I’m speaking with therapist Jeff Lundgren, again, today about internal family systems. It’s a therapeutic modality that he uses in his practice that I find fascinating. If you’ve ever seen the movie Inside Out, you’ve had an introduction to this type of therapy. So, in this episode, we talk about where the internal family systems came from, and most importantly, how it can help us in our sexual lives. I invite you to join us for this fascinating look into our minds.
Jeff Lundgren is a Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor and an AASECT Certified Sex Therapist and holds a certificate as a Psychedelic-Assisted Therapist Provider. Jeff is a member of the Mormon Mental Health Association and the owner of a private group practice in Millcreek – Oak Branch Counseling. Jeff lives in Salt Lake City. He has a passion for the outdoors, music, autocross, and the joys of fatherhood.
Amanda: I’m really excited to bring, um, this, another interview with Jeff Lundgren back.
I got such great, uh, feedback on last week’s, even though it was a little more controversial topic. So thank you. I think you’re really, really going to enjoy this episode. We’re talking about internal family systems and embracing all the different parts of us and not only how it helps us individually, but how it helps us as a couple. So here is my interview again with Jeff Lundgren.
All right, everyone, we are back again with Jeff Lundgren, who’s a therapist for here in Salt Lake City to talk about internal family systems. Welcome to the podcast again, Jeff.
Jeff: Thank you.
Amanda: So if they didn’t hear my interview with you last week, let’s have you introduce yourself again to my audience.
Jeff: Yeah, thanks. So my name is Jeff Lundgren. I’m a licensed clinical mental health counselor. I practice as a psychotherapist in Salt Lake City. I’m also ASEC trained as a certified sex therapist, and I work with a lot of couples, adults generally.
Amanda: Awesome. Great. Okay. So let’s talk about internal family systems.
I learned about this type of therapy a couple of years ago. I’ve listened to quite a few podcasts, watched some Ted talks, that kind of thing on it. I have like three books on my bookshelf about it, but I haven’t read them. But when I saw that this was something that you did in your therapy practice, I would love to get more information about this.
So what is internal family systems?
Jeff: Yeah. So internal family systems is a therapeutic modality used. It falls within the umbrella of psychodynamic, meaning if an individual is able to look inward to the components, the aspects, the experiences of their life and resolve the originating events, then the current presentation of whatever they’re experiencing is resolved. At least that’s the hope. I can speak more to where it came from or how it’s used.
Amanda: Yeah, tell us more about where it came from.
Jeff: So, the internal family systems originated by a PhD marriage and family therapist by the name of Richard Schwartz. Um, I think around 30 to 40 years ago, I think.
Amanda: Oh, wow.
Jeff: And he recognized in working with clients that, so let me back up a slight bit.
So marriage and family therapists are very entrenched in what we call systems theory. In other words, psychological dysfunction has its origins primarily within a relationship or the dynamics that exists within the system, which could be one’s family or community, that kind of thing. And so from that perspective, Dick Schwartz began to recognize that his client’s internal dialogue reflected aspects of what you might see within a family system. And so we’ve heard, and everybody does this, a part of me feels like, well, there’s just this little thing within me that, and so he started to lean into them and encourage the clients to create a dialogue as if these were tangible, psychological compartments, although he actually stretches that, which is interesting – we can go into that as well. But through identifying the roles, relationships and aspects of oneself rather than a monolith of personality. Like, well, you are you. Amanda is you. Jeff is him. It’s no, you are a container of these different parts that fulfill different roles and they all have agendas, they have fears, they have pain, or they have certain needs.
Did you ever see the movie Inside Out?
Amanda: Yeah, absolutely.
Jeff: Classic presentation of the kind of thing that you might explore with internal family systems. So that’s a little bit about where it came from and what it is.
Amanda: Awesome. So I watched this Ted talk, um, and it was a woman who conducted like focus groups. And she talked about how, like, you know, in each focus group, you can always find certain personality types and dynamics that are happening. And what she recognized was that she often has those same parts within her. Like you have the one that’s like super critical and you have the one that just wants to keep the peace and you have the one that like wants to organize everything.
And when we can start to internalize these different parts of ourselves and love all of our different parts, it helps us love ourself more. Does that sound true?
Jeff: Yeah, absolutely.
Amanda: Yeah. Okay. So how can internal family systems help us understand ourselves better? Because like you said, like we, in a marriage dynamic, we’re looking at the system and all of that, but it’s also an internal thing as well. Correct?
Jeff: That’s right. So I do a lot of work with couples. That’s why I’m a sex therapist, or maybe I’m a sex therapist ergo I work with a lot of couples. So you would think about an internal dialogue as an inappropriate vehicle to resolve relationship struggle, when in fact it’s actually the reason why people have relationship struggles is because there’s an internal conflict, right?
Jeff: And what’s fascinating is there’s a lot of diffusion between our parts or our parts with what we call self, which I think is important to talk about in a bit, but the goal, well, there’s a few goals. One is to separate the identity of the parts within us from self, so that our parts don’t grab the microphone within our head, right?
And all of a sudden start to communicate and take control over our relationship. Or another way to say it is when I argue with my wife, it’s not me that’s arguing with my wife. It’s my parts. And when my wife argues back, it’s not her, it’s her parts. So our parts are duking it out. Yeah. There’s so much diffusion that we identify it as, well, it’s her or it’s me.
So part of the goal is to create that separation. Unattach these parts from each other with understanding and then kind of a complicated second phase is then to unburden the parts and perhaps the ways in which parts relate to each other and unburden those dependencies so that our internal parts can be repurposed and given new roles because we don’t want to kill these parts or let them die or go away. That’s not the point. So we show them love and empathy and help make and create change.
Amanda: Yeah. So I know, um, Dick Schwartz who came up with this internal family systems, he has like a few different terminologies for specific types of parts. Is that correct?
Amanda: Okay. Can you talk to me a little bit about those?
Jeff: Yeah. So there’s three different big groups of parts. And it’s, I think, helpful to start with the concept of self or true self. So self or true self would represent your, and let me connect this because, and Dick Schwartz wouldn’t be opposed to this, um, bridge. Self is, in my perspective, the divinely created essence or spirit or soul, our divinity, our godhood, you might suggest. So the attributes of self are empathy, wisdom, perspective, compassion, these very, um, enlightened type terms that are selfless are loving, patients like that’s self.
Amanda: Okay. So let me pause you just for a second there. So on my podcast and with my clients, I often talk about, when we’re working on helping them really tune into who they are and come from when they’re interacting with others, especially their spouse as their best self, right? So we’re not getting into these wounded parts of ourselves that are hurting that want to take the mic and talk, right? But really like who are you truly? And who is the best you?
And that is that kind of the self that we’re talking about here?
Jeff: Yeah, that’s correct. So through an IFS framework, self is immutable. It’s always been that way ever since one was created, right? So it’s not an evolution, it’s not a developmental thing. It’s an absolute, that’s who self is now. The container of one’s person does contain a developmental aspect where the parts of us that carry burden, that don’t belong to self, that we inherit as a part of our life experiences are a part of us.
So we do get to choose how to show up.
Let’s jump in a little bit and talk about what these parts are.
Amanda: Okay. Yeah.
Jeff: So that’s self. Then we have a classification of parts we call protectors, or at least Dick Schwartz labels them as protectors. A protector is a sort of psychological firewall. It’s job, and did you ever see the movie, um, where, and I don’t recall in the moment, um, where the colonel, I want to say, as I think about the title of the movie, anyway, the colonel makes the statement when he’s in court, he’s all like, you need me on that wall. You want me on that wall. Do you recall this movie?
Amanda: A Few Good Men.
Jeff: A Few Good Men. Thank you. That’s a protector. The protector is this hyper-committed aspect of our collective person dedicated to protecting us from something.
Amanda: The other line from that movie that people will probably know is you can’t handle the truth. Like he’s the one protecting everything because he thinks we can’t handle the actual truth.
Jeff: Right. In fact, our protectors often infanticide self or ignore self as if it doesn’t exist. They think that like Amanda is actually the wounded Amanda or Jeff is the wounded Jeff and they’re protecting you from that experience. So part of working with IFS is creating a relationship between the protector and self. Removing that perspective that you are young or immature or incapable, but that you are competent and you are strong and you are wise. And that’s at least from the protectors perspective, is a new concept. It’s quite remarkable to see it play out.
Amanda: Interesting. Okay. So we’ve got the self and we’ve got the protector.
Who else do we have?
Jeff: Sure. So before we dive into the third classification of parts. There’s two different kinds of protectors. And it’s not super important to know or use this kind of terminology, but we have manager protectors. Manager protectors are proactive. If you do what I say, then you will not get hurt. So they’re preemptive. They try to keep ahead of it. They tend to micromanage. That’s the term.
Then you have what Dick Schwartz calls firefighters. Firefighters are responsive. They put out the fire once the wound has been poked at. And it’s their job to clean up the mess and they tend to be resentful, like, Oh, I can’t believe you did that again. Well, fine. Now you got to do this.
But protectors in general are demanding. They’re insatiable, but they’re all protecting you. They have noble intentions, but their child parts too.
And then we have this third classification, which we call exiles. And you can think of exiles as stories that have been banished deep into our subconscious, if we kind of go Freudian for a hot minute and the protectors don’t want these stories to be told, don’t think about it. We’re not going to go there. Do you remember the last time we went there? It hurt. It was uncomfortable. You experienced shame. You experienced fear. We’re not going to do that again. So you need to follow me. Or you need to do what I tell you to do. And so the dialogue between the protectors, the psychological firewall, it’s attempt anyway, is to protect this person from the stories or these exile parts that carry the original wound or the core wounds from using other model dialogue.
Amanda: Oh man, I have so many examples of this. Yes. I see it all the time with my clients in different ways. A lot of times it’s, you know, the deep shame that they feel about their sexuality, um, thinking that it’s protective, right? Um, and so because of that, then they don’t engage, they don’t feel desire. They don’t have a lot of arousal because they’re shutting it all down because they think it’s protective, that it’s going to somehow separate them from their parents or from God or something like that and so tell me if I’m thinking along the right lines here.
Jeff: Yeah, I think your thinking is accurate in that some people will experience some amount of shame, right? So the exile, the untold story has an experience at an age or a set of ages that invokes shame, right? So if we’re talking about sexuality, it’s like, well, sex is bad. Sex is dirty. Sex is wrong. Sex is immoral. Sex is dangerous. Um, could be any number of real, very salient experiences that have been incorporated into this part of us called an exile.
And as an attempt to prevent that shame from emerging, a protector imposes a set of rules, obligations, boundaries, ethics, covertly calls it ethics, or it could be responses like, no, no, no, don’t, don’t go on that date. Don’t, don’t go on that date. Cause you might get turned on. And if you turn on, we don’t want to, let’s not even talk about that. Just don’t go on that date. Right. That internal dialogue from this protector might sound something like that.
Amanda: Yeah. Oh, so good. Okay. So that’s within the one person, right? Like in helping us understand ourselves better and these different parts of ourselves.
How does this work between couples?
Jeff: So the work of Sue Johnson, um, she doesn’t come from a IFS background. Her modality is different, but there’s some similarities and Sue Johnson’s work. She talks about the wounds that we experience cause individuals to act out patterns in what she calls a dance. So in relationship dynamics, Sue Johnson would suggest that the responses that we have in conversation or behavior or avoidance or in our own anxious attachment style, she’s a big attachment style advocate, which I think is fantastic, that these patterns are rooted in wounds and the wounds we could equate to exiles within the IFS framework.
So if I were to come home and I say something to my wife, such as, wow, I’m hungry. Like where’s dinner? It’s not a particularly offensive statement, though it might lack the empathy in the moment, maybe some awareness of what maybe my wife is experiencing. Not to mention the misogyny of imposing that she’s responsible for creating dinner all the time. Right. If that were the conversation. I’m inflicting this very typical conversation on your audience here.
So yeah, I’m really hungry. Where’s dinner? Now, her response, if we’re talking about Sue Johnson’s work is I’ve always felt the burden of preparing meals and it has been debilitating for me considering everything else I have on my plate with kids or whatever. And so it feels insulting, insensitive. It feels, um, selfish and her response…
Amanda: Could feel like an attack.
Jeff: Oh, yes, it could feel like an attack, right? Her response might sound something like, well, go make it yourself. Appropriately said, I get it. He may feel like, well, go make it yourself is also an attack and he may storm out, fine, then I’m just going to go to McDonald’s and he’s out the door. Right?
Now let’s talk about IFS and through an IFS lens. Here’s what’s happening when he comes home, he’s a little bit hangry. Okay. He might not be aware of it, but he has this protector in him that is vigilant in the moment to provide him sustenance and get his blood sugar up. Now, why would that be important for this protector? I don’t know. We could say maybe that In his life experience, he was second in his family of origin, right? Maybe a younger kid that was always having to take care of his own needs. And he just didn’t really feel loved or accepted. And so there’s some unresolved grief or relationship due to his place within his family of origin. We’re just making stuff up.
So he’s coming home and it’s charged, right? So the protector is being a little more vigilant and being a little insensitive toward his wife in the moment. If we’re compassionate, we’d say he’s not meaning to do this, but the protectors in charge, the protector has the microphone.
His wife responds because she has a protector in the way saying, you know, you need to stand up for yourself. Don’t let your husband walk all over you. This relationship doesn’t have an equal footing and whether that’s true or not, the protectors will deceive us there. They love to exaggerate in order to meet or make ends meet in terms of their goal, which in this case is to protect this woman.
So she responds protectively toward him. Well, fine, then go find it yourself. Now, is that her? Yes, it’s coming from her, but it’s coming from this protective part of her.
And he responds. And you can kind of see how this cascades his protectors responding through avoidance. Look, if you’re not going to feel loved and accepted in this way, you might as well leave and just go take care of things on your own, because she doesn’t really care about you. So it creates a narrative and the protectors doing this to protect him.
So that’s kind of how maybe parts might play out in a relationship dynamic.
Amanda: Yeah. And you’ve got, you know, two people who’s protectors have the mic instead of their true self. I mean, we can totally see where conflict is going to happen in a relationship.
So I mean, I know we can’t go into all the details here, but like, how does this get resolved? How do we work this out so that we can actually have productive conversations and understand this about ourselves and our spouse?
Jeff: Yeah. So. Again, through an IFS lens, there’s two big pieces, if this were my client, what I would do.
So the first thing I would do is to help each individual in the relationship have understanding from self about what’s playing out in terms of their partner’s protectors. Oh, you have this protector. I can see why this protector exists for you.
Now, let me pronoun this a bit to avoid the confusion.
Let’s say that he was able to say, sweetheart, I can see how this part of you has been protecting you. That makes a lot of sense to me because of these experiences that you’ve had. Wow. I really get it, right? I have empathy toward this part of you now, him doing that for her allows and gives her permission to connect herself with this protector.
Right? This is the beautiful thing about relationships because he’s extending empathy toward her in a way that she’s unable to do for herself until she is, that’s kind of phase two and vice versa. Right? So in the dialogue, it’s more like this, honey, wow, my blood sugar is really low and a part of me is really agitated that there isn’t food here. And I know that this isn’t on you, but I’m really curious, what are we going to do for dinner? Okay.
So the dialogue changes because his awareness has changed. Now, if he doesn’t do that, she might choose to do that. Wow. Honey, as you say that, the first offensive example, I can see, or I can see that there’s a part of me that feels really agitated because I’ve always felt overwhelmed when it comes to dinner. And I have compassion toward you and this part of you that is really hungry right now. What are we going to do about dinner? Let’s come up with a solution, right?
So it changes the discourse in the conflict to incorporate the aspects of self for each other in a way that the protectors feel heard and seen, right? That helps to lower the tension within. So that’s all kind of phase one, and just a high level example.
Phase two, therapeutically, we want to unburden the exiles that are being protected. So we create relationships with parts, we can do this either individually, or in a couple setting together, which increases awareness for either partner, and we unburden the exile. We find the story of origin, and then psychologically, we go back and we allow self to help unburden the exile. And it basically says, if I were there for you, how would I support you? I will always be here for you. And then we invite the protector to unburden because now the protector doesn’t need to protect the exile anymore because the exile isn’t carrying a burden.
And then we unburden the protector. So now when, in a similar circumstance, the husband comes home and he’s like, whoa, I am so hungry. Where’s dinner? And she says, that is such a good question. And she’s not even phased. Why? Because she doesn’t carry the burden or the wound right, according to Sue Johnson.
Or if he is still wounded and I’m not trying to pathologize the human condition, but let’s say he’s still working on his stuff and he comes and just. Where’s dinner, right? Actually, let me back up. He approaches it kindly. She responds defensively. Well, go make it yourself. And he says, honey, you know what? I love you. I can totally see how this is stressful for you. How can I support you? Right? Why is he able to do that? Not because he’s not just aware of his parts of protectors, but his parts don’t carry the psychological burden that he may have carried for years. So he doesn’t react in the same way. He responds from self instead of responding from parts.
Amanda: Oh, I love that so much. Okay. So I want to move this. I mean, we’ve kind of talked about it a little bit, but I want to move this into the sexual realm because I think this could be really, really helpful in a sexual realm.
So can we maybe think of a dialogue, a dynamic that happens typically between husband, wife, let’s say higher desire husband, lower desire wife, desire dynamics are different. What could this possibly look like?
Jeff: Yeah. Such a good example. So in relationships where there’s a libido differential or a difference in desire, which changes, and this is common, the IFS approach would be to create, again, to create an understanding of how does one’s protectors respond to that libido differential.
So let’s make, just to make this fun, let’s make her the high libido partner and he is the low libido partner.
Amanda: Oh yeah, that would be fun.
Jeff: No, it’s fun because this does happen. In fact, we think that men generally are more sexual, but the reality is that it’s kind of common that all genders experience this, a varying degree of libido.
So she’s the high libido partner and she creates, um, a bid for intimacy and he responds, I don’t, I don’t want to, I’m not even in the mood. Right.
Well, how does that land on her? Does she respond with hopelessness? Does she respond through some defensive thing like blaming him? Well, if you would just stop playing computer games all the time, maybe you’d be interested in sex more. Right. Yeah. It could be anything.
Amanda: It could be, he just doesn’t find me attractive. Right. She goes internal that way. That one’s a big one.
Jeff: Let’s go with that one. Okay. Her internal dialogue is, well, I’m just not pretty enough. I used to be, we used to have sex all the time and now we don’t, I guess I’m less than attractive or I’ve had a couple of kids and my body’s changed. Right? Shame.
So if he’s able to understand her protectors, however, that internal dialogue shows up in their relationship. He might say something like, honey, it seems as if, well, let me back up, honey, I can understand how you must feel right now. And I’m imagining that my not wanting to play right now probably brings up a lot of concern or thought for you. I’m really curious. Can you tell me what’s happening for you?
Right? So he opened some empathy toward not toward her although it is toward her, it’s toward the protector. Which is a part of her. And he holds space for the protector instead of trying to, he doesn’t try to fix her. He doesn’t try to do anything other than to listen with empathy toward the protector.
She then might say, well, blah, blah, blah, blah. And I’m really feeling maybe I’m not pretty enough and I’m feeling my body isn’t attracted to you anymore or whatever it is. And he does the job that herself is unable to do in the moment. Which is common. We all get flooded. I hear you. Tell me more. I can appreciate that. That makes a lot of sense to me.
And a really great IFS question is what do you need from me right now? How can I support you right now? Tell me about what you’re afraid of or what is coming up for you? Like whatever is supportive dialogue in that moment, because his self is able to hold space for her.
Now, therapeutically, then here comes IFS, the libido difference is, we’re saying that she’s the high libido partner. He’s the low libido partner. We’re not trying to lower her libido. That’s not a part of the therapeutic intent. Has nothing to do with it. But let’s just make this interesting. When we unburden the exile therapeutically, let’s say body shaming from dad, then the protector doesn’t include that in the narrative anymore. So his response to decline intimacy isn’t rejection. It isn’t body shame. It’s something different. Okay.
So that’s helpful, but here’s what could happen. And I’ve seen this happen in similar ways, which is why this is an exciting, um, example, like case study. His libido changes. Why?
We haven’t changed or made any attempt to adjust your libido. It’s not a problem, right? Even his low libido is not a problem unless he feels it is, but let’s say that it’s really not. If that’s not why the clients might be coming to therapy, but why would his libido increase when her resiliency due to negative self talk from body image was his impacted or have been woven into her narrative of sexual rejection.
Perhaps, and I’ve seen this because now he feels that he’s not to blame when she responds negatively with body shame. Her response might change to, Oh, I totally understand. It’s okay. I’ll try again another time. And now his internal dialogue changes from, you mean I’m okay? It’s not my fault. Of course, I think you’re attractive. And all of a sudden his response to her initiation has changed.
So it’s interesting to know how sometimes shame, protectors, parts, responses, and the diffusion of those parts within one’s person, makes for a very complicated, but interesting outcome when those things shift.
Amanda: Yeah. Oh, I love that example so much.
And I mean, I think it’s totally true in the reverse as well. Right. But I love that we use the higher desire woman because I mean, I’m a higher desire woman, so I totally get that. But we can see it in the reverse too, right? When a husband is higher desire and a woman turns him down and he goes into rejection and pouting and all this stuff, like really starting to understand and be curious about what’s happening for him, but also what’s happening for her internally. Like mm-hmm, things change in the dynamic that actually makes them more attracted to each other and often, you know, closes that gap a little bit.
Jeff: Mm hmm. Let me tell you, again, I know we’re trying to close. This is where IFS really shines for me. Richard Schwartz says that IFS is more about individual or even relational healing.
When people learn to resolve the conflict and the dynamics within themselves, the capacity for them to show up within their communities in and around the world fundamentally shift and he believes, and I think this is true as are many modalities, you know, contribute that, real robust healing experiences in any kind of therapeutic or coaching setting provide durable social change.
And I think that’s fascinating to consider that there’s an awareness that our individual isms and our own stuckness when we resolve that, make us or empower us to show up in the world around us in really proactive and beautiful ways.
Amanda: Yes. Oh, I love that so much. Okay, Jeff, this has been another great conversation. Thank you so much for being here with me today. Can you tell my audience where they can find you?
Jeff: Thank you. So I practice in Salt Lake city, in Mill Creek and you can simply look me up online. Jeff Lundgren therapist will find it. Um, you can also search for the name of my practice, which is Oak Branch Counseling, and you’ll find me there too.
Amanda: Awesome. Thanks, Jeff.
Jeff: Thank you!
Amanda: All right, friends. I hope you enjoyed that as much as I did. Um, I actually use a version of internal family systems a lot with coaching clients, both individually and the couples that I work with. And I find that it is so effective. And I think it’s something that while you may not have therapeutic knowledge of how to do this or coaching, it is something that you can do and recognize in yourself to help calm you down and understand yourself better and do some internal work to understand your spouse better in that way. So thank you so much for joining me today. We’ll see you next week. Bye-Bye.