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Addressing Biases with IFS.

 In our highly polarized world, are you finding it easier to exclude people and groups? Has your disappointment, frustration, or anger escalated? Do you find yourself wondering what is wrong with 'them'? Or imagining what life would be like if only ‘they’ would change?

If you are a leader within an organization - Has your DEI (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion) efforts been successful? What might success even look like, and for whom?

 

I've spent decades trying to understand why our efforts to connect and make room for differences fail repeatedly. Additionally, I have been searching out methods that expand our ability to heal ourselves, care for others, and repair the damage we perpetuate. I have been involved in the anti-racism/DEI movement since 1995, first as a participant and then as a facilitator/coach, experiencing the trends, research, and resistance firsthand. I've moved through guilt and shame, outrage and self-righteousness, frustration and hopelessness, research, research, and more research, and finally stopped at the doorway of burnout and disillusion. I realized I was not looking at my audience with love and compassion and needed a new framework that would allow me to see and connect with participants through compassion and curiosity. Shortly afterward, I came across Internal Family Systems (IFS) as a therapeutic modality to address my early childhood trauma. It wasn't until 2022 that I heard about IFS being used to address bias, and it all fell into place. IFS posits that within each of us, there are 'parts,' and sometimes these parts are polarized or hold contradictory beliefs; for example, you may have a part that wants to go to the gym and another part of you that wants to sleep late. This conflict can cause stress and confusion. IFS's position is that there are "NO BAD PARTS," that every part has good intentions, that it is in our nature to heal, and that we all have access to this healing through our Self-energy. If you are not familiar with IFS, I would recommend you watch this introductory video from the founder, Dick Schwartz - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6X45Y74blSg

 

IFS shows that we can unblend from parts with problematic beliefs/behaviors and heal our most vulnerable parts, i.e., those parts that hold the burden of racist ideologies and beliefs. IFS provides a framework for individuals and groups to address and heal compassionately, a process called unburdening.

 

When analyzing dehumanization through the IFS framework, there are a number of ways in which biases may arise and take root: Legacy burdens, Personal experience, Unattached burdens, and Cultural burdens. IFS is a profoundly effective tool for healing our biased parts regardless of their origins. Dick Schwartz, founder of IFS, wrote an article entitled "Dealing with Racism: Should we exorcise or embrace our inner bigots?" In this article, Schwartz provides insight into his work with his own biases and provides a template for using IFS for healing. He notes that 'very few people are eager to examine how their actions hurt others,' an issue that, I suggest, stems in part from how DEI work has been approached in the past.

 

While the article focuses on racism, these lessons can be extrapolated to all biases and, therefore, to all groups. Schwartz starts by identifying three points of resistance:

First, while denial about racist parts is widespread, flagrant racism is now widely condemned, so most don't believe we're racist.

 

Second, because we're marinated in a racist culture, we're unaware of the effects of cultural legacies regarding race.

 

Third, who wants to turn the spotlight on their ugliest urges and voices?

 

In short, culturally, we believe that racism is bad and, therefore, anyone who holds racist ideologies is also bad; cultural legacies have driven these beliefs into our subconscious, and most of us are committed to the belief we are good people and therefore are reluctant to expose these ugly parts, even to ourselves.

 

In far too many DEI trainings, shame, blame, humiliation, anger, polarization, and re-traumatization are used to 'motivate' people to change. These are rarely, if ever, practical methods that promote healing. To this point, Schwartz writes, 'If hating our parts got them to change, being judgmental about racism would be fine. But my experience has been the opposite; Disdain fosters inner conflict and galvanizes protectors. On the other hand, understanding and loving protectors does help them change'. This is where IFS takes a radical and critical shift from most DEI work. In his article, Schwartz states that he has parts that hold racist ideologies and parts that hold anti-racist ideologies. Most of us have been taught to deny or keep a lid on our racist ideologies because they are not socially acceptable, but suppression, denial, and disdain have never worked, nor do they lead us to compassionate healing. If we do not address and heal our beliefs, they will continue to sneak out in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, inflicting harm and sustaining systems of oppression, whether we intend them to or not.

 

Through a radical paradigm shift, IFS offers us a way beyond resistance, fear, and judgment. Schwartz writes, 'My experience is that racist parts don't enjoy their jobs, and if we take care of the vulnerable parts they protect, they will change.' We will change, not from outside pressure, not through performative manipulation, but from a place of compassionate healing and connection. In my experience, this change is profound and happens quickly compared to other interventions or modalities.

 

More recently, I have heard a greater willingness from clients to own that they have a racist or sexist part (vs. taking on the full identity of a racist or sexist). While this is a courageous step, it may be an oversimplification of what is actually going on within the system. While reflecting on his journey, Schwartz vulnerably writes of two coalitions within his internal system: A Racist coalition and an Anti-racist coalition. These polarized groups remained at war with each other until healing was achieved. The racist coalition consisted of 4 parts: the angry/scapegoat part, the entitled part, the pessimist, and the denier. Each of these parts, like all parts, has good intentions and is trying its best to protect exiles (initially traumatized or wounded part) and the system. His Anti-racism coalition consisted of 3 parts: the inner judge, one who hates injustice, and a rebel part. He notes that these two coalitions are typically in conflict even though both groups are made up of protectors – parts committed to protecting more vulnerable parts, our exiles. This concept that we have coalitions of parts makes perfect sense and can help us understand the complexity of human experiences and the challenges we face when seeking to identify and unravel our internal landscape.

 

Schwartz writes, "Parts cannot change parts; only Self can do that. So hatred, self-righteousness, and patronizing didn't work. But how can we love parts of people who are racist? Understanding their protective roles helps me. As long as my exiles remain vulnerable, my racist coalition parts will keep their jobs. No matter how many anti-racism workshops I attend, they will cling to racist beliefs because education doesn't reduce my sense of vulnerability."

 

And our anti-racist parts can't drown out the inner racist parts. Schwartz is "convinced that as long as our protective parts believe they have to protect us, they will hold on to racism." He states, "A safe environment in which to explore and disclose inner thoughts and prejudices without fear of being judged is the only way I know to avoid internal backlash and avoidance. We can't bring light into darkness if we haven't shone light in our own dark places. But as long as we're afraid of our monsters, we will avoid shining that light. We will curse the monsters outside and leave those within stewing and alone. But it's a lot easier to look if you think you'll find good parts in bad roles instead of monsters… I'm not a racist. I have racist parts, but even they are just protective."

 

Schwartz identifies two sources of sustainable motivation.

First, as long as my protectors are blended and remain on high alert, they cut me off from my sensitive, creative, fun, intimacy-loving parts. My anti-racism work in therapy has been transformative. When I witness what I do to others and find a way to make repairs, I heal myself.

 

Second, I have a Self, and therefore, I have an inborn source of compassion and courage. The compassion of my Self will find ways to resist injustice and fight for the oppressed. My Self is unafraid of public criticism or loss of privilege. The clarity of my Self allows me to see injustice, while the courage of my Self leads me to speak out or act against it without judgment and self-righteousness because I can also see behind the protective parts of the oppressor to the pain that drives their actions.

 

In his experience as a therapist, he writes, "the more racist, entitled, narcissistic or grandiose a client seems, the more insecure and powerless his or her exiles are," which is why polarizing, shaming, and condemning them doesn't work.

 

Changing the discourse

Schwartz writes, "As I've seen more clearly the importance of not exiling other people or their parts. When I accept others and myself, I live with the inner certainty that I'm not separate." He suggests that "conversations regarding race would be enriched if everyone noticed their polarity between racist parts and the parts who disapprove of racism, and could identify who dominates at any given time. Once racist parts are identified, participants would have the opportunity to explore the motives of their parts rather than try to eliminate them. Participants would learn that racist protectors are good parts who have picked up bad behavior. My racist parts, for example, believed that racism kept me safe, and they wouldn't agree to change until they saw that I was less vulnerable. Our protectors will cling to white privilege until we are clear and honest about its internal as well as its external costs. I believe healing inner wounds is key to decreasing racism. As I've opened my heart to my exiled parts, I've been more able to open my heart to others."

 

Using the IFS framework to address and heal our biased parts is the most practical, profound, and compassionate tool I have experienced for addressing personal and systemic discriminatory practices. Our historic reliance on shame, self-righteousness, punishment, and cognition has entrenched and driven our biased parts deeper into the subconsciousness and societal shadows. IFS offers a path for healing for both the oppressor and the oppressed parts, healing that will have a rippling effect on our families, communities, and organizations. After experiencing and witnessing the effects that IFS provides, I believe these efforts will lead to profound healing opportunities for ourselves, each other, and our organizations.

 

If you are interested in learning how IFS can be integrated into your personal growth or organizational DEI strategy, contact me at osmun@wickedbridges.com

 

* Dealing With Racism: Should We Exorcise or Embrace Our Inner Bigots? By Richard C. Schwartz. 2001

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