The Parts Within Us: An Interview with Richard Schwartz, Creator of Internal Family Systems

Richard Schwartz, Ph.D., is the creator of Internal Family Systems, a therapeutic model that rejects the notion of a “mono-mind” in favor of a more inclusive, manifold approach that regards each person as a bearer of distinct “parts”—each one shaped by past experiences. Such parts might include traumatized inner children or other “exiles,” as well as “protectors,” “firefighters,” or similarly distinct roles. 

Originally trained in systemic family therapy, Schwartz earned his Ph.D. from Purdue University and started developing IFS in the 1980s. He’s published five books, including Internal Family Systems Therapy, Many Minds, One Self: Evidence for a Radical Shift in Paradigm, and, most recently, No Bad Parts: Healing Trauma and Restoring Wholeness with The Internal Family Systems Model.

Schwartz, who taught for many years at the University of Illinois at Chicago and Northwestern University, is currently on the faculty at Harvard Medical School. For more on IFS, see ifs-institute.com.

The following interview has been edited for space and clarity.

Amy Biancolli: How would you normally describe Internal Family Systems to someone? Incorporating, for instance, a rundown of the various parts and the concept of everybody having an internal family?

Richard Schwartz: IFS is a different paradigm for understanding the mind that says that rather than being a sign of pathology, it’s the nature of the mind to have what I call “parts”—what other systems call sub-personalities, or ego states, or voices. In multiple personality disorder, they’re called alters. It’s the nature of the mind to have them. 

We’re born that way—and we’re born that way because they’re all valuable. We need their resources to make it in life and to thrive. Trauma and attachment injuries, and things like that, forced them out of their naturally valuable states into roles that can be destructive and sometimes were necessary at some point in your life. But they often are frozen back there, frozen in time during a trauma, and they think you’re still five years old. They think they still need to do what they needed to do back then.

I recently wrote a book called No Bad Parts, which was trying to make that case: that so many things we think of as psychiatric diagnoses and illnesses are really just the activities of a lot of these protective parts. 

When you suffer that way, some parts are very vulnerable and young—what often are called “inner children”—and they’re the ones that get hurt the most, because they’re the most sensitive. They take on what we call the “burdens” of worthlessnes, or terror, or emotional pain. When they get burdened that way, when they carry those feelings, they’re not so much fun to be around.

Before they get hurt, or scared, or ashamed, they’re lovely—because they’re all kinds of innocence, and playfulness, and creativity, and openness. But after they get hurt, now they can have the power to overwhelm us and pull us back into those scenes and make us feel the things we didn’t want to feel again. We tend to want to lock them away inside, in inner basements or caves or abysses, and just move on, not realizing that we’re moving on from our most precious qualities just because they got hurt.

Those we call “exiles,” because they’re locked up inside, and we have parts that do their best to try and keep them that way. When you have a lot of exiles, you feel more delicate, and the world feels more dangerous, because so many things could trigger them, and if they get triggered, then they have the power to overwhelm you.

Then a lot of other parts are forced into “protector” roles, some of whom try to protect you by managing your life so that the exiles don’t get triggered. They’ll tend to want to keep you a certain distance from relationships, or make you look perfect so that you don’t get rejected, or make you achieve a lot so you get accolades to counter the worthlessness, or take care of everybody around you so that they depend on you. There are a lot of different “manager” roles.

But despite the best efforts, still, your exiles get triggered sometimes. So there’s another set of parts who are on standby, and if you suddenly feel a wave of terror or pain, they’ll immediately go into action to take you away in an impulsive way, in a reactive way. They’re desperately trying to get you higher than the flames of emotion of the exiles, or distract you until they burn themselves out. We call those “firefighters,” because they’re fighting these raw flames of emotion that the exiles carry.

So that’s the very simple map to the inner territory.

In addition to all of that—and probably the most important discovery of IFS—is that there is also a kind of essence in everybody that’s just beneath the surface of these parts, such that when they open space, it pops out—and contains all these wonderful what I call “C-word” qualities, like calm and curiosity and compassion and clarity. That is not a “part” like the others. That’s what clients said when I asked, “What is that?” They’d say, “That’s more myself, that’s not a part.” So we call that “the Self.”

It turns out that everybody has that. It can’t be damaged, and it’s just beneath the surface of these parts—so that when they open space, that “Self” emerges and knows how to heal, and knows how to help these parts transform, and knows how to heal external relationships. A lot of the work is designed to access that, and then when people are in that space, start to heal these parts.

Biancolli: If you could describe how IFS differs from the usual approach, the usual treatment, the usual biomedical paradigm: How is this different? What distinguishes it?

Schwartz: Yes, so there are a couple of different paradigms, one being that these diagnostic categories are symptoms of disease, and that they should be just treated as such, and not thought to be anything different than that. When you have a disease, you look for a medication, and so psychiatry has been very, very medication-focused. Then the other paradigm is that it’s some kind of cognitive distortion that needs to be corrected, and so CBT is set up to try and challenge the distorted beliefs that surround the issue. 

From my point of view, neither of them get to the limbic level of what is going on with people, which drives these activities.

Biancolli: Do you think that IFS digs a little deeper, or frames the issues differently? What distinguishes it from CBT, for instance?

Schwartz: Well, rather than thinking of the part of you that’s phobic, for example, as just a distorted cognition, we think of it as a young part of you that’s stuck in a place that’s probably pretty scary in your childhood.

Now, that’s a huge difference, because if you think of it as a cognitive distortion, you’re going to argue with it or try and expose it. There’s this whole thing called exposure therapy, where you try to have the person face their fear and desensitize that way. Which is torturous for many people, and often doesn’t work.

So instead, if you think of it as a young part of you that’s still very scared because it’s stuck in a terrible place, then you’re going to open your heart. You’re going to focus on it, ask it to show you what happened to get so scared in the past—to see yourself as a child, and you’re in a scary place. It’s been waiting for you to come and rescue it.

Once it feels like you really understand what happened, and how bad it was, then I would have you go in and be with it, back there, in the way that that child needed somebody at the time—until that child was ready to leave with you. We could literally retrieve these parts from where they’re stuck in the past. Once that happens, we can help them unload the fear, because now they trust they’re safe, and they don’t need it anymore. We have a process we call “unburdening” where we help these parts give up the extreme beliefs and emotions they got from these scenes.

At which point, it’s like a curse has been lifted, and they’ll transform into their naturally healthy, valuable states. Then we can bring in all the “protectors” who were trying to keep it locked up—or in some way, deal with it—to see they don’t need to do that anymore. They don’t need to make the person phobic, or anything. And help them into new roles as well. So it’s just a totally different paradigm.

Biancolli: Just to reiterate: Some of the many parts that people have might be, as you said, an “exile,” which could be an 8-year-old child who was traumatized. Then you’ve got the “protectors,” who are trying to make sure that child isn’t going to be in a situation where the child is triggered. Then you’ve got all these other pieces that are trying to basically cope with all that happened to them. 

Schwartz: Right.

Biancolli: Does it boil down to a lack of judgment? It’s inviting people to say, “Okay, you have this child inside you somewhere. Regard this child almost from a distance, with compassion, and look at the child without judgment? Look at these other pieces which might be more difficult, also without judgment?  Is the lack of judgment a big piece of it?

Schwartz: Just one piece of it. I don’t say, “You have this child inside of you. Let’s go find her.” I would say, “Focus on the fear. Find it in your body, and see if you can get curious about it, and then ask what it wants you to know.” And then people spontaneously will either see a child, or they might see an animal. They’ll see some image of the fear. Then I’ll help them get compassionate toward it, and so on. It’s very non-directive, in a sense. Just helping them get curious about what’s in there, and then, once they learn what’s in there, get compassionate about it and relate to it in a compassionate way.

Biancolli: So it’s more open-ended.

Schwartz: Yes. 

Biancolli: Following their leads. 

Schwartz: Exactly. 

Biancolli: Could you speak a little bit to your own a-ha moment—the origin story? How you came to IFS?

Schwartz: I was trained as a family therapist. I have a PhD in that. I was working in a psychiatric context, and I was very eager to prove that family therapy had found the holy grail. I decided to do an outcome study with bulimia, and with a colleague, rounded up 30 bulimic kids and their families—and found, to my frustration, that straight family therapy didn’t do much. 

Out of that frustration, I began asking what was actually going on inside of them, and they started teaching this to me. Because they would talk about how when something bad happened in their lives, this critic would start to attack them and call them names—and that would bring up a part that could make them young, and feel empty and alone and worthless. That feeling was so distressing that in came the binge to take them away from it. But the act of the binge would bring the critic back, and then that would, of course, make that worthlessness come back, and then that would make the need for the binge to come back.

As a systems thinker from family therapy, this sounded familiar—it sounded like one of these vicious cycles that people get caught up in. So I got very intrigued, and initially made the mistake of trying to fight with the critic, and trying to control the binge. I kept doing that even though kids were getting worse.

Then I had a client who, in addition to bingeing and purging, cut herself on her wrists—and that was so dreadful to me to have somebody doing that on my watch. So one session, I decided I wasn’t going to let her leave my office until the cutting part had agreed not to do it, and so we both badgered the part for a couple hours. It finally said, “I won’t. Okay.” 

Then she came back in the next session and had a big gash down the side of her face I spontaneously just collapsed emotionally, and I just said, “I give up, I can’t beat you at this.” And the part said, “Well, I don’t really want to beat you.” 

That was a turning point in the history of this work, because I shifted from that coercive part of me to just being curious and just said, “Okay, then why do you do this to her?” And it proceeded to tell me the story of how, when she was being sexually abused, it had to get her out of her body, and it had to contain the rage that would get her more abuse. 

Now I’m not just curious, but I have an abiding appreciation for the role it played in her life, and I could convey that to her part. It broke into tears, because everyone had demonized and tried to get rid of it, and it talked more about how it still needed to do this. But as it did, it was clear to me it wasn’t living in the present, because her present context wasn’t dangerous. It was really still living back when she was six or seven, getting abused.

So with all of that, I just started to experiment with trial and error: Okay, how can we change some of this stuff? And not from a coercive place, more just curious. If I’m proud of anything, it’s that I allowed my clients to teach all this to me, and lucky to have some clients who could really straighten me out when I was going off in the wrong direction.

Biancolli: You just mentioned your coercive part. What have you come to learn about yourself? Have you applied IFS to yourself? What are the epiphanies you’ve had?

Schwartz: First of all, that I have a “Self”—that was news to me, too. And that I also had all these parts that had been running my life that were based on some of my own traumas that were getting in the way. Some of them sort of goaded me into creating this, because I came out of my family with a lot of worthless feelings and had to justify my existence. They helped me put up with all the slings and arrows I encountered trying to bring this new paradigm.

Then there were parts that would get in the way with clients, because I probably would have been diagnosed ADHD as a child, and so it was hard to maintain a real focus sometimes, and I’d be distracted with clients, or bored with clients. I was lucky, again, to have clients who would call me on that. If I’m proud of anything about that, I would own it and I’d say, “You’re right, there’s a part that took me out. I’m going to work on that.” So my main job was just to become a clearer vessel for bringing this, and get my ego out of the way, and all of my parts to let me lead in a more Self-led way.

Biancolli: Getting back again to the disease model, one is the idea that we just have one mind: In the book, you call it the “mono-mind.” Then there’s this idea that simply getting labeled makes you feel less-than. Is that essentially what you’re doing? You’re challenging that and saying, no, your job isn’t to slap a label on your clients. You’re trying to understand them, take cues from them, listen to them.

Schwartz: Yes. The pathological label tends to scare therapists and leads them toward more medical kinds of interventions, and isn’t necessary. I find that the DSM is an accurate description of what are mainly just clusters of protective parts that organize in different ways in different people. If you think of them that way, then you’re going to approach them with curiosity, and you’re going to learn how they’re trying to protect, and you’re going to honor them for their service, like you do the military, rather than call them pathological names and try to get rid of them.

Biancolli: There’s a way that I’ve heard people phrase it in terms of trauma: to ask not “what’s wrong with you?” but “what happened to you?” Is that in essence what IFS is trying to do?

Schwartz: Yes. I mean, we are framing all these symptoms as often the product of trauma—not always—if that’s what you mean. Yes, it’s the way inner systems organize after people have been hurt and then abandoned, basically. Because it’s one thing to get traumatized, but then the most pernicious part is the aftermath, where you lock away the parts that got hurt and try to stay away from them from that point after. Virtually everybody in our culture is taught to do that, and if you have a lot of “exiles,” like I said, you’re going to need a lot of extreme “protectors” that cause symptoms.

Biancolli: What were your goals in writing No Bad Parts? And do you have a sense of mission—of wanting to spread the word with these ideas?

Schwartz: Yes, that was my goal. I had been focused for most of my career on training therapists and been fairly successful on that, and it just feels like time to try and change the culture. This is a paradigm that could make a big change in our culture, and so my goal was to begin that process of bringing it more to the public.

Biancolli: You’re also doing training work for mediators, for conflict resolution, and from what I understand, there’s an international component, a policy component. Is this part of a wider effort to change how we relate to each other?

Schwartz: Very much, yes. I’d say in the last decade I decided, and it sort of happened spontaneously, to try and bring it to higher levels of system and not just to psychotherapy. I’ve had a number of different opportunities to do that, and so there are a lot of different projects in that direction.

Biancolli: The approach reminded me of the Hearing Voices Network, that whole movement of people who hear voices and don’t try to suppress them—try to listen to them and learn from them. Do you see a parallel?

Schwartz: Very much. I’m a supporter of that network. I haven’t been actively involved, but I would say they understand the voices in a similar way, and instead of being afraid of them or fighting with them, they’ve learned to listen, which is a good first step. It doesn’t necessarily heal their systems, but at least you’re not polarizing inside the way most people do when they start to “hear voices”—because the voice is usually one of these parts. It just needs to be listened to and brought out from where it’s stuck in the past.

Biancolli:  You also refer, at one point, to an inner orchestrahaving different musicians playing different instruments, or singing different parts in a choir. When you’re making music with other people, you’re listening, and you have to cooperate or it falls apart.

Schwartz: Yes. 

Biancolli: That struck me as a really interesting analogyand correct me if I’m wrong, but you’re also almost asking us to take a look at our different parts in a literary sense. Or is that pushing it?

Schwartz: What do you mean in a literary sense?

Biancolli: For instance, my favorite book is War and Peace. I love the family dynamics, and all the parts pop out, and you understand them almost by looking from above. I wondered whether it’s too much to say that, in a way, we have those parts inside of us. We’re all carrying around a story, a War and Peace

Schwartz: Yes. That’s very apt. I like the metaphor, and yes: You, as the reader, are just observing. With a book like that, you have some judgments about some of the characters, but mainly you’re just kind of watching the story unfold. So that is a good first step, is getting some distance from these parts and noticing how they relate to each other, and doing it from a place of mindful acceptance. But again, that’s just the first step. So what I try to do with IFS is say, it’s not totally compassionate to watch suffering beings parade by. Even if you’re accepting them, they need to be helped, and you have the wherewithal to do that.

Biancolli: Has any of this surprised you? Are you still surprised sometimes, or are you still having insights?

Schwartz: Yes. That’s the wonderful thing about this gift I’ve been given to bring. It’s been amazingly entertaining and adventurous. It’s been a constant learning process, and continues to be. I’m still learning new ways to work with the systems. I’m learning new things about parts, and I’m learning new ways to work with my own—or learning about new parts I need to work with. Put it that way. It can be quite an adventure.

Biancolli: This is a quote from your book: “Your inner world is real. […] They are inner beings who exist in inner families.” Have you met resistance with that? How often does somebody say, “Yeah, no, sorry, I can’t do that”?

Schwartz: Not nearly as often as it did as I was starting out. That was almost always the reaction, and I was guilty of it, too. I started to work with parts, but assumed that they were just metaphors for different thoughts and impulses and so on. I went to hear a woman named Sandra Watanabe talk, who had developed something called the “Inner Cast of Characters” back then, and she was talking about them as if they were real. I came up to her and said, “You don’t really think these are real, do you?” She said, “No, they’re very real.” And I walked away thinking, how naive.

Then a few years later, I was totally convinced of their reality, too—and have been ever since. 

And it is a tough sell in this paradigm, partly because multiplicity has been so pathologized, like we’ve been saying. That either you’re crazy and you have parts, you hear voices, you have multiple personality disorder—or you have this one mind that just has different thoughts. There’s no in between.

Biancolli: What will it take to change the paradigmwhether with IFS, or with any other approach? In general, what will it take for that to change?

Schwartz: It does seem people are very, very skeptical. Once they try it, and once they actually enter these inner worlds, not all but many of them really can shift fast. Because it is so real when they get in there. One approach has been to just try and get more and more people to try it, and that actually has panned out. I mean, IFS has become very, very popular and influential because, finally, lots of people have tried it.

Then the other approach has been to try and do a lot of research, particularly with difficult populations that traditional models don’t have much luck with. If I can show that we have these amazing results, then that’ll pique the interest—even if they don’t want to think of it as real—of the traditional bastions of the field, because they’re so desperate to find effective solutions to these problems. I’ve been talking to a state senator in Washington State about doing an outcome study with IFS and domestic violence, for example, because they’ve pretty much given up on treatment for domestic violence, because the model they were using was proven to be worthless. But if I can show that we can actually change that, because that’s the root of so many other issues, then people get interested.

Biancolli: Something else you talked about in the book was this obsession we have as a culture with sin, and the idea of somebody being innately wrong. Is that also something that people have a hard time overcoming? 

Schwartz: Yes. Particularly religious people have trouble. But that view of people, it’s had a big influence on our culture, the idea that there is sin and evil inside of us—which I don’t deny, because a lot of these “burdens” would qualify. But they aren’t the parts, and then the parts get misidentified as the evil impulse. So instead of trying to heal the part, you try to throw it out—the baby with the bathwater. So that’s what I’m trying to clarify.

Biancolli: I’m also interested in the exercises you have in your book encouraging people to observe their inner parts, understand their inner parts, and in some cases observe an inner part who tends to get triggered. Have you heard from readers who’ve responded to that? Have you gotten any feedback?

Schwartz: Yes. People seem to be able to do it. Some people get the audiobook version because they need to listen while they do the exercise. But a lot of people, I was amazed, could just do it from reading the exercises in the book. I really had no idea how well this would be received by the public, and I’ve been very heartened. I mean, if you just look on Amazon at the feedback, so many people say their life’s been changed just by reading the book and trying the exercises.

Biancolli: I was additionally curious about the “laws of inner physics” and the idea that if you simply ask a part not to overwhelm, that it won’t. That you don’t have to be afraid even of the darkest part. You can just ask it not to overwhelm, and it cooperates.

Schwartz: If they think it’s in their best interest. You’ve got to convince them that it’s in their best interest to not overwhelm. Yes.

Biancolli: Does it take a while to reach that point?

Schwartz: Not usually. Let’s say we’re working with an exile that carries a lot of pain, and the client complains—because whenever she opens the door to that, she’s overwhelmed, and can’t get out of bed for a week, or something. I’ll say, okay, let’s talk to that part. 

I’ll say, “You do tend to overwhelm her? Is that right?” 

“Yeah.” 

“Okay. What are you afraid would happen if you didn’t?” 

“Well, she’d lock me up again.”

“If we could get her to agree to not keep locking you up, and instead listen to you, would you have to totally take over that way?”

Almost always they say, “No. But I don’t think you can get her to agree to that. She hates me so much.”

I’ll say, “Well, I’ll make sure she doesn’t. That she listens to you. But to do that, I really need for you to not totally take over.”

And if they think it’s in their best interest, then they don’t need to take over. So that’s another way that if you can think of these as sentient beings—which they are—it’s all negotiable. You can negotiate most anything.

Biancolli: You can engage in a dialogue with them.

Schwartz: Yes. 

Biancolli: As you were saying, this is not just mental health, but the wider conversations around who we are. It sounds so simple, but ultimately, that’s not easy for a lot of us, is it?

Schwartz: No, it’s not easy—because we’ve been so socialized to think the opposite. That’s a tough sell on the meeting, but once people get the habit of it, it becomes a lot easier. But often, by that time, they’ve already exiled lots of stuff so there is just a lot of work we have to do to bring it back.

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