Spiritual Maturity through the lens of Internal Family Systems Theory

 We all talk to ourselves. Whether you perform a morning mantra in the mirror or a nightly review of the day, we all speak to ourselves internally. 

 The reason is because we have different parts that make up a whole.  There is a part of me that is very nurturing.  I find myself conjuring that voice when I’m feeling threatened.  Those internal words of assurance “talk me through it” or remind me of well taught coping skills.  There is another part of me that is very jealous of other’s success.  When that part surfaces, I have a conversation with it that is reassuring, yet appreciative of its contribution in making me who I am.

 This is just an iceberg tip when thinking about those internal conversations.  Internal Family Systems (IFS) theory is a helpful guide in understanding the human internal dynamic and spirituality.  The theory has found common roles that each of our internal voices play.  Learning to categorize internal voices in this framework is helpful as we attempt to create a safe place within ourselves. 

 Here’s a very introductive paragraph on Internal Family Systems (IFS) theory.  There are four roles or categories each identified internal voice will fit.  The protective/self management role is the manager.  Often the manager speaks criticism (positive or negative) focused upon improvement.  It also is interested in serving others over self.  The internal manager has a file cabinet of past experiences from which he/she will draw upon to protect the self.

The second role is an exile.  An exile is a side of ourselves that we do not which to share because that voice is weak, vulnerable or brings us shame.  My exiles are visual pictures of myself as a child and as a teenager.  The child is weak and needy.  The teenager is self conscience and angry. 

The third role is called into action when an exile is threatened and the manager is in over his/her head.  This voice is called firefighter.  The firefighter can be impulsive and seek out resources to soothe the pain of the exile. 

Finally, the theory predicates that each person has a self.  This is a leader that is capable of giving compassion, guidance, and acceptance to each of the parts.  The self is not enmeshed in the emotional drama; rather the self is independent and has a differentiated perspective.  Applying this theory to our internal dialogues means internal voices can be categorized as a manager, exile or firefighter and the self. 

Internal Family Systems

 What does IFS theory have to do with spirituality?

 The foundation for every human’s spirituality is the internal relationship we have with ourselves.  That relationship manifests itself in internal dialogue.  Those internal conversations reveal deeply held beliefs and values. Most importantly, it is an internal mirror.  How do we view ourselves?  Are we mostly selfish?  Do we give grace only to animals and children?  Are we enjoyable, loveable, and/or amicable?  How we speak to ourselves, how we view ourselves, how we treat ourselves is the lens through which we view the world around us and the divine.  IFS theory links arms with spirituality by acknowledging the spirit’s transcendence of the empirical world, beckoning that something else is not only out there, but something else is in here. 

With those thoughts in mind, here are some observations of spiritual maturity through the lens of IFS Theory.

  • Mature spirituality is a growing awareness of those parts (internal voices) that make up who we are.

By those parts, I mean that a spiritually mature person recognizes different internal voices that pop up.  In this next example the voice that emerges is a 10 year old boy.  The voice comes as a grown man returns home for a family reunion:

 Ahh, the family reunion:  glorious gatherings of people that you haven’t seen in years.  As the interstate mileage sign counts down the miles to your reunion destination, you begin to feel different.  While fond memories may gather, you note the strange feeling of self conscientiousness.  The moment you step out of the car, Aunt Gerdy calls you by your childhood nickname.  That title and the smell of her perfume return you to 1980.  You are 10 years old again.  That can be a good thing or a bad thing. But are you aware that it happens?  Can you give name and voice to the part of you that is popping up?  Is he/she a manager, exile or firefighter?

  • Mature Spirituality is expressed by questions, not answers.

 A spiritually mature person operates out of the understanding the growth continues throughout.  Often new experiences lead to opportunities to learn more about ourselves and all the parts that make us whole.  In this next continued example, the narrative questions the level of reflection.  In other words, spiritually mature people give the voices that pop up time, attention and fair examination.

Back to Aunt Gurdy calling you by that nickname and those feelings:  Do you reflect on Aunt Gurdy calling you “Tator” and the feelings that erupted?  Some people would have ignored those feelings or pushed them away.  But a careful look at those feelings and memories may spark internal growth.  For example if being called “Tator” evokes feelings of shame, maybe the self could listen to Tator’s story.  More than likely, he has been exiled by the manager with the expectation that an adult could emerge from the ashes.  In reality “Tator” and his/her story is essential to the identity of that person and not hearing the story creates internal conflict.

Spiritual maturity is the ability to sit with emotions and perceptions and listen to the story they tell.

  • Mature Spirituality is patient.

 The revelation of self discovery does not come all at once.  We believe that divine guidance puts before us learning situations.  A careful record of these uneasy emotions, memories or body reactions may reveal a pattern or unheard parts.  As we become more aware of these uneasy or uncomfortable parts it can become overwhelming and/or disconcerting.  We often have the desire to deal with these parts and try to move on, without extending our parts some grace and understanding.  This takes time and patience.

  • Mature Spirituality gives lots of hugs.

 Internal Family Systems Theory teaches that each part of us behaves a certain way for a very good reason.  Spiritual maturity looks for the positive contribution the voice makes in the ecology of all the voices.  Showing appreciation validates that part.  This appreciation builds good will and changes the internal environment.  For example,  my jealous part wants to hold me accountable to make sure I’m doing my best.  I thank it for the concern it shows and assure it that I’m on task.  With that internal statement made, the green goblin of jealousy settles and I find that I am truly able to be happy for those around me. 

 A mature spirituality greets all voices as Christ would, with open arms (even if they seem sinful or wrong to us).  Just the visual of a person hugging themselves as an abused child can have life changing effects.  Every time we give hugs to our internal parts, we imitate the healing work of Christ.

  • Mature Spirituality realizes we are not alone.

 Internal healing comes at the hand of God.  Our connection with God, the working of the Holy Spirit, through the power of Christ’s sacrifice, all work together towards the redemption of our parts for the glory of God’s Kingdom.  When we join God the Creator, God the Redeemer, and God the Sustainer in this activity of understanding ourselves better and loving ourselves better, our bond with God strengthens and our ability to love the other as we love ourselves is strengthened.  Spiritually mature people join God in this process and trust that in time God will work.  We simply walk through the doors that God opens, like Aunt Gurdy calling us “Tator”. 

 IFS theory gives us generous footing as we climb into a close study of our inner world.  It helps us value often overlooked internal places and the role those place play in our spirituality. 

thoughts from a pondering prophet

POSTSCRIPT:  If this article has struck a cord, I’d like to recommend working with a professional counselor that utilizes IFS theory in their practice.  If you live near the Asheville, NC area I’d like to recommend Dr. Russell Siler- Jones.