Updated: Sep 3, 2022
I have now completed a training program in the psychotherapeutic modality Internal Family Systems (IFS), which is said to be the emerging paradigm in psychotherapy. Originator of IFS, psychotherapist, researcher and academic Dr. Richard Schwartz, has seen the value of this approach to understanding our personality to extend beyond the psychotherapy realm and has encouraged its adoption in the worlds of coaching, teaching and business, for example. IFS is proving to be very useful to me in the equine facilitated learning work, as the client and I begin to uncover and understand their personality and how it has been shaped by the client’s experiences.
It is based on the simple idea of – ‘part of me wants to do this, and part of me wants to do that.’ We are composed of multiple, and often competing, ‘parts’. In academic terms, this is known as multiplicity of mind. A healthy personality is composed of many ‘parts’ and they may balance, compliment or compete with each other. You may have an artistic part, an athletic part, or a math part, a part that likes to think and rationalize, another part that likes to dream. An internal family of parts of the personality. But when a person has a traumatic experience in their life, some parts get hurt and then ‘exiled’ from the system because their pain threatens to overwhelm the system. Other parts then become ‘protector parts’, to ensure that the hurt of the exiled part is not felt. So, for example, there may be a young, sensitive part that takes on the burden of an abuse and, because the pain of the abuse threatens to overwhelm the whole personality, the young sensitive part that carries the burden of the abuse gets exiled – is not expressed nor felt by the person. Often, the most alive, unique parts of our personality are the parts that take on the burdens of a trauma. The movie Inside Out is based on the principles of Internal Family Systems.
IFS sessions begin by getting to know the protector parts of us. These may be ‘manager’ parts, integral parts of our personality that can take on the role of protecting us from feeling the pain of the exiled parts. For example, I have a very active ‘responsible’ part that jumps in and takes charge of a situation, even when that should not really be my role. But this part can’t stand disorganization or chaos because of what I experienced in my early life at home with an unpredictable, alcoholic father, so it became a very active part of my personality. By beginning to understand this dynamic, I can then choose, rather than be compelled, whether or not to step in and take responsibility for a situation.
Another type of protector part is the ‘firefighter’ part. These are the parts that rush in when the manager parts can’t control the situation and the pain of the exile is in danger of being felt. However, firefighter parts are not healthy ways of dealing with a situation, and may show up as addictions, self-harming behaviors, or suicidal thoughts, for example. One of the unique aspects of IFS is how it understands these firefighter parts. Instead of trying to get rid of them as many therapies do, IFS acknowledges the role that these parts were forced into to try and protect the psyche from the unbearable pain of the trauma. IFS then asks the question – What would this firefighter part like to do if it didn’t have to jump in to stop the pain from surfacing? When a person can connect with their firefighter parts and love them for how they tried to help, transformation is possible. After all, these are parts of us and we can’t get rid of them, but we can change the role they play in the system.
Underneath all these different kinds of parts of us is the core of who we are, the Self, the unbreakable essence of who we are. To be in Self-Energy is to be fully present to the current moment and to be aware of the parts of the system and how they want to act in response to a situation. What is genius about Dick Schwartz’s work is that he found that people who had endured the most unbelievably difficult circumstances in their life had not had their Self destroyed. If he worked with the client to become aware of their protector parts and connect to them, the client’s Self showed up. This is when the healing happens.
Of course, the work of IFS is more complicated than I can explain in a blog post. But what I have discovered in working with clients and my horses is that in the presence of a horse the client often has more access to their Self-Energy. Somehow, because the horse is always fully present and in the moment, their attunement to the client allows the client’s Self to show up. It is like the horse is a huge container of Self-Energy. As a part of our IFS training, we watched videos of Dick Schwartz facilitating IFS sessions during workshops or conferences where profound unburdening of exiles happened. He believes that in a group setting there is a lot of Self-Energy in the room and all this Self-Energy is available to help the healing process. I experienced a similar thing in a recent session with a client where we were working through a very deep process in the presence of one horse, but the other three horses were standing with their heads over the fence, totally engrossed and present to what was happening. It was as if they were a part of the work, even at a distance, holding space for the client.