The Internal Family Systems Perspective
These struggles can result just as much from therapists’ reactions to their clients’ behaviors as from the clients’ intrapsychic extremes. How therapists react is largely determined by their understanding of what’s happening. The Internal Family Systems (IFS) approach, a model that I’ve developed over the past 30 years, offers an alternative to conventional ways of working with borderline clients. It can make the therapist’s task less intimidating and discouraging, and more hopeful and rewarding. From the IFS perspective, borderline personality disorder symptoms represent the emergence of different parts, or subpersonalities, of the client. These parts all carry extreme beliefs and emotions—what we call burdens—because of the terrible traumas and betrayals the client suffered as a child.
The central task of IFS therapy is to work with these parts in a way that allows the client’s undamaged core self to emerge and deep emotional healing to take place. If each part—even the most damaged and negative—is given the chance to reveal the origin of its burdens, it can show itself in its original valuable state, before it became so destructive in the client’s life.
Suppose that you were sexually molested, repeatedly, as a child by your stepfather and could never tell your mother. As an adult, you’ll probably be carrying parts of yourself stuck back in those scenes of abuse, isolation, and shame. Those parts remain young, scared, and desperate, and when they surface in your consciousness, you’re pulled back into those dreadful times. This cycle raises the same terrible memories, emotions, and sensations that you swore decades ago never to think about again. I call these parts your exiles because you try to keep them banished and locked away, deep inside. However, when not actively hurting, these parts are sensitive, trusting, playful, and imaginative, so suppressing them stifles some of your capacities for love and creativity.
Much of the time, these exiles remain hidden. They’re kept buried by protective parts, which use various strategies to prevent you from experiencing them. One strategy is to prevent the exiles from being triggered in the first place. These protectors organize your life so you avoid anyone who reminds you of the stepfather and remain at a safe distance from people in general. They constantly scold you, forcing you to strive for perfection to keep you from being criticized or rejected—which would bring up the feelings of shame, fear, and worthlessness carried by the exiles. Despite these protective efforts, however, not only does the world still manage to trigger your exiles, but the exiles themselves want to break out of their inner jail so that you’ll deal with them. Their breakout strategy comes in the form of flashbacks, nightmares, panic attacks, or less overwhelming but still intense and pervasive feelings of anxiety, shame, or desperation.
To escape the bad feelings generated by the exile states, other parts of you develop an arsenal of distracting activities, to be used as needed. You feel the urge to get drunk, or you abruptly go numb and find yourself feeling confused and flat. If those efforts don’t work, you may be both comforted and terrified by thoughts of suicide. If you qualify for the borderline personality disorder diagnosis, it’s likely that you also have two sets of protective parts that specialize in handling relationships: the recruiters and the distrusters.
Suppose your mind were a house with lots of children and no parents. The younger children are badly hurt and needy, and the older ones, overwhelmed with the task of caring for them, have locked them in the basement. Some of these older ones desperately want to find a grown-up to take care of these basement orphans. These are the recruiters. They search for likely prospects—therapists, spouses, acquaintances—and make use of your charm to recruit those people into the role of redeemer. However, these recruiter parts share with your exiles a sense that you’re basically worthless, that as soon as people see how vile you are, they’ll bolt. They believe you have to prove yourself special in some way or manipulate people so they’ll continue to play the redeemer role. The recruiters also believe that caring for your exiles is a full-time job, so they try to invade the life of whomever they target.
Among the older kids in this house of your mind is a faction that tries to protect the basement kids in a different way—by trusting no one and keeping them away from people who might falsely raise their hopes of liberation. These protectors have seen in the past what happens when the exiles attach too strongly to a potential redeemer. The exiles become infatuated with the supposed redeemer, who inevitably lets them down by never helping enough, or even by becoming repulsed by their neediness. The protectors have seen how the redeemer’s distaste and rejection devastates the basement children, so these “big brothers” make sure you remain isolated, detached, completely engrossed in work, and emotionally unavailable. They remind you that the redeemers flee because you’re truly repulsive—and that if others are allowed to get close enough to see you as you really are, they’ll be disgusted, too.
Whenever your recruiters override the distrusters and succeed in getting you close to someone, these distrusting protectors watch that person’s every move for signs that the person is false and dangerous. They scan everything about your therapist, for instance—from his taste in clothes and office furniture to perceived shifts in his mood or lengths of his vacation. They then use these imperfections as evidence that he doesn’t really care or is incompetent, especially if he ever does anything that reminds you of your perpetrator. If your therapist uses a similar phrase or wears a similar shirt, he becomes your stepfather. So your therapist innocently enters the house of your mind and quickly finds himself caught in the crossfire between these sets of protectors: one set will do almost anything to get him to stay, and the other set will do almost anything to get him kicked out. If the therapist lasts long enough, he’ll be subjected to the suffocating needs of your basement children and exposed to the disturbing methods the older children use to keep them contained. A therapist unprepared for this inner war or untrained in approaching these various internal factions will become embroiled in endless battles.