How and Why You Compromise Your Integrity
Internal family systems therapy can free you from self-sabotaging defenses.
Posted Jul 19, 2017
Perhaps the most important thing you possess is your integrity. It’s your word of honor—what makes you honorable. Yet at one time or another, you’ve certainly violated this trustworthy, most “sacred” part of yourself. Why? Whether to yourself or others, what is it that, from deep within, compels you to go back on your word?
The present post will seek to clarify this all-too-common situation. Plus, it will suggest why you shouldn’t be too hard on yourself when this “self-violation” occurs (as in, “What part of me impelled me to do that? Was that really me?!”). For ideally, such a lapse shouldn’t lead to self-shaming or contempt. Rather, it should signal that it’s time to mobilize your self-compassion.
So, to start, have you ever considered that the word integrity intimately relates to the kindred integration? Because if the different parts of yourself—each harboring a voice and agenda of its own—aren’t well-integrated, it may be impossible (across a large variety of situations) to keep your integrity intact.
To best understand how your integrity relates to your level of integration, consider how dictionary.com portrays the word: (a) “Adherence to moral and ethical principles ...” and (b) “The state of being whole, entire, or undiminished.” Note how this second definition, contrasting with yet complementing the first, implies that to be virtuous, honest, and have moral rectitude, you need to be “whole,” which is to say, unified—or, to employ my preferred term, integrated.
Moreover, “whole” implies that the various parts that comprise something are balanced and relate to each other concordantly. Viewed in human terms, personal integrity depends, simply enough, on the individual’s being integrated. And the dictionary’s extended definition of that concept amply supports this contention, emphasizing that “combining or coordinating separate elements ... provide[s] a harmonious, interrelated whole.”
I’ll provide an example to explain why, if you’re to be true to yourself and others, you need to get your different parts to collaborate, to work in unison. But first I’d like briefly to say something about internal family systems therapy (IFS).
This highly regarded treatment modality, created by Richard Schwartz in the 80s and increasingly prominent in the therapy world today, posits that, as in families, all individuals are made up of parts. When these parts conflict with one another or are extreme, they're functioning either to protect the individual from re-experiencing intolerable emotional pain (as Schwartz’s so-called pre-emptive “managers”)—or, if that pain has already been aroused, to "put it out" (Schwartz’s reactive “firefighters”).
Sadly, the consequence of all these self-protective parts' efforts to escape one's (unrectified) emotional suffering is frequently some form of psychological dysfunction: from mood, anxiety, and personality disorders, to eating abnormalities, to psychophysiological disturbances, to all kinds of compulsive/addictive behaviors.
It’s like having an orchestra inside you, whose members aren’t playing as a cohesive, coordinated unit. The effect is hardly anything like melodic music. What’s produced is a bumbling, incoherent cacophony. For the conductor, or orchestra’s “leader”—which Schwartz defines, transcendently and idealistically, as the beyond-ego self—is absent, missing in action. Continuing with this metaphor, the goal of therapy is to locate the conductor’s whereabouts and free him or her from the various instrumentalists, who have taken over their maestro’s responsibility, so that the whole ensemble can finally make the harmonious music for which it was designed.
Moving beyond this metaphorical description, as regards which other parts the managers and firefighters are protecting against, these are what Schwartz calls the “exiles”—your most vulnerable, deeply wounded parts that have yet to be healed and which both the managers and firefighters have resolved to keep buried.
Why, exactly? Mainly, for fear that the emergence of these exiles could overwhelm the system, with such out-of-control, traumatic feelings as guilt, shame, panic, terror, rage or despair. And just as only the empowering self can synchronize all one’s internal voices, it’s the self alone that—once disentangled from the person’s maladaptive, though well-meaning, parts—can both heal the exiles and transform the managers’ and firefighters’ burdensome, misguided, and outdated roles.
Here’s an example (admittedly, somewhat extreme) of how an individual’s protective, non-integrated, parts can make it virtually impossible for a person to uphold their personal integrity:
Say, you were brought up in a home with an alcoholic father who, when inebriated, would routinely rage, throw things, and frighten the entire family; and a codependent mother, totally preoccupied and obsessed with your father’s hazardous drinking. In such a family, neither parent could possibly be there for you—to adequately respond to your thoughts and feelings, needs and desires. Growing up in such conditions might have affected you in various ways—none of them conducive to feeling safe, loved, or secure.
In all likelihood, you would have ended up with many adverse feelings and thoughts about yourself, such as being:
- unimportant (because of not feeling recognized; given enough time and attention);
- inadequate (because of being frequently criticized);
- lonely (because of not feeling understood, or sufficiently bonded to your parents);
- powerless (because, however negatively you viewed the situation, you could do nothing to change it);
- in danger or unsafe (because your father’s angry flare-ups were unpredictable and your resulting anxiety was simply a way of trying to “prepare” yourself for them);
- shameful (because, after all, you “belonged” to this alcoholic family);
- worthless (because of feeling ignored; not feeling appreciated or valued);
- uncared about (because you couldn’t experience your parents’ being devoted to you); and lastly, if you thought all of the above was grossly unfair to you,
- strong, deep-seated (but much-too-dangerous-to-express) distrust and anger.
So, what does all of this have to do with your integrity? Consider that as children none of us can emotionally survive if we’re constantly focused on one (or more) of these so-stressful feeling/belief states. Consequently (and almost instinctively), different parts of our personality change, or adapt, to such ongoing abuse and neglect by taking on various protective roles. Inasmuch as when you’re young, your emotional resources, or resilience, isn’t well-developed, you’re left feeling acutely vulnerable, particularly since you can’t help but remain so dependent on your caretakers.
Accordingly, your defenses against emotional pain and suffering need to be as strong as is the hurt you urgently need to escape from. And basically, it’s your defenses, or adapted parts, that end up holding your essence—or self—captive (which, in turn, was overcome when your vulnerable parts [now exiles], in desperation, “merged” with it).
Obviously, your integrity, your “wholeness,” can come only from your integrated self. And that self must harmoniously incorporate—not be sabotaged by—its different parts. Being “centered” in the self necessitates that all your various parts be led by the self. As the seat of your consciousness, this very essence of you also constitutes your moral and ethical core.
And it should be added that, to Schwartz, your self—once revived—naturally displays the qualities of “calmness, curiosity, compassion, connectedness, confidence, creativity, courage, and clarity” (Schwartz’s “8Cs” of self). And does this amalgam of positive personality characteristics not coalesce to form one's integrity?
Additionally, your various parts—to supply you with yet another extended list of adjectives (!)—are by nature innocent, spontaneous, humorous, joyful, adventurous, fair-minded, understanding, forgiving, empathic, grateful and loving. But if their natural roles got subverted by an overwhelming need to protect your far more sensitive, scared, or shamed parts, these positive qualities got contaminated (or desecrated). Because of disturbing experiences (generally in your youth), these parts felt forced to take on distorted, constricting roles—which also pretty much detracted from and devalued the healthy dominance, or leadership, of the self.
That compromised self, with all its lucidity and wisdom, became “managed” almost out of existence. So you may no longer be at liberty to consistently manifest who you were meant to be. For your self has in various ways been cast aside by your protectors, and so unable to function fully. In fact, when many people are asked to identify their true self (i.e., apart from their specific beliefs and behaviors), they frequently draw a blank, sometimes not even sure that they have such a self (!).
So though the abuse you may have suffered was probably never intended—that is, your caretakers weren’t actually motivated to act harmfully toward you or interfere with your wholesome development—you yet felt compelled to hide aspects of who you were to better “fit in” with them.
Being true to yourself requires that your self be “whole”—integrated, and with executive control over your subordinate parts (or sub-personalities). But when these parts become extreme and frozen in time, any of your exiled parts threatening to surface propel them into action to take over control of your thoughts and actions. And that’s what, periodically, sabotages your personal integrity. For at this point you can’t come from self, but only from protective parts that (never really having grown up themselves) still feel compelled to react, supposedly to safeguard your “inner child’s” fragility.
In fact, as adults, all your overreactions (and we can all overreact at times) are so because you’re not merely reacting to some in-the-moment provocation but also to much older threats the present situation is reminding you of—and which still carry a significant emotional charge. This is, after all, what it means to be “triggered.” In such instances, your best judgment—which belongs to your non-reactive self (vs. your highly reactive parts)—isn’t available. For when these parts intercede, your emotional equilibrium is undermined ... as is your integrity.
Can you relate to this expression (taken from Richard Schwartz’s Introduction to the Internal Family Systems Model, 2001): “I didn’t want to do it, but I couldn’t stop myself.” ? For such a bemused, disappointed declaration encapsulates everything I’ve been discussing.
Here are two instances of your violating your integrity because your still juvenile protective parts—which assume they’re acting in your best interests—actually act counter to it:
- You’re about to embark on an important home project, which you promised yourself and your family you’d undertake. But then old fears of failure, associated with parental shaming and rejection, kick in. At which point one of your protective parts intervenes and compels you to procrastinate, make excuses for yourself, avoid committing yourself to it. Such an “intervention” prevents the particular exile involved from having to re-experience any quivering anxiety or trepidation. But it ends up with your feeling that much worse about yourself and sacrificing more of your family’s trust.
- Your partner offers you a practical suggestion about something you’re working on and you suddenly go ballistic on her, telling her to mind her own business, that she’s always trying to control you, and then harshly criticizing her for whatever you can think of. What’s happening here is that her (innocent) suggestion, however obliquely, reminded you of how your parent(s) regularly got on your case whenever you made a mistake, making you feel you weren’t good enough, that you were defective; unlovable. So your externalizing old feelings of inadequacy or unacceptability (i.e., unreasonably projecting them onto her) protects a scorned exile part from feeling its original humiliation and sense of worthlessness.
Moreover, your present-day explosion can be seen as “acting out” whatever ancient, undischarged rage you once harbored toward your parents by redirecting it toward your partner. But afterwards, you may regretfully realize how much you’ve hurt your spouse, how much additional distance you’ve now put between the two of you, and how exaggerated your reaction was in the first place. And you probably won’t even understand why in the moment you acted so “out of character” and couldn’t help but go nuclear on her. Here again, one of your protective parts has taken over, seeking to spare you from intolerable emotions just beginning to emerge from an exile—but with considerable collateral damage.
I could provide numerous other examples, especially as relates to intimacy barriers and to various compulsive/addictive behaviors—almost all of which have immediate analgesic, consciousness-altering effects. But by now you can probably grasp how your intrusive, no-longer-appropriate “protectors” interfere with both your personal, and interpersonal, welfare.
For these are the times when your defensive emotions and impulses supersede, or overrule, your self. And that’s when your thoughts and actions betray your integrity. For these bothersome intruders do not express your true self—the literal “home” of your integrity—but represent ill-considered behaviors that make very little logical sense. All the same, they do make a great deal of psychological sense once you can identify what these avoidant, escapist, or aggressive parts of you are trying to protect against (namely, the resurgence of old, still-unreleased emotional pain).
... Which is why your endeavoring to fully resurrect the self, and transform its well-intentioned but misguided parts, is one of the highest, noblest endeavors you could ever undertake.
So—are you up for it?
Two earlier posts of mine in Psychology Today closely complement this piece: The Paradoxical Rationale for Self-Sabotage, Part 2 (2010) and What Your Anger May Be Hiding (2008).
For those of you interested in learning more about the IFS model, besides the references listed below, your search engine will direct you to an abundance of articles on the subject—as will YouTube, which will display a large assortment of videos dedicated to it.
© 2017 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All rights reserved.
Internal Family Systems. The Center for Self Leadership. https://selfleadership.org/ (the official website for IFS)
Murphy, B. About internal family systems therapy. http://www.selfledsolutions.com/resources/aboutifs.html
Schwartz, R. C. (1995). Internal family systems therapy. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Schwartz, R. C. (2001). Introduction to the internal family systems model. Oak Park, IL: Trailhead.
Schwartz, R. C. (2008). You are the one you’ve been waiting for: Bringing courageous love to intimate relationships. Oak Park, IL: Trailhead.
Sweezy, M. & Ziskind, E. L. eds. (2013). IFS: Internal family systems therapy: New dimensions. New York, NY: Routledge.
Sweezy, M. & Siskind, E. L., eds. (2017). IFS: Innovations and Elaborations in Internal Family Systems Therapy. New York, NY: Routledge.