My earlier blog post suggested that the human organism contains multiple selves in the same way that your cell phone contains multiple apps. I now want to link that metaphor to an actual therapeutic model known as Internal Family Systems that I have found useful in my clinical practice and then discuss its application with one of my clients.

IFS is predicated on a modular theory of the human mind. The human mind consists of modules (apps on a cell phone), discrete mental models that interact with each other to produce our experience of aliveness. You might consider the idea that we have mental models of parenting, careerism, friendship, family, as well as more philosophical mental models such as the meaning of life or our role and purpose in the universe. These mental models operate within discrete modules that are activated depending on the circumstance the individual encounters. One’s behavior (the manifesting of the “self”) hinges on the module that takes precedence within the human mind at any moment. The full range of our inner life reflects the complex interplay of these modules which is neither haphazard nor random. They function interactively and synergistically as a system. That’s why the IFS model uses systems theory—how parts interact to create the whole—to underpin the way psychotherapy is done. Human distress is often productively seen as the breakdown of a system—namely, the breakdown in the way modules within the psyche interact.

IFS envisions a tripartite system. That system consists of the Manager, the Exiles, and the Firefighter. The Manager module is the most familiar, for it is that version of the self that tries to exert control. When we say to ourselves, hey, let’s keep it together, we are trying to activate the managerial self. When we present our best selves to the public, we are giving priority to the managerial self (the managerial self is a kind of public-relations self). The Manager is the module in the psyche that promotes order and combats chaos and disorder. The Manager module vigilantly stands guard against the Exile module which contains the unwanted aspects of ourselves (the pain, the shame, the trauma that accumulates over the course of a life). When the managerial module fails to quell the upsurge of the exiles sequestered in the exile module, the “self” behaves in maladaptive ways. We often call that falling apart, or having a meltdown, or losing our cool. Enter the Firefighter module. This module is allied with the Manager module since it, too, exists to keep the exiles sequestered within the human psyche. The firefighters are aroused into action when the managerial self finds itself unable to quell the upsurge of the exiles. You could look upon a person who resorts to alcohol or drugs to numb the pain of trauma as one who has unleashed the firefighters upon the escaping exiles. The managerial self would prefer to shepherd the exiles (the pain of the trauma) back into the recesses of consciousness; but when it cannot do so, the firefighters spring into action, which is experienced as the irresistible urge to get high. Firefighters aren’t concerned with what’s optimal. Firefighters douse the fire.

It is the interplay of these three modules that inform an IFS practitioner. But I want to be clear that the IFS tripartite system isn’t the sum total of the modular view of the mind. Quite the contrary. It is the specific therapeutic application of it. The modular view of the mind is better understood as a philosophical model of the human organism, where the notion of the unitary “Self” is seen as an illusion. The upshot is that suffering arises from a disharmony among the various modules within the psyche, a kind of fragmentation of the mind. Mental and emotional health—equanimity, inner peace, self-command—reflects psychic integration. The healthy person is an integrated person (a person with integrity).

The therapeutic project of achieving integration is collaborative, non-pathologizing, and above all, ongoing. It was quite useful for me in working with Phil, a client struggling with alcohol abuse, who came to me because his estranged wife gave him an ultimatum—therapy or divorce. He said his wife thinks he needs “anger management lessons.” He admitted sometimes going “semi-postal” –a characterization that alarmed me but that he shrugged off as flippant—and wanted to “fix that, you know.” I didn’t “know,” which is why the first session explored Phil’s motivation with the hope that the Managerial-self could fully explain what “fix[ing] that” would look like. The second and third sessions brought to light the subtleties in his Managerial module. What sorts of perceived chaos was Phil seeking to avert? What kind of inner monologue preceded and followed an outburst? Why is his managerial self so ineffectual? The fourth session attempted an exploration of Phil’s exiles, but he disavowed having any (“I’ve never been abused.” “Seen bad things but not like I’ve been to war or anything like that.”). The fourth session; however, was far from a bust. He offhandedly admitted that whiskey with a dab of Coke help him “cool out.” He said he only goes “semi-postal” when he hasn’t had a drink in the last twenty-four hours.

“Ah, there’s his Firefighter module in action,” I thought.

Once we got beyond the Managerial module, things got interesting. Anger-management therapy transmogrified into substance-abuse counseling, which ultimately turned into something quite dramatic. That story, too involved for this blog, will be presented soon as a full-length article.

Stay tuned!

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