Transforming Trauma Episode 035: The Spiritual Elements of Trauma Healing with Drs. Dick Schwartz and Laurence Heller
A podcast brought to you by the NARM® Training Institute
“You don’t have to build up the muscle of compassion, because if you just get the constraints to your natural compassion to relax, then you have plenty of compassion.” – Dr. Dick Schwartz
In this powerful episode of Transforming Trauma, we have another opportunity to listen to a conversation between authors and therapeutic pioneers Drs. Dick Schwartz, founder of Internal Family Systems (IFS), and Laurence Heller, founder of the NeuroAffective Relational Model (NARM). Joined by our host, Sarah, the two authors come together for a second time to continue their rich conversation on the similarities and differences between the two modalities they’ve created, and to take a more specific look at how both of their works have drawn from the spiritual elements of the human experience.
Drs. Schwartz and Heller begin their conversation sharing their own journeys of understanding spirituality and how it fits into their work. Dr. Schwartz shares how early on, his direct work with clients challenged the common understanding from traditional psychology, and specifically developmental psychology, and he searched to find his own truth. “First of all, I couldn’t hold the attachment theories’ belief that to have any [Self] you had to have gotten a certain kind of ‘good enough’ parenting at a certain critical period of your childhood, because many of my clients had been tortured on a daily basis when they were young. So there was no way you could explain that being there if you had to posit that they got it from an external relationship.” As someone who was not religious or spiritually minded, his exploration of this territory with clients led him to spirituality, which introduced him to new ideas about the nature of human experience.
Dr. Heller goes on to share several spiritual experiences he had throughout his life, including doing breathwork and experiences during long distance running, which led to an exploration of his own relationship to spirituality and a commitment to spiritual practice. Although he no longer identifies with any one spiritual or religious approach, this deep level of spiritual inquiry and engagement informs his interventions when working with clients to this day: “When I’m working with people, I’m in a very quiet place in myself. There’s an openness and a curiosity, and I’m very present in my body and in the moment.” He goes on to share his perspective that grew from his studies into different spiritual approaches as well as his own experiences. “Ultimately…most human symptoms are a result of disconnection, from the Self, other people, and the true source of the universe.” Dr. Heller explains how NARM is about working with this connection and disconnection process, and exploring the obstacles that get in the way of deeper connections that people seek and long for.
The pair reflect on their shared belief that no matter the trauma someone goes through, there is always something deep within us that remains unaffected and whole. In IFS, Dr. Schwartz describes this essential, unaffected part “the Self” (with a capital S), while in NARM, Dr. Heller describes it as our innate movement toward connection, health and aliveness, often emerging as intentionality and self-agency.
Throughout their conversation, they discuss the close similarities between IFS and NARM in intention and understanding, and take the time to also compare the differences. Both modalities recognize that our true nature is one of connection and compassion. As Dr. Schwartz states, “You don’t have to build up the muscle of compassion, because if you just get the constraints to your natural compassion to relax, then you have plenty of compassion.” Dr. Heller agrees with this view, and describes how NARM sees these ‘constraints’ through the lens of developmental trauma. He describes: “Children… will foreclose access and connection to…deep, vulnerable, open, heartful parts of themselves…when there is environmental failure, in order to protect the attachment relationship.”
They discuss the role of ‘parts’ in IFS and how these ‘parts’ relate to NARM’s understanding of old identifications. A key difference that emerges between the modalities is that in IFS the ‘parts’ are seen as nouns — truly distinct entities within an individual, that are burdened with responsibilities they may not want (ex: the critical ‘part’). In NARM, the identifications are seen as processes in which are actively created through time (ex: I am criticizing myself). Each model works with these ‘parts’ and identifications in a different way to support clients to free themselves into a more whole understanding of themselves in the present moment.
Dr. Schwartz and Dr. Heller close this episode by unpacking the ways that some spiritual traditions can actually lead to spiritual bypass and the “splitting” of a person, meaning they view parts of themselves as ‘bad,’ or certain emotions (like anger) as negative. They both believe the effects of making parts of ourselves or our emotions bad results in people pushing away or disconnecting from aspects of their authentic experience as part of the spiritual journey. Dr. Heller describes how important it was for him to take a different perspective in NARM: “I make the point that there are no destructive emotions. There are destructive behaviors. And so as we integrate the powerful energies of these emotions, and understand what they’re trying to communicate, then they transform [and] become an aliveness and expansion…” Dr. Schwartz resonates with this perspective, and sees a need to call back in the ‘parts’ of the Self that have been exiled, rather than using a spiritual bypass to reject those parts and leave them unintegrated.
While IFS and NARM are both known as being exciting, emerging models for healing complex trauma, this episode highlights that Drs. Schwartz and Heller acknowledge that the deeper focus in both approaches is 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. As their conversation concludes, they reflect on this beginning of a meaningful, powerful relationship between two very important therapeutic models. What might the future hold for IFS and NARM working together to bring healing into our world?
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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.