Finding courageous love through Internal Family Systems therapy
I always assumed that once I was in a healthy, stable, long-term relationship with a supportive partner I’d be able to open my heart, let down my guard, and truly enjoy companionship. When I finally found that person, after a series of ill-matched and unhealthy relationships, and settled into a comfortable closeness, my heart simply wouldn’t relax.
I grew up in a household where I perceived love as conditional—it could be taken away at any time if I didn’t behave accordingly. I never could quite figure out what was expected of me so, at 15, my Mom and I decided it was best for me to leave home. It’s a rejection I still struggle with today. I bounced between an Aunt’s and some friends’ homes in another city, before I settled into a nightly couch-surfing routine for the duration of grade 12, when the idea that if I stayed small and didn’t take up too many resources was really reinforced.
By the time I entered my first serious relationship after university, despite overwhelming evidence that my partner truly had my best interests at heart and wasn’t going anywhere, every time we fought, I was convinced he was going to leave me. I persuaded myself that if I didn’t keep the house perfectly clean, if I wasn’t readily-available (emotionally, physically, or sexually), or generally over-tending to his needs, I was failing in the relationship and risking abandonment, yet again. I became sheepish, subservient—a shadow of the confident, risk-taking, and overtly-sexual woman my partner had fallen in love with.
I couldn’t handle the interpersonal conflict that a long-term relationship brought. Even the smallest perceived slight sent huge shockwaves: panic attacks, self-harm, suicidal impulses, which left my partner feeling as though he was walking on eggshells. (I’m used to eggshells so, while I felt similar, it didn’t bother me to the same extent.)
Luckily, about three years into our relationship, I started seeing a therapist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health who works a lot with Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy. IFS was developed in the 1980s by Richard C. Schwartz, whose book, You Are the One You’ve Been Waiting For, I’ll refer to heavily in this post.
Perhaps the simplest way of understanding this treatment mode is through the concept of “parts.” Have you ever said to yourself (or someone else), “part of me wants to do X, but another part of me wants to Y.” That’s the cornerstone of ISF. This therapy views our personality not as a monolith, but as something that contains autonomous multitudes or “parts” that can simultaneously contradict one another. Beneath this collection of “parts” is something Schwartz calls the “Self,” a calm, centred state that can separate from extreme emotions and thoughts (or “parts”) through mindfulness.
Each “part” tends to fall into one of three roles:
Exiles: Our most powerful of parts, exiles, are those young, vulnerable parts of ourselves we learned to bury a long time ago because our vulnerability or vitality bothered our caretakers or peers (for a multitude of reasons) or because our vulnerable and lively parts were hurt and then triggered others (one example Schwartz provides is of a child who was sexually molested, begins acting out sexually with other children, and is harshly punished). Exiles are the parts of us that tend to carry extreme beliefs, hold fears of being worthless or unlovable, and influence our ability to be intimate. Exiles also have the power to pull us into their despair, until we become their pain.
Managers: Managers are our preemptive protectors. They govern the way we interact with the world around us to try to prevent the exiles from flooding our awareness with painful and traumatic feelings.
Firefighters: These parts rush in to protect us when our exiles try to break through. They do so by distracting us with impulsive behaviours such as drug use, promiscuity, overeating, or violence. My strongest firefighter tends to express itself through self-harm, another possibility.
I realize the concept of IFS can be a little difficult to grasp at first, so allow me to illustrate with an example from my time in therapy. During one session, from a calm and self-led place, my therapist and I encountered the manager part responsible for my obsessive cleaning. My therapist asked me to ask this part why it felt the need to keep everything so tidy. When I went inward and asked why, this manager part replied, “to keep everything calm.”
When I was young, my mom and stepdad constantly fought over how tidy he kept the house while she worked, and I learned fairly early into their marriage that, if I wanted to avoid a scary evening screaming match, I’d better get the vacuum out. That manager part who kept things clean protected a precocious childlike exile who was deeply disturbed by her caregivers’ frequent clashing, and felt it was her responsibility to protect her mother (and herself) from these episodes of turmoil.
Though it’d been over a decade since I’d lived in the same house as my parents, those manager and exile parts of me were still very much affecting my day-to-day. The first bit of work my therapist and I completed was thanking both parts for all their efforts and acknowledging the feelings these parts held, without getting overwhelmed by them. Once I could sit with these parts, we tackled the core aim of IFS: unburdening the exile, and her beliefs (in my case, that she was responsible for her mother’s choices and wellbeing, and was scared by her caregivers’ frequent fighting).
The latter was actually the easier part to address: through several sessions and independent work, I comforted that exiled part of me, reassuring her it was okay to be frightened and concerned by her parents fighting, while showing her she no longer needed to worry so much because I was living in a much safer environment. Coming to terms with the concept that I wasn’t responsible for my mother’s wellbeing took a lot longer but, with time and effort, not only have I started to make peace with the idea, but I’ve been able to change my relationship with keeping the house tidy. I no longer do it out of a place of fear, but from a place of pride and, when I’m feeling overwhelmed by housework, it’s a lot easier to ask my partner to lend a hand without feeling an immense sense of guilt.
I’ve perhaps touched on the beginning of how parts work can be used to improve relationships, but to clearly answer that, I’ll have to borrow a (rather lengthy) passage from Schwartz’s book called The Magical Kitchen Metaphor:
Imagine that you inherited from your parents a magical kitchen in your home from which you can obtain any kind and quantity of food. Because your parents fed you unconditionally, you learned to do the same with your many children. They are happy because they love your food. Your food is so nourishing and satisfying that they never overeat or crave candy or other kinds of junk food. You never use food to punish or motivate them; consequently, they trust that they are worthy of being well fed just because they are your children. They don’t fight because each one knows there is plenty of food for everyone. You also give freely to friends, neighbours, and those in need of food, just for the pleasure of sharing. You know you don’t need to hoard because your food supply never runs out.
Then one day a man knocks on your door and offers your children a steady supply of pizza and candy if they will take care of him emotionally. Because you and your kids are so full and you can see that he doesn’t take care of his own kids, your response is, “No, thank you—we have plenty of food of our own.”
On another day, a different man knocks. He is like you in that he has many children whom he feeds generously and who are happy and satisfied. He is attracted to the cuisine of your magical kitchen, but doesn’t need it because he likes to cook and has plenty of food of his own. His children love playing with yours and would like to live in your house, but because they know that he will care for them no matter what happens with you, they trust him to decide where to live.
You invite him to share your home, and you love how much the two of you enjoy each other’s cooking. Both sets of children relish the mixed cuisine that now comes from your kitchen.
Now imagine that you live in a different household. You are very poor and have little food for your children. Because they are starving, the youngest and the weakest of your kids cry all the time and beg you to find someone to feed them. Their desperation drives you crazy, and you lock them in the basement so that they aren’t always in your hair and you’re not always reminded of their suffering. That’s the way your parents taught you to handle problem children.
As hard as you try to ignore the sobs of those young ones, however, you can still hear them through the floorboards. The urgency of their need is like a constant gnawing in the back of your mind. Some of your older children lose trust in your ability to take care of the family. They take on adult-like responsibilities, prodding you to work harder, trying to contain or calm the ones in the basement, and searching for food. Because these older ones aren’t equipped to handle this level of responsibility, they become rigid and controlling. They are constantly critical of your work habits and performance, and they expend enormous amounts of energy trying to keep the basement children at bay.
As the guy with the pizza and candy heads toward your door, the basement children smell the food before he arrives. They go insane with joy at the prospect of being fed and possibly released from their exile. They idolize the Candy Man and are willing to do anything to please him. You and the older kids are hungry, exhausted, and impressed by how happy the Candy Man makes the basement children feel. The possibility is very appealing of no longer having to deal with them and instead letting them attach to someone else.
Consequently, despite misgivings about the guy’s demands and the poor quality of his food, you and the older children agree to satisfy his emotional needs in return for steady meals. He turns out to be abusive at times, but your younger kids fear starving and being returned to the basement. Also, while he is increasingly stingy with the pizza and candy, the younger kids are addicted to it. Every time you bring up the topic of throwing him out, they override you.
If it isn’t already obvious, the food in this excerpt is love and the children, our parts (our basement children are exiles, and the upstairs children are protectors). But, there’s a lot of other treasures within this metaphor: it speaks to our tendency to let the wrong partners into our life when we’re not caring for ourselves adequately, the influence of our upbringing, how our parts work together with our significant other’s, and it highlights the danger in our society’s underlying cultural message that our ultimate personal salvation can be found in love and, specifically, in our significant other.
This metaphor also points out the trap in these ingrained cultural expectations. When our basement children rely on a partner to save them, they’re placing an impossible expectation on our significant other. Each time our partner fails in saving some exiled part of us, which further emboldens our protective parts, we leave the interaction deeply disappointed or scared, which spurs us into what Schwartz refers to as “The Three Projects.” Designed to get our partners back into a loving and redemptive role, these projects include: trying to force a partner to change through manipulation (pleading, demanding, shaming, etc.), trying to figure out what our partner doesn’t like about us and attempting to excise those parts even when it goes against our better nature, or giving up altogether and beginning the search for alternatives.
The key to avoiding these projects and to finding deeper levels of intimacy, according to Schwartz, is to find ways to connect with and speak for our parts. When our various parts are well-tended to, when we act as the primary caretaker for our parts, we’re less likely to overburden our partners with our exiles or shut them out with protectors. When we unburden our exiles, they’re more likely to let us open our heart to our significant other, and our significant other no longer has to attempt to fill the role of primary caregiver to our parts. It’s also helpful to understand that our partners have parts too. When they’re angry or short with us, it’s less devastating to understand their upset or criticism is only coming from a small part of them that’s likely been triggered in the moment.
When our parts learn to trust our leadership, they’re less likely to take over and distort our perception of our partner. “Courageous love,” as Schwartz coins it, “involves accepting all parts of the other because there is no longer a need to keep the other in the confining roles of parent/redeemer/ego booster/… When a partner has courageous love for the other, …each partner is released from being primarily responsible from making the other feel good. Instead, each knows how to care for his or her vulnerability.”
This issue: Joseph Mason Cox and rotational therapy
A rotary machine based on Cox’s swing. A number of complicated variants on Cox’s original design were developed in the early nineteenth century. This version was used in Berlin Charite. From Guislain,
, vol. 1, Pl. 2. (Courtesy of the Wellcome Trustees via
Social Order/Mental Disorder: Anglo American Psychiatry in Historical Perspective
by Andrew Scull.)
Not all therapies are meant to stand the test of time, and rotational therapy certainly ranks highly in bizarre treatments for mental illness. Joseph Mason Cox, born in England in 1736, was a physician who came to treat people with mental illness through his family: his grandfather owned Fishponds, an asylum near Bristol. While he didn’t actually invent rotational therapy, Cox drew upon Erasmus Darwin’s (grandfather of Charles Darwin) concept and blueprints for the equipment to practice it (though Darwin invented the concept, he never built the rotational therapy chair, nor practiced the therapy).
Patients who experienced rotational therapy in Fishponds found themselves, upon Cox’s orders, strapped to a chair and spun around in dizzying circles. The speed and duration of time spent in the chair was determined by Cox. Patients who underwent the therapy often became so frightened during the practice they’d vomit or literally shit their pants. Cox didn’t seem to mind this side effect, truly believing his therapy was working, and other medical professionals did too, adopting the therapy in Germany and the United States.
In his book, Practical Observations on Insanity, Cox wrote “after a few circumvolutions, I have witnessed the soothing lulling effects, when the mind has become tranquillized and the body quiescent.” Had I just voided all my bodily fluids, I’d probably need a nap too.
You Are the One You’ve Been Waiting For: Bringing Courageous Love to Intimate Relationships
By: Richard C. Schwartz
I’ve really just skimmed the surface of applying IFS to intimate relationships and I can assure you Schwartz does a much better job of it. Though this book is written with couples in mind, anyone interested in cultivating a better relationship with themselves will benefit from reading it. Written with clarity and accessibility, You Are the One You’ve Been Waiting For, is an insightful blueprint for finding courageous love and an improved capacity for intimacy.
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