I’ve been exploring a form of psychotherapy called Internal Family Systems or Parts Work for the past few months. I hadn’t heard about it before last fall, which is surprising since it’s been around since the 1980’s and I have both a master’s degree in Counseling Psychology, and a nearly lifelong interest in mental health and wellness.
When I stumbled upon IFS in a rather obscure corner of the internet last October, I did some cursory research to determine it was a legitimate field of study. But for some reason, I avoided the founder of IFS, Richard Schwartz, until a couple days ago when I went looking for an audio book on the subject.
I found Greater Than the Sum of Our Parts by Richard C. Schwartz, PhD in Audible’s list of offerings on the subject. Luckily, Audible makes audio samples of their books available, because I had grown a bit fond of my obscure proponent of IFS and was inclined to shrug off the consensus authority of a PhD-credentialed founder. Without the sample, I might have missed a gem.
This particular audio book is narrated by the author in a relaxed conversational tone that radiates a completely unexpected kind of authority: the authority of wisdom. I found it compelling, and made my purchase.
Over the course of six sessions, Schwartz takes the listener through a beginner’s introduction to Internal Family Systems punctuated by guided meditations. The meditations are of course optional, a point which turns out to be important, and vary in length. They disarm by virtue of their simplicity, as well as through the calm and measured tones of Schwartz’s voice. And still they afford the beginner real entry into the method, and into one’s own interior. As a person with long experience with guided and self-guided meditation, I found the meditations especially effective and moving.
What emerges from Schwartz’s take on Parts Work is a profound and compassionate model of mental illness and the human condition that both explains the most frightening extremes of criminality and suffering, while it offers real evidence-based solutions (although that evidence is not the emphasis of this particular piece). Still, Schwartz reports that, with enough time, he was able to treat even so-called sociopathic murderers, child sex offenders, people with borderline personality disorder–to affect real healing.
This is particularly meaningful to me as a graduate in the field who ultimately left the practice of counseling psychology out of frustration for the lack of real treatment solutions for the more severe cases (like the personality disorders), not to mention the, in my opinion, inadequate and largely pharmaceutical solutions for many of the more common mental health issues like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and addiction.
Alongside the healing of supposedly incurable mental illnesses runs a concurrent thread that can only be described as mystical. In several places, Schwartz describes IFS as something that for the community of practitioners of which he is a part, has become a way of life, a daily practice that can yield the kind of personal transformation that some religions call enlightenment–but without the fanfare or austerities.
We are born multiple, says Schwartz. But where the aspects or parts of ourselves would ordinarily enrich our lives like the facets of a jewel, they become “burdened,” and isolated from our true self, which he calls simply “Self.” Elsewhere he compares burdening with infection by a virus which runs its own codes of compulsions and behaviors. This burdening occurs through trauma or attachment injuries (psycho-speak for problematic parenting) and often the content of the burden matches that of the abuser or perpetrator. The precise picture for each person varies and is complicated by the very multiplicity that forms our basic structure, in Schwartz’s analysis.
Most of us have at least a little of this, according to Internal Family Systems. Some of us have quite a lot. And a smaller but still meaningful percentage of us have such burdened and traumatized complexes of parts that we end up addicted, incarcerated, homeless, or compromised in ways that most of psychology deems incurable.
The practice of working with these parts, gaining their trust, helping them to heal, and restoring harmony can not only end severe mental illness and suffering, but can lead to a greater access to what Schwartz calls “Self,” and which he equates with the soul or the enlightened state, although without any particular religious mystique.
Although the reviews on Audible are almost entirely 5 star rave reviews, there are a few low marks. These seem to break right along the nature of this book. This is not a rigorous academic treatise. Those were the 1 to 3 star reviews. It is instead an immersive, deeply moving meditation on the nature of identity, love, and wholeness. “No one is beyond saving,” this book seems to say. It’s an important message for our time.
Schwartz, R. (2018). Greater Than the Sum of Our Parts (audio book). Sounds True.