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Family of Mind (Internal Family Systems)
English: System Dynamics Modeling as One Approach to Systems Thinking (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Followers of this blog and others that I write -- yes, I mean all two or three of you -- may have noticed that after years of inconsistent posting I am posting like a mad demon. I think that there's a reason for this; I think that I know the reason; and I hope that writing about what I think is the reason will not suddenly reactivate the dreaded Wannabe Blogger Syndrome, which I have had to endure for years.
This part of my journey starts with the mindfulness course from The Great Courses, which I blogged about (or will have blogged about) here.
In that post, I write about Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction" (MBSR) (Wikipedia ref, here.) Subsequently the course mentioned something called "Internal Family Systems," or IFS which I researched, and which I credit with my blogging renaissance, among other good things.
IFS traces its roots to many different disciplines, but for purposes of discussion let's tie it back to the "Society of Mind," which I wrote about here.
Society of Mind proposes that our minds are not unitary; instead, they are composed of many "agents," each of which has its own orientation, skills, and goals and which can cooperate, compete, and even subvert one another. Kind of like fractal people inside people.
IFS created by therapist Richard Schwartz, who observed his patients saying things like "a part of me wants to do this, while another part of me wants to do that" as they discussed their internal conflicts. Schwartz started trying to understand what the parts of his patients wanted, and how they related to each other. And because he was a family therapist he structured the "parts of me" idea with the structure and dynamics of family. I think of Schwartz's "parts" concept as similar to Minsky's "agents" concept, but more familiar because we know families better than we know societies in the large.
Like family members in an ordinary functional family, the members of a functional internal "family of mind" can work for the good of the family. Even when they find their roles in conflict, they find ways to work things out. Like family members in an ordinary dysfunctional family, the members of a dysfunctional "family of mind" can be at war with one another and act to harm other family members even to their own detriment.
The families we grew up in and the families of which some of us may have formed always combine the functional and dysfunctional modes. As a result, the family metaphor is familiar, and can be useful.
The idea of having "parts of myself" that did not always cooperate was familiar to me. Sometime in the morning I'd feel that a distinct "part of me" wanted to get up and do stuff, while another "part of me" wanted to stay asleep. And me? I seemed to be the part that was watching the other two parts and wondering: WTF?
In the IFS system, "parts" fall into three groups: protectors (sometimes called managers) are parts that try to keep the family stable and functioning; exiles are parts that are dysfunctional and need to be controlled; firefighters are parts that take extreme actions when protectors don't control exiles. And then there's a unique part that Schwartz refers to as "the Self." The Self is always calm and compassionate, open and non-judgmental: an internal Buddha figure. But the Self is often "blended" with parts and loses its unique character.
Parts are "activated" by circumstances, including the behavior of other parts, and when they are activated, each parts acts in accord with its nature, history, experience, and assumptions. The set of parts that are activated and their interactions determine how the perceived human person behaves.
IFS suggests that you have conversations with these parts. I know it sounds a bit looney, but I was up for it.
So in my half-waking state, a part of me wanted to get up and greet the day; a part of me wanted to sleep, and my Self was watching, not knowing what to do. IFS gave my Self a strategy: I decided to talk to the part that wanted me to stay in bed.
As I talked with that part, I realized that this part also activates when I am writing: I become incredibly exhausted. Sometimes just the idea of writing is enough to make me tired, so I read stuff instead. Thus a million open tabs on my browser, and nothing written.
IFS suggests you give names to the parts: after all, you can't tell the players without a program. So I chose (or it chose) "Morpheus" as a name.
What did Morpheus want?
As the conversation in my mind evolved, it seemed that Morpheus was a protector: it wanted to avoid conflict and the discomfort that exiled parts might experience, and its solution was simple: to put everyone to sleep. When I pointed out that not every part of me wanted to sleep, that some parts of me (and me, my Self) wanted to write, not sleep, Morpheus had an answer. "Sleeeep! Sleeep!" And I got sleepy.
This happens often when I write. I'll be full of energy, ready to rock, and sometimes as soon as I start to write and sometimes after a little writing, I get tired. My usual response was to succumb and nap, or to do some physical exercise--or browse the web. I kept trying to talk to this Morpheus thing, genuinely interested. And Morpheus would talk a bit, and then interrupt: "Sleeeep! Sleeep!"
Now that I knew what was going on, or what I thought was going on, I was able to explain firmly but politely that I understood that Morpheus was trying to be helpful, but this was not helping. Eventually (and I may have had to take a few naps in the process) I learned that there was another part of me, one that Morpheus was trying to protect by putting "all of me" to sleep. I perceived this part as an exile: the fragile, vulnerable, fearful, sad little boy that I used to be.
I suppose everyone is different now than they were as youngsters, but to me the contrast between the person that I am now, and the part that slowly revealed itself was stark. I look at failure as the necessary price for learning. Failure sometimes hurt, but the hurt does not last. There is nothing that I have ever done that I now feel shame for having done. Mistakes, failures, doing things that were stupid and even shameful are what's gotten me to who I am today, and I feel pretty good about who I am today.
I was a timid, fearful person for a great part of my life. As I grew into the responsibilities of having a family I often succeeded because my fear of failure, and the shame I knew I would feel if I failed were much, much, much greater than any other fears and discomforts I'd experience if I did what I needed to do for my family to prosper.
After retirement the fear subsided, and I found that I was able to confront any new thing without fear of discomfort, or embarrassment, or incompetence. I would back away from things that were truly physically risky, but that became the limit of my concern.
Writing? I'm entirely prepared to write things that are shit, and not care about it. Because I believe that the way to get good at writing is by doing a lot of shitty writing. And because I fucking like writing.
That's how I feel. But not all of me feels that way.
That part that I identify as an earlier version of me worries about these things. I remember my failures as facts and mainly remember what I have learned; that part of me remembers mainly the feelings of hurt, shame, pain. It remembers feeling worthless, wanting to be dead rather than to endure its continued existence, but not being able to die because how would the family survive?
It was surprising to discover that the old version was "alive and unwell." It was surprising because I did experience it standing in my way. It wasn't present. Until I started these conversations with parts of me, I wasn't aware of it. And, I learned, how could I be aware of it? Whenever that part of me began to activate itself, Morpheus would put it, and whatever other part of me was awake, to sleep.
I named that part of me Little Michael. I could not write, so the developing narrative went, because Morpheus was doing what Morpheus could do to keep Little Michael from suffering the feelings that little Michael was stuck in suffering. Morpheus protected Little Michael by keeping us from completing writing projects and by putting us to sleep soon after we started.
Frustrating and puzzling as it was, I (the Self) could tolerate failure to write. But Little Michael could not endure what he had to endure: the pain of choosing a word and feeling there was a better word that one could not think of; the pain of choosing the wrong label for a post; the embarrassment of spelling something incorrectly and having it discovered by someone else; the agony of knowing that something could have written better than it had been, and yet not being able to produce that better thing.
I could say: "Fuck it! I love to write, and I'm going to write."
Little Michael could only curl up in a little ball and cry.
Or Morpheus keep peace in the family, by putting us both to sleep.
Since having my first conversation with Morpheus, and with Little Michael, and others in my internal family, things have been changing, and my blogging is just one piece of evidence. When I do my morning pages I'll sometimes have a conversation with a struggling family member and so far the outcomes have all been good ones. Each conversation helps me clarify the dynamics of my internal family system; each helps me be clearer about what is my Self and what is a "part;" and parts of me whose development has been stunted are starting to grow up.
Little Michael isn't the pussy he used to be. And he can even chuckle a bit at my writing that.
Is it real, or just a story I've made up? In the end, it does not matter. Minsky points out that there are good reasons why we can't happen on some new idea and just change our minds. If we could, then our whole self could be hijacked at any time by the agent bearing the idea; and no one could trust us if we were that changeable.
So there's a social contract in place. We can change slowly. We can change with great effort. And we can change after a truly significant event: a near-death experience; falling in love; finding Jesus. Reading a book full of good ideas does not qualify.
Or we can discover an internal family system that "explains" our dysfunction, and engage with it, and experience something with enough explanatory power to let us do what we could do all the time: change.
Whatever it is, I'll take it.
Schwartz's theory is interesting because it's self-similar across scale: that is, the dynamics of the internal family system and the dynamics of the external family systems, and of other interpersonal relationships are much the same. And the theories cross boundaries: the "parts" of one external family member sometimes interact with "parts" of another external family members and produce conflict or other forms of dysfunction.
References: IFS website: (The video is pretty lame, so don't bother with it)A more thorough description of the model, here.