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Internal Family Systems Therapy
Media Review : Books, Nonfiction"

by Clan Denari (mostly Gus), 11.2.02

Review: Internal Family Systems Therapy by Richard C. Schwartz (NYC: Guilford Press, 1995)

Unlike a lot of books written by and for the professional psychology field, this one is overtly rooted in the ACCEPTANCE of multiplicity as both valid and normal. For Schwartz, the point of therapy is not to unify the client but to help them work with their Insiders (my term) to undo the "polarized relationships both within themselves and with the people around them" (9).

That's a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, from a quick web search on Internal Family Systems in various permutations, it seems like he's almost the only person following this line of thought. He briefly discusses how numerous psychologists past and present have paid lip service to the psyche as being essentially plural, but even one of the few he seems to praise most -- Roberto Assagioli -- is very clear that unification is the goal of therapy. [See Psychosynthesis (1971)]

I can't really comment on his other favorites, John and Helen Watkins, since I haven't read their work except by reference elsewhere.

Schwartz seems to take the idea seriously, though. He uses the term "parts" to describe Inside folks, but says it's "pragmatic" to treat them as "internal people (because) they respond best to that kind of respect" (14). No shit; that should've been obvious years ago. Of course, the fact that it wasn't has a lot more to do with Freud's basic disrespect for himself and his clients, and how that poisoned psychology, than it does with Schwartz himself.

His approach relies on the concept that everyone has an accessible core self that is ultimately capable of coordinating things -- in that sense, it's rooted in a concept of median-ness. Furthermore, he makes a clear distinction between FUNCTIONAL multiplicity and DISORDERED forms by acknowledging that MPD/DID is only one way of mental organization after trauma.In doing so, Schwartz raises an issue most trauma therapists like Colin Ross [See The Trauma Model (2001)] gloss over -- the fact that "the inner family (in MPD) is more polarized, isolated and protective ... less cohesive and more tortured; but otherwise no different from the inner families of people who have not been hurt so badly" (14).

To us, that sounds very spectrum-oriented. It reflects our experience and makes sense. Even without trauma (if that's possible), people develop internal representations of the key figures in their lives. For some, those Insiders are distinct people, for others, they're just influences. Nobody knows why there's a difference, but in a neurological sense, that difference is one of degree, not kind.

Life's events and traumas come in various shapes and sizes, and for some people, the most adaptive solution is some degree of multiplicity. Even when they don't involve blatant physical or sexual abuse, some events are not physically escapable -- for example, where can a four-year-old go when his parents have an ongoing war he isn't directly involved in, yet by definition is since it's his family? What kind of position is he in when forced to choose sides in a separation he didn't want at all and where he favors BOTH? To us, that sounds like the trauma therapist's concept of a "double bind."

All of those situations encourage plurality as a response, something Schwartz recognizes. But he seems wedded to a somewhat rigid concept of how that plurality manifests itself. To him, all Insiders fall into three definable groups, "managers," "firefighters," and "exiles," which tend to be in conflict. Such a cast is too simplistic to describe most real multiple systems, for a few reasons. First, many plurals have Insiders that do NONE of these things; in some cases, the Insider has almost no interaction with Outside issues at all. Second, the way Schwartz defines their behavior -- for ex., he identifies obsessions, reclusiveness, phobias, depressive episodes and nightmares as "managerial" traits, and addictions or self-injury as "firefighter" traits (46) -- is so arbitrary as to be meaningless. From a biological point of view, there's very little difference between an addiction to a substance, an obsession with an idea, and a compulsion to cut oneself; and clearly any of those can spark or be sparked by depression.

Likewise, despite his general respect for Insiders, Schwartz proposes a technique that we see as somewhat disrespectful. Called the "room technique," he has the client's "Self" isolate a "part" in a mental room and observe that "part" from outside via a small window. While that might help to distinguish Insiders from each other and thus promote clearer internal communication in theory, I can see how it might also spark the very backlash he's trying to avoid if the inner person has issues of abandonment, isolation, claustrophobia, or the like. He makes no such distinction.

These issues could also be a problem when hospitalizing a client, which he advocates in serious crisis situations. While he's right that a hospital can "provide a safe , nurturing environment," he fails to acknowledge that many hospital psych wards have NO ONE with training in multiplicity. If that training exists, or at least a basic respect for plurality's right to exist does, the hospital might be OK. Otherwise, that setting tends to further traumatize people because many staff people still see Insiders' attempts to express themselves as either "delusions" or as "manipulation."

He also erroneously states that "only the young parts of the client need the reassurance and may have fantasies" (102). EVERYONE needs reassurance and fantasizes occasionally! That's true whether they're Inside or Outside, and it shouldn't need stating. But, apparently, it does.

Those things said -- and they are our biggest criticisms of his otherwise pretty open-minded work -- we must give him credit where it's due. Schwartz makes it very clear that therapists have serious responsibilities when intervening in other internal systems. First, he notes that effective IFS therapists MUST know their own inner systems and be willing to acknowledge when their own Insiders are getting involved in the therapy process, especially if it sparks conflict. Second, his goal is ultimately to have the CLIENT do most of the work with his/her Insiders. While the therapist can suggest HOW to approach communication, he must "never voice a guess or suggestion" about what the Insiders' secrets or experiences may be, since that is very likely to create problems, up to and including "false memories" (107). #

Overall, we found Internal Family Systems Therapya lot more readable than most similar books and one of the few that showed genuine respect for the idea of plurality as a healthy way of seeing the world. Psychology needs to take Schwartz's ideas seriously and test/develop them to handle their potential pitfalls effectively.


# On this issue, Jennifer Freyd at the Univ. of Oregon notes that while a specific memory might be false in the sense that it never happened, it will only exist at all if the person's experience suggests it COULD HAVE happened. In other words, people who in fact did NOT experience sexual abuse are very unlikely to encode an externally created "memory" of such an event, but if they DID experience it, they could easily encode an untrue abuse event that was similar to their real events. [See Betrayal Trauma (1996).]

You can write to Pavilion at pavilion@ karitas . net. Back to the library
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