Transforming Trauma Episode 021: Internal Family Systems (IFS) and NARM with Richard Schwartz and Laurence Heller
A podcast brought to you by the NARM® Training Institute
“We can safely say that that Self in its undamaged state is in everybody.” ~ Dr. Richard Schwartz, Founder of Internal Family Systems
“There's a part of us that always remains undamaged.” ~ Dr. Laurence Heller, Founder of NeuroAffective Relational Model
Transforming Trauma host Sarah Buino facilitates a ground-breaking discussion between Richard Schwartz, PhD, founder of the Internal Family Systems model (IFS) and Laurence Heller, PhD, founder of the NeuroAffective Relational Model (NARM). Pioneers in the mental health and trauma fields, Drs. Schwartz and Heller discuss each other’s work and reflect on the intersections of the IFS and NARM models.
While many think of IFS and NARM as being models for trauma, Drs. Schwartz and Heller acknowledge that the similar focus of both IFS and NARM is truly on the Self, that internal place within us all that provides the foundation for our lives despite the complexity of wounding and traumas that one has experienced. Although aspects of ourselves can become damaged and distorted by trauma, Drs. Schwartz and Heller both agree with a non-Western perspective that the Self “in its undamaged state is in everybody” (Schwartz) and “always remains undamaged.” (Heller). Dr. Heller says, “I talk about the spontaneous movement and all of us is towards healing connection…Our role as therapist is to support an organic coming back to the source, going back to the deeper connection. And so the NARM work explores what gets in the way of that kind of integration.” Both IFS and NARM are oriented around supporting the organic process of individuals returning to their authentic selves; in this way, they are also models for healing complex trauma.
Dr. Heller shares with Dr. Schwartz that throughout the years of teaching NARM, many people have remarked on the similarities between the IFS and NARM models. This feedback fueled the intention for bringing Drs. Schwartz onto the Transforming Trauma podcast to give an opportunity for the two to reflect on these important therapeutic models. As they get further into their discussion, they find agreement on many areas and recognize that while they use different language, they are often referring to similar concepts.Within the frame of each model, they explore the role of the body and somatics, attachment theory, psychopathology, family systems work, the therapeutic relationship, spirituality, and more.
One interesting area they discuss is about parts work. While IFS is a parts-based model, focused on the three main parts of exiles, managers and firefighters, NARM uses a more general perspective referring to the two different aspects of self, child consciousness and embodied adult consciousness. As Dr. Heller says, “we disconnect certain important elements of who we are from our consciousness. And generally then later those foreclosed aspects of ourselves return in the form of various kinds of symptoms…which are artifacts of the child consciousness. [NARM] teaches people how to support the development of the embodied adult consciousness.” Speaking to the 3 main parts in IFS, Dr. Schwartz talks about the firefighters and managers, two forms of protection which protect against old wounding (the exiles). “Firefighters are trying to fight the exiles’ pain and they do it in contrast to the managers…They take you out of control. They are very impulsive and they don’t care about the collateral damage that you do to your body or your relationships. They just know they’ve got to get you out somehow. So most symptom patterns in the DSM [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders], I could give you this alternative explanation for, in terms of which protectors are clustered.”
One area where Drs. Schwartz and Heller strongly agree is the importance of the embodied state of the therapist as an essential component to supporting the healing of complex trauma. From the IFS lens Dr. Schwartz shares, “Clients’ protective parts can immediately sense the confidence and the safety [of the therapist] and it starts to resonate with the client.” From the NARM lens Dr. Heller shares, “the level of integration that the [therapist] experiences has so much impact then on the therapeutic relationship.” Both express concern over some of the mostly widely used psychotherapeutic models like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Exposure Therapy and EMDR, and the need for more embodied, relational models – like IFS and NARM – that focus on the role of the therapist-client dynamic in addressing complex trauma.
This engaging discussion reinforces what many students have said to Dr. Heller over the years that there are many similarities between IFS and NARM, despite Drs. Schwartz and Heller never meeting until this podcast recording. There is a feeling of an important coming together as these two pioneers in their field reflect on their 40+ year careers, find common ground and mutual appreciation. At the end of their discussion, Dr. Schwartz shares: “It’s great for me to find kindred spirits. There aren’t that many of us that think this way.”
As their engaging discussion concludes, the sense is that this could be the beginning of a meaningful, powerful relationship between two very important therapeutic models. What might the future hold for IFS and NARM working together for bringing healing to our world?
Richard Schwartz began his career as a family therapist and an academic at the University of Illinois at Chicago. There he discovered that family therapy alone did not achieve full symptom relief and in asking patients why, he learned that they were plagued by what they called “parts.” These patients became his teachers as they described how their parts formed networks of inner relationship that resembled the families he had been working with. He also found that as they focused on and, thereby, separated from their parts, they would shift into a state characterized by qualities like curiosity, calm, confidence and compassion. He called that inner essence the Self and was amazed to find it even in severely diagnosed and traumatized patients. From these explorations the Internal Family Systems (IFS) model was born in the early 1980s.
IFS is now evidence-based and has become a widely-used form of psychotherapy, particularly with trauma. It provides a non-pathologizing, optimistic, and empowering perspective and a practical and effective set of techniques for working with individuals, couples, families, and more recently, corporations and classrooms.
In 2013 Schwartz left the Chicago area and now lives in Brookline, MA where is on the faculty of the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.