You may wonder why you have so many conflicting emotions, thoughts and behaviors when it comes to trauma, especially if you’ve been traumatized by a manipulative narcissist. The Internal Family Systems model, created by therapist Dr. Richard Schwartz, posits that we all have “inner parts” that fall into three main categories: exiles, managers, and firefighters. These inner parts are discrete facets of our personalities or “subpersonalities” that serve vital survival and protective functions. These create an “internal family” inside of our mind.
When these inner parts are healthy, unburdened, and are able to contribute to our well-being and survival without using maladaptive strategies, this internal system can be led successfully by the core “Self,” the compassionate, calm, centered, connected and grounded self we all have within us. Each inner part wants something positive for the core “Self” but can go to extreme lengths to do so or use maladaptive strategies to achieve their goals, especially if they have been shaped by trauma. These inner parts can reveal themselves through behaviors, thoughts, emotions, images, sensations and more, and provide feedback to the “Self” that can guide the decisions the “Self” makes. When they are burdened with traumas and triggers, these inner parts can act out in extreme ways that harm us, even though their intentions are usually to defend, protect, and guide us back to safety.
This evidence-based model of psychotherapy is groundbreaking, especially when it comes to conceptualizing the impact of childhood trauma on our behavior. However, less has been spoken about how this model can also inform our relationships with narcissistic or psychopathic individuals. When we’ve been traumatized by narcissistic individuals, these inner parts can come into conflict and “fight” with each other for control, causing our inextricable trauma bond with the narcissist (a bond that develops as a survival mechanism) to become even stronger in some cases.
Here is how our inner parts can influence our attachment to narcissists:
Exiles carry the pain of childhood traumas and search for a rescuer. These younger inner parts often hold the burdens of childhood traumas, including the original terror, pain, shame, wounds, memories and fear from those traumas. Exile inner parts are especially vulnerable and fragile; they may seek validation, reassurance, comfort, and feel a need to tell their story and have it heard.
Exile inner parts can hold an intense desire to avoid abandonment and attach to the narcissist out of fear of being abandoned again and having to confront their childhood trauma alone. These parts can become especially trauma bonded to the abuser and come to view the abuser as a “rescuer” figure even though the abuser is also the source of their present pain and trauma. Since the narcissistic or psychopathic abuser creates a cycle of hurt-and-rescue and intermittent reinforcement with their victims, your “exile” inner parts may be severely triggered into making frantic attempts to avoid abandonment and seek validation from the abuser, even though you know this person has harmed you chronically. This can cause you to return to the relationship repeatedly even when it becomes unhealthy and destructive.
Managers are the protective inner parts that proactively try to control situations and relationships to prevent the pain of exiles from being experienced in the first place by mitigating the risks of triggers. They attempt to “shield” the younger parts and their wounds from being exposed to the dangers of the world. These are the CEOs of our mental landscape, avoiding situations that could trigger the pain of your “younger” exile inner parts to come into consciousness and disrupting your daily life. They may do this through perfectionism, caretaking, overachieving, constantly striving toward goals (for example, through excessively exercising or overworking), people-pleasing, codependency or by engaging in hypercritical and aggressive behaviors toward others in order to control them.
In a relationship with a narcissist, your manager inner parts may try to suppress any core wounds from surfacing by internalizing the abuse and engaging in self-blame or trying to control the narcissist. They may take on a caretaker role with the narcissist to try to “nurse” or educate the narcissist back into being an empathic person, an effort that often proves fruitless. You might also micromanage and hypercriticize the narcissist in order to try to “prevent” the abuse from occurring.
Manager inner parts may also cause you to excessively try to fix or improve yourself in an attempt to avoid the narcissist’s abuse, overexplain or defend yourself, or engage in people-pleasing or fawning to maintain the relationship so the pain of losing the narcissist doesn’t disrupt other aspects of your life. Due to your manager inner parts, you may also be pushed to distract yourself from what is happening in the relationship with overachieving or striving toward goals, unwilling to confront the reality of the abuse that is occurring.
Unfortunately, this means all your efforts are put into surviving the relationship rather than detaching from it, which makes it more difficult to break a trauma bond and to exit dangerous situations. Some survivors of narcissists may also have manager inner parts that opt out of relationships altogether to avoid the risk of any pain at all.
Firefighters are also protector inner parts that react immediately to the pain of exile inner parts by engaging in addictions and distractions. When exiles become triggered with overwhelming emotions, this group of inner parts tries to immediately extinguish the “fires,” and attempts to distract from and numb these emotions. Firefighter inner parts can use various addictions or self-harm as an escape and to dissociate from your traumas such as through the use of drugs, alcohol, sex, binge eating, or cutting.
When you are with a narcissistic or psychopathic individual, your firefighter inner parts may compel you to dissociate from the abuse and engage in extreme behaviors and addictions to numb out the pain of the toxic abuse cycle. They could also cause you to engage excessively with the pleasures the relationship intermittently provides (such as love bombing and sex) while dissociating from the actual abuse. This creates an even more powerful biochemical bond to the abuser. However, by avoiding the pain, these actions could potentially worsen your trauma symptoms and could also result in you denying the truth about the abuse present in the relationship, thus strengthening your traumatic bond to the narcissist.
The good news is, these inner parts can be unburdened in therapy to serve your boundaries and core values more effectively in relationships, even in toxic ones. Working with a trauma-informed therapist who specializes in the internal family systems model can help you better understand the different roles your inner parts play in these relationships, what emotions and wounds they are still carrying and identify what strategies they are using to get their needs met.
When managers are unburdened, they can potentially use their leadership and ability to proactively balance risks and benefits to better understand which relationships are worth keeping and which are necessary to detach from. They can take better care of themselves, rather than remaining caretakers to their abusers. They can “advise” the other inner parts on how to better navigate relationships and boundaries. They can also use their striving and achieving abilities to meet necessary goals without overextending themselves.
When firefighters shift into a healthier function, they can allow for rest, relaxation, healthy coping skills for emotional regulation, positive distractions from adversity and pleasures that do not involve addictions and give themselves healthy rewards when they succeed. When unburdened, both managers and firefighters can allow the younger exile inner parts to experience pain and discomfort without trying to excessively shield them.
As younger exile inner parts come closer to healing their wounds and unburdening their sense of shame or guilt from childhood, and feel secure and soothed by empathic people, they can also shift into a more positive role. Without being overprotected by the managers and firefighters, they are given an opportunity to face their pain with healthier coping methods, without feeling destroyed by it. They can experience the discomfort of losing a toxic person without trying to avoid abandonment and strengthening the trauma bond to the narcissist. They can feel more open to finding validation and comfort in those who show them true empathy and compassion and find a safe haven at long last, both within themselves and others. They can tell their stories without having to feel silenced or punished by a narcissist.
When all these inner parts work together and communicate with each other without battling one another, the Core Self can then emerge as a compassionate, calm, creative, curious, and connected leader who listens to feedback from the unburdened inner parts and guides the internal system back to the safety, nurturance and well-being it always deserved.
By Shahida Arabi
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