Thanks to charitable support from individual benefactors and the IFS Institute, the Foundation for Self Leadership has been able to fund clinical research investigating impacts of IFS on vulnerable populations – and further establishing IFS as an evidence-based approach. The following Curiosity Conversation is located in this scientific arena of research enquiry. It discusses what it means to medically investigate IFS therapy outcomes in the context of the healing of patients with PTSD. Crucially the conversation considers how and whether IFS, within a “what works” scientific worldview, works for effective healing.
Watch here a 15 minutes extract from the video recorded conversation:
Click here for the full audio recording of the entire conversation:
Transcript of entire Curiosity Conversation
Between Dr Zev Schuman-Olivier, MD, Principal Investigator on PARTS study investigating effects of group-based IFS on PTSD symptoms and Dr Helen E. Lees, Editor of PARTS & SELF.
This Conversation was conducted in September 2022.
Helen: Hi! it’s really nice to see you today. Thank you for making the time to talk with me in the PARTS & SELF Curiosity Conversation. Could you tell me what’s your name, what’s your title if you have one, where you work and a little bit about what you are doing, at the moment?
Zev: Sure. I’m Dr Zev Schuman-Olivier. I’m the Center Director for the Cambridge Health Alliance (CHA) Center for Mindfulness and Compassion. I’m an assistant professor in psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School and I’m also Director of Addictions Research at the Cambridge Health Alliance. Our Center for Mindfulness and Compassion sits within the Cambridge Health Alliance which is one of the four Harvard Medical School teaching hospitals. And the Cambridge Health Alliance is specifically the community health teaching hospital for Harvard Medical School.
Helen: Does it have a focus on mental health?
Zev: Our healthcare system mainly focuses on the Metro North Boston Region. It is the safety net institution for that region, focused on public health, mental health as well as primary care. We have a lot of focus in our healthcare system on system implementation, working with at-risk populations, supporting folks who are on subsidised health insurance from the government. More than half the patients in our system meet the poverty-line criteria for acquiring government assistance and more than half of our population is either immigrant or minority in some way.
Helen: So, that must be satisfying work then, because I’m sure that what you’re doing – this is my imagination – an intervention such as you’re doing for your PARTS study being funded by the Foundation for Self Leadership—is going to be affecting people who really need some help and some change, because they are in challenging circumstances. So that must be very satisfying—that you’re able to provide something which is an effective modality—in my opinion that would be IFS; I think it can help people, personally speaking, and lots of people seem to agree with me—to put that in a community which is struggling. Do you see that it’s making a difference?
Zev: Let me take a step back, and just explain what the PARTS study is.
Zev: P.A.R.T.S. stands for the Programme for Alleviating and Resolving Trauma and Stress. It’s a group-based IFS focused program. It uses the IFS modality in both a group format as well as ongoing individual support for folks who have PTSD symptoms and the idea behind this program was to really try to understand the applicability of IFS for a community health clinic. Actually, this started back before the pandemic. There have been previous research studies on IFS. There was a study that was conducted with a largely middle-class, white population of women with rheumatoid arthritis at the Brigham Woman’s Hospital, which demonstrated some impact on quality of life for people with rheumatoid arthritis. There was another study which focused on people who had trauma and depression. That was conducted by the JRI—Justice Resource Institute’s Trauma Center. That was largely an individual, 16 week, IFS program with some of the most experienced IFS therapists I know. I was impressed by both the capacity for this IFS program to be delivered as a group model and Nancy Sowell, who is one of our faculty members at CHA, was the group leader for the group in that study. I was also impressed by the large effect sizes that we saw in the individual study and several of our faculty members at CHA had been the therapists in that study—but in that study, they were private practice therapists who were receiving referrals for patients and then receiving it through the study, with 90 minute sessions for 16 weeks. One of our concerns was that 90 minute sessions are not generally something supported by community clinics and insurance in the Unites States.
So, we wanted to think about what would be a model that would actually lend itself to be implementable and disseminatable—essentially, can IFS work if it is within the health care system, or is it only working because clinicians are giving 90 minutes to people which no one else gets in the clinical systems? That was one of the questions that we had.
The second question I had was really wanting to understand the mechanisms through which an IFS approach might work. My background, as I said, as Director for the Center for Mindfulness and Compassion has been conducting group-based research programs with mindfulness and really trying to understand the mechanisms through which mindfulness may increase self-regulation; enhance the capacity for emotion regulation; to help people to catalyze behaviour change or to address symptoms of depression or substance use disorders. So, we have nine grants right now, including four RCTs (randomized controlled trials) happening at our center and many of them are focused on aspects related to mindfulness or compassion-based interventions or motivational interviewing, which is an empathy and compassion-based intervention.
Helen: What did you say? I didn’t quite catch that. The last one.
Zev: We also have some studies on motivational interviewing, which is a way of engaging in conversation with people using empathy and compassion that helps to evoke their motivation for change.
Helen: Sounds good.
Zev: So, these are the kinds of projects that we’ve been doing. I have known Dick for close to eight years, as well as having known many of the leading IFS therapists in our region and I’ve been very interested in the ways that the Internal Family Systems model aligns well with these mindfulness-based interventions that we are testing, both as a way of enhancing some aspects of what we call mindfulness, as well as really helping opening people’s hearts and compassion and self-compassion or compassion to one’s own Parts, parts of oneself, and the necessity of what Dick calls Self, to be able to get into a state where you essentially are [present] – it’s very similar to what I think of as being very present with mindfulness and compassion with one’s internal experience.
So, IFS is a bit more of a narrative way of engaging—an internal conversational way of engaging…
Helen: That’s a good way to put it.
Zev: …but it has a similar way of engaging body sensations and using this capacity for calm presence with compassion. Again, there’s two of your eight C’s that he [Dick Schwartz] talked about.
So, for me, I am very interested in the relationships of this, and thinking of this as a potentially mindfulness, compassion informed intervention, even if it’s not engaging in clear mindfulness meditation like a lot of the other programs we’ve been doing, it’s a different way of doing it. In fact, one of the things that I’ve been most interested in is that it’s seen as a relatively high-level phenomenon that once people learn to pay attention to their body and learn how to be kind to themselves that, at some point, they may start to decenter from themselves and gain greater meta-awareness, where their sense of self is not absorbed in it or caught up in it, but they actually can see what’s happening: the way that they are “selfing” with different types of experiences, making things me, or mine, or about me, when in fact they may not be at all. And one of the things that IFS does, which I think it does even better than a lot of mindfulness-based interventions, is from the outset, by dividing things into Self and Parts, we are able to have our Parts be part of us, but not all of us, and we’re able to start to be in relationship with different aspects of our experience from the get-go. So, this capacity for what the cognitive therapists call decentering or meta-awareness happens very quickly.
Helen: Yes, it’s an instant primary concept, isn’t it?
Zev: Yeah, once you get it, and start working with it, then it allows you in a certain way to be able to start to be present with things that before would have overwhelmed you.
Zev: And so, while that’s something that we hope people might achieve by eight weeks of a mindfulness course or a lifetime of mindfulness meditation, I see this happening, you know, in the first few weeks…
Helen: Yeaaah! This is it.
Zev: …with IFS. And with that comes the ability to start to be able to work on emotion regulation. So, it seems to be engaged in similar mechanisms, but in a different sequential pattern. I find that, therefore, really interesting. It also, you know, when you’re focusing on sensations in the body, to try to flush out a Part, that is very similar to some other models that we’ve been using and studying in mindfulness meditation, where, as people start to pay attention to their body, they start to notice the way that sensations are linked with emotions and thoughts.
So, for me there’s a lot of overlap. I’m really interested in getting to understand how IFS works at a mechanistic level even more. What we’re trying to do with the study is pair those two things together. The intention and interest to see: can this be implemented in the mental healthcare system as it stands, in a way that’s feasible and acceptable, both to people and to the institution in a financial way and in a logistical way and at the same time can we start to develop pilot data to start to try to understand the mechanisms through which IFS might be working, that could lead us hopefully down the path of understanding how it could impact people with not just PTSD, but also things like substance-use disorders or addiction, and ultimately hopefully start to look at neural mechanisms like we’ve been looking at in mindfulness and compassion-based interventions.
So, the PARTs program is a 16-week program. It starts with four weeks of introduction to the IFS model and then 12 weeks of a more intensive practice group. And then people have—for safety reasons we continue to have every other week individual counselling that is available. It’s an individual place to guide self-directed practice. So, the idea is that people may not be able to, nor do we want them to necessarily, do all the unburdening, within the context of their group. And unburdening for those who don’t know would be kind of a process of really going towards these exile Parts and having them let go of the burdens they’re carrying.
Helen: Yeah. I think that that maybe—this is just a guess—that you’re doing that so that people can have some privacy when they’re encountering that process, mechanistic or otherwise, that is inherent in the IFS encounter.
Zev: So, some will need that and some may actually feel the support of the group helping them to have the courage to be able to go there.
Zev: So, different people will have different issues. The other thing is by having this—the every other week check-ins—we find that with the people who are in the group, things come up in the group and then they are able to work through that; work through the Parts that have been activated by the group in the individual [session] and then come back to the group. Also, some people—again we’re working in a community clinic where many folks have been refugees or who have high levels of poverty, or domestic violence situations—and if you think about the Maslow hierarchy of needs—there are other needs that people need some support or help with. So, it gives an opportunity to get those addressed in addition to working on their PTSD symptoms.
I do want to really give a strong…
Helen: Strong warning? I’m curious to know what the hesitation is.
Zev: I really want to give a lot of credit to the group leaders who have been developing this modality. Our team has a lot of depth and a lot of experience. We have some really expert teacher trainers as part of our CHA team. Dick Schwartz may be one of them who you’ve heard of, but also Nancy Sowell, who’s been teacher trainer in our system, as well as Martha Sweezy, who has co-authored several books with Dick Schwartz. We also have some really incredible supervisors like Larry Rosenberg who has been a long-time psychology supervisor working with the IFS model.
But the groups, and actual implementation of these groups and completion of the manual that we’ve been using for this programme, was done by Mary Catherine Ward and Hanna Soumerai. Mary Catherine Ward actually started our first group here at CHA maybe close to five years ago. It started as this model working primarily with folks who had both PTSD and borderline traits—what was considered borderline traits in normal psychiatric diagnostic criteria or what other people might consider symptoms of complex PTSD—and really what had given us the optimism that we can make this work is that she had really had a good experience working with her clients in this way. What we see now, a year out, since starting the PARTS program with Mary Catherine and Hanna co-leading is that it really has been tremendously impactful. I can’t give you specific data here, but I will let you know that we are working on getting a manuscript published based on our pilot data from the study and we are seeing engagement with all of the measures of PTSD that we were looking at: dissociation, as well as depression, anxiety, as well as many of the mechanisms that we were excited about exploring, which makes me feel very confident in going forward with a randomized controlled trial that we’re about to start. The most exciting thing though about the program to date has actually been the stories that I’m getting from Hanna who is the Director of our IFS service here at CHA. And just the transformative impacts that it’s had on the patients in the group. So, nearly all of our patients have been in weekly psychotherapy, individual psychotherapy, for years, when they started this group. Many had diagnoses like complex PTSD or PTSD with borderline traits. Folks that typically would not have been included in groups or have even been willing to participate in a group previously and we saw three quarters of the participants who we enrolled being able to successfully complete the 16 week group – and [work with] what we’ve created as a system for helping people to be able to work with the model, to really internalize it. So, after the first four months in the intensive group they moved on to another group where they no longer had the every-other-week individual support, it was just two or three times over the course of the 16 weeks. So, they are learning to depend more and more on the group, with the group leader there. And then after eight months, Mary Catherine and Hanna actually turned the group over to the group itself.
Zev: Now there are six members of the group who are actively continuing working with each other with the model, on their own schedule with no group leader and continue to support each other. So, from a system standpoint, it’s incredible to think about the possibility of an intervention that could be delivered and within a year people actually can become self-sufficient in regulating their emotions within a caring community of other folks who are practicing IFS.
So that’s where this, ultimately, I think could go. Our RCT is specifically going to focus on a four month outcome period, like we did in our pilot, but we would like to start to also consider some qualitative studies, or ways of understanding what’s happening for people and how they are able to move out: essentially almost moving out of the mental healthcare system. To really have peer support groups that are helping them. And I guess I want to reiterate that part of our mission here was, when we first started talking about this – this happens in a lot of hospitals or a lot of health care systems from people who say, “Oh no, yeah, that all sounds well and good in private practise, but that’s not going to work for our patients here at this public health hospital or this place” and so we…But it is working. You know, for the folks who are sticking with the programme here and it continues to have a real impact.
I think that at least internally within our healthcare system, that’s starting to get people excited about the real potential for what this could do. That being said, a lot of what I’ve just said is anecdotal evidence. Based on stories of a single group. So, I really want to make sure to qualify that and say that we need to do the research. That’s why we’re doing this randomized control trial, and hopefully, depending on what our results are, we continue to larger trials. Ultimately we will need a larger trial of more than 200 people. Potentially at multiple sites in order to be able to really definitively say that IFS is an evidence-based treatment for PTSD, in a confident way. Which is something, given the high levels of dissemination both in the US and throughout the world, is really important to do.
Helen: Do you mean high levels of dissemination of IFS within the global…?
Zev: Yeah, I mean there are so many therapists that have been trained in IFS, or who are trying to get trained.
Helen: Yer, not enough.
Zev: Because they have some awareness, either from their own personal experience or from colleagues or some patients that there’s something about these trainings and the therapy model that’s impactful. And yet, if you look at the number of studies done on IFS compared with the number of studies done on CBT or motivational interviewing or even mindfulness, at this point, it pales in comparison. So there really needs to be more research in this area. That’s what we’re trying to help get started here at CHA.
I think that we are conducting a very rigorous trial using all of NIH methods for conducting a rigorous pilot RCT in this context. And our hope is that we will be able to identify what it is about IFS, if anything, that is impactful or more impactful. One of the things we are doing in our randomized controlled trial is matching it with a strong control. We have a nature-based stress reduction, for trauma survivors, program.
Helen: So, you are comparing with that one, the nature-based one?
Zev: That’s right. Which we’ve used in other studies and is supportive for people to help reduce their stress and also has a lot of group engagement.
Helen: You chose that because it was a good fit for a comparison?
Zev: It’s a good fit for comparison because we are able to use it to set up very similar relational connections within the group that people can have, so that we can say at the end of this, if IFS is more impactful, then it’s not just because of the group itself, that’s providing support for folks; it’s not just because of the time spent with the therapist you know, the 90 minutes in group and 60 minutes every other week…But if there is a difference it’s because of the mechanisms that we were talking about and the way the IFS model specifically is targeting the PTSD processor, or, you know, the impacts of trauma.
Helen: Well, thank you for that. That was a long explanation, but a very good one. We now know what’s going on, I think, and what’s exciting or at least we’ve had—we can get from that—a really good taste of what you’re dealing with, what you’re trying to achieve, and, there’s so many things that could respond to that. You know, I sort of don’t know where to start, so I’m just going to go for a few of the most classic points of interest. I didn’t actually say who I am at the start and I really should have—I’m Dr Helen Lees, the Editor of PARTS & SELF, an IFS magazine. My interest in the study that you’re doing is partly because of the funding of it by The Foundation for Self Leadership, which publishes PARTS & SELF, but it’s also because I published a book called Silence in Schools in 2012, and that involved a whole lot of research into that pathway—let’s call it a pathway—the pathway that includes mindfulness, includes meditation; it includes silence as presence. It’s a territory. I have identified silence as a live presence and I guess, going back to what you were saying about IFS having similarities – so what you already knew with mindfulness, compassion work, is silence as a presence, for example , it’s like a Part. As Dick Schwartz says in No Bad Parts as one reference to cite, was that he called Parts inner beings. When I saw that I thought “you’re calling Parts inner beings with real identity, real presence? I mean, come on, pull the other one. I don’t buy that.”
You know, from an academic standpoint, it’s hard to swallow that sort of presentation of Parts. It’s not the only presentation of Parts. There are other ways to identify what a Part might be. It all sits within an academic context, but nevertheless there are different paradigms of knowledge at play. And so, for example, if I’m talking about academic research on the use of silence in schools as a learning tool or an inter-relational tool, I’m having to their deal with silence there in a particular way as a form of knowledge that pertains to a particular paradigm and it’s definitely not yours, okay. It’s educational science, which is not medical science. And so you know you can do what you like with the knowledge that IFS introduces by putting it within certain academic disciplinary camps and treating it in certain ways. And I know you have a particular job. From your background and your training, your understanding of what matters and how you validate the knowledge of IFS as efficacious. And I would say that my understanding of IFS as a presence, as a part, you know, in that sense that it’s real, that it exists, it separately can be identifiable. It’s very similar the idea of Parts to the idea of silence as presence. This is what I’m trying to get to, OK? Silence is a personality. And that’s exactly the same thing that Dick Schwartz talks about when he talks about Parts as real beings. So, it doesn’t matter that the language is slightly quirky. it’s academically viable so long as the paradigm that you’re talking within allows you to speak like that and I guess one of the things that you’re doing with your study, is you’re trying to create concepts and language that allow people to access IFS as a medical kind of treatment?—forgive me if I use the terminology incorrectly—so that people can feel safe with it, safe in the context of your paradigm. You’ve got rules that you need to abide by when you’re doing this research, when you’re stating that something is a valid treatment for a specific diagnosis. At the same time, and this is my curiosity, how do you handle the fact that IFS does not play by the rules? It is on the one hand a something that can be applied to people that can be measured because you have your outcomes right – you know, do you have PTSD like you used to have? No! Great! Measure it! On the other hand IFS is doing, I reckon, I imagine, I don’t know the results because you haven’t published them yet—it’s doing unusual things. I mean, I caught a little sense that you’re excited by certain stories. And the fact that your groups are now leading themselves or have the capacity, either now or in the future, to do that, is wonderful. I wouldn’t be astonished by it myself. You know, this is something that you see in alternative education, which is in general my background, OK, the power of the democratic, the power of dialogue, the power of togetherness and, in the 8Cs, connection. All of this is very wonderful. It has magical properties, so IFS on the one hand, in your context, is measurable. It’s something you can validate because the PTSD is less, right? At the same time, I’m sure you’re discovering things which throw you off kilter. They surprise you? You are thinking, how? How do you handle those things?
Zev: There’s a lot in what you just said. So, I’m trying to think about what the best part of that to respond is. So, I want to say a few things. So, the first is that, in the therapeutic encounter, IFS with individuals, for many people, the Parts language comes pretty simply. I find for those that don’t have…unless they have a very strong scientific background…people can often start to utilize that language fairly easily without a lot of internal resistance as you’re talking about, or a Part that is resisting, in IFS language. I think for those who are academics and scientists or, you know, as you said, who are trained in these different ways of knowing, they are first looking for the research to prove that it’s something that works, to feel safe, but secondly. having a jump or a bridge from concepts about how their mind works that have been understood [is important] so, part of what makes cognitive behavioural therapy so widely disseminable and have so much uptake is because the interventions are kind of, on some levels, somewhat piecemeal, actually—this is how the mind works in this place and, ok, this is how we can develop something to try to fix this piece. This is how the brain works in this place, let’s try to figure out how we can develop something to fix this piece. They don’t necessarily all work together in a universal model, but there are these different skills you could teach for different ways when the brain or the mind is cut up or stuck in some way, to help. It puts those together and creates a series of tools, in a toolkit, to solve deficits. So, for certain people who think that way and, one, understand they have a certain deficit or a block, and this is a skill that will help them, that is a model that will help them. However, I think for many people, their experience is more holistic. It’s not one deficit, it’s the way that things are relating to each other. It’s the contextuality of it. It’s the inter-subjectivity of it. And it is, you know, there are strengths and weaknesses, but they don’t necessarily want to understand that it’s a deficit that they need to be fixing. So, they are not motivated or engaged in the CBT process of identifying their deficits and coming up with skills to fix them. So, something like mindfulness or IFS, which is a more holistic approach to the whole being and trying to understand the system, which has a lot of similar tools or ways of being—of changing the relationship between and in the internal world—can be, can be welcoming and can be a pathway…[inaudible]
Helen: Could I just stop you…when you said pathway and then the Internet cut out…so it can be a pathway, and then what did you say?
Zev: It can be a pathway, but there can be many pathways based on what people are bringing and what they need, [in moving towards] what works. So even if we prove that IFS is impactful, I would never say that it’s the thing that everybody needs to do, because there are going to be certain people for whom this is going to be the doorway for them into self-awareness and changing this relationship with their internal objects. But for some other folks, CBT might be the, you know, the way because it’s got that structure. For me, as a scientist, you might wonder, like so, OK, my initial reaction to IFS was very skeptical. It just seemed too simple. I learned about it also with this idea of drawing your Parts and I was looking at people’s pictures of drawing their internal world and that wasn’t kind of what I was into. So, what I had done was four years of research on self-schema, which is a cognitive behavioural therapy approach to thinking about the way that self organizes. And so the ideas—and this is based on data about the way that the brain is organized—is that we hierarchically link thoughts, feelings and behaviours and sensations into—so they become linked in a network—and then we tend to add a sense of self to that network, right. So, whenever we experience anything, we do something, we think of this and then now as ourself and so when you are with your mother, even more, when you’re with your younger or older sibling, you tend to find yourself—or I tend to find myself saying things I’d never say in polite company, or with anybody else. When I’m with my kids, I find myself easily slipping into my father self. When I’m in work, I’m kind of in a work mode self. It’s not that any of those are all of me or me, but, what I have are, from a schema therapy standpoint, or a schema way of thinking about it, I have these schemas that are activated; that automatically help me more quickly process and discharge behavioural scripts related to certain contexts. So, in one context it’s very easy for me to act like a father and when I’m in a child context it’s very easy for me to act like a child and when I’m in a work context it’s very easy for me to act in that way. We tend to associate all those schemas as a sense of self when we’re in them, without realising that we’re switching. So, the idea is, at least for me—which is how I made the leap of understanding—that these are kind of subpersonalities essentially and these are essentially very similar to what Parts are in description.
For me, then, from a neural standpoint that’s how I understand these kinds of Parts. But I understand that some people actually like the Parts language better, but when I worked with folks who have been computer science, you know, scientists, the word schema makes so much sense to them…linked…thoughts, feelings, behaviours. They can engage with the same way of changing the relationship between these Parts and listening to them, or engaging with them, with a name that works for them.
Zev: What’s that?
Helen: I’m having trouble with a Part of me that just desperately, desperately wants to ask a question…it’s to do with your group in your study, OK, when they became more democratically inclined and sort of Self-led, alright? You’re talking about the schema and so on. I know that the whole IFS [thing] was born out of the family systems, external family systems. In families, and I think in what you’re talking about [with] the self-schema and you used the word “hierarchies”….and the world is authoritarian, whether we like it or not. It operates through authority and hierarchies in so many ways, and it’s very rare to find that flattened, OK? But, indications suggest that when it’s flattened, and I mean The Spirit Level (Wilkinson, R., & Pickett, K. (2009). The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better. Allen Lane). It shows that when things are more equal, people do better. OK? So, you’ve got hierarchies in external family systems; you’ve got hierarchies in your self-schema setup, right? My question is: In the light of what happened to your groups, what happens if the [internal family] systems start to democratize? Do people do better?
So, we’re talking about this group: it starts off with the hierarchy involved of coming to your School or your Center, the hierarchy of the teacher or facilitator who’s in charge. Slowly, slowly the whole thing flattens out, not only on the outside and in the group, but within people, because they’re working with their Parts and the Parts are starting to stop bossing the other Parts around, or being in charge. They are starting to talk to each other, starting to dialogue. The internal family system is democratizing itself because its realizing, through compassion and listening, Parts to each other, Parts to Self, that it doesn’t have to be an authoritarian hierarchy, in order to function. There is another way.
And so, my Part that’s all excited, is excited because everything that you’re talking about points to the fact that IFS—and it is definitely, in its non-judgmental stance, tending towards the democratic: you know, no bad parts, do not judge, be open to all, right? Do you think it’s possible that what you’re doing, what you’re looking at in terms of the mechanisms of IFS working and inducing, through consent, well-being in the people who engage in it, is bringing down and into people the power of the democratic? I’m not talking about political democracy because that doesn’t function that well. I’m talking about the power of the democratic at the interpersonal level and the personal level, so that dialogue can flow and thus connexion occurs, thus people can be curious about each other, they can be calm with each other because they are not low down in a pecking order and stressed because of it. The research shows that that does happen. What do you think? There! I’ve laid out my curiosity.
Zev: Yeah! I appreciate that and that is why these curiosity conversations can be so fertile. I’m curious about that too, as a mechanism. We’re not doing anything specifically to measure people’s experience of hierarchy internally, or externally, and I don’t know what measurements are available, but it is something that would be worth looking into, because I do agree. I mean, we do look at shame. Shame is something that has to do with hierarchy, right? And it’s a very basic hierarchy. Shame is the core emotion that’s associated with feeling left out of the group, or not being a part of group and that had a very core evolutionary role because, if you were not in the group, in the circle, you were as good as dead. You need the pack. So, feeling outside the pack is really a dangerous and terrible feeling that can even lead people to even be suicidal, or to do other things like…or homicidal!…because it releases anger for a lot of people when they feel ashamed. But shame is something that often you feel when you are disempowered as well. When you’re not part of the elite group or you’re not part of the strong group but you’re part of the castaway group.
Helen: Can I just ask, shame when you’re talking about it? That links very strongly—I don’t think it’s quite the same thing, but it links very strongly to the idea of self-esteem, doesn’t it? In that self-esteem itself is a ladder. Do you have low self-esteem? Do you have high self-esteem?
Zev: Yes, there are different ways that kind of getting at that, but I think that there may be- there’s something worth us looking at and trying to understand. The issue is that in the beginning people may not understand the relationship of their Parts, or be able to document that in an objective way. The Parts are just acting, from an IFS model standpoint, they’re just acting against each other, or protecting, or keeping one down. In fact, you’re not even aware which ones are being kept down. It’s only after 16 weeks that you’re aware of where they were. Maybe I brought them into the circle, but I think this idea of Parts of yourself being considered within or outside of the circle, is a way of thinking about that. Because you have clearly exiled parts, then you have leaders of the circle, and you have parts that are exiled from the circle. I think what IFS is doing is, actually just trying to bring a lot of these exiled parts back into a circle.
Helen: When you say the word acting, that kind of hits the nail on the head. My personal experience, and also what I’ve read from other people’s experience, is that parts, they act in a certain way in order to protect us. OK? But once they are unburdened, they get some healing, they get some release from that, you know, “wrong” work, difficult work, unnecessary work, then they stop acting dominating, in the hierarchy, as the boss of the system and so they just kind of relax and they are themselves, they are themselves, right? They go play, they go on the beach or whatever the situation might be, and in that change the stopping of the acting of the parts as a protector, of some kind, they then don’t act, they just normal. There’s nothing that is …a made-up thing and therefore it equalises because then nobody is the boss, or at least only self is the boss in the IFS language and Self doesn’t have an agenda, right? It is a bossless boss and so that is democratizing. It’s equalizing. That stopping acting.
Zev: You just made me think of something—through maybe two or three connections—but I’ll add it to the conversation. That is that one of the common things that I’ve learned over the last few years through our Center, through the work we’ve been doing around belonging, equity and anti-racism is that scarcity is a big…is a quality that’s really associated with white supremacy, and so scarcity—the internal experience of scarcity – is also part of what leads to internal domination. And one of the things that, if you come from a mindfulness background and think back to the roots of mindfulness in some of the Buddhist teachings, there are teachings about kindness and compassion being these resources that never run out. So, we have a lot of resources, types of emotions that we run out of; that are tiring and consumable. We have certain energies and the tensions that are consumable, but if we truly sit—they’re called the Brahmaviharas in the Pali—if you sit within that, they continue to renew themselves. There is no scarcity there. And what are those things? Those are compassion, loving kindness, equanimity, that sense of a calm balanced mind, as well as sympathetic joy, or this tendency to rejoice in the benefit of other’s experience. So, if you think about those four things and you think about the way that self is conceptualized—the way Dick [Schwartz] conceptualizes Self in IFS—the overlaps are very strong. Part of the reason why Self doesn’t have an agenda is because there’s no scarcity. Because when you’re in that experience of Self, you are tapping into something—whether it’s human nature or it’s the nature of all things—that are qualities that continue to renew themselves. And that nothing is to be gotten. Nothing is being lost when it’s given away. So, for me, just hearing about the hierarchy and thinking about kind of what you’re talking about in terms of internal experience, that’s what was happening for me, those kind of connections that I wanted to share with you.
Helen: So, what I’m talking about in terms of hierarchy and my experience of silence when I was researching it for my book [Silence in Schools, 2012], is that I’m really interested in how this is laying itself down on IFS – because I’ve never heard anything about Self talking. I’ve heard about it being present, about it, maybe, listening. I’ve heard Parts do a bunch of talking. OK? The thing that I found about silence—and I applied it to school environments which are the most hierarchical environments maybe that there are, especially given children can’t defend themselves against them…
Zev: I might say that prisons are more hierarchical!
Helen: Yeah, well, there’s a lot of similarities between the two institutions! This came out in the outcomes of that research, which was a sort of philosophical research, which is that when silence is present, nobody’s talking, that’s the agreement everyone’s consenting whether they want the silence or not, at least they consent to allow the silence to happen. And what that means, and what occurs, is that nobody is dominating. There’s no talking, nobody has the upper hand, they haven’t got better language, haven’t got better English, they are not more eloquent, and they’re not saying stuff which puts people in their place, “their place,” which is not their place, et cetera, et cetera. So, when there’s silence what’s occurring is democracy, OK? The thing is coming out from what you’re saying—and by the way, it’s obvious silence is free, it’s what you’re calling a limitless resource. I also liked that [about silence] because it serves the poorest of the poor and the richest of the rich equally. There’s no differentiation at all. And the key thing here for me, in hearing what you’re saying and being stimulated by it, is that I think Self is silent. I think Self is silent in the positive sense that I’m talking about it in this silence research that I’ve done. Also, you know very well what silence is and the role that it plays in the pathways you’ve been dealing with: mindfulness, compassion, et cetera. If Self is silent it has an incredible bounty of the qualities of silence that I previously identified that bring benefits. And here is another link—that’s just a little area that people can dip their brains into and get curious about—it’s consent. That’s the key link. The whole deal about how do you achieve silence is consent. How do you have access to Self? It’s consent. It’s consent of Parts. It’s also consent from people to take part in your study: you’ve got a long ethical process. So, there are a variety of concepts here. Do you like the idea of consent linked to IFS?
Zev: Well, I think that consent is a pretty central part of the process of working with protectors. What do you do? You ask them if they would be OK with stepping back. So, that another Part can speak and it’s all about getting consent from all your Parts so that you can start to work internally. So that makes a lot of sense to me.
Around Self being silent, I think that…you know, I’m not the world expert on IFS—I’m sure you have access to the world experts on the IFS model—but, my experience was that we often ask people to speak for their Parts, instead of from their Parts, and when they’re speaking for their Parts, the hope was that they’re speaking, if not from Self, from a more Self-like part. So, that would be something to maybe talk with Dick about, to understand whether Self is really silent, or not. Or is that not Self speaking in IFS parlance? Or is that just a Self-like part that then is speaking for your parts? I don’t know. I’d be interested to hear more.
Helen: Just as a small last comment. then you have to go: as far as I can tell, and obviously I have been curious about this, nobody yet knows, but the power of Self, if it is a silent Self has huge implications for the work that you are doing if that’s coming out of a mindfulness approach.
Zev: Well, for me, the experience I was talking about: equanimity, compassion, loving kindness, sympathetic joy—these are all considered to be emotional states. What is emotion but the linking of a body sensation—the hierarchy (I don’t want to use the word hierarchy because I don’t want it to be out of context) [meant] in the scientific way. It is this connection or networking of body sensations and thoughts that come with them often. Urges, actual urges. It’s the connection of those into bundles that create emotions and emotional circuitry in our body, in loops that are almost similar to motor loops. But, also what activates us to do anything is the emotion. If you don’t have emotions, or you don’t have access emotions, then you essentially appeared depressed and you will have no motivation to do anything. So, we need these emotions, we need access to body sensations and the related thoughts and urges that come with it, to do things.
What’s interesting is that from a Buddhist psychology standpoint, these concepts are considered to also be in the realm of emotions and emotional states. So, they are networked experiences of body sensations, thoughts and urges, that the brain can sit in. The mind and the body and the brain can sit in [these] without consuming resources and can allow to make the space for everything else to settle down when we are in their spaces. So, I think that what people are calling Self is a way of conceptualising that. Because one of the things that also limits all of those four things—this also goes back to Buddhist psychology—but the idea of anatta, or no Self. It’s not that there is no Self, but selfing is a thing that the brain does. Selfing causes suffering, and selfing creates an agenda. Selfing makes everything that we experience, about this sense of “I am,” a reified Self. But if we can think of the Self in the context of IFS as a non-reified Self. or a non-individualized Self, what is a kind of global experience of connecting in with equanimity, kindness, compassion, this kind of caring, curious presence. Then, we are tapping into that capacity. In that context, we don’t need to have an agenda. And why not? We’re tapping into this “warmly being with.” So, one of the things that I’ve been working on in the mindfulness community is trying to understand that definition of mindfulness as warmly being with present moment experience, as it arises. Which is a development of the definition that people are using in that space. But I think comes from both the history and Buddhist psychology around this, as well as, in IFS, the experience of Self presence, which is learning how to warmly be with everything that you’re experiencing, whether it’s your Parts or your body sensations, or things arising in the external environment.
Helen: Thank you. Yes. To be continued. You must go for your meeting! Thank you so much for your time today. It’s really appreciated.
Zev: Yeah, it’s great. Nice talking with you. Glad we came round to that at the end, and we were able to break some new ground here. At least for me.
Helen: Until the next time. Ciao ciao.