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Our Parts in Exile
I was drawn to Internal Family Systems (IFS) after an introduction by the inestimably curious and thoughtful Kaj Sotala. He wrote a treatment of the entire subject that goes into much more depth than I go into. What follows here is a review of the popular introduction to IFS written by its founder, Richard Schwartz, called You Are The One You’ve Been Waiting For.
In Schwartz’s book, we learn that romantic relationships grow fractious because one or both of the partners have impossible expectations of their relationships, created in part by a culture which maintains that true happiness is partnership with a person who makes you happy. According to Schwartz, this expectation is not just inadvisible, it’s impossible to satisfy. And yet that is, in the main, the expectation with which many of us come to relationships.
For reasons that will be discussed at length in the pages to come, your partner cannot succeed in making you feel good in a lasting way. For example, if you have had a hard life filled with rejection and loneliness, his love can only temporarily lift the cloud of worthlessness and self-loathing that will return whenever he is away or in another mood. If you enter the relationship expecting him to be that kind of redeemer, inevitably you will be disappointed at some point.
Our culture, and many of the relationship experts in it, have issued us faulty maps and improper tools. We’ve been told that the love we need is a buried treasure hidden in the heart of a special intimate partner. Once we find that partner, the love we crave should flow elixir-like, filling our empty spaces and healing our pain.
When our partner disappoints us—which, at some point, they inevitably will—we engage in one of three “projects”: to change or fix them, change ourselves to “win” back their love, or give up entirely—numbing ourselves to any life of partnership.
These are exiling projects. We are exiling parts of them or parts of ourselves, banishing them like children to a basement.
In the first [project], we try to get our partner to exile the parts of him that threaten us. In the second, we work to exile the parts of us that we think he doesn’t like. In the third, we exile the parts of us that are attached to him. As I will discuss later, whenever a relationship creates exiles, it will pay a price.
What’s the alternative to deriving happiness through the love of another? You may have guessed: self-love.
Self-love. Like a north star only pointing the way, it leaves the terrestrial concerns over navigation unexplained; it is an incandescent and yet contentless abstraction. How does one love thyself?
For Schwartz, it’s a process of exhuming our exiled parts—those inner parts that carry burdens of shame, fear, abandonment—and providing them the love they so desperately crave. It is your continuously integrative Self that all your parts come to trust as being competent at providing love. They then come to learn that they don’t have to look elsewhere. We become, in Schwartz’s words, Self-led.
Unburdening our exiled parts
I find this only slightly less abstract. My fear is that my exiled parts—the parts craving physical and financial security, excited romantic attention, validation of my passions and pursuits, etc. etc.—won’t show me the way. That I’ve somehow lost the ability to hear them, despite my attempts at self-healing.
The book is replete with vivid illustrations of clients looking inward and discovering their exiled parts. In almost every account it is presented as the client, during an emotionally-heightened therapy session, looking through their mind’s eye and finding a young person, a child or infant, consumed with an emotion such as fear or anger. Often that child is a younger version of themselves, and the emotion they’re consumed with is deeply connected to the symptomatic behavior the adult client is seeking to remedy. A therapist-led conversation ensues between the adult and exiled part. Through guided questions, growing trust, and patience over sometimes many sessions, the details of the burden that this exiled part carries come to light. Disconfirmatory evidence is lovingly provided, and the burden is lifted.
This picture—a burdened, exiled part manifesting as a younger version of ourselves that we can talk to and unburden—is compelling. But I’m not sure that I’ve ever sensed anything so concrete in my mind’s eye, even in times of heightened emotional feeling or awareness. Maybe it’s due to my not ever working with an IFS-trained therapist. However, Richard Schwartz’s picture dovetails with my understanding of cognitive behavioral therapy, whereby difficult or traumatic situations create emotional learnings, beliefs, and automatic assumptions about the world. It’s just that I don’t experience coming into contact with a miniature-me who is able to articulate what burdens them. I can only speak to painful episodes, describing them like scenes in a movie. There is no volitional, responsive entity representing an exiled part.
The far side of IFS therapy
There’s a lot more to the book, including questions and prompts for reflection. The book is heavily, almost exclusively focused on the relationship context. In fact, a relationship can be a tremendous vehicle for growth because it is precisely in these romantic partnerships that our burdened, exiled selves make themselves known. Our partners are our tor-mentors:
“…that is, a person who mentors us by tormenting us. It is very difficult to find all our basement children [exiled selves] when we’re not in an intimate relationship because often we only become aware of them when they are triggered by an intimate partner. Inevitably, our partner will act like an early caretaker who hurt us, and we will have an extreme reaction—and attachment re-injury. If we follow the trail of emotion to its inner source, we will find yet another exile in need of our love.”
On the other side of successful IFS therapy is Self-leadership, whereby all our parts are secure in the knowledge that our self can provide the love they need, in turn freeing our partner up to be utterly themselves, unencumbered by our exiling projects fixing this or fixing that.
It is only when you are able to calm your abandonment anxiety by caring for the parts that carry it that you can truly love your partner because you can put her growth above your need for security. I call this courageous love.
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