According to Dr. Richard C. Schwartz, systemic family therapist and founder of Internal Family Systems, there really are No Bad Parts.
From his years of experience as a family therapist, Dr. Richard C. Schwartz discovered patterns in clients’ descriptions of their “parts within themselves.” With Internal Family Systems (IFS), Dr. Schwartz is helping clients heal these parts of themselves, their inner worlds, their Self.
In No Bad Parts: Healing Trauma and Restoring Wholeness with the Internal Family Systems Model, Schwartz explains that when clients’ parts feel safe, they are able to experience confidence, openness, and compassion—which Schwartz refers to as Self. In this state of Self, clients are able to heal their parts.
S&H: What led you to realize that the mind is made up of parts? Did it emerge strictly from your background in family therapy?
Richard Schwartz, PhD: It wasn’t my family therapy background that led me there. It was listening to clients describe their inner worlds of parts (that’s the word they used) and eventually realizing they weren’t being metaphoric. That is, realizing that they were describing real inner beings that had relationships with one another. That’s when my family therapy background came in handy because I began studying how they related to each other as a system rather than just learning about each one individually. At some point I began listening inside myself and discovered that I had them too!
Why do you think the idea of a “mono-mind,” i.e. a mind not made up of parts, is so persistent in today’s society?
The main reason is that the idea of multiplicity has been so pathologized by the scary reports of Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD, now known as Dissociative Identity Disorder) that people assume if you have parts you must be crazy—that your healthy, unitary mind was shattered and fragmented somewhere along the line.
It’s been an uphill battle to sell the idea that multiplicity is normal and that MPD is just one end of a spectrum of what we all are—that people with that diagnosis are not different than the rest of us except that their inner system of parts was more blown apart by the horrific childhood traumas they suffered.
Also, the idea of hearing inner voices has been pathologized because of association to the paranoid or violent voices people hear when they are in delusional episodes, which is a totally different phenomena.
Do you think there is any type of person who Internal Family Systems therapy wouldn’t work for?
When someone is living in a situation where it is dangerous for them to be vulnerable, then it may not be safe to do IFS. We work with virtually any diagnosis, although I haven’t had much luck with people with severe brain damage. We also discourage therapists from working with someone who is likely to trigger their parts because it is so important for the therapist to lead from their calm, clear, curious, and compassionate Self.
What led you to realize the importance of spirituality in your work with Internal Family Systems?
When I began this journey 40 years ago of learning from my clients about their inner systems, I, like my father, saw myself as a scientist and was skeptical of spirituality because it lacked observable data. After a couple years however of encountering this undamaged, wise, and loving Self that knew how to heal their parts in people who had no business with that kind of inner strength based on their horrible childhoods, I had to look outside my paradigm for explanations of how it could be there.
Some students pointed out that while there were virtually no other psychologies that knew about this inner essence, most spiritualities had a word for it, whether it was Buddha Nature, Atman, Christ Consciousness, etc. It seemed that I’d stumbled on to a way of accessing that fairly quickly even in highly traumatized people—that it was just beneath the surface of the parts such that when they opened space it emerged spontaneously. I now consider myself to be very spiritual based on discoveries like that, and also still a scientist because my belief is based on such data.
What would you say to a skeptic who doubted whether there were, in fact, individual parts with their own personalities inside their mind?
I’d say that I understand their skepticism and shared it when I started out. In the early days of learning from my clients about parts I met with a woman named Sandra Watanabe who had written a book called The Inner Cast of Characters that described parts in a similar way to what I was discovering. I said to her, “You don’t actually think they are real do you? Aren’t they just a metaphor for emotions?” She said no—that they were very real and I walked away thinking that she was very naive. It was only many more experiences with clients and myself that I was able to get my skeptical part to admit she was right. They are very real, but I don’t impose that on anyone and simply encourage skeptics to do some open-minded inner exploring. If they do, they will come to the same conclusion I did.
[Also read: “17 Sneaky Ways You Are Repressing Yourself.”]
What is the most powerful lesson you’ve learned through this work?
There are two:
- That Self exists and, once released, works to bring healing, harmony, and justice to parts and people.
- That there are no bad parts. Even the ones that have led people to do evil things are covered in extreme beliefs and emotions (burdens) from the past that drove their actions. Once released from those they transform into their valuable states.
These lessons bring with them a lot of hope about the future of humanity if we can access enough Self soon enough.
If you were to sum up your most important idea in just a few sentences, what would that be?
It is the natural state of the human mind to have subpersonalities or “parts,” all of which are with us at birth and all are valuable, but many are forced from their valuable roles by the extreme beliefs and emotions (burdens) they accrue from trauma, and will revert to their valuable states once they release those burdens. In addition, we all contain an undamaged essence called the Self that knows how to heal and lead the parts.
Read our review of Richard Schwartz’s No Bad Parts: Healing Trauma and Restoring Wholeness with the Internal Family Systems Model in the July/August issue of Spirituality & Health.