Whether you ascribe to Jung’s theory of archetypal selves or follow Richard Schwartz’s Internal Family System’s (IFS) theory of parts, clinicians likely agree that the human consciousness contains multitudes. Consciousness—collective or otherwise—is multifaceted. IFS or the clinical practice of inviting a client’s different parts to engage in both internal and external change can offer something to even those clients who report a life free of both pathos and pain.

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For clients who make meaning of their lives through stories, we prefer to call this work Internal Fandom Systems (IFans). We have used the power of fanfiction to make IFS more inviting to our pop culture-fan clients, and still appreciate the canon that Schwartz created. We made this change to help our story-loving clients become curious about the wide cast of characters who inhabit their inner world. Inviting clients to notice and then engage with these different parts of themselves can be the beginning of a mythic adventure. But how do we get clients to notice the different parts that exist within them?

First, we engage the client in a brief psycho-education dialogue explaining the theory behind parts. For clients who are particularly interested in psychodynamic theory, we take a heaping spoonful out of the collective unconscious and explain the ways that the work of other great thinkers both paved the road for and are consistent with IFS. Once the logic of parts starts to become clear, we invite the client to get curious about the parts of themselves that are currently present. This differs from our standard Therapeutic Fanfiction approach in two important ways:

We are using fandom characters to help the client get to know an aspect of their own personality rather than using fandom characters and archetypes to help a client build competency and/or skills to meet an external challenge, and

Rather than learning to access the power of a fandom character in the greater collective unconscious, we are helping clients to get to know the characters of their personal unconscious. In IFans, the client learns about their own multi-verse rather than channeling a character or learning a skill from fandom.

As the client describes different thoughts, feelings, and sensations, we begin to get curious with them about the identity of a particular part. Clients often come up with fandom characters on their own, but when they struggle to describe the part, we might ask them if there is a character or fandom object that matches with the part they are currently noticing. If a client continues to struggle, we might offer a fandom character or archetype that comes to mind for us.

In a recent session with a client, I (Larisa) offered, “It sounds like this part is really worried about you but communicates in almost a condescending tone. It’s making me think of Tony Stark from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.” While the client agreed that Tony is someone who shows he cares through quips and snarks, they reported that this didn’t feel quite like their part. In this case, the client ended up choosing a different fandom character. But sharing the character that came to my own mind helped the client continue to sit with what felt most authentic to them, ultimately leading to the character who resonated most with this part—Sam Wilson, once the Falcon and now Captain America. In Therapeutic Fanfiction, the next step would have been for me to ask the client to share the skills, values, or attributes of Sam Wilson that appealed most to them. Then, we would get specific about which aspect of Sam might be able to help them face their current external challenge. But in this scenario, my goal was to help the client practice listening to their parts. Their Sam Wilson part turned out to be a protector, who was working to keep the client’s adult consciousness or Self away from the part we would eventually come to know as the Winter Solider, i.e., the shadow side of their Bucky Barnes part.

Just as in IFS proper, when using the Therapeutic Fanfiction lens of Internal Fandom Systems, clinicians help ensure that both client and therapist are getting curious about different parts, avoiding the blending of Self and other parts that can sometimes occur. As Sam observes to Bucky, “You have to stop letting other people tell you who you are.” Of course, Sam is correct. It isn’t our job as therapists to tell our clients who they are. It is our job to help them learn how to listen to their parts, to support them in learning who they are at present, and then to get curious about who they’d like to become.

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, Musings and Reflections, Child & Adolescent Therapy