I had a tremendous breakthrough in my own therapeutic process when I was introduced to Internal Family Systems therapy. The shift I experienced was momentous and the healing I found was almost supernatural. Obviously, I cannot condense an entire theory into a single post or substitute the benefits of regular practice, but perhaps I can give you a small gift for your own journey.
Richard Schwartz developed IFS therapy in the 1980s based on his background with systems theory. In short, he described the “internal dialog” within our consciousness as subpersonalities or “parts” (if it helps, think of Pixar’s Inside Out). Schwartz broke these personifications down into different types that he called “Exiles, Managers, and Firefighters.” Our Exiles are the parts associated with shame, fear, etc. The Managers are the parts that attempt to preemptively protect us and the Firefighters are the parts that engage when the exiles start to speak up.
The theory itself has way more depth and includes a “true self” and other important components, but I’m going to skip to the end of the lesson here and get right to the practical. In essence, the take away is that we all have parts and under different scenarios they each respond in different ways.
Right now there is a worldwide shared experience in the COVID-19 pandemic. Each of us has observed a variety of ways different people respond to this stimuli. Panic, stoicism, greed, compassion, generosity, and everything in between. Now, imagine your internal system as a microcosm of this external system. For some of us, our various parts are working overtime. Our internal dialog is running at peak capacity and we can feel the fatigue in our bodies. One component of self-care is slowing this dialog through listening to our various parts. We cannot actually get rid of any of them, so a path toward mental health is hearing them out with empathy and gratitude.
I begin by thanking my Managers and Firefighters. My Managers are quite adept at gaining information; they love data and knowledge and they are soothed by having answers and a plan. My firefighters are helpful too. Although sometimes they are impulsive, drink too much, or create messes in my relationships. Nonetheless, I spend some time checking in with them to reassure them that “we” are going to be okay. If I don’t take this step, I never get to my Exiles because they are often scared and hiding.
Honestly, this crisis hasn’t really affected me much. My Manager parts do the research, collect the data, and take precautions. When directed in healthy ways, my Firefighters offer comic relief and energize some great workouts. And right now my Exiles are doing ok; I grew up in the woods where social isolation was normative. When we were snowed in and the power was out, we were prepared. It meant family time and togetherness. I actually have fond memories associated with hunkering down.
But what about people with different experiences? What if their experiences of isolation meant hunger due to poverty, violence due to others whose Firefighters are amped up, loneliness, pain, or some other negative happening? This is what you and I can see in the behaviors of others. We don’t know their story. The guy hoarding is doing so because his system is fearful, not because he is an awful, selfish person. The woman yelling at the cashier is in survival mode. Her firefighters are desperate to protect the system at all costs.
If you’re experiencing a lot of overwhelming feelings right now take a moment to check in with your parts. Be curious, not accusatory (shame never, ever produces fruit). Thank your Managers and Firefighters and then reassure them that it’s going to be okay. You’re going to be okay. Lovingkindness begins with you and moves outward.