Monday, July 30, 2007

My Father's Death -- Internal Family Systems in Action

I've been doing a lot of reading in Internal Family Systems Therapy of late, a collection of articles from various publications put together by Richard Schwartz's Internal Family Systems Association. One of the things I realized while reading an article today was that one event in my life is the perfect exemplar for how the model works.

My Father's Death

As I've mentioned here from time to time, my father died when I was thirteen years old. At the time, I was still a pretty sensitive kid, a nerd by most standards (especially my peers'). I liked to read and make art as much as most boys like sports. I was good at sports, but I really didn't care too much about them.

The day my father died, an elder from the church broke the news to me as I was walking home from the bus stop. Something inside me cracked. I went home, dropped my backpack on the floor, then ran down to the creek behind our house and proceeded to cry, scream, and destroy everything in sight, especially the fort my father and I had built a couple of years before. I cursed God, cursed my father for leaving me, and essentially came unglued for about 30-45 minutes.

Then, as suddenly as it had erupted, it stopped. I went cold inside. No tears, no pain, nothing. I went back up the house and asked what needed to be done. My sister didn't know yet, and she was at a pizza party with some friends. So the church elder drove me into town, and I found my sister and broke the news to her. I comforted her, held her on the ride home.

In the following days, my mother was a mess. So I called the insurance companies, called social security, made the arrangements for the funeral, called relatives, and so on. For the next months and years, I handled all the finances, got a provisional driver's license because my mother didn't know how to drive, and taught myself to drive the car. When my mother became seriously depressed, I got her into see a therapist. All the while I continued going to school, playing sports, and hanging out with my friends.

Not coincidentally, a few months after my father died I started drinking and smoking pot, as well as smoking cigarettes. I was arrested for vandalism, for stealing, for minor in possession of alcohol (a few times), and a few years later, for growing my own pot.

An Internal Family Systems Explanation for What Happened

On that day my father died, the sensitive, vulnerable young man that I was felt overwhelmed by the pain. It was too much for my young psyche to handle without help -- and there was no help, my mother was too distraught. So a Manager intervened. The Manager was hyper-rational, completely unemotional, and totally focused on whatever needed to be done. He took control of the situation to spare me from the pain.

When the Manager took over, that sensitive kid was Exiled, buried deep in the dark corners of my psyche where he might never be heard from again. For much of the next ten or fifteen years, that kid was nowhere to be seen. Everything good about him -- his sensitivity, his compassion, his curiosity, all of it -- was gone.

However, every now and then the Exiled kid would try to free himself and get some air, but when that began to happen -- a few months after my father died -- a Firefighter intervened to stuff him back down. This part of me would do whatever was needed to keep the kid from seeing the light of day. At the time, I had an older "friend" who drank and smoked pot -- so that what was what I used to keep that kid stuffed down and out of sight. I numbed the kid with drugs and alcohol, and later with other acting-out behaviors, such as promiscuity.

For many years, these were my dominant subpersonalities -- and occasionally, they still resurface. It wasn't until about 15 years ago, when I began doing shadow work, that this started to change. But it has only been in the last year that I have learned to sit with hard feelings and not stuff them down. Also, about two years ago, in therapy, I began to let the Exiled kid in me fully resurface. At first it was terrifying because he was still filled with all that hurt and anguish -- and I thought it would engulf me to the point that I would be lost. But it didn't. The psyche will usually only give us as much as we can handle.


Managers "act to to protect people from hurt and trauma suffered in the past -- usually when they were very young and unable to defend themselves emotionally of even physically" (Schwartz). There are a lot of different forms of Managers, including Inner Critics. Nearly all of them are "early-warning systems" that prevent us from ever getting near an experience that might cause harm. They have to be in control -- they don't want anyone to know about or even get close to the Exiles. It's their job to keep the Exiles safe from further harm. They also want to avoid rejection or exploitation, so they keep a close guard on emotions and spontaneity.

In addition to my rational Manager, I have a powerful Inner Critic (see the sidebar under Subpersonalities), which developed when I was quite young and never fit in with my peers. It has been the toughest Manager to uproot because it is really looking out for my best interests by trying to avoid failure and embarrassment. But I lose creativity, social functioning, and spontaneity by letting it have its way with me. I'm still working on this one.


Exiles are often childlike parts of ourselves that carry the memories and sensations from times when we were hurt, terrified, abandoned, or shamed. Because we want to forget those experiences, we exile these parts, and our managers do their best to keep them from ever being triggered (Schwartz).

But by losing our Exiles, we also lose the sensitive, vulnerable parts of ourselves. While these Exiles carry a lot of pain, "they also give us our capacity for joy, love, passion, creativity, imagination, playfulness, and sheer zest for life" (Schwartz). When we shut away our Exiles, we lose much of what makes life meaningful and fun.

I have been working for years to reclaim my Exiled child. In doing so, I have become much more open to love, to joy, to playfulness, and to simply finding meaning in my life. I still have a lot of work to do, but I take it as a good sign that my most recent relationship, even though it didn't work, was as open and vulnerable as I have ever been. Even in losing that person, I have not shut down my desire to have that in my life (whereas, in the past, I most certainly would have).


Like Managers, the Firefighters want to protect the Exiles, but where Managers are cautious and often very rational in their attempts to protect Exiles, Firefighters leap into action after the Exile's feelings have been triggered. Firefighters are emergency responders who come out, hoses on full blast, when we feel so bad we have to drown the flames of emotion before they destroy us. These Firefighter parts manifest as urges to binge on food, alcohol, drugs, sex, work, or anything else that offers quick relief from pain (Schwartz).

My Firefighter was classic -- drugs, alcohol, and later sex. When I was 18 years old I hit rock bottom -- flunked out of college after one term (too much weed and beer) and was homeless for a while. At this point my rational Manager (whose name is Apollo) took over and exiled my Firefighter. Big mistake. A few years later I fell in love, with all the openness and vulnerability that goes with love, and my Firefighter flew into action to protect me from those feelings -- by diving into a bottle. That part of me ruined that relationship, even though we both held onto it for six long years. When it ended, the Firefighter dropped me into a bottle again and left me there for about two years before I crawled out and decided to get to know myself.


This may be one of the most honest posts I have written -- and seeing my life in this context gives me a lot of compassion for that Exiled child I have been getting to know, as well as for the Managers and Firefighters who have tried to protect me from pain.

Having this context, and knowing how to work with these parts, makes the healing process so much more approachable. Even after all these years, there is still healing to do.

My hope is that by showing how this process works in my own life, that others might be able to begin the healing process in their lives. It's hard work, and it involves facing our pain honestly, but the reward is a much deeper and satisfying life -- filled with the full range of human emotions. It's more than worth the work.

[Quotes by Richard Schwartz are from "Pathways to Sexual Intimacy," Psychotherapy Networker, May/June, 2003.]


Unknown said...

I am sorry for what you have gone through. Life isn't fair. Life just plows over us sometimes.

I am happy that you have found an approach to open yourself up, to make your life fuller, better.

Anonymous said...

I can totally relate to this post, Bill. I, too, developed a rather efficient Manager and a robust Firefighter as a means for keeping the Exiled ones safe. My exiled parts were also conventionally "wierd" and unacceptable, to the point of being threatening to the status quo. So, fragmentation saved the day and then almost killed me.

Thankfully, the pain and loss of vitality were too great to ignore for long. Integration became the name of the new game, and I've been on a steady climb up the mountain ever since. More recently I realized that the mountain is a very convincing illusion, so it just keeps getting more fascinating, illuminating and inspiring.

I no longer regret a single thing from my past; it all adds up to today.

Thanks for putting your self out here in this way.

william harryman said...

Hey Tom,

Thanks for the kind words.

I'm not actually sure if life is fair or unfair -- sometimes, at least for me, it just is. It's what I do with it that matters.

Certainly, for some people, life has been really unfair, but I feel that I have been rather lucky in many ways.


william harryman said...


Thanks for sharing your experience with this -- I totally agree with your realization about the mountain.

The more I get to know my various parts, and especially my exiles, the richer and fuller life becomes. It's less a struggle than an adventure.