by Jennifer Martin Rieck, LCPC
Introduction to Family Systems
I was recently reading an article about the theory of counseling called Internal Family Systems. The article was describing the ways in which trauma (big or little) can cause disruption to the successful integration of all of the parts of ourselves. Internal Family Systems views different parts of ourselves as aspects of our personalities that are good and worthy of acknowledgment. The premise is that if we can quit hiding the parts of ourselves that have been harmed, often our child parts, we can heal ourselves and move forward with integrating the difficult experiences we have had as children with our competent, compassionate, and cognitive adult selves.
Types of Parts
Internal Family Systems theory groups parts of self into Exiles, Managers, and Firefighters, each operating as a means to protect oneself. Exiles refer to the parts that we often unconsciously attempt to hide, the parts of ourselves that are vulnerable and insecure and that feel scary, threatening, or painful to connect with. These parts are often hidden or repressed in order to feel safe and competent as an adult. Managers are the parts of ourselves that we most often operate out of, often working hard to cover up vulnerabilities by being critical or terrorizing. The manager part serves as our inner critic and often silences Exiles in an attempt to prove that we have moved on from our childhood. Although the Manager part of us looks very adult-like on the outside, this part was often formed as a protector during childhood and as such is more motivated to protect vulnerable parts than motivated to become our authentic and real adult selves, adults who are capable of caring for others and receiving care, of giving as well as taking, of being able to be accountable while holding others accountable, and hanging onto our own truth even when another challenges it.
Exiles refer to the parts of ourselves that we often unconsciously attempt to hide, the parts of ourselves that are vulnerable and insecure and that feel scary, threatening, or painful to connect with.
The last type of parts of self, Firefighters, are thought to be the reactive or extreme parts of ourselves which only show up when our Manager part fails to keep vulnerable parts at bay and so we turn to some sort of other coping skill to hide and protect ourselves. Unhealthy coping skills could be things like substance abuse, self-harm, or any other unhealthy and self-defeating behaviors that prevent us from feeling painful emotions related to our child parts.
Narcissistic and Self-Sacrificing Manager Parts
Understanding Managers is another way that one could conceptualize two of the more problematic relationship styles that I often write about: Narcissism and Self-Sacrificing. In Narcissistic individuals, the Manager takes on the role of protecting the vulnerable child-part that might feel humiliated or shamed when inadequate. By being self-focused and overcompensating for ego fragility by being overtly boastful and arrogant, or simply putting others down in order to feel better about themselves, these Managers attempt to control others through manipulation, emotional confusion, and blaming, rather than giving voice to the child part of themselves that didn’t have healthy practice being emotionally vulnerable about their shame or insecurity.
In Narcissistic individuals, the Manager takes on the role of protecting the vulnerable child-part that might feel humiliated or shamed when inadequate.
Self-Sacrificers, as Managers, learned to get their needs met by developing a highly sensitive emotional radar and staying constantly in-tune and reactive to the emotions of others. This way of managing allows children in emotionally deprived home environments, or possibly abusive environments, to avoid harm where possible by meeting the needs of others. This way of relating to others also allows the child to have their needs for connection met more often. These individuals as adults primarily present themselves as strong, independent, not emotionally needy, and caring. Where it is true that Self-Sacrificers are nice and caring, they also have their own relationship problem: They invest all of their energy into managing the feelings and behaviors of others – something that will never work – rather than being self-aware about their own needs and focusing on getting them met. Individuals who took on this type of role growing up are often referred to as parentified children.
Self-Sacrificers, as Managers, learned to get their needs met by developing a highly sensitive emotional radar and staying constantly in-tune and reactive to the emotions of others.
Healing Narcissistic and Self-Sacrificing Manager Parts
Whether a person has a Narcissistic Managing part or a Self-Sacrificing Managing part, the result is the same: anxiety, poor self-awareness, and unhealthy or inauthentic relationship styles. Both parties must learn to acknowledge and integrate the parts of themselves that are attempting to manage or hide their child parts and instead invite their child self to have a voice in their life. Considering the wounds that happened to us during childhood, as well as painful childhood messages that we have received, helps us to become self-validating instead of avoidant. Inviting our child parts to be noticed, heard, and empathized with allows for more integration of our parts and a more accountable, authentic, and whole adult self.
People must learn to acknowledge and integrate the parts of themselves that are attempting to manage or hide their child parts and instead invite their child self to have a voice in their life.
Once we are able to articulate our vulnerable feelings and needs and practice mutual relating to all of our parts and with others, we will likely find that healing occurs and we experience being known in relationships in a way that is satisfying. Then and only then will we no longer need to control in order to be at peace.
To read more about Narcissism and Self-Sacrificing relationship styles, see Narcissm, Caregiving and Trauma: Facing Uncomfortable Feelings Results in Healing and Narcissism and Caregiving: Dancing around the Truth.