What is Self Leadership?

The term “Self Leadership” was coined by Dr. Richard Schwartz in his landmark approach to therapy, Internal Family Systems. Self Leadership means living intentionally and fully from your core authentic Self—your true nature—beyond personality, narratives, and historical patterns of behavior. Since the inception of IFS, the approach has deepened into a path for personal development and a model for spiritual well-being. We grow in our ability to be Self Led as we become attuned to our own unique divine essence.

Many of us have been told that wisdom resides outside of us, in a parent, a special book, a teacher, coach, preacher, rabbi, or someplace other than within our own core Self. However, as we grow in our capacity to travel inward, and often downward (toward our “shadow” and the most difficult of emotions) we come to know ourselves, bringing loving attention (in a Christ- or Buddha-like way) to whatever is out of balance or wounded. In this way we experience good mental health, emotional well-being, and spiritual groundedness; this is Self Leadership.

“All the esoteric traditions within the major religions – Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam – emphasize the same core belief: we are sparks of the eternal flame, manifestations of the absolute ground of being. It turns out that the divine within – what the Christians call the Soul or Christ Consciousness, Buddhists call Buddha Nature, the Hindus Atman, the Taoists Tao, the Sufis the Beloved, the Quakers the Inner Light – doesn’t take years of meditative practice to access because it exists in all of us, just below the surface of our extreme parts. Once they agree to separate from us, we suddenly have access to who we really are.”

Richard Schwartz

Founder, Internal Family Systems

What is IFS?

Internal Family Systems (IFS) is a beautiful and productive approach to uncovering pain, false beliefs and the heavy baggage most of us carry.  IFS assumes that each of us is already whole and inherently wise; already capable of bringing clarity and ease to our lives simply by aligning more intentionally with our Higher Self. From this vantage point, listening to all the other voices rumbling inside us, we discern how to partner with what IFS calls “parts.”

“All parts are welcome” is a frequent and powerful refrain in IFS work.

These different parts of us, each fundamentally good, can appear in extreme roles such as self-loathing, rage, depression, addiction, or other perceived “negativity.” when we turn toward them with curiosity and courage, we find that they are actually trying to help us survive or navigate a world that often feels overwhelming. Our ”parts”, as we listen to them, turn out to be our trailheads, our wisest teachers, and our friends.

IFS began more than 30 years ago, and at first had a somewhat uneasy relationship with the rest of the psychotherapy community. It’s not a medical model. It assumes that we are already whole, not diseased; already capable of bringing clarity and ease to our lives by aligning more intentionally with our Higher Self—a profoundly spiritual concept.

IFS began as a therapeutic tool for people with mental health issues.  As it evolved, therapists discovered that it changed their own lives. It taught them to live from authentic core selves, instead of being driven by parts – by posturing, reacting, worrying, and all the other “false selves” – programmed ways of being – we tend to express day to day. IFS teaches how to recognize “parts” of us that run our lives when we’re not watching. It helps us reconnect with those parts, bring them into an alliance with our whole internal system, and live from steady, wise, grounded Selfhood.

You don’t need a therapist to do IFS. Anyone can use it. Everyone needs it.

Metaphors for Self and Parts

Some people think of self and parts as like our solar system. The sun is the core Self. Planets revolve around the sun, staying in their orbits, clicking along in a systematic way. Without the sun, the planets would drift and destabilize. The sun’s energy brings life to planets. Sometimes planets get so upset they jump their orbit and the whole soar system feels the dissonance. At this point, the sun’s job is to shine more brilliantly, sending planets back into place.

One of my experienced clients likes playfully to call his core Self “The King.” He sees his parts as “advisors” to the throne. He knows when the “King” is on the throne and he can feel when the “King” is absent. Good advisors have their proper roles and advise the King well. Some advisors, when triggered by personal, relational, financial, or other setbacks, get so activated that they go rouge. They may even stage a coup, trying to knock the King off the throne; for this client rage and physical outbursts used to overtake his metaphorical kingdom, his true authentic Self on a regular basis. IFS has provided him with the tools to return the King, his authentic Self, to its thrown and to help the advisors get what they need and settle back into wise advocacy roles. When this happens, my client becomes Self-led again.

A third way to think of self and parts is like the ocean and its waves. The ocean is the Self. Never changing. Always just what it is. Waves, like “parts,” shift, erupt, come and go; they crash, gyrate, swell, and sometimes are calm, stable and hardly noticeable. Even when the waves crash into each other or slam against a boat or a rocky outcrop, the ocean doesn’t change. It’s just there. Being itself doing its thing. This is the Self.