Max Littman, LCSW
September 24, 2023
This article covers ideas about how music can be used to understand aspects of the human experience and mind, and ways to think about music when using Internal Family Systems (IFS) as a modality for therapy. I draw from my experiences as a gay man, a therapist, a filmmaker, and a music enthusiast.
I’ve aimed for this article to be readable for persons both familiar and unfamiliar with IFS. For those already with a baseline understanding of IFS, you may wish to skip the summary of IFS concepts and terms in the first section. Readers can skip by clicking here.
What is IFS?
Internal Family Systems (IFS) is a psychotherapeutic approach and model of therapy developed by Dr. Richard Schwartz in the 1980s. It is a form of therapy that focuses on understanding and working with the different “parts” or subpersonalities within an individual’s mind. The core concept of IFS is that our psyche is composed of various parts, each with its own beliefs, emotions, and motivations. These parts can sometimes conflict with one another and lead to inner turmoil and psychological distress.
Key principles and concepts of Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy include:
- Parts: IFS identifies various parts within an individual, which can be thought of as distinct subpersonalities or aspects of the self. Examples of these parts might include the “inner critic,” the “inner child,” the “caretaker,” or the “protector.”
- Self: In addition to parts, IFS also recognizes the concept of the “Self.” The Self is considered the core and true essence of a person, characterized by qualities such as compassion, curiosity, and calmness. The goal of IFS therapy is to help individuals access and strengthen their Self and learn to live from this centered, balanced place.
- Multiplicity: IFS acknowledges that individuals are not just a single, unified self, but a collection of various parts that can have different thoughts, emotions, and desires. What these parts do can have both positive and negative consequences in a person’s life.
- Healing and Integration: The primary objective of IFS therapy is to help individuals heal their parts. This involves understanding each part’s unique perspective, addressing their concerns, and ultimately bringing harmony and cooperation among the various parts.
- Externalizing: IFS encourages individuals to externalize their parts by visualizing and interacting with them as if they were distinct individuals or entities. This externalization helps individuals gain a better understanding of their internal dynamics and relationships among their parts.
- Unburdening: IFS therapy often involves helping individuals unburden their parts by releasing or transforming the emotional and psychological burdens they carry. This process can lead to healing and relief from emotional distress.
- Self-Leadership: As individuals work through their parts and increase access to their core Self, they can learn to live from a place of self-compassion, balance, and wisdom. This is referred to as self-leadership and can lead to improved mental and emotional well-being.
IFS therapy is used to address a wide range of psychological issues, including trauma, anxiety, depression, and relationship problems. It is considered a client-centered and holistic approach that aims to empower individuals to become more self-aware, self-compassionate, and self-regulated in managing their inner conflicts and emotions. While it can be used in individual therapy, IFS concepts have also been adapted for use in group therapy and other therapeutic settings.
Protectors are one of the types of parts or subpersonalities that exist within an individual’s internal system. Protectors are parts of the psyche that have taken on the role of safeguarding the individual from perceived threats, pain, or emotional distress. They often develop as a response to difficult or traumatic experiences in the person’s past. The primary function of protectors is to maintain a sense of control, safety, and emotional self-preservation.
Here are some key characteristics and functions of protectors:
- Defense Mechanisms: Protectors employ various defense mechanisms to shield the individual from emotional pain. These mechanisms can include denial, suppression of emotions, intellectualization, or even behavioral strategies such as aggression or avoidance.
- Guardians of Vulnerable Parts: Protectors often act as guardians or gatekeepers for more vulnerable and wounded parts, such as the “inner child.” They do this by managing or suppressing the emotions and memories associated with these wounded parts.
- Roles and Strategies: Protectors can take on different roles and strategies to protect the person. For example, there might be an “inner critic” part that harshly judges the person to prevent them from making mistakes or being vulnerable. Alternatively, there could be a “caretaker” part that strives to please others and avoid conflict to maintain a sense of safety.
- Positive Intent: In IFS therapy, it’s important to recognize that protectors always have a positive intent. They believe that their actions and strategies are necessary to protect the individual from harm or distress, even if they may sometimes be counterproductive or cause inner conflict.
- Inner Conflict: Sometimes, protectors can clash with other parts or with the person’s core values and desires. This inner conflict can lead to emotional turmoil and may be a focus of therapy to promote understanding and resolution.
- Resistance to Change: Protectors may resist efforts to change or relinquish control because they fear that doing so would expose the person to more pain or vulnerability. Part of the therapeutic process in IFS is to develop a cooperative and trusting relationship with protectors to facilitate healing.
The goal of IFS therapy is not to eliminate protectors but to understand their role, recognize their positive intent, and work towards a more harmonious and balanced internal system. As the individual develops a stronger connection with their core Self—the aspect of them that is characterized by compassion, wisdom, and self-awareness—they can help protectors feel safer and less compelled to be constantly on guard.
Exiles are parts of the psyche that carry painful emotions, traumatic memories, and vulnerable aspects of the person. They are often pushed out of awareness and hidden by protective parts, such as the protectors discussed earlier, to shield the individual from experiencing overwhelming emotional pain.
Here are some key characteristics and functions of exiles:
- Pain and Trauma: Exiles are the parts of an individual that hold deep emotional pain, unresolved trauma, and intense emotions. These emotions and memories are often associated with past experiences that were overwhelming or too distressing to process at the time.
- Burdened and Isolated: Exiles are typically burdened by the emotions and memories they carry, and they may feel isolated and trapped in their pain.
- Hidden from Conscious Awareness: Protective parts work to keep exiles hidden from the person’s conscious awareness. This is done in an attempt to prevent the individual from feeling overwhelmed by the pain and trauma held by the exiles.
- Triggered by Present-day Events: Exiles can become activated and triggered by present-day events or situations that resemble the original traumatic experiences. When this happens, the person may experience intense emotional reactions that seem disproportionate to the current situation.
- Vulnerability: Exiles represent the vulnerable, authentic, and often childlike aspects of the self. Working with exiles in therapy involves providing a safe and compassionate space for these parts to express their emotions and experiences.
The therapeutic goal in IFS is to help the individual develop a compassionate and healing relationship with their exiles. This involves accessing and understanding the emotions and memories held by exiles, offering self-compassion to these wounded parts, and facilitating their healing. The process often entails working with protective parts to ensure that they are willing to allow the person to connect with and heal the exiles.
As the person’s relationship with their exiles improves and they gain greater access to their core Self, it becomes possible to heal and integrate these wounded aspects. This can lead to emotional healing, increased self-awareness, and a reduction in symptoms related to unresolved trauma and emotional pain.
The concept of “burdens” refers to the emotional and psychological pain, beliefs, memories, and wounds that are carried by the various parts or subpersonalities, especially exiles, within an individual’s internal system. These burdens are typically associated with the individual’s past experiences, especially those that were distressing, traumatic, or emotionally charged.
Here’s a more detailed understanding of burdens in the context of IFS therapy:
- Emotional Pain: Burdens often consist of intense emotional pain and distress. This can include feelings of fear, sadness, anger, shame, guilt, or any other emotions that were experienced during challenging or traumatic situations.
- Traumatic Memories: Burdens may also encompass traumatic memories or experiences that the individual has not fully processed or integrated. These memories can continue to impact the person’s emotions and behaviors in the present.
- Negative Beliefs: Protective parts, such as the inner critic or other defenders, may hold negative beliefs about the self, others, or the world. These beliefs can become burdens that influence how the person perceives themselves and their interactions with others.
- Wounded Aspects: Burdens are often associated with wounded or vulnerable aspects of the individual, known as exiles in the IFS model. Exiles carry the deepest and most painful burdens, and they are typically hidden from conscious awareness by protective parts.
- Impact on Behavior: Unresolved burdens and the protective parts that manage them can influence a person’s behavior, thoughts, and emotions in various ways. These burdens can lead to symptoms such as anxiety, depression, relationship difficulties, and self-sabotaging behaviors.
In IFS therapy, the aim is to help individuals identify, access, and work with their burdens in a safe and supportive therapeutic environment. The therapist helps the individual develop a compassionate and nonjudgmental relationship with the parts that hold these burdens, encouraging them to express their emotions and experiences. By doing so, individuals can begin to heal and release these burdens, ultimately leading to greater emotional freedom and well-being.
Key to this work is the IFS therapist engaging in the process outlined above for themselves in order to free up access to Self energy, which in turn helps their clients to do the same.
Music as a Channel to Parts and Self Energy
Upon reflection, it has been my personal experience that music is a channel by which Self energy can be accessed and harnessed, a trailhead by which exiles’ burdens can be compassionately known, felt, witnessed, and understood, and a tool used by protectors to conceal, minimize, or distract from burdens being felt by the larger system. In the following sections I hope to demonstrate these assertions to the reader through examples of my personal experiences as a gay man, film school graduate, and IFS-informed therapist.
Many of my parts are interested in sharing here their views on the topics of music, the human mind, and IFS. Some of these parts explicitly asked me to speak for them and others attempted to directly take over this project in my thinking and my writing.
These parts of me include one that likes to communicate and receive communication through creative modes of expression (e.g. writing, films, music), one that likes to note, synthesize, and summarize information into a cohesive story, one that takes great joy in exposure to mysteries and discoveries, one that aims to be perfect in all that I invest my time and energy in, parts that are calmed by certain music, one that likes to learn and teach, one that likes to help clients and colleagues, one wanting this article to be read by and digestible to non-therapists and those non-IFS-knowledgeable alike, one that efforts to secure a place of respectability, visibility, and acceptance in the IFS healer community, and one that uses music to mark and enhance content, themes, thoughts, and feelings in my life.
Writing this article required much effort for a few of these parts in reserving space for my Self energy to be seated in the cockpit of this project.
That being said, the sections below demonstrate through some of these parts how music can affect and be used by our parts.
Pop Music and a Gay Exile
I “came out” to myself as gay at approximately 23 years old. The process of fully “letting in” others on my sexuality, beginning with friends and family and eventually to initial meetings with acquaintances, was a process that began at age 24 and gradually ended around age 26. During high school in the early 2000s, I was closeted. That is, the parts of myself that were attracted to men were exiled internally and also hidden externally.
In middle school and early high school, a part of me was enthralled by bubblegum pop music and countdown lists. This part of me religiously watched Total Request Live (TRL), a music video countdown show on MTV. *NSYNC, Backstreet Boys, and Britney Spears were commonly at the top of the daily chart. This part of me would make and listen to a chart of his own each day, as well. This chart he made consisted of many of the same pop artists and songs on TRL. He played them on tapes and CDs on the all-in-one tape, CD, and radio player in his room. Exuberance flowed through him listening to each song on the list, eventually reaching a crescendo during the number one song played. There was an innocent, free, childlike joy to it. That is to say, unburdened.
However, another part of me kept this aspect of my life secret. The message received from my peers, society, and culture was that pop music either meant you were a girl or a gay boy. Neither was a good indication. I don’t think my veiling part could, at the time, completely describe why it did what it did, but it knew it had to do it for my emotional and social safety. I can now appreciate what it was doing and why it had to do it.
My Music Supervisor Part and the 20 Year Playlist
Oddly, other parts of me became enamored with alternative, progressive, psychedelic, and electronic rock music in my late teens and early twenties. The part of me that veiled my interest in pop music used these rock loving parts of me in its veiling project. However, the parts of me that had adopted rock were genuinely, and still are, into that genre and not using it as a protective project. They were not, and still are not, burdened.
Upon moving away to college, a part of me began to develop that would seek out and collect songs that resonated with many of my parts. Songs that this part found and collected marked important moments in my coming out journey. Boulevard of Broken Dreams by Green Day marked my first heartbreak. Space Oddity by David Bowie marked my first kiss. Separator by Radiohead marked my coming out to my father.
To this day, this music supervisor part is still seeking and collecting tracks. The naming of this part is inspired by music supervisors employed in the entertainment industry whose job is to select and procure music to pair with media productions. The technology of 2023 makes this seeking, collecting, and organizing of songs for this part of me much easier than when it first began this project in 2004. I now listen to the Spotify playlist it’s made on shuffle on my iPhone regularly. Each song played takes me back to a memory of one or more parts of me. Sometimes the parts blend with me and other times we look back on the memory together.
Music and Self-led Sexuality
The most recent track my music supervisor part has added to the ongoing playlist is “That! Feels Good!”, the title track from Jessie Ware’s latest album. I experience it as embodying sexual Self energy. The music, lyrics, and vocal performance propel freedom, consensuality, experimentation, enthusiasm, and open communication.
The awareness of these qualities brings up for me the work of Patty Rich. She has blazed a courageous new trail in integrating IFS and sex therapy, helping many people access the healing of sexual shame. I believe the track embodies her concepts of Self-led sexuality. Additionally, my experience of Ware’s song makes me think of IFS steward and Black Therapists Rock founder Deran Young. In a speaking engagement, in a forum I cannot recall, she shared that she experiences Self energy and connection to her parts through music. This statement opened my system to see what it already had been experiencing.
My Imagineer Part’s Use of Music
In my life previous to being a therapist, I went to film school at UC Santa Barbara. Each year, we film students were anxious and excited in anticipation for May to come around, when the annual student film festival Reel Loud was (and still is) held. Reel Loud has been running for over 30 years now. At the time of my participation, student films selected to screen at the festival were required to be no more than six minutes and 30 seconds in length, shot, edited, and screened on 16mm film stock, silent, and accompanied at the festival by live musicians.
Reflecting on this time period, my part that likes to be called “the imagineer” took the lead in the conception, construction, and direction of a film that screened at the 2008 festival, Jesus Blues. The imagineer took what he had learned in film and television classes from four years in high school and four years in university to tell a story with themes of connection, playfulness, and redemption.
Music was at the heart of the story, the creative process, and these themes. I also believe the imagineer was able to speak for parts of my system through this creative, music driven endeavor. Knowing that the finished product would need to be accompanied by live music, my imagineer chose a song around which to sculpt the script, photography, action, and editing. The song ultimately chosen embodied spontaneity, collaboration, and playfulness. That set the tone for all that was to be produced.
Glossing over the specific, significant efforts of my imagineer, production manager, and other parts in making the film, as well as the many parts of my external collaborators, the final product and its accompanying live music stirred audible, visible, and felt reactions from the parts of 800 audience members. The mixture and timing of laughter, cheers, “aw”s, body movements, and silence indicated parts having a good time, feeling seen, empathizing with the parts of the characters presented on screen, and attuned to the live music.
What comes to mind to me as I recall this event is something I learned from Susan McConnell on a Somatic IFS retreat: When we are in a space together for a common purpose and a designated time period, we become, as a group, a living organism. Looking back, the Self energy created in the theater that day in 2008 was palpable. I believe the live music, connected to the film it was backing, amplified the audience’s individual access to Self energy, their parts’ connection to Self energy, and the collective field of Self energy of the audience as a living organism unto itself.
My imagineer part determined the whole experience to be a sweeping success. Not only had the finished product been received positively, in my imagineer’s and many other parts’ eyes, my internal system had been seen, understood, and affirmed by the parts of others and a Self energy larger than any one individual.
Triannually, the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus (SFGMC) performs a series of concerts in the Bay Area of Northern California. Full disclosure, my husband is a longtime chorus member. The spring 2023 performance was a piece commissioned from the Disney Corporation of classic songs from Disney-produced films. The chorus was accompanied by a 30 piece orchestra and various video montages of the films by which the songs were associated. For my internal system, a standout amongst the performed numbers was “Reflection” from the film “Mulan”.
Before the number, a trans woman chorus member shared her personal experiences of coming to terms with and coming out as a woman. She connected these experiences to the themes of the film “Mulan” and the song “Reflection.” Notably, SFGMC now welcomes members of all gender identities and expressions, not only gay men.
The chorus proceeded from her introduction into the number. On the screens above the chorus played out a carefully edited montage of Mulan, showing the bare bones of the titular character’s story as she disguised herself male in order to be accepted as a member of her community’s army. Her father and her culture shamed her for her interests in being a warrior because being a warrior in the army was only for men.
As the number came to a close, the 200 plus person chorus sang “when will my reflection show who I am inside.” The orchestra hit a crescendo, with almost all instruments playing together in unison. Above, the ending of the film played: Mulan returns home to her father after a war was won. She presents to him the sword she stole from him, a symbol of male and cultural identity and privilege. Her father tosses the sword aside, and tearfully embraces Mulan with a full on hug. She is what matters to him. Not the sword. Not the cultural traditions.
Taking all of this sensory and internal experience in, tears filled my eyes, chills ran through my body, and goosebumps formed on my skin. Self energy was in the room and felt in my body. I believe many of my parts, especially my sexuality-related exiles and former exiles, and likely many parts of the performers and the audience, felt seen, witnessed, and understood by my own and a collective field of Self energy in that moment.
Parts Who Make Music
I had an interesting opportunity in working with a therapy client who was a musician. Although the IFS therapy we did together wasn’t specifically around music, we did explore how and why one of his parts used music production.
In a discussion we had about his music that occurred over a year into therapy, I got curious about the parts of him involved in the making of his music. What arose was a part of him we had already come to know pretty well. In this exploration, it became clear to both of us that this part was using music to express the anger, loneliness, powerlessness, and shame that came from profound neglect and abuse in his childhood. That is to say, it pointed to the burdens of an exile. Not surprisingly, his music-making parts did so mostly in solitude and rarely in collaboration with others. Additionally, an inner critic would criticize the music that was produced, viewing perfection in the finished product as the only means by which the exiles underneath could be fully quelled.
The unburdening of these exiles wasn’t to occur until months later. However, we checked back in on the parts involved in making music after the unburdenings. After the unburdenings, there was a noticeable freedom in the producing and recording of music. These parts felt free of the burden of quelling the exile, making “perfect” tracks, and were more so interested in creativity and experimentation.
Music as a Trailhead
I encourage others to consider music as a potential trailhead for us to befriend our parts, access Self energy, and come to know exiles and to help them unburden. This trailhead could be a conversation about, listening to, or making music.
I am quite curious to hear others’ perspectives on the topic of parts, Self, and music.
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