Internal Family Systems (IFS) holds that the mind is made of multiple subpersonalities – that when you say “a part of me is angry, but a part of me understands,” that’s literally true.
In modern Western thought, the idea of “multiple personalities” has been associated with extreme pathology, and that pathology has been extremely stigmatized. That’s given us a lot of incentive to ignore and downplay any experience of multiplicity we may have. But what do you notice if you tune into your inner world with an open mind about parts?
No need to pigeon-hole yourself
You might notice that your personality makes a lot more sense with parts in mind. Suddenly there’s a lot more room for nuance and contradiction. Are you a perfectionist or a slacker? I’ve certainly been both. Are you an introvert or an extrovert? For me, it depends. We appear to contradict ourselves because we contain multitudes.
Do I contradict myself?Walt Whitman, Song of Myself 51
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
Be more accepting of yourself
You might also notice that it’s easier to accept things about yourself because they’re only part of you, not your entire essence. Maybe Nighttime You fully intends to get up early and go for a run, but Morning You hits snooze seven times. Do you lack all self-discipline? No, that resolute part of you is still there. It’s just not in charge at 6:00am.
Be more accepting of others
You might notice that you can apply this acceptance to other people, too. Have you ever had a friend or partner who ran hot and cold? If you think their mind is unitary, then you probably think they have one true way of feeling about you. When they act uncaring, you wonder if your entire relationship was a lie. But if you see their mind as a system of parts, then you can understand that both are true: parts of them want to be close to you, and parts of them are afraid to get close to you.
Not a new idea
Tune into your thoughts. Do you have one saying “this makes so much sense” and another saying “this is too out there to believe”? Congratulations, you’re noticing your parts!
I have a great deal of respect for skeptical parts, so let’s throw them a bone. The developer of IFS, Richard Schwartz, coauthored one book with lawyer Regina Goulding and one with therapist Robert Falconer, and both books explore the history of people arguing for the multiplicity of the mind. Here are some of the quotations they compiled:
Quotes from The Mosaic Mind
(If you’re interested in reading it, note that this book contains graphic descriptions of abuse)
It is precisely the idea of the unity of conscious awareness, of self as it is commonly understood, that comes under direct challenge from split brain studies. From these studies the new idea emerges that there are literally several selves in man, and they do not necessarily “converse” with each other internally.neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga, The Social Brain
In the vast colony of our being there are many species of people, thinking and feeling differently.poet Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet
The fact that we experience a unified sense of ‘I’ is only a superficial feature of the human mind.Brian Lancaster, Mind, Brain, and Human Potential: The Quest for an Understanding of Self
We are not one person but manypsychiatrist J. W. T. Redfearn, Myself, My Many Selves
In a very real sense we are all multiple personalitiespsychiatrist John O. Beahrs, Unity and Multiplicity: Multilevel Consciousness of Self in Hypnosis, Psychiatric Disorder, and Mental Health
Quotes from Many Minds, One Self
The ego is a plurality of person-like forcesphilosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, as cited in Graham Parkes, Composing the soul: Reaches of Nietzsche’s psychology
Multiple personality is humanity in its natural conditionpsychologist James Hillman, The myth of analysis: Three essays in archetypal psychology
Each of us is a crowdpsychotherapist Piero Ferrucci, What we may be: Techniques for psychological and spiritual growth through psychosynthesis
Man is a plural beingphilosopher George Gurdjieff, cited in Adam Crabtree’s Multiple man: Explorations in possession and multiple personality
The unity of consciousness is illusorypsychologist Ernest Hilgard, Divided consciousness: Multiple controls in human thought and action
We are not a single person. We are many.psychologist and biologist Robert Ornstein, Multimind: A New Way of Looking at Human Behavior
And finally, as a Trekkie I can’t leave out:
Every one of us has a thousand different kinds of little people inside of us.character Lwaxana Troi, Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 5 Episode 20
What works for you?
It’s also okay if you don’t believe that parts are literally real. We don’t know exactly how the mind works, but we can discover experientially whether acting on the theory of parts is helpful — even without understanding why it’s helpful. I’ll be writing a lot more about how understanding our minds as multiple unlocks the ability to do transformative healing work and have nurturing relationships with ourselves. But for now, just start paying attention to whether treating yourself as having parts feels good and makes sense.