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No Bad Parts: Key to Success

How my shopping obsession is trying to protect me from failure.

Key points

  • Internal Family Systems Therapy conceives of personality as a system of interacting parts; problems arise when the system gets out of balance.
  • There are three types of parts: exiles, firefighters, and managers, and a Self that is whole and the natural leader of the parts, if they allow.
  • Taking a stance of curiosity about these parts can help the Self assume its leadership role and bring balance to the system.
  • Looking at the inner critic as a protector can help one understand what is going wrong in their internal family system.

A friend I hadn’t seen in a while asked me what I’ve been doing lately. I answered honestly: I told him that I have spent much of my time ordering clothes online and then returning them. My Saturday routine has become bundling up my too-small, too-big, too-dumb, wrong-style items and dropping them off at the UPS/USPS pick-up spot near me. It’s become an obsession.

I have scrolled through so many clothing retail sites I know their entire inventories.

I have even wasted 3 a.m. insomnia sessions considering which items I could buy, would buy, should buy, and how to combine them with other items I couldwouldshould buy—or even items that I have. (How very “shop your closet” and sustainable of me.)

What is up with that? Why the total obsession with my appearance? Am I just a material girl distracting myself from the woes of the world? As a therapist-in-training at a community behavioral health clinic, I don’t have to read the newspaper to be in close contact with the woes of the world.

I also don’t need to dress like a fancy TV therapist.

So the clothing obsession was getting to me.

Then, I started reading about a type of therapy called Internal Family Systems (IFS). Bear with me, readers.

What Is IFS?

IFS is a framework for understanding personality as a system made up of different parts. When the system is balanced, the parts operated together well with the Self; when the system is flawed, the system’s natural attempt to maintain homeostasis, which means to regulate and balance itself, can result in malfunction.

IFS is based on family systems therapy, which is itself based on systems theory straight out of Palo Alto in the 1960s, started by Gregory Bateson. Very techie groovie stuff, systems theory. The theory leapt out of tech and into psychology via Salvador Mnuchin’s family systems therapy. Mnuchin and others thought of families as systems seeking to maintain homeostasis, just like machines. Just as a machine’s system can get out of whack, so can our family system.

IFS takes systems and family systems theory and applies it to personality. Things can get out of whack in our IFS because our systems are not closed off from the world. They’re connected to other systems, such as other people’s IFSs, and the meso and macro systems where we live. I’m talking about our families, neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, cities, counties, political systems. All these systems interact and affect us. And they can really gunk up the works in our internal systems. Child abuse; substance abuse; neglect; poverty; war. These things all try to knock our IFS out of whack, and often they succeed.

IFS theory, in a nutshell, says there are three types of parts or subpersonalities: managers, firefighters, and exiles. Managers and firefighters are trying to control the other parts. Managers are those parts of us that try to lock us down, keep us on track, and make us look good. Firefighters are the parts that try to distract from our painful parts (exiles) with more extreme behaviors. Eating disorders, addictions, aggression, risk-taking, and so on are firefighters. Then, there are the exiles. These are the parts that both managers and firefighters are working hard to suppress. Exiles are parts of ourselves that have experienced intense and difficult emotions.

In addition to these parts, according to Richard Schwartz and Martha Sweezy who wrote the book on IFS therapy, there is in each person, a Self, which is not a part. The Self is “the seat of consciousness” and it always remains whole. It is born whole and is never damaged. In fact, the three types of parts organize to protect the Self from trauma. The Self is the best leader of the IFS, but often the other parts think they have to protect the Self by suppressing it.

Exploring the Concept of Self

What do you think of this idea, readers? How do you feel about this whole Self?

I felt deeply suspicious of this Self idea.

As disconnected from my meditation practice as I have been, I thought this Self thing sounded a bit spiritual to me. I thought, Have I wandered into the woo-woo swamp of psychotherapy?

Yet there it was, in a book about systems theory.

Yet there it was, a link to my currently moribund spiritual practice.

The concept of Self sounded like Buddha-nature to me. In the philosophy of Buddhism, every person possesses Buddha-nature. It is the inner light, an inner sense of wholeness. According to Buddhism, this Buddha-nature is accessible to anyone at any time, if they tap into it. We each possess inner wholeness, inner perfection, an inner source of contentment.

One thing I haven’t been doing is feeling very meditative or spiritually connected. I haven’t tapped into any sense of inner perfection lately.

As a secular, mostly atheist Jew with Buddhist leanings, spiritual connection is a stretch anyway, but right now, I’m not getting any signal. Without getting into the state of the world, let’s just say, you know what I’m saying. As the Indigo Girls sing, “Maybe I squandered big bucks in my last life and now I’ve got to pay.” This line is a reference to reincarnation, in case you didn’t realize it. They’re singing about why life is difficult now, suggesting that maybe it’s not because of anything they’re doing wrong, it’s just karma from their last life.

Yet, what would it be like to believe in a Self? And why is it difficult to believe? And if I am deeply skeptical of this idea, why do I keep returning to theories that describe it, moth to inner flame?

Many of Us Believe We Are Flawed

I’ll tell you something that I suspect. I suspect that it’s difficult for some people to believe they have a whole Self, an internal sense of self that has “all the necessary qualities of good leadership, including compassion, perspective, curiosity, acceptance, and confidence” without trying (Schwartz & Sweezy, 2020).

I suspect it’s because many of us believe we are flawed at the core.

We believe that it is only through effort and struggle that we improve. We believe we are damaged. This concept that we each contain an inner leader with full-blown know-how, if we can only get out of our own way, is novel and mind-blowing to the person ruled by parts that are trying very hard to manage a lot of old, difficult feelings. I’m guessing that from the IFS perspective, this doubting, skeptical aspect of ourselves is a part, not the Self.

In IFS, the therapist’s job is to help the Self take on leadership in the IFS, and allow the parts to assume more part-sized roles. If we allow the Self to assume its position in the IFS, then we can access a “state of spacious well-being” (R. Schwartz again, this time on a blog) that we can access. When we do that, we can unhook ourselves from all the clambering, negative, conflicting thoughts and feelings we often experience and have a little space from which to observe this chaos. Ideally, then, we can understand that we are not simply and only this mass of conflicting emotions, thoughts, sensations, and impulses. These things do not have to define us. We can have a bit of an observer’s view of ourselves, and this makes room for us to have a little compassion for ourselves. If compassion is too strong a word, how about acceptance? Or cutting ourselves some slack?

What does this have to do with obsessive online shopping? Did I say cut ourselves some slacks?

Accessing the Self With IFS

In IFS, the key to accessing the Self, rather than a subpersonality or part, is being able to make a little space to get curious.

So I got curious about my clothing obsession. Instead of berating myself for rampant materialist and for being so far from enlightenment that I am basically going to be reincarnated as a roach, I thought, what if there’s a part of me that’s trying to protect me by obsessive shopping? What if Richard Schwartz and Martha Sweezy are right and there are no bad parts? Things look a bit different when you stop trying to push away that negative voice.

I cleared a little space and I saw that of course the shopping is related to my new career. No doubt about that. I’m about to graduate with my MSW and become a therapist. This is exciting, but also somewhat nerve-wracking. I have these voices in me that are a chorus of self-doubt: you’re crazy to do this; you’re too old; you’re not wise enough to be anyone’s therapist; you look like an idiot starting out at this age.

Immediately, I thought of Freud. You know, id, ego, superego. I thought of all the self-critical voices that go along with shopping for myself. I thought: inner critic. It’s my inner critic manager trying to get me looking good.

I thought, okay, inner critics are supposedly bad. They’re saboteurs. They’re kneecap-slonkers. But IFS says there are no bad parts, so what if I considered my inner critic as a protector? What if I thought of those internalized voices (stepmother; father; grandmother) who criticized me, that whole superego thing, as somehow protective? What would that mean?

Readers, it took a moment. Not gonna lie. But I thought, maybe those criticisms I swallowed as truth and which were now over-managing me today were actually voicing concern about young me. Maybe those voices were actually voices of worried adults from my early childhood about how I was going to do, given my early losses. What if what I internalized as a child was their worry about me, and I experienced it as criticism when it was meant to be a way to make sure little me was treated well by the world? What if the idea was that if little me looked okay—better than okay—on the outside, then she would be protected from some of the harms of the world? What if I misconstrued that to a critical view of my appearance?

What if what was perceived by that part of me as criticism was meant to be a shield and armor?

Well, maybe it’s true, or maybe it’s wishful thinking. All I can say is, once I looked at the shopping obsession that way, I was able to stop.

I mean, not totally stop. But to slow down. And also to keep some things. Because I realized Inner Critic just wanted to make sure I felt like I looked the part, and that is just fine. Fake it till you make it, after all.


Schwartz, R., Sweezy, M. Internal Family Systems Therapy. 2nd ed. New York: Guildford Press, 2020.

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