Understanding the System Within the Self
By: Karen
July 20, 2014

Referring to reactivity, most think of it in a negative context. It is not always screeching (please refer to blog entitled ‘My Life as a Screech Owl’) nagging or crying. Reactivity can also be self-soothing, withdrawing, cutting off, and the list goes on. In fact, I propose that most of us spend much time in reactivity. This being said, one of the most important things we can do is work toward an understanding of which part of ourselves is reacting to what trigger.

Internal Family Systems is a theory which places traditional systems theory inside of the individual. Dr. Richard Schwartz developed the theory as a combination of systems theory and multiplicity of mind. He has identified three working parts within the individual. First the exile, which is the part taking on pain…often as a result of childhood wounds. Next, the manager, which is the part attempting to control and protect the exile against the outside world. Finally, the firefighters work to distract the exiles that have broken away from the protective managers. They help the exiles avoid the pain, often through addictive and numbing behaviors. The theory is fascinating and Dr. Schwartz is a genius.

However, I am a much simpler person and therapist. I believe this theory works beautifully in the everyman’s world and counseling room. When we ‘argue with our self’ we support this theory. The conversation in our mind is two parts of the self working out a problem. The real fun starts as we discover which parts are debating and from what platform.  Is it the abandoned inner child working with the shamed teenager? Or is the logical adult in there trying to bring reason to the situation?

The practicality of this idea manifests in developing a deeper understanding of our reactivity. This means acknowledging what part of our internal system is reacting and what is triggering the reaction. When our friend or lover does not meet our expectation and we feel panic and pain, is it our inner child re-experiencing our father walking out the door or maybe even lying in a coffin? Does the inner child self-soothe with alcohol, food, or long hours at work? When we have a 50 pound reaction to this 5 pound issue, is it the angry teenager working hard to protect the inner child? When we engage in negative self-talk about why we caused our friend or lover to let us down, is our teenager attacking the inner child? When this same situation causes us to abruptly cut-off from our friend or lover, is our logical adult protecting us against vulnerability? The potential scenarios are unlimited.

Healing comes as we understand these parts, the reactions and the triggers. We can learn to nurture and play with our inner child. My personal favorite is finding a swing and going as high as I can, trying to touch the sky. We can calm the angry teenager, allowing them to dance freely, knowing the inner child is cared for. We can bring joy to our logical adult through the playing child or dancing teenager.

The results are worth the work. The joy we find is worth the journey.