Internal Family Systems theory is a system for personal, relational, and
emotional healing which embodies some novel notions about the nature
of conflict and its resolution. It is not just a map of the terrain of our
interior awareness; it is a set of tactics for how to traverse that terrain
safely and to create healing in the land of our internal experience. This paper
(posted electronically) illuminates the creative ways that IFS supports healing
through a series of perspectives which are totally harmonious with Creative Conflict
[I am assuming my readers will already be familiar with IFS. If you are not I
suggest you begin with a consideration of some of the resources available online
through the Center for Self
Leadership. A good general overview is available here. Links are to the site
of the Center for Self Leadership or to the Center for Creative Conflict Resolution site about the book, Just
From the perspective of Internal Family Systems theory and therapy we all are
mentally composed of many parts, aspects, attitudes, moods, abilities, and
interests. When we are calm and centered we appear to be well integrated. But,
when we are under stress, some of those parts of who we are get pushed to
extreme positions. Some parts don't like the emotions, memories, or tactics of
other parts and they are able to force those parts out of conscious awareness
and effectively send them into exile. These parts are in conflict and the
protector parts appear to have won the conflict. At one level a conflict is the
way one part treats another but, at a more basic level, the conflict
is the tension between the parts. They each see and respond to a given
circumstance in very different ways.
Some conflicts are mild but some are intense. The greater the intensity
of the conflict the more likely it is that parts will be pushed to extreme
positions and the more anxiety the individual holding those parts is likely to
feel. Intensity in a conflict is a quality which is constructed by two
aspects of the constituent relationships.
One aspect is the degree of ownership each of the parts feels toward a given
event, issue, or circumstance. The more attached each is to the event, the more
ownership they can each be said to carry.
The second aspect is the degree to which they hold a harmonious perspective.
The more they see the event the same way, the more harmonious the points of
view. When two parts (or parties) have high ownership but they see the event as
meaning something very different, they will have a high intensity conflict.
Typically a part
will deal with the intensity by:
- disallowing ownership by acting as though it doesn't really care about the
- over functioning by taking on too much responsibility for the outcome,
- bullying other parts into compliance with its perspective and strategies, or
- acquiescing to the perspective of another more forceful part.
None of these strategies is effective in resolving the conflict. This is the
opposite of what we mean by being assertive
and is a way to submerge the fighting but not get the parts what they each
In order to fully resolve the conflict we must construct a resolution that
meets the needs of all of the parts. This requires a framework for understanding
that is more comprehensive than the point of view of any of the parts
themselves. It must transcend their perspective while it includes their
perspective. This is the task for what IFS refers to as the Self and what
Creative Conflict Resolution labels a Sixth
Order level of awareness. This perspective by any name is more complex than
the paradigm of any of the parts but it allows a way of being that is
Being in Self has many qualities (the C's), but one we want to cultivate
especially is compassion.
This is the ability to
- be present to another when the other is troubled
- in a manner that fully hears and appreciates the circumstances of the other
- without being overwhelmed by the other and
- while supporting the other's innate capacity for healing.
This is a capacity which we can develop.
When we are in Self and bring sufficient compassion to a part we construct a
with it which supports its healing by:
- Knowing the part (developing an image of it, where it is, what it
feels like, what it is called, what it is trying to do for the whole)
- Respecting the part (acknowledging and appreciating its worth and its
place in the structure of the whole person, thanking it for what it is trying to
do and acknowledging it when it is feeling unappreciated)
- Caring for the part (taking its concerns seriously, acting to support
what it needs, witnessing its feelings and its memories and helping it discover
and go to a place of safety without the burdens it has undertaken on behalf of
the whole person.)[relational
This is a very different kind of relationship than we are accustomed to or
may have even witnessed in our daily life. This is a relationship of radical
accountability which constructs for us and for others the deeply healing
presence of Self Energy.