Healing the Violent and Self-Hating Parts of the Domestic Offender:
Applying Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy
By Dan Pollets
The first time I met George, I was intimidated. At six foot, plus and more than 220 pounds, George is large and imposing. He is a 40-year-old Latino man who exudes the kind of toughness one might associate with being a “badass” or in clinical speak, “anti-social.” In fact, George served prison time for the violent crime of assaulting and nearly killing his first wife. He is the kind of patient that many highly sensitive (right hemisphere dominant) therapists would avoid convinced at the get go that talk therapy will not work with a man who acts out his rage.
At first this was all I saw — maybe what most see in their first encounter with George. But I am a psychotherapist and George was my client. As a psychotherapist, I have the privilege of seeing not only the person before me but also the many possible versions of who that person might become. I did not know where my work with George would lead, but we embarked on the journey nonetheless. I sensed his pain which drew me, as did his ability to express deep emotions in a clear and direct manner. “I cannot live the way I’m living Dr. Pollets,” he emphatically declared. “I need help so badly. I’m lost and at the end of the line.” I did not know where my work with George would lead, but we embarked on the journey nonetheless.
On the couch before me, George offered up his suffering. He was depressed and having suicidal thoughts and in serious trouble. He was having suicidal thoughts. His wife of 15 years, Marie, had kicked him out and he was living with his parents. He was embarrassed and humiliated, admitting that he did not have control over his violent temper. Since leaving home a month ago, he had been drinking heavily and taking aimless walks around the city. Still, there was a healthy part of him that had reached out to AA meetings which he was attending regularly and had contacted me
“Parts” Therapy: Internal Family Systems (IFS):
Our personalities consist of many “parts.”. We contain multitudes, the saying goes Some parts help us and some parts may not serve us well but they all have a function. Some parts start out protecting us when we are young, and no longer serve that purpose in our adult lives. In order to figure out which part is which and to allow certain parts to change, we first need to honor why they came into being. We need to investigate and listen to all our parts, hear what they have to say. This is the general idea of Internal Family Systems (IFS), which is a way of working with clients that involves helping them access the parts that form the core of their problematic behavior or presenting symptom.
George had a long history of raging and being emotionally abusive. His first marriage ended catastrophically when he discovered his wife was having an affair. He attacked her with a hammer and beat her to within an inch of her life. He was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon and served two years. He had never been physically violent with Marie but he would rage at her all the same, especially when she did not comply with his attempts at control.
In spite of his violent past, George had been able to develop a successful business and was a good provider and father to his stepdaughter and son. To most outsiders, he was perceived as a good citizen. Beneath this protective shell, George struggled with profound feelings of self-loathing and guilt. The protective shell, which is used to facing the world, is often the most accessible place to start a therapeutic journey
George’s IFS Process
The first “play” in IFS is to find and focus on a target part, typically a protector. Protectors try to keep a person safe. There are two kinds of protectors: managers and firefighters. Managers are proactive and help a person get his needs met; firefighters are reactive and seek to ameliorate pain from unresolved trauma.
The protector that George wished to target first was a firefighter part that was sabotaging his marriage. His name for this part was the Punisher. The Punisher was angry and easily provoked. It acted in extremes and could become abusive in its attempt to control Marie.
In IFS, the work of therapy can be described as an internal exploration, analogous to a guided meditation called going inside. The goal is to differentiate the the part from Self. Self is the mindfully aware part of the system, capable of compassion, wisdom, calmness, and confidence when not under the sway of the protectors. The process of differentiating a part from Self is called unblending.
George focused inside on the Punisher. He became aware of a hot sensation in his chest. I asked him to focus on this sensation and see if he could “unblend” from the “Punisher” protector. George was able to do this remarkably easily. This was another surprising characteristic of this man that defied my initial preconceptions. It does not always come as swiftly for others. Unblending can take weeks or even months. I asked how he felt toward the punisher part. This inquiry helps facilitate the unblending process and identifies any critical, judgmental or concerned parts that might inhibit the target part from opening up. He said he was disgusted, sick and tired of this part.
Just as he was getting close to the Punisher, another part, an extremely critical part reared its head. I asked George to ask the critical part if it would be willing to “step back” and wait in the waiting room. There was a tense quiet in the room and it was clear that George was negotiating with the critic. After what seemed a lengthy pause, George said that the critical part would agree to step back and give us space to work. George was then feeling more open towards the Punisher. I asked George to inquire how the Punisher was trying to help him. George spoke for the part. “The punisher needs me to be OK, safe from suffering and in control.” There was a decidedly palpable change in his body. He the tension he carried diminished, he relaxed and his breathing slowed. This was a breakthrough. He saw that the part that had caused him so much difficulty was actually trying to protect him (though not serving him well). This had the effect of reducing the intensity of the conflict inside between the protector and the judgmental inner critics (called a “polarity” in IFS).
During our IFS journey, many of George’s parts made themselves known. The shamer could not forgive him for being weak and letting bullies push him around. The shamer thought George would be weak and vulnerable if it didn’t do its job. Another critic part was forever angry at him for having committed violence and sent to jail. This critic, in turn, inflicted its own psychic violence on George. George became very emotional and fearful when accessing and speaking for this critic. “This part hates me and what I did to bring shame on my family,” he shared, “It is saying I should be punished.” This part was afraid George would commit bad acts again if he were to go away. In time, George was able to ask these parts to step back and watch from the sidelines – to give us space to move to the next phase of work.
Unburdening Young Exiles
In the IFS process, working to access and explore protectors leads to deeper work with one’s exiles, the lodestones of the traumatized mind. Exiles hold burdens from the client’s past, typically from when a client was young and vulnerable. If experiences are too painful and cannot be encoded into working memory at the time, the pain gets cordoned off and exiled.
But exiled parts never completely go away. They are like angry children locked in a basement. They create periodic mayhem when they climb the basement stairs and bang on the door demanding attention (metaphor courtesy of Dick Schwartz, IFS founder). Protective parts keep the door barred as best they can, but life is lived in a castle under siege. In George’s case, this siege mentality set the stage for intermittent offensive attacks, typically directed towards the ones he loved.
As our work progressed, George was able to connect with an exile part he called “little boy.” He said the little boy, who was about 7 years old, was hurt and sad. George became emotional as he witnessed the part describe specific experiences being bullied at school. The little boy said that he was treated as “less than” the other boys because of the color of his skin. He was small and weak. The boy felt ashamed of his inability to defend himself. In this witnessing process, George invited the little boy onto his lap. George listened raptly as the boy described how he would return home after being bullied only to have his grandfather slap and beat him for not fighting back. This second dose of shaming had been more painful for the boy, and he learned that one must be strong and fight when threatened (these are called “false beliefs” in IFS).
After George, witnessed what the boy needed to say, I asked him to see if the boy wanted to go to a safe place to unload all these burdens. This is called retrieval in the IFS unburdening process. George imagined bringing the boy to a serene place. He chose the ocean. He helped the boy unpack his burdens and release them into the sea.
In one particularly moving session that stands out was when I asked George if the punisher was watching him take care of the little boy. He said the punisher was watching though skeptical. It had not fully relaxed. That’s OK, I said. The punisher has always had a job to do and will change or transform when it feels safe enough to do so. George began to weep and said how different if felt not to have parts at war with one another. He said he can experience all these parts with an openness and acceptance. It was relieving if not profound for him to gain this perspective.
In the coming weeks, George cultivated an intimate and caring relationship with his little boy. He said that he and the boy were now close. “He trusts me.” He said that the Punisher had lost its edge and was now under his control. In IFS, this is called being Self-Led, when parts are integrated more harmoniously and managed by a mindful, compassionate hub of awareness (Self).
George still checks in with his parts. “Often I don’t have to do anything and I don’t find myself lonely anymore.” He struck me as being lighter in his body and he smiled whenever he greeted me and came in to our sessions. He said he is able to pause and think about the consequence of what he says before he says it (response inhibition). “Not too much bothers me these days…at work, family, and with Marie all is peaceful. My parents are very happy.”
Toward the end of our individual work together, George agreed to join a men’s group I lead to consolidate his gains and work on his relationships in vivo. George told his story among sympathetic listeners and accepted support from other men. In group, I was often struck by George’s ability to empathize with the vulnerability expressed by others. IFS not only opened George up to himself but it also let him reach others.
George is a man with a violent past who was re-enacting his victimization by abusing his wife. Through the IFS process, George came to acknowledge his exiled parts and honor his protector parts. In doing so, they no longer needed to cry out for his attention.
In order to guide George through the IFS process, I had to be constantly vigilant of my own parts. I needed to un-blend from the part of me that was initially intimated in order to have compassion for all of George’s parts, even the scary ones. I had to see George as more than the criminal. More importantly, he had to see himself that way too.