Working with Parts, Comparing Focusing to IFS
Sue writes: “I was very interested in your reference in a recent Weekly Focusing Tip to ‘guardian’ or ‘protector’ parts. Soon after I first started Focusing I came across a book by Richard Schwartz called Internal Family Systems Therapy. Schwartz’s method originated from his experiences working with bulimia clients. He noticed that not only did his clients refer routinely to internal parts, but that these parts had roles very similar to those observed in family interpersonal dynamics.
“One of his ideas was that for the person to become whole, the ‘parts’ needed to ‘share the care’ and come in to some kind of working relationship with Presence and each other. I am wondering what your response/experience is with this interrelatedness of ‘parts’ and the need, or not, of ‘parts’, to become a ‘team’ or more importantly, a cohesive team.”
Barbara McGavin and I started working with parts as we developed ways to use Focusing with our most challenging issues: addictions, blocks, depression and obsession. I would agree with Schwartz that “parts talk” happens naturally as people connect with what’s really going on with their inner conflicts.
We didn’t discover Schwartz’s Internal Family Systems work until 2004, after we’d been developing Treasure Maps to the Soul for ten years. He affirmed a lot that we’d been seeing, gave us a few details we’d been missing… and disagreed with us in some important ways.
Perhaps the most striking difference (and we have discussed this with him), is that he believes parts are permanent. That is, people are born with parts, and the difficulties arise when those parts take extreme positions resulting from situations of trauma. Naturally, then, the resolution of trauma includes, for him, the realignment of parts into more of a coherent team.
In sharp contrast to this, Barbara McGavin and I hold that parts are temporary. As I like to say, “Parts arise and fall like waves on the ocean.” There is a way in which parts are not real; rather, they are a way of experiencing process.
We began working with parts when we realized that it is quite difficult to get a felt sense when you are identified with or caught up in strong emotion. Gene Gendlin talks about being with, or sitting next to, emotional experience. We found more ways to talk about and teach this “being with” that Gene points to, and that led us to the creation of “Presence Language,” where the Focuser says, “I’m sensing something in me that feels upset…” (for example). The purpose of this language is to make it easier to get a felt sense.
As we found ways to talk about the relationship of “I” to this “something,” we developed the concept of “Presence,” which is also what Gendlin has called “The I with No Content.”
But it has always been clear to us that to negotiate with parts, or have them talk to each other to work things out, is to treat them as more solid than they actually are.
The purpose of speaking in parts language or “Presence Language” is to enable a felt sense to form… and once a felt sense forms, change happens in the way that Focusing has always taught us that change happens: through the sensing, symbolizing, and checking back that allows the next step to come forth.
At that next step, what had seemed to be parts might have transformed or dissolved. So we would sense freshly what is here now.