Have you ever wondered why it is so difficult to choose just one emoji to express your reaction to a friend’s Facebook post? If yes, then you might find it interesting to learn about the multiplicity principle frequently mentioned in Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy.
According to the multiplicity principle, we are not one, we are many. This is why we have so many different internal reactions to things, such as social media posts. Simply “liking” a post is not always satisfying. One part of us finds a post funny while another part feels angry at the person for posting it. A third part feels sad about what is presented in the post while a fourth part falls in love with some aspects of the post. Whichever emoji we pick to express how we feel about the post, other parts in us do not feel satisfied because they are not represented by that response.
What is a part?
In IFS, a part is a sub-personality with its own beliefs, viewpoints, interests, roles and burdens. The assumption is that every part has good intentions even though not everything they do for us is always helpful. We have an indeterminate number of parts and they express themselves in unique ways, through feelings, physical sensations, thoughts, images and words.
According to IFS therapy, simply put, we have two categories of parts in addition to the Self (with a capital S).
Self is not a part but it is ever present, like the sky. Some of its qualities are clarity, compassion, curiosity, calmness and courage. Self does not belong to anybody but everybody has it.
While Self is ever-present, it is not always accessible. Sometimes parts take over in order to protect our inner system from overwhelming emotions, and this protection gets in the way of experiencing the presence of Self. It is natural to think that the goal in this case would be to find Self in the midst of all the parts. However, the goal in IFS is to work with the parts that tend to dominate our inner lives for the purpose of shielding us from painful, overwhelming, scary, upsetting, traumatic memories. By gaining understanding and working with them, Self can emerge. A quote by Rumi expresses it this way: “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”
Protectors and Exiles
The two categories of parts are protectors and exiles.
Protectors are typically either managers or firefighters.
The main role of Managers, also called proactive parts, is to make sure that we stay on top of our responsibilities each day. For example, we pay our bills, go to work on time, do the laundry, shower, eat, answer our emails, take the dog for a walk, wish our friends happy birthday and say ‘hi’ to people. Managers take all these actions to try to keep things under control and make sure that the emotions carried by exiled parts do not overwhelm our inner life and systems.
It is important to mention that the way protective parts take on these roles and responsibilities is on a spectrum and sometimes protective parts can be on the extreme end. This might show up in the form of people pleasing, perfectionism and as a harsh and shaming inner critic that does not allow any room for mistakes.
Firefighters, just like managers, have positive intentions and they also try to make sure that overwhelming and upsetting emotions do not take over our inner system and cause our IFS to fall apart. The firefighters’ strategies to protect us are sharper, edgier, more impulsive than the managers’ strategies. While managers are proactive and tend to think about long-term consequences of their choices, firefighters tend to be more reactive. When a firefighter takes over to protect the inner system, the result might be something drastic and impulsive such as drinking again after being sober for months, quitting your job to show your boss how upset you are at being treated unfairly, spending money you do not have as a distraction from intense emotions, or cutting people off instead of talking openly about your issues and trying to find helpful solutions.
Our protective parts work very hard to protect us from the pain and suffering carried by the parts of us that are exiled. The exiles are the parts of us that are burdened by the pain, hurt, fear, loneliness, abuse and shame. They feel these emotions so intensely that our protective parts keep them exiled to make sure that we can function in this life. No matter how hard our protective parts work, however, exiles generally find a way to come out and overwhelm our system. When this happens, our protective parts become more extreme to keep the exiles under control.
IFS therapy helps individuals get to know their parts, to understand what they are doing for the person and how they are doing it. IFS helps the individuals unblend and separate from their parts so they can experience their parts from a place of curiosity, compassion, calmness and acceptance. It helps individuals appreciate the good intention behind the parts’ actions. This allows the parts to do their job more effectively and to let go of the jobs they took on to protect the system but that are not authentic to them. IFS also helps bring harmony to the entire system. IFS therapy helps individuals learn how to be with the exiles without protective parts having to use their extreme strategies to keep the exiled parts at bay.
Learning how to live with our parts, seeing the positive intention behind even their most destructive actions, and cultivating our capacity to witness these parts from a compassionately curious place are some of the most useful inner steps we can take towards having a more harmonious inner life. With the help of IFS therapy, when we develop this capacity, we realize that the problem has never been our parts. Our parts are wonderful as they are. Sometimes, they just need help to let go of the burdens they have taken on to protect us and move into the roles they are meant for. As long as we can relate to our parts from a loving, caring, curious, calm and compassionate place we have everything we need to work with them and this is, on some level, what inner freedom feels like.
***Thank you to Maria Droste therapist, Celal Aydemir, MA, LPC, for contributions to this blog.***