an umbilical spot of grace where we were each first touched by God. It is this spot of grace that issues peace. Psychologists call this spot the Psyche, Theologians call it the Soul, Jung calls it the Seat of the Unconscious, Hindu masters call it Atman, Buddhists call it Dharma, Rilke calls it Inwardness, Sufis call it Qalb, and Jesus calls it the Center of our Love.”


Well, Dick calls it Self and I call it your Inner Pilot Light. For ten years I’ve been writing daily love letters from your Inner Pilot Light (you can subscribe to them at InnerPilotLight.com) and if you want to binge on love letters, you can order my new book The Daily Flame here. But this is not just about some warm fuzzy way to snuggle in with your inner Beloved and get the reparenting you really need. It’s a total game changer, not just as a transformational spiritual path, but as treatment for every psychiatric diagnosis in the DSM-5 and perhaps every medical diagnosis as well. No biggie . . .

(Dick Schwartz and I will be presenting a workshop as a pre-conference event before the IFS conference in Denver in September on the implications of IFS in medicine.)

The HOW Of How To Connect With Your Inner Pilot Light

One of the most common questions people ask me is “How can I get more connected to my Inner Pilot Light?” When I first got introduced to IFS, I realized that although IFS is positioned as a trauma healing psychotherapeutic tool, it is really a deep spiritual practice and a lifelong path of spiritual attunement. Although I’ve studied and practiced many spiritual traditions, including the mystical branches of many religions (Christian mystics, Kabbalah, Sufism, and many flavors of Tantra yoga), as well as indigenous spirituality/animism, no tradition boils down the way I actually practice my spirituality like IFS does. IFS gives us the tools traditional meditative paths often don’t. It’s the “how” of how to deal with the “monkey mind.” It’ a non-demonizing, non-pathologizing, non-bypassing path to radical Self love, healing, transformation, and compassion for all your many “parts.”

What Is IFS?

If you saw the brilliant children’s movie Inside Out (watch the trailer here), you already have a taste of what IFS is all about. Inside this little girl’s head, you see all the warring “parts” fighting to take over the control panel of the little girl’s behavior. But in the case of the movie, this little girl lacks what Dick calls “Self-leadership” or what I call “Inner Pilot Light leadership.” When there’s no leader, there’s only the chatter of polarized parts, duking it out for who will control what you call YOU.

According to the IFS model, we all have multiple personalities, or what Dick calls “parts.” You are not just one being; you (and me and all of us) are a multiplicity of “parts,” but this is not usually a problem because you also have what IFS calls the Self (or Inner Pilot Light). In other words, your “internal family” is populated with a whole busload of inner children, and if you’re reasonably healthy, your Inner Pilot Light is driving the bus, keeping the lovely, sometimes naughty, often unruly, scared, overprotective, and sometimes reckless, addicted, dissociative, sociopathic, or even suicidal parts from grabbing the wheel and hijacking the bus.

The only difference between us “mentally healthy” folks and the ones the psychiatric community labels as “Dissociative Identify Disorder” (formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder, which was popularized by the 1976 movie Sybil) is that most of us have at least some “Self-leadership” guiding and reining in the parts, whereas those who are completely dissociated may have no leadership and it’s a parts free-for-all. Even if that’s the case, Dick Schwartz doesn’t demonize or pathologize even frightening dissociative parts. He also doesn’t pathologize addict parts, eating disorder parts, cutting parts, rage parts, psychopath parts, or even suicide parts. In all of these cases, he argues that these parts need love, compassion, and a strong healthy “Self” to love them, understand them, become intimate with them, and help them get that you know they’re just trying to protect you. Then, if you approach these parts with curiosity, compassion, and care, the way you might approach a scared or traumatized child, these extreme parts can start to relax so your Inner Pilot Light (Self) can heal the vulnerable, wounded parts they protect, which he calls the “exiles.”

Protector Parts & Exiled Parts

Managers

In the IFS model, parts are either “protectors” or “exiles.” Some protector parts are “managers” who try to preemptively protect you by warding off danger. (Think Inner Critic part, Perfectionist part, Anxious part, Time Keeper part, Financial Manager part, Worst Case Scenario Catastrophizing part, yada yada yada.) Their main job is to be the first line of defense, protecting the vulnerable, wounded, hurting “exile” parts from getting triggered and evoking intensely painful emotions that might take you out of commission. (Their biggest fear is that these exiled parts will flood you with painful emotions and you’ll get overwhelmed and fail to function the way you need to.)

Firefighters

The next line of defense are the “firefighter” protector parts. These firefighters come online as emergency back up if the managers fail to keep the exiles effectively locked up in exile. They grab their firefighting tools if anyone (including you) get too close to the pain the exiles are feeling when they’re locked away, usually buried in your subconscious, beyond your conscious awareness but nevertheless always influencing your behavior and experiences. The firefighters are saddled with intense roles which often don’t look like protection and are more likely to be pathologized by the medical and psychological world. When you think about firefighters, think “Addict part, Rage part, Eating Disorder part, Abuser part, Binge part, Dissociative part, Psychopath part, Narcissist part, Suicidal part, Narcoleptic part, Psychotic part.” In other words . . . think pretty much everything in the psychiatric DSM-5 (Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, created by the American Psychiatric Association as a way to label, diagnose, and standardize treatment for psychiatric disorders).

But firefighters do not only show up as psychiatric illnesses. They can also show up as physical illnesses—or other parts can use some physical vulnerability in your system to take you out. Think Migraine part, Back Pain part, Chronic Fatigue part, Asthma part, or even Cancer part. I’m not suggesting that these are purely psychosomatic illnesses (and neither is Dick). But according to the IFS model, your protector parts may pull out all the stops and use your physical body to try to protect you from getting too close to your traumatized exiles if they think they need to. So . . . as a physician interested in interdisciplinary cross-pollinations of healing, this is where Dick got my attention.

Protecting The Exiles

Why would parts that think they’re protecting you pull such potentially harmful stunts? Why would they use anorexia or an addiction or cutting or dissociation or even cancer to try to protect you? Because they know not what they do. (This is where it gets a bit complicated, so stay with me here and let’s play with getting curious and keeping an open mind.)

No matter how idyllic you think your childhood was, we all have vulnerable wounded parts (exiles). No one is exempt from the “burdens” these exiles carry. Our exiles might have different stories and different wounding, but they tend to have the same painful feelings—worthlessness, unlovability, “not enough-ness,” shame, feeling damaged or broken or thinking they are fundamentally flawed. Because your protector parts don’t like the feelings these exiled parts evoke, they unwittingly exacerbate the problems, locking these exiles in a kind of inner prison, so they’re crying and screaming and begging for your attention all the time. The more traumatic the wounding, the more the exiles will pull out all the stops to get your attention, so the more powerful the protectors must become. The managers might be able to keep things under control for a while, but over time, as the exiles get more unruly and the managers fail to keep the exiles under wraps, the firefighters might be needed to further shut down these intensely wounded parts.

All the exiles want is your love, your care, your nurturing, your understanding. They want you to listen to how much pain they experience. They want you to remember what happened to them and acknowledge it, rather than pushing it away. They want an ally, not a jailkeeper. But they can’t seem to get through to you, because the two lines of protection (managers and firefighters) do their best to keep you from even remembering, feeling, or being present with these sweet, young, tender, hurt exiles.

These exiles are crying for the love of your Inner Pilot Light, which is the part that’s not a part, the inner healer, therapist, mentor, parent, and Beloved that has what it takes to heal these wounded parts, if only your protector parts learn to trust that your Inner Pilot Light can care for them better than these jailkeeper protectors can.

The Solution: Unburdening The Exiles

While protecting the exiles might help to keep your internal family system safe for a while, it requires a great deal of energy to keep those exiles in prison. All the energy your protectors expend trying to keep the exiles under wraps could be used for creativity, self-healing, service, spiritual connection, playfulness, intimacy with others, and general vitality. But because that energy is getting used up by protectors, you might feel chronically tired, depleted, depressed, anxious, lacking inspiration, lonely, spiritually disconnected, or sick. It makes sense that freeing up these exiles through the IFS “unburdening process” liberates all this trapped energy and functions as a kind of energy healing, freeing up all that extra life force so the life force can work its magic in other aspects of your life.

The unburdening process is best facilitated by a skilled IFS therapist, but over time, it’s something some people can learn to do themselves. Unburdening your exiles requires getting permission from all the protectors that will keep you (or the therapist) from getting direct access to the exile. Once the protectors trust your Inner Pilot Light and allow this inner healer to make contact with the exiled part, demonstrating some curiosity, compassion, care, and other qualities of the Self that reassure the exiled part that the real YOU are here, the exile is ready to be unburdened. This is the real trauma CLEARING part. (Many other trauma therapies do not really cure the trauma or release it from the energy system, psyche, or body.)

Steps of Unburdening

WITNESS: Once protectors have relaxed and made space, the Inner Pilot Light approaches the exiled part and makes itself know. Once connection is made, the exile is invited to enter a space in the inner world where she can show your Inner Pilot Light everything she wants you to know—memories, images, sensations, sounds, intense emotions. Your Inner Pilot Light simply holds space and witnesses the exiled part’s pain.

REDO: When the exile has shown you everything it wants to, your Inner Pilot Light goes back in time and enters the scene to do a “redo” of what should have happened (the exile will instruct how it should have gone). With a kind of active imagination in your inner vision, you redo the scene, following orders from the exile and giving this little one what she really needed, which didn’t happen back then but can happen now.

RETRIEVE: When the redo is complete, you rescue the exile from that stuck place back in time and take the exile someplace peaceful and relaxing (the exile will tell your Inner Pilot Light where it wants to go to feel safe and peaceful).

UNBURDEN: Your Inner Pilot Light invites the exile to let go of all toxic beliefs, feeling states, and sensations which have been stuck since the original traumatic event. (Your exile will usually be happy to give it up to the elements—wind, water, fire, earth, light, or some other way of letting go.)

INVITE: You invite the exile to invite in new supportive, positive qualities to fill the space created by the unburdening.

PROTECTOR CHECK-IN: Once the exile is safely in its new place with its newly installed programs, the protectors who stepped aside to let the Inner Pilot Light do the healing are invited to come see how the exile is doing. (Usually the exile is pretty relaxed or even blissed out and the protectors feel happy and relieved.) The protectors learn over time that the Inner Pilot Light does a better job protecting and healing than the (usually young) protectors do. The exile will tell you how often it wants to be visited by the Inner Pilot Light in the inner world in order for the unburdening to be permanent (usually a daily check in for a minimum of thirty days makes the healing permanent).

Why Demonizing Your Parts Makes Things Worse

You might think you need to discipline, bully, harass, or even attack these potentially pathologized parts into submission in order to avoid the damage they can do. But as any person who has wrestled with an out of control firefighter can tell you, willpower is not enough here. Demonizing these firefighters only ramps up the firefighting behavior. Why? Because they genuinely think they’re helping you­—and in some way you may not understand yet—they are. Your Inner Pilot Light’s job is to become intimate with them and discover why they think they’re helping you, what they’re afraid would happen if they quit doing their job, and who they think they’re trying to protect.

As long as your parts are at war with each other, your firefighters are going to keep taking you out. Let me give you an example of a classic triad of parts. Let’s say you have an inner critic manager who is trying to get you to stop overeating. So the inner critic shames you and yells at you until you’re in so much pain from the shaming that your ashamed exile, who believes he’s worthless and unlovable, starts to have all kinds of painful emotions that break through into your consciousness until your binge part firefighter screams, “ENOUGH!” and downs a whole gallon of ice cream to try to numb the painful feelings the exile is feeling. Now the exile is silenced, but the inner critic starts shaming you again for being such a worthless, lame, pathetic pig, and now the exile starts crying again—and the cycle continues. No wonder New Years Resolutions rarely work with discipline and willpower alone!

These polarized parts continue their inner war your whole life unless you choose to get help and end the war. As long as your parts are at war with each other, you’ll always be at war with other people and you’ll never feel a true sense of sustained belonging, which will only trigger your parts even more and make your firefighter act out. I’ll go as far as saying that IFS—and letting your Inner Pilot Light take the lead—is peacemaking work. After all, how can we possibly expect to stop wars in the world when there’s an inner war going on? If your inner critic is at war with your addict part, or if your perfectionist part is at war with your procrastinator part, or if your spiritual bullying part is trying to meditate away your monkey mind, you’re not loving your parts. You’re at war with them, and that energy of war will come out sideways. We can’t love the extreme or vulnerable parts of others until we can love the extreme and vulnerable parts of ourselves. Only then is real love possible. Only then is peace on earth within the realm of possibility.

Unlearning Your Way Back To God

This is what it might take if you really want to heal your mental illness, your physical illness, your spiritual disconnection, and your relationships with others. It all starts with becoming intimate with your Inner Pilot Light and letting it become intimate with all of your parts.

To quote Mark Nepo again, “To know this spot of Inwardness is to know who we are, not by surface markers of identity, not by where we work or what we wear or how we like to be addressed, but by feeling our place in relation to the Infinite and by inhabiting it. This is a hard lifelong task, for the nature of becoming is a constant filming over of where we begin, while the nature of being is a constant erosion of what is not essential. Each of us lives in the midst of this ongoing tension, growing tarnished or covered over, only to be worn back to that incorruptible spot of grace at our core. When the film is worn through, we have moments of enlightenment, moments of wholeness, moments of Satori as the Zen sages term it, moments of clear living when inner meets outer, moments of full integrity of being, moments of complete Oneness. And whether the film is a veil of culture, of memory, of mental or religious training, of trauma or sophistication, the removal of that film and the restoration of that timeless spot of grace is the goal of all therapy and education. Regardless of subject matter, this is the only thing worth teaching: how to uncover that original center and how to live there once it is restored. We call the filming over a deadening of heart, and the process of return, whether brought about through suffering or love, is how we unlearn our way back to God.”

Additional Resources

If this resonates with you and you want to deepen your journey, here are a few resources that might help.

1. Start working with a trained IFS therapist. You can find IFS-trained therapists here.

2. Read Richard Schwartz’s book You Are The One You’ve Been Waiting For. Those who are interested in practicing IFS will appreciate the Internal Family Systems Skills Training Manual. Both of these highly recommended self-published books are cheaper at SelfLeadership.org than they are on Amazon.

3. Sign up for my free Daily Flame emails at InnerPilotLight.com. You can also find links to order The Daily Flame book, the Connect To Your Inner Pilot Light online program, or the Sounds True Inner Pilot Light audio program I did with Tami Simon at Inner Pilot Light.com.

4. Join the Healing Soul Tribe where others on a healing journey, whether healing from illness or trauma, support each other in leading an IFS-informed Inner Pilot Light-led life as a practice of healing and spiritual awakening. (If you sign up for just one month of the Healing Soul Tribe, you’ll also get a teleclass with me teaching about IFS, so all members of the Healing Soul Tribe can communicate with the same IFS-informed language.)

5. Take an IFS-informed workshop with me (learn more about my live events here) or with IFS founder Richard Schwartz (learn more about Dick’s events here).

5. Attend the IFS conference in Denver in September. I’ll be co-leading a preconference workshop with Dick Schwartz about IFS & Medicine, but we haven’t worked out all the details yet. Conference details are here.

With love for you and all your multiplicity of parts,

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