I wasn’t disappointed. After listening to that interview, I’ve gone on to listen to a great deal of material from Freedomain Radio in the weeks since. I find Stefan Molyneux to be an extremely intelligent thinker with an impressive breadth of knowledge who focuses on matters of central importance and articulates his ideas brilliantly. He has a deep grasp of the interconnectedness of the personal and political, and, unlike many other thinkers who exhibit what I call the “psychology gap,” Molyneux recognizes and focuses on how psychological and developmental issues color, and often are even primary, in determining our positions on events in the external world. I disagree with him on some fundamental issues and there are a few disciplines that I wish he integrated more into his approach, as I think they might influence some of his conclusions a bit (just as there are many areas in which he is far more schooled than I am). But there are also many areas of agreement and, even when we disagree, I always find his material stimulating.
In fact, his ideas were stimulating enough to provoke my last blog post, which was a response to his discussion with Neil Kiernan of V-Radio about The Venus Project, a futuristic form of community promoted in the Zeitgeist series of films. And it’s likely that in the future I’ll post more pieces promoting, building on, clarifying or responding to – whether with agreement, disagreement or both – some of his ideas and work.
Now, every Sunday at 2 PM EST, Stefan has a two hour call in show where listeners can raise just about any topic they want with him. They may question or challenge his ideas, ask for his views on world events or philosophy, or request his take on issues in their own lives. In this post, I want to clarify some Internal Family Systems-related issues raised in his call in show from last Sunday.
As the name might suggest, the Internal Family Systems Model is a psychological approach based on the idea that, just as we each have “external” families composed of a variety of family members, we each also have an analogous family of “parts” within our own psyches. Stefan is fond of cleverly referring to that internal family as the “MEcosystem.” I really like this name for it, as well.
Well, when I looked at the list of topics discussed on last week’s call in show, one of them was “The Limits of the MEcosystem.” This title intrigued me even more than most IFS discussions. In the last several years, I have been quite committed to learning about and promoting fields such as Appreciative Inquiry, Nonviolent Communication (NVC), Imago Relationship Therapy and Internal Family Systems Therapy, which offer hope for – and in my experience sometimes really do deliver - surprisingly powerful constructive change through peaceful approaches. However, I have been just as concerned about there being adequate understanding and awareness of the limits of such fields’ effectiveness. For example, on my page about NVC, I took the time to add a section entitled “The Limits of Nonviolent Communication’s Effectiveness”.
We live within a violently imposed hierarchical system that incentivizes and fosters a relatively high prevalence of serious, often almost intractable, personality disorders. So I think it is imperative that we be rigorously honest in assessing where these peaceful approaches can work and where they cannot. These tools can catalyze wonderful results when applied in situations for which they are indicated. But if people cling to them dogmatically, without adequately questioning whether some situations require far different approaches, beliefs in them can become part of an ideology of denial, suppression and repression that refuses to accept limits. This can be as dangerous as attempting to cure cancer with prayer alone.
Summary of “The Limits of the MEcosystem” Segment from Freedomain Radio’s February 6, 2011 Call In Show
So I dove into the recording of the call in show, which is FDR1848 Freedomain Radio Sunday Show 6 Feb 2011. The relevant discussion happens between 4:52 and 24:13 of the show. The caller asks if he can raise a question about the MEcosystem approach. Stefan gives a brief overview of the MEcosystem concept and then the caller asks a question about how to negotiate with parts of the MEcosystem that seem intractably critical. He is curious why there is a seeming contradiction between Stefan’s advice to leave abusive people in our external families – a notion he refers to as DeFOO’ing (FOO standing for Family of Origin) – but to instead negotiate with the voices in ourselves that represent internalizations of these very same abusive people.
Stefan’s first reply is that you simply have no choice in the matter as you can’t physically separate from an internal part. He then explains the style of negotiation with which he engages such critical parts, sometimes working with them, sometimes standing up to them or judging them as to their credibility as critics. He then explains that there is one part with which he has been unable to negotiate. The caller says that he also has at least one part that is “relentlessly negative” which he believes represents his mom.
Stefan then relates a story about how a real life encounter led to a dream about his own mother and how, attempting to practice what he preaches, he decided to do some MEcosystem work and have a talk with this internalized mother in his psyche. He finds that this “mother part” is so destructive that he doesn’t feel he can constructively negotiate with it at all. Thus, he hasn’t talked to it since. The caller then says he too is on the cusp of reaching a similar conclusion regarding his own inner critic.
Stefan then offers some thoughts and warnings about the importance of accepting the limits of effectiveness of fields such as IFS and NVC to create lasting change in extreme contexts. The caller and Stefan finally discuss whether the loving action in a situation with an intractable inner critic, as with an intractably abusive external person, really is to leave, in the manner that one can internally, by finally ceasing negotiations. Stefan explains that if we are the trigger for a person’s feelings of anger and hatred, we do not only ourselves, but them, a favor by leaving them so that they can be untriggered and hence a better person.
Stefan closes by explaining that he has been able to negotiate with almost all of his MEcosystem parts because they are “open to reason” but has been unable to do so with this mother part because apparently it is not.
Clarifying Misunderstandings About Internal Family Systems Revealed By This Call
As interesting as this exchange with the caller was, I believe it reveals several misunderstandings or incomplete understandings about the details of the IFS model. This isn’t surprising or any kind of knock on Stefan. It is impressive enough that he has done enough research to become aware of IFS at all considering the wide range of topics he explores in his work and given the fact that it isn’t yet very widely recognized in the mainstream. I don’t think even he would consider himself an expert in the field and I don’t believe he would claim to have fully explored it. In fact, I’m not even sure if he has read Richard Schwartz’s main book about the field, Internal Family Systems Therapy, or not. And I noticed even in his interview with Schwartz that, as fascinating as it was, it didn’t touch on some of the most important deeper technical aspects of the field.
Now, it is possible that Stefan actually does have a deeper understanding of the Internal Family Systems model than I currently realize. He has created other material on the topic that I have not yet heard and which might reveal a more comprehensive knowledge. In any case, given that I think I’ve done a little more thorough exploration of IFS (though I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m an expert in it either), I hoped to contribute by fleshing out some of the details of the model that shed light on the issues raised by this caller for the caller, for Stefan and for anyone else interested. Whether Stefan is unaware of some of these details or simply failed, for whatever reasons, to apply them with this particular caller, it can only help to reinforce accurate information about the model and how it works.
The Structure of the MEcosystem
In order to optimally deal with the MEcosystem, I think it’s first important to have the foundation of a comprehensive understanding of its anatomy. The way it was discussed on this call seemed to reveal only a partial understanding of its composition. So first let’s take a look at the types of parts and roles that it contains.
The Three Main Entities That Comprise the MEcosystem
In IFS, on any level of human system – the MEcosystem referring to just one level, the individual level - there are three main types of entities:
- Parts in Healthy Roles – Parts playing roles that are constructive and fitting for them.
- Parts in Extreme Roles – Parts playing roles into which they are forced by particular imbalances, which Schwartz details further in his work, in their own system or other systems in which their system is embedded. As I understand it, we don’t actually have an “internalized critical mother” part, for instance. Rather, an existing part of us with its own original character becomes burdened by the constraints placed on it, possibly by mother figures in the external systems, and begins to play this role, perhaps in order to please or reduce perceived threat to the real mother and keep the child safe. This may actually be even worse than internalizing an abusive part because it represents a part of us forced to act like something it isn’t.
- Self – This is the wise seat of awareness in all of us, a place from which we can observe and respond maturely and optimally to the system as a whole. The goal of IFS practice is to rebuild trust in and act, as often as possible, from a position of Self. Hence, the name of Schwartz’s organization, the Center for Self-Leadership.
The Two Main Types of Extreme Roles
There are two main types of extreme Roles that parts may take on:
- Exiles – Exiles are parts that have been burdened, usually through trauma or neglect early in life, and remain wounded and vulnerable. They may also remain frozen in time inside of us at the younger ages at which they were originally wounded. Thus, they often represent, in effect, our “inner children”. In their exile roles, these parts may remain quiet and unconscious to us or they may try to cry or lash out in attempts to get their needs met.
- Protectors – Protectors are parts that have, at some time, experienced our Self as unable to protect us. They have thus responded by usurping this role in order to attempt, though sometimes in misguided ways, to prevent our young exile parts from being hurt again or from putting the rest of the system at risk through their volatile actions. Often, in the course of this mission, protectors will even attempt to keep us and others unconscious of the exiles’ very existence.
The Two Main Types of Protector Roles
There are two main types of protector roles that parts may assume:
- Managers – Managers are parts that have taken on a role that seeks to maintain safety by attempting to strictly control the system and its environment. As such, they are often agents of suppression or repression. When other people or parts of ourselves that a manger finds untrustworthy threaten to contact wounded exiles, the manager may become anxious, suspicious or critical in an attempt to protect those exiles. Furthermore, if an exile threatens to cry out in a situation that a manager deems unsafe, it may work to banish that exile’s voice from awareness completely by “imprisoning” it.
- Firefighters – Firefighters are parts that have taken on a distractor role. When firefighters feel that a system may be in danger due to internal or external contact with exiles or due to exiles acting out, they will begin to distract by creating urges to engage in impulsive activities. Thus, firefighters are the impetus behind many addictions and compulsions. Firefighters also may act as a second line of defense, kicking in when they feel the protective checkpoints of managers are in danger of being breached.
Restructuring as a Primary Goal of Internal Family Systems Therapy
Richard Schwartz refers to the application of the Internal Family Systems model at the individual level as the combination of Systems Thinking (the main theme of this website) and the “multiplicity of mind.” One of the major tenets of Systems Thinking is that “structure creates behavior.” In other words, if you want to foster healthier behavior in a system, rather than focus directly on the behavior of its various parts, instead redesign the structure of the system in which the behaviors are being generated to make it more conducive to health. If that system happens to be a psychic system characterized by “multiplicity of mind,” you must restructure the arrangement of the multiple parts within that mind.
With this background, we understand that the purpose of negotiating with protectors is not simply to work with them while they remain in those roles. It is ideally to rebuild the systems’ trust in the Self’s leadership and to restructure the system to obtain greater balance, harmony and development so that protectors and exiles can leave those extreme roles for healthier ones. After all, these parts feel forced into their extreme roles and, the theory goes, even they would prefer not having to play them anymore if arrangements changed to make it unnecessary.
IFS provides a variety of techniques to aid in this process of restructuring human systems. But the core goals around which most of these techniques revolve are the unburdening of young, wounded exiled parts and their retrieval from their positions, psychically frozen in the past. This makes sense if we remember that the other extreme roles, those of the protectors, only exist in relation to the existence of exiles. So once we unburden and retrieve exiles, and the protectors become aware of this, they may no longer feel the need to play their protective roles and can then be reassigned to more comfortable and constructive ones. Techniques for unburdening and retrieving exiles, along with other IFS techniques, are discussed in detail in Internal Family Systems Therapy.
The Ideal Purpose of “Negotiating” with Protectors
However, in order to unburden and retrieve exiles, we must first secure access to them. This requires gaining the support of the protectors – the managers and firefighters – that guard such access.
Thus, the purpose of “negotiating” with such parts, which include the critical manager parts that were the focus of Stefan’s call, is to gain their trust and learn more about who they are protecting and why. This involves asking certain targeted questions that often include:
- Why do you feel the need to act as you do? What do you fear might happen if you were to stop acting that way?
- Who are you protecting with this behavior? Is there another part that I’m not aware of that you’re hiding?
- What would have to happen for me to earn your trust so that you would allow me access to those exiled parts that you are protecting?
Through such dialogue, we aim to foster a partnership whereby these protector parts will work with, rather than against, our Self in the service of re-integrating exiled parts and restructuring the system to a healthier form for all.
The Context of the MEcosystem
It is crucial to recognize that the MEcosystem doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Nor did the particular current arrangement of any person’s MEcosystem develop in a vacuum. Instead, the MEcosystem – the arrangement of psychic parts on the individual human system level – develops and lives embedded within larger levels of human systems, such as family, community or tribe and society.
Moreover, in the Internal Family Systems model, we recognize that not only the individual human system, but all of these levels of human systems consist of a Self and parts in the same types of healthy and extreme roles. And it is the sustaining or constraining nature of these larger systems that determines the levels of health of the structures of the smaller systems embedded within them. In fact, many symptoms experienced on the individual level may ultimately be reinforced most strongly not by parts on the individual level, but by constraints generated by parts on higher levels.
This fact is strongly emphasized by Richard Schwartz on page 221 of the hardcover version of Internal Family Systems Therapy, where, within a larger section called “Where Do Therapists Commonly Get Stuck?”, he includes the following sub-section:
“Not Exploring or Working with a Client’s External Context”
“The IFS model opens the door to a fascinating and powerful inner world. Many beginners become so intrigued with this internal aspect of the model that they ignore the impact of and resources in the clients’ families or other external contexts. This is particularly true for therapists whose training has been in individual treatment and who have not been taught to appreciate or work with external systems. But even family therapists can succumb to the temptation to go inside with clients and close the door on the storms raging outside. I have to fight this temptation with many clients, and I have a PhD in family therapy.
A therapist can overestimate the ability of a client to transcend the constraints of his or her family or other external circumstances by doing internal work. When brainstorming with the client about whom to involve in the treatment, the therapist must take care not to collude with parts of the client that want to deny external constraints. If the client wants to keep a person out of the therapy room or does not want to talk about an external relationship, it is often worth talking to the parts making the request, in order to gauge the purity of their motives.
The larger point here is that although it is tempting to ignore external constraints, it can also be costly. IFS therapy is shorter, safer, and more effective when constraints and resources of all levels are considered. Therapists who are disinclined by training or by nature to work with external people should pursue family therapy training, and should also work with their parts that fear the intensity of family therapy.”
While an understandable hope, it is wishful thinking to believe that we can always optimize the MEcosystem without having to also optimize the roles and arrangements of the parts on the higher levels in which that MEcosystem is embedded. I know that Stefan realizes this to some extent, as evidenced by his strong awareness of the connections between the personal and political. And, yet, I think this larger context, made very explicit by Schwartz, poses a bit of a challenge to the philosophy of some of Molyneux’s listeners.
The idea of multiplicity of mind on the individual level is one that is still quite provocative. And Schwartz’s application of systems principles developed at higher levels to psychology at the individual human level was somewhat novel. But in IFS there is not anything specifically sacrosanct about the individual level. It is but one level of human system embedded among the many larger levels.
Schwartz even agreed with me, during one conversation, that the field’s name, focused on the individual internal system, is a misnomer. Coming from a background in the already existing family systems field, which recognizes archetypal arrangements in external human systems, Schwartz named the field after the most innovative aspect of his work. But even he acknowledged that the name can be misleading and was never meant to imply that the individual level is separate in any way from the other higher level human systems.
In fact, Schwartz makes clear that a healthy functioning inner system is much like a working tribe. This is an apt analogy given that it was tribes in which humans evolved and for which they are adapted. So not only does IFS refuse to fetishize the individual level, but, like Daniel Quinn’s neo-tribalist writings, it urges us to reconsider the importance of at least certain principles that existed in tribal structures. This stands in some contrast to the individualism that characterizes much of Molyneux’s thinking, and, even more so, that of the Objectivist and Libertarian-minded people that often follow his work.
Not only does IFS advocate for the importance of all levels of human systems. It also lays out how these various levels interact in a self-similar fashion. So, for example, we learn that how we treat exile parts in other people or in families or societies is likely to be connected to how we treat exiles in ourselves. Therefore, if we restructure our system by unburdening and retrieving our own exiles, we will likely change how we treat those external exiles. However, it is just as true that, if we manage to resolve conflicts with external exiles, it is likely to influence the parallel relationships with our own internal exiles.
Thus, again, there is nothing sacrosanct about work on the individual MEcosystem level. In fact, in some cases, MEcosystem issues will be resolved more expediently through working with external people or entities that mirror the conflicted parts in ourselves rather than through direct internal work. This fact further blurs the lines between the levels and provides an even more thorough challenge to the individualism of some of Molyneux’s listeners.
This idea that internal and external relationships can, and often even must, be healed mutually is further reinforced by Imago Relationship Therapy. Even in an Imago context, we may have to simply leave a relationship if it is dangerously abusive. But we understand that, ideally, rather than leave our partners if they trigger difficult feelings, we should recognize the situation as a precious opportunity to gain access to parts on all levels that need attention and can catalyze mutual healing.
New Lessons for Stefan’s Caller
Having clarified the structure and context of the MEcosystem, the primary goals of Internal Family Systems practice, the purpose of working with protectors and the dynamics of parallelism, we can now view the questions raised by Stefan’s caller in a new light.
The inner critic parts described by Stefan and his caller would most likely be seen in IFS as examples of parts trapped in manager roles. These critical manager parts are not inherently critical managers (or inner mothers or even necessarily female). They are parts that would otherwise have developed their own characters. But, due to the constraints of the environment in which they developed, they became trapped, unhappily, in these critical manager roles in order to help the system survive at that time.
Perhaps, while growing up, these parts realized that, when certain other parts spoke or acted, the real external mother reacted abusively. So these parts may have taken on manager roles, suppressing and exiling the young, hurt parts which pushed the real mother’s buttons and restructuring the system into a form that would keep the system as a whole safe. And perhaps these managers found that the most effective way to achieve this goal was to simply impersonate the mother herself so that the system would always react to her idiosyncrasies before the real mother became provoked and enforced her will.
Understanding that these managers’ key role is protecting and suppressing exiles, we come to see the motives behind their behavior more clearly. On the call, Stefan postulates that the reason these critical parts come on so heavy-handed is due to a fear that they won’t be listened to. This may be partly true. But the more important reason for their viciousness is that they are deathly afraid that an exile will be listened to or heard by someone or some other part of ourselves that it feels is unsafe to that exile or the rest of the system.
Remember, the manager behavior is not carried out for the manager’s own sake. Rather, it represents that part performing what it believes to be a necessary sacrifice of its original or preferred character in order to serve a role of perceived protection of and from wounded vulnerable younger parts. And many managers, for understandable reasons given the abuse and neglect that helped form their roles, see this as a life and death mission.
The goal, ideally, is not to “negotiate” with such an internal critic part in order to reach a truce of some kind. Rather, it is to:
- Practice achieving and acting from a position of Self leadership
- Build understanding and trust about why it is stuck in this manager role
- Obtain its assistance in identifying the exiles it protects or conceals
- Unburden and retrieve those exiles
- Ultimately help all of those parts leave those roles and assume healthier ones
Understanding the nature of managers also offers another challenge to something important Stefan said on the call. At one point, he said that he negotiates with his inner parts that are “open to reason” but is unable to with the ones that aren’t. Well, it is no wonder that he cannot find “reason” in a manager part when he is unaware of its central purpose for being in that role – protection or suppression of exiles – and perhaps unconscious of the exiles around whom that manager part revolves. Once we recognize the horrors that certain manager parts have witnessed and what they are actually trying to accomplish, it becomes much easier to relate to their particular form of “reasoning” and become creative in how to approach them. While I too highly value reason, this insight offers a different angle on Molyneux’s sometimes hyper-rational approach.
IFS’ concept of parallelism also has some important implications for analyzing what took place on this call. Theoretically, parallelism would tell us that if we trigger hatred in a person, the reason is that a part of us parallels an archetypal part that they dislike in themselves. I am not saying this is always the case, but it is in keeping with the paradigm of IFS.
Given this, it is ideal if we can harness situations marked by frequent triggering as opportunities for mutual healing of parallel parts. Of course, Stefan is right that if a relationship has proven dangerous or completely intractable, as some really do, we should attempt to leave it. But, it is only with a thorough understanding of IFS - including the nature of the manager parts often underlying hatred and violence and how to optimally approach them – that we can wisely judge when a situation is truly intractable.
The True Limits of the MEcosystem
So this brings us back full circle to the title of the call-in segment that triggered this exploration – “The Limits of the MEcosystem”. Given all that we’ve covered here, what are the true limits of the MEcosystem.
On the call, Stefan implies that its limits are reached when you encounter an inflexible part that isn’t “open to reason.” But, as we’ve seen here, even seemingly unreasonable and inflexible parts may be open to constructive partnership when we understand their particular form of reason, their perceived purpose for existence and approach them with this in mind. Nonetheless, Stefan is certainly correct that, even when applying fully expert knowledge of IFS techniques, there are limits to what can be achieved by internal work alone.
The most basic limit often stems from the simple fact that healing takes time. Thus, despite our best efforts, at any given time, we may simply find ourselves unable to immediately bring a part of ourselves out of its extreme role. If parts of the system feel we are not yet ready or trustworthy enough to gain access, they may simply keep parts protected or even unconscious to us and maintain the system’s current structure. Our psyches wisely understand that we just cannot always handle complete consciousness and recovery all at once, even if we are now in a safe and sustaining environment. They may require us to persist in our inner relationship-building process for a longer period before responding in the ways that we might wish.
But, perhaps the greatest ultimate limit to the effectiveness of MEcosystem work stems from the fact that not all internally experienced symptoms originate from or are primarily maintained by internal forces. Schwartz makes clear that, early in the process of working with an IFS client, it is crucial for the therapist to assess the level of system at which his or her dysfunctions would optimally be addressed. Though internal parts are always involved to some degree, the major constraints on the MEcosystem are often imposed by outside forces. And those outside structures are not always flexible enough to change as a result of parallelism as our inner work is done. In fact, Schwartz makes it clear that sometimes these outside forces are so dangerous that they make it unsafe for the therapist to even pursue internal work with that client related to certain issues at all
Sometimes, it will be our own internal parts themselves that recognize the futility or danger that external forces pose for particular internal work. They may accurately believe that those upon whom we depend or to whom we are vulnerable - our families, bosses, governments – will be threatened by our potential restructuring in a way that then threatens us. These parts may, therefore, remain inflexible until those outside parties can be brought into the process or until the system is convinced that there is sufficient safety. They do this not as a result of stubbornness, as it may seem to us in our relative unconsciousness, but for our own protection.
Unfortunately, in my view, the existence of such strong external limits on MEcosystem work’s effectiveness is common. I believe that modern human systems are marked by a relatively high prevalence of personality disorders among those in positions of power on all levels. In IFS terms, we could view these disorders as conditions where parts that have taken on highly extreme roles have been thrust into prominence and the structure has become ossified. So many dominant parts so entrenched in such extreme roles constitute an external system that is highly constraining and inflexible.
Therefore, like Stefan, I worry a great deal about the challenge that personality disorders - and extremely hierarchical institutions that foster and reward them - pose to the effectiveness of fields like Nonviolent Communication and Internal Family Systems. In fact, I worried enough to ask Richard Schwartz about it. While he said he believes that even psychopaths still have a Self and an ability to become healthier, I would require more evidence of this. Until then, I think that it is unlikely that many of us can reach anything near complete health simply through MEcosystem work and the resulting parallelism. This is why it is so important that we recognize the need, as Stefan does, for treatment and activism on the family, social and political levels to complement inner work.
I want to make it very clear that none of this is to say that MEcosystem work isn’t valuable. Quite the contrary. It is extremely valuable in order to optimize our health to the degree that we can, both for its own inherent benefits, as well as to help us become more strategic, confident and effective in whatever external activism we do. And even if our systems do not yet feel we are ready for certain restructuring, our best approach is still to continue building trust and understanding with as many of the parts of our internal system as possible so that we can learn more and more what they need in order to take their next steps toward health.
I’m impressed and excited that Stefan Molyneux is using his platform with Freedomain Radio to introduce the concepts of the Internal Family Systems model to so many people – especially thoughtful people committed to creating a healthier world - who otherwise wouldn’t know of them. I’m also very glad that he is raising important awareness of the fact that MEcosystem work, like all peaceful change techniques, has limits. But - based on the admittedly limited example of his “The Limits of the MEcosystem” segment from his February 6, 2011 call in show - I think that the approach will prove more powerful for him and his listeners if they broaden and deepen their understanding of the model’s technical details and gain a greater perspective on where MEcosystem work fits in the context of IFS as a whole.
At the very end of the segment that inspired this piece, Stefan himself acknowledges that his current view of how to deal with his inner mother is not necessarily the final answer, but just where he is now. I hope that the understandings about IFS that I’ve laid out here will inspire him and others to seek further insight into how to take the next step with seemingly intractable parts, as well as how to better recognize and respond to the limits of certain techniques.
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