“Self isn’t a psychological concept, it’s a much more of a spiritual essence that can be in us and can be a field around us. How we treat our body and how much we unburden ourselves allows more of it to be in us. My vision is that if we could bring enough Self to this planet, things would change very quickly.” ~ Dr. richard schwartz
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What if we had a roadmap for our clients to gain greater awareness of what their parts are and what might be influencing them? In this session, Alison Whitmire, President of Learning in Action, is joined by Dr. Richard Swartz to explore what the Internal Family Systems (IFS) model is and how coaches can work with their clients to develop a relationship with all of their parts and support their client’s development of Self-leadership.
Dr. Richard Swartz began his career as a systemic family therapist and an academic. Grounded in systems thinking, Dr. Schwartz developed Internal Family Systems (IFS) in response to clients’ descriptions of various parts within themselves. He focused on the relationship among these parts and noticed that there were systemic patterns to the way they were organized across clients. He also found that when the clients’ parts felt safe and were allowed to relax, the clients would experience spontaneously the qualities of confidence, openness, and compassion that Dr. Schwartz came to call the Self. He found that when in that state of Self, clients would know how to heal their parts. A featured speaker for national professional organizations, Dr. Schwartz has published over fifty articles about IFS and many books, including his most recent, No Bad Parts: Healing Trauma and Restoring Wholeness with the Internal Family Systems Model.
The Internal Family Systems (IFS) model is grounded in the premise that each one of us has a Self — a wise and compassionate essence — and we also have parts. It’s the natural state of the mind to be subdivided and to have parts that span a full range of personalities. This is an empowering paradigm because all of our parts are good — they all have wonderful qualities, talents, and resources that help us thrive. Our parts also have a strong desire to help us.
As we make our way through life and experience trauma or attachment injuries from what we might call ‘bad parenting’, our parts are forced out of their naturally valuable states into roles that are sometimes destructive. When this happens our parts can become frozen in time, believing we’re still five years old and that we need to be protected in the ways that were necessary to help us navigate trauma in the past. When this happens it can keep us stuck and to the extreme, can damage our lives.
Protectors and exiles are the two primary parts identified by the IFS model. Exiles are the inner child parts of us that we suppress because they represent pain from the past. When we lock these parts away, we also lock away some of our most precious qualities. And we’re then dominated by the other parts that desperately try to shield us from harm. We call these parts our protectors and we have two types of them – managers and firefighters. They work to keep us from feeling too much and try to keep us and our exiles safe.
Our goal in healing isn’t to get rid of our parts, instead, we can find ways to unburden them. When we can focus on our parts and get curious about them — not fighting them and also not letting them take over — we can learn more about them. In this process, we uncover the secret history of why one of our parts was forced into a specific role. When we open space where the parts can feel safe and relax, the Self can emerge and we experience the qualities of confidence, openness, and compassion.
Although IFS was developed to be used in therapy, as coaches we have the opportunity to incorporate pieces of this practice into our work with clients for tremendous healing possibilities. Simply helping our clients to see their parts and realize they are not their enemy can be transformational. It can help them shift from a defended and stagnant mind state into reconnection with their wise, calm, and creative core Self.
A percentage of people have severe trauma so it’s best for coaches not to go to the inner child piece of the work, and leave that for a therapeutic setting. The place where it’s safe for coaches to focus is with the protectors. As we work with protectors as a coach, we will learn about exiles, as they naturally emerge while protecting other parts. Rather than ignoring them, we can welcome them, let them know we see them and that they won’t be forgotten. Even this small acknowledgment can be powerful and can serve as a placeholder until our client gets to a point where they are ready to work with a therapist who can take them through the next steps of the process.
We might ask our clients when they notice a part to focus on that part, locate it in their body and then ask directly:
We can also invite our client to also ask the part how old it thinks we are. If the part still thinks the client is young, even simply updating the part with the knowledge of the client’s current age can have an impact. When that part of the client understands that it is safe, it can release its burden and be free to return to its natural goodness.
The Internal Family Systems model is widely used in psychotherapy and is increasingly being applied to coaching. The model helps us understand the natural state of the subdivided human mind — made up of parts that can sometimes be disruptive and harmful — and a wise and compassionate Self. When we can help our clients to make contact with, understand, and love all their parts, it opens space for healing and for their wise and compassionate Self to emerge.