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  • Writer's pictureSean Cuthbert

Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy: Common manager roles in a shame-prone system

As I've written about in previous posts, there is a common polarization in shame-prone internal system between a Manager part that shames internally (such as a Critic or a Judge) and a part that is the recipient of that shaming and who holds that shame (often a vulnerable child part). Of course, there is more to a shame-prone system that two parts or two groups of parts, so I wanted to offer some other common managerial responses to a system holding young parts that carry shame. You may see these responses in others, or have been wondering about your own parts that do this. This is by no means an extensive list, but a starting point to explore the complexity of how a system manages a lot of shame.


Parts that excessively-apologise. I have met many people in my career who apologise fifteen times between the waiting room and my office (which is a 5 metre walk). I remember one of my early career supervisors told me these clients were essentially "apologising for their existence" which rang true for me, but doesn't tell the full story. Parts that apologise disporportionately to a situation or excessively are proactive managers that are protecting from potentially angry or disapproving responses from the other person and are attempting to avert conflict. Telling the part that they don't need to apologise does little to shift the reaction. This is because it is something that is deeply ingrained in the system, and a survival strategy learned early in life to protect externally from scapegoating, unpredictable or abusive caregivers, and keep young parts holding the burden of "badness" hidden.


Parts that over-share. We've all met someone socially who has told you their entire personal history in the first five minutes of meeting them. From an IFS perspective, this is a very clever manager part at work that has potentially two roles. Firstly, the part may be attempting to fast-track intimacy and connection by over-sharing, desperately trying to help out a more vulnerable exile who feels desperately alone. In trauma therapy, this can be referred to as trauma bonding. Depending on how this is done, it may bring about positive outcomes such as mutual support or validation, or negative outcomes such as co-dependency, or re-enactments of early traumatic relationship dynamics. Secondly, over-sharing parts can be used to push away external people who may find the over-sharing off putting, keeping younger parts stuck in isolation perpetuating younger parts holding shame-based beliefs such as, "I am unlovable."


Parts that trust too easily, (or won't trust). In systems that have had wildly unpredictable caregivers, it is common for people to develop manager parts that trust too easily, or in some cases, won't trust anyone. Parts that over-trust assume that others will care and look after them, even when this expectation is disproportionate to the depth or level of connection in the relationship. This expectation sets the person up for disappointment when the expected external care doesn't come, or in extreme situations depending on the system of the person who this expectation is placed upon, it may lead to re-enactments of the betrayal or abuse that occurred in the original caregiver relationship. The exiles these managers are protecting are often holding shame-based beliefs such as "No one can care for me."


Parts that over-intellectualise. Very commonly, my clients present with quite prominent thinking or intellectual managers that are used to running their lives, and in high-functioning people with professional roles, these parts can be useful in career progression and bring them great success. Unfortunately, in many therapeutic modalities, thinking parts are used to doing most of the work. As I often say to my clients, "If you could think your way out of your problems, you would have probably done this by now and wouldn't be sitting in front of me." Intellectualising parts are easy to spot as most sentences start with, "I think..." or the client is very focused on rationalisations or intellectual understandings of issues rather than feelings or their somatic experience. The part uses logic and reasoning as a default to explain away or justify behaviors and feelings that might otherwise evoke shame, thereby protecting the individual from fully experiencing it.


As always, none of these parts are "problems" or their strategies things to be battled, fought, or gotten rid of. Each of these manager parts helped the person survive, and in some cases still play very important roles in their current lives. What we are offering each of these managers is the offer of connection and compassionate relationship from Self, curiosity about their role, an offer to add nuance to how they go about things, or trying something new if they wish, and the invitation to help the exile holding shame that they are protecting.

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