IFS Part 2: How IFS and Dr. Keith Crossed Paths

By Dr. Keith Witt
April 8, 2024

IFS Part 2: How IFS and Dr. Keith Crossed Paths

As I explained in Part 1, IFS relates to people having interior selves divided into Wise Selves, exiles, and two kinds of managers: critics and firefighters. Richard Schwartz developed a series of protocols to put Wise Self (whom he calls “Self”) in charge of the whole interior system, caring for and integrating all the other parts.

To begin with unifying principles, all health practitioners share two goals:
1.   Cultivate a compassionate self-observer in the client.
2.   Help the client focus on some area that needs care and attention—both alone and with practitioners.

Richard Schwartz’s history in the field is characteristic of the time and he and I had many of the same influences. Schwartz trained in family therapy during the fragmented 60s and 70s, when people generated systems and fiercely defended them. Jeff Salzman says zealots in conflict accelerate evolution, and that certainly is what happened in psychotherapy during this period. It was adversarial:

  • Behaviorists were dismissive of non-scientific psychoanalysts.
  • Freudian and neo-Freudian psychoanalysts were dismissive of mechanistic behaviorists.
  • Humanists were disgusted with the medical model, fascinated by human potential, and intensely creative and relational.
  • Family therapists, a subset of humanists, were dismissive of any approach that didn’t privilege the social contexts of individuals, especially people’s family systems. 

Family therapy approaches, all systems based, were wildly divergent:

  • Murray Bowen founded the science of family systems, his proudest achievement.
  • Gregory Bateson thought parental double-binds caused schizophrenia—a disproven hypothesis that got a lot of traction with behaviorists who were invested in another eventually disproven hypothesis that infants were born tabula rasa (blank slates) and were primarily molded by environment.
  • Virginia Satir normalized squishy love in family systems.
  • Jay Haley developed Strategic Family Therapy that was designed to disrupt distressed systems with paradoxical assignments (tell the bedwetter to pee in the bed before going to sleep or tell the couple to have a fight at 7:15). 
  • Carl Whitaker insisted on the whole family—including aunts, uncles, grandparents, etc—being in the session.
  • Salvador Minuchin developed Structural Family Therapy from  observing how a family hierarchy with parents aligned and in control in an authoritative, fair, and caring way reduced symptoms for everyone. 

Dick Schwartz says he didn’t study individual personality/therapy systems, which was an affectation of many in the field. But he kept hearing clients talk about “Parts” and he noticed how a Wise Self in charge was optimal.

  • A family systems orientation looks at the system, the identified patient, the communication patterns, and the hierarchical power structures of the family. The goal is always a healthy, coherent system.
  • Minuchin’s Structural Family Therapy supported wise parents in charge giving everyone the attention they need. This is the individual inner organization that Schwartz aims for in IFS.

I came to IFS through a circuitous route.

When I was 17 I had dream that I shared with my therapist. I was eating dinner with a group of guys sitting at a long table. One of the guys and I start fighting/wrestling on the table, knocking plates and dishes everywhere. Suddenly he turns into a woman and we’re making love.

Joe Ericson my therapist interpreted the dream as different parts of me integrating, and this felt intuitively correct to me. 

As I studied psychology and psychotherapy, I found myself loving all the systems. I saw how they fit together and how everyone got to be right, but nobody got to be right all the time. This was before I learned Integral.

I encountered IFS teaching Family Therapy at the Santa Barbara Graduate Institute around 2005. Schwartz was the co-author of the text SBGI wanted me to use. Initially I was competitive and dismissive of the system. I’d done inner child work, parts work, redecision work, family therapy, and Gestalt dialogues for twenty-five years. I believed I already knew the territory and didn’t dive deeper—a classic error of one of my managers, the competitive know-it-all.

IFS kept being referenced by people I admired (like Bessel van der Kolk), so I dug deeper as I matured over the years and watched Schwartz do some pieces of work. I was impressed with him and his methods. 

Schwartz himself had the emotional power and loving authenticity of some of the great therapists I’ve observed—like Carl Rogers, Virginia Satir, and Fritz Perls. The IFS approach was effective, no bs, and scalable.

A few months ago I heard Scott Barry Kaufman do a piece of work with Dick Schwartz on his Psychology Podcast and noticed some central IFS characteristics I wanted to share.

Three cool things about IFS:
1.   Wise Self at the center: The whole system is organized to constellate and strengthen Wise Self in charge and caring for all parts—very much like Minuchin’s Structural Family Therapy applied to individual interiors.
2.   Bond with the dominant critic: You bond with and address the most virulent critic first—very much like bonding with the nastiest alter when working with dissociative identity disorder (multiple personality disorder).
3.   No bad parts: The “No bad parts” focus keeps the therapist doing polarity thinking on all subpersonalities and states.

Jeff and I dive into all of this in our Shrink and Pundit conversation.

I hope you enjoy it!

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