Multiplicity in Psychotherapy and Beyond, with Robert Falconer
Today on Explorations in Psychotherapy, we are welcoming IFS counselor, teacher, and author, Mr. Robert Falconer. Robert earned his undergraduate degree in cultural anthropology, with a focus on the history of religions. In the early 1980s, he pursued his Master’s degree in psychology. In his career as a therapist, Robert spent considerable time at the Esalen Institute and decades involved in Gestalt therapy. For 15 years, he was the executive director of the Institute for Trauma-Oriented Psychotherapy. Over the course of his career, Robert has been extensively trained in multiple therapeutic modalities, but he has completely devoted himself to the Internal Family Systems model for the past 10 years, as he has found it to be the most compassionate and potent way to work with severe trauma. At this point in his career, he is increasingly focused on the spiritual dimensions of healing. He has published 6 books, co-edited four, and most recently co-authored a book with Dr. Richard Schwartz, the developer of the IFS model, entitled "Many Minds, One Self: Evidence for a Radical Shift in Paradigm". Today, we will be speaking with Bob about this wonderful book. Robert is teaching a lot now. If you want to study with him go to Bob's website at https://robertfalconer.us
Trigger warning: this episode may contain trauma events descriptions that may be triggering for many.
Please be aware of that possibility so that you can choose not to listen to the episode. Thanks.
Alexia Rothman: Today on Explorations in Psychotherapy, we are welcoming IFS counselor, teacher and author Mr. Robert Falconer. Robert earned his undergraduate degree in cultural anthropology with a focus on the history of religions. In the early 1980s, he pursued his master's degree in psychology. In his career as a therapist, Robert spent considerable time at the Esalen Institute and decades involved in Gestalt therapy. For 15 years, he was the executive director of the Institute for Trauma Oriented Psychotherapy. Robert has been extensively trained in multiple therapeutic modalities, but he has completely devoted himself to the Internal Family Systems model for the past 10 years, as he has found it to be the most compassionate and potent way to work with severe trauma. At this point in his career, he has increasingly focused on the spiritual dimensions of healing. He has published six books, co-edited four and most recently co-authored a book with Dr. Richard Schwartz, the developer of the IFS model, entitled Many Minds, One Self: Evidence for a Radical Shift in Paradigm.
Today, we will be speaking with him about this wonderful book. Bob, thank you so much for joining us.
Robert Falconer: It’s a pleasure to be here.
Anibal Henriques: Bob thank you so much for having us. It's an honor to start off this podcast series with such an interesting and foundational reading. This title you have authored with Dick Schwartz in 2018 is a beautiful and extensive work that helps us understand the origins and development of our multiple minds. You walk us through multiplicity in the general culture, in science and in psychotherapy. You cover so many different fields of knowledge as archeology, neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, psychotherapy, spiritual traditions and more.
So, thank you so much to you and Dick Schwartz for these work that shows in an evidence-based way, the ubiquity within the scientific community of the awareness that the mind is not unitary. As it shows the continuing resistance to this idea of multiplicity throughout time. So, Bob, how and when did the idea of this book came up to your mind? What was your main goal in writing this book?
RF: Well, I was assisting Dick at a training and I had just been re-reading some Nietzsche, and I said Dick, you know Nietzsche had a multiple model of mind? and he went “no, what?!” And then I said, well you know, Plato had a multiple model of mind and he's going, he'd never heard of it, he had no idea. And so, he got really excited and said, well could you, could you send me some notes on this? So, I sent him some notes and I said there's so much more Dick, and the first thing I suggested is let's organize a big interdisciplinary academic conference and get all the experts from all these fields who can talk about multiplicity in Plato's philosophy, multiplicity in Islam, you know, and I laid out a bunch of the fields and he said, well that sounds like sort of a drag. And then I said, well let's do a book then. I thought it would actually be easier if we organize the conference and then publish a book of all of their papers, but I love doing research and the idea of working with Dick was really fun so, I jumped on it.
AR: The subtitle of your book references this radical shift in paradigm. So, can you tell us about this paradigm shift?
RF: Yeah, there's several that have occurred in the social sciences and psychology since, most of what I was taught as an undergraduate it's now known to be completely wrong. A big one was the standard model, when I came up was that, as you’re born the mind is a blank slate and everything that's it's in your mind was first in your senses. Now everybody knows that's just wrong, you know, that's gone, that's over and I think there's another very much like that now, is this idea that my mind is unitary. I mean, it's still held onto, but it's more, it's almost a religious belief. The wonderful anthropologist, Tanya Luhrmann talks about how in the West we do worse with psychosis than they do, like in Africa and Southern India in all these other places. And she says or she suggests, one of the reasons for this is we have this model of mind, where the mind is like this citadel and everything inside it is us and it's one thing. And if any, like voices or something come in there, it's a devastating experience. And in these other cultures that have a looser model of mind it's very, very different... So anyway, multiplicity is a big part of this vaster looser model of mind. It's just demonstrated everywhere now, but you know, people claim to this citadel model of mind because it gives them sort of a false sense of security, I think, but it's very, very fragile.
AR: So, this false sense of security, like this idea that we have some control in some way.
RF: Yeah, for this citadel where this fortress of mind, and we control what comes in and goes out and, you know, we're all one part, you know, it's like most protectors as we know in IFS, it tends to elicit what it fears the most. And it's, it's brittle, it's not strong. You know, even though it appears strong.
AR: In terms of the… in the world of Psychotherapy, how do you see these mono minds view as having been damaging to people? He started alluding to it, and I think with Luhrmann's work.
RF: Okay. What was it Franz Kohut? His first name, right? Heinz, Heinz. He thought that the biggest fear that humans had was psychic fragmentation. And he thought even the fear of death is actually a version of this fear of psychic fragmentation. So, if a client of his started hearing a voice or hearing from a part, he fended that off like the devil, you know. He would not encourage him into action with that and forming a relationship with a part that was, he thought that was collusion with mental illness and, you know, absolutely horrible.
AR: I'm actually really glad you brought that up, that idea about the fear of fragmentation, because any time I introduced the IFS model to people who have not heard of it before to clinicians, they ask this question: would encouraging people to interact with their parts lead to fragmentation? What's the IFS perspective on that?
RF: That actually, the path to healing is forming these two-way relationships between the Self and the parts. That is the way we heal, not something that therapist brings to the interaction or, you know, it's the real healer his within the client. And it's that relationship with these voices, fragments, aspects, whatever you want to call them.
AR: And I can appreciate how Kohut and others could have had the idea that there was this fundamental fear of fragmentation, because we hear that from the protectors. Sometimes they say “we're going to fall apart”, “we're going to become a mess”, “we're going to be overwhelmed”. So, if we don't have this way, that the way that you were just talking about, if we don't have this safe way to create these relationships, you can get overwhelmed when you go to a traumatic material.
RF: In IFS language, this is managers, you know. Managers have this fear and those other therapies, and a lot of CBT still is, it strengthened in the manager's, you know, whereas with Dick with an addiction, you'd befriend the part that's indulging in the addiction. You don't join with the manager and clamp down, even harder on it. You'd befriend it and get to know what's going on with him and dialogue with it, form a relationship, it’s 180 degrees from what went before.
AH: So, Bob, how would therapists and non-therapists benefit from reading your book?
RF: It's aimed at a wider audience than just therapist, because I think it's important for many many fields to loosen up this idea of the mind as this citadel, this unified thing that's impervious, you know. That model leaves us with a very limited view of the world, and it leaves us in a very fragile position. And I think this book, it pulled together a great deal of the evidence for many many many fields and many different cultural traditions that the mind it's made up of parts and it has to be. Oh, I want to say this. You know, Dick threw out close to a half of the research I brought him. He said, this was way too much, nobody will read this much stuff. And there’s one part he really didn't want a lot in, and that's the mathematics. There's this called the mathematics of complex systems. And it shows that any system of a certain degree of complexity has to have this structure of relatively encapsulated parts that are relatively sparsely interlinked. And artificial intelligence shows this. At MIT they tried to build this little machine, that its job was to take a bunch of colored boxes, that were stacked up over here, restack them over here in the same order. They could not do that with one central processor, not possible. They had to make all these encapsulated submodules that are sparsely interlinked. And now, only within the past 10 years are less, they've developed on a mathematics that can describe how systems like this operate. The mathematics that describes the behavior of a… the stock market after a crash, it's the same mathematics that describes the aftershocks of an earthquake. And this guy who was a geotechnical earthquake engineer realized this, and he was really good at the math for describing aftershocks of earthquakes, and he went and made a fortune on wall street.
AR: That's an investment strategy.
RF: Yeah. So that math really works. And this math says any system have a certain kind of complexity, has to be parts sparsely interlinked. So, I think there's kind of… it's systems theory. You know, I think it's really, really important in many, many fields.
AR: So much more broadly applicable than to just the field of psychotherapy and mental health.
RF: Yeah, and you can understand why people would find it difficult at first, but I think it's really important because it frees up so much.
AR: Anibal, actually, I like your question about how can therapists and non-therapists, Rob was addressing, how everyone can benefit from this book, but I'll say it as a therapist reading this book, I've benefited in a really specific way, because in doing IFS, of course I'm seeing evidence of multiplicity every day in sessions, I'm seeing it on my own system, but I know humans have this tendency to notice what appears to confirm our own biases. So am I seeing multiplicity because I believe it's there, or because I'm doing something to elicit that kind of language from my clients, or because it's really there? So, what I loved about this book is how you and Dick take us on this whole interdisciplinary journey. And now I'm learning that you even had way more research than is even in here and there are fields you didn't even touch on. But, you know, like Anibal was saying earlier, evolutionary in cognitive psychology are covered in neuroscience, artificial intelligence, complexity theory, all kinds of religious and spiritual traditions. And so, it was really comforting to that sort of empirically oriented part of me to see that people from many disciplines with many approaches, and diverse methodologies are all coming to the same types of conclusions about this multiplicity phenomenon. So, I love the book in part for just that.
RF: As a clinician, I don't give this book to clients unless they're like academic types and really need all the intellectual background. But those that do, I think it's a pretty overwhelming amount of evidence. And I want to say, this is not a new idea either, this is the way Plato thought, it's the way Socrates thought, there's one, one of the Plato's dialogues, Socrates and one of the students are talking and they just, you know, they say “all minds multiple”, and they say, yeah, it's obvious, you know, we can have two sides of an argument go on in our head, yeah minds multiple, and they just go on, like everybody would know this. So, at one, one classicist actually says that Plato's Republic where he describes the three classes and how all these things interrelate, actually it was an elaborate metaphor for the human mind. So, this is not new it's been repressed, I think primarily since the enlightenment, only in the past few hundred years in the upper crust of European intellectuals.
AH: Rob, among the contemporary therapies that embrace multiplicity, you name, voice dialogue, schema therapy from Jeffrey Young, contemporary psychoanalysis, focusing, and many others. So, multiplicity is out there, in so many approaches and models, but not always shining or even fully named, right? Why is that and how damaging it can be?
RF: Well, I think there's an arrogance to the Western mindset that likes to think, you know, our mind is a citadel. We know all this stuff, we’re in charge. There’s a couple… there’s a neuro side, and I always get these things back backwards. This neuroscientist said, we are like a stowaway in a lifeboat on an ocean liner thinking we're running the ship. And this cognitive scientist said, we're like the guy who sells newspapers in the lobby of the empire state building thinking he controls the building…
AH: And it feels good…
RF: Yeah, and I think it's like that. And multiplicity gives you a model that can explain this and that's awfully hard on people. You know, at first.
AR: I found it interesting in kind of reading through this historical overview that you presented with Dick about, this concept in Psychotherapy. How you talk about some theorists within Psychotherapy actually initially had some insights into this way of understanding the mind has multiple and then they either sort of backed off from it or completely rejected it. So, you know, I was just curious about, about that, just that the reactions to this concept that we're starting to, we're touching on a little here.
RF: Well, hopefully now there is such a weight of evidence that it won't get reburied again, it has come up repeatedly and been reburied. Hermann Hesse’s book Steppenwolf. The big thing was, this skully guy who has got this other part, that's a wild wolf of the steppes. And he goes to this place, the magic theater where, and they give him this thing, treat on the Steppenwolf. And they say, Oh, you're not two, your many, many, many, many. And in that part of the book Hesse described in great detail why the Western world won't tolerate this idea and all of the ways it's been repressed. So this is not, this is not new or original with Dick and me.
AR: You mentioned this paradigm that you and Dick are presenting in the book. One piece of it, of course, is this element of the multiplicity of the mind and then the other piece, is that we all have at our core, this essence, that undamaged essence, that we refer to as Self in the IFS model, but it has been referred to as many different ways. So I, I really love how you detail in the third section of the book, how this concept of Self is at the heart of virtually every spiritual tradition. I was hoping you might elaborate on that a little bit.
RF: What I'll say is not really what we've got in the book, but it's, I think it's what I, the way I'm thinking about this more and more now is that the concept of Self is like in quantum mechanics, the idea that light is a particle and a wave. And within us, it's a particle, you know, and, but there is this vast sense of Self that you can tap into, that's like a field or a wave. And one of the things we say in IFS, is a little strange is that even the parts of us have Self. So, when you have this particle and wave view, that that all makes sense, and it was relatively comprehensible. That is, that is both of these, you know, and it's only, it depends on the observer, which one you see.
AR: And you mentioned too, that, this essential Self is actually much easier to access, then most spiritual traditions have actually believed, and we certainly see this is true in IFS, but I was wondering if you could talk about that a little bit.
RF: Well, this is a whole section of the book that Dick threw out. I love big words and Dick does not like big words. The big words for this are Kenosis and Apophaticism. In the history of religions, they talk about these as being characteristics of almost every religious tradition, but basically what they mean is the way to the spiritual is you just get stuff out of the way, you just remove things. Constraint release is the phrase Dick uses all the time. That's who we are. It's absolutely undamaged. It’s like the sun after a storm, even if the storm mudslides ruined your house, everything in the sun is absolutely undamaged.
Now that’s very, very different from every other kind of Psychotherapy I’ve read into. And I come from a big trauma background, and this is such an important message for people with severe trauma, who they really are is undamaged. It is not even dirtied by all the horrible things that happened to them. That message in and of itself can be lifesaving for people who are, you know, basically they've been told, you know, too bad, you've had a bad childhood, take a lot of meds, don't expect to have a good life and this is fixed messages but is the exact opposite: you are undamaged. So, Kenosis and Apophaticism. Kenosis means you get to the divine by getting rid of all your ideas about the divine, basically. And the last biggest obstacle to the divine, to God, is your idea of God. So, you have to get rid of all that, and that's what Dick is talking about. So, he is the heir of a multi-thousand years spiritual tradition, and Apophaticism is the idea that the only way you can talk about the divine or the big Self’s field is by saying what it is not, there is no positive descriptor, that's big enough. So, I see IFS in this particular part of it as being heir to a multi thousand-year spiritual traditions that occurs in Christianity, Judaism, Taoism, Buddhism, it's pretty much all over the place.
AR: When I actually saw what you were saying, resonating with a curiosity that I had, because, you say, you talk about it in the book, whether you believe that the wholesome factors of the mind are in here and merely you have to be uncovered or, or whether you believe that they're constructed through this intense and discipline practice, whatever view you have really informs your whole approach to spirituality and psychotherapy. So, I'm curious, you know, within Psychotherapy, how you've seen that play out, whether we believe its constraint releases as we do in IFS versus building it up like a muscle or, you know…
RF: Yeah, constraint release gives hope to the most severely damaged people. Number one. The building it up is a muscle, encourages what in IFS we call manager kind of energies, discipline and it also can re-exile the tender hurt parts of us that are not functioning so well, because we just crushed them in our attempt to get to do our spiritual life. And you know, so many people do the spiritual bypass thing where they start to have a tender vulnerable feeling and they go, “Oh let me meditate or a few minutes and it will go away”, you know. This relates, I think to the idea of counteractive change, you know, that certain levels of change are counteractive. You know, like the CBT thing of you have this negative message that you go, you have to say a positive message over it all the time. Well, that sort of works, but it leaves you with this terrible counteractive struggle.
AR: It's like you are always having to build up that new message, and there still all of the old stuff in there without having been changed at all.
AH: Bob, it looks as if there is a tendency in us to resist multiplicity and come back to this unity or mono mind feeling. So why is it so difficult for many of us to go with multiplicity? Is it about also economics in our bodies and brains or do we also need this unity perception kind of feeling?
RF: I think it's the little guy in the lifeboat, on the ocean liner, not wanting to admit that he's not the captain. That's hard, you know, humility really difficult, to let go of that. And it's actually immensely freeing, it reminds me of, you know, in IFS we have this idea that the real healer is the client, and the client's Self, not the therapist or the therapist's Self. And at first, it was hard for me to let go of. I've been trained for decades on how to have these wonderful insightful interpretations to offer. And at first giving up that position, you know, that was hard, but then it was this immense relief. Oh, I don't have to do all that junk anymore, I can listen and ask and enjoy my client and know they're the real healer. To me, accepting multiplicity is very much like that. At first, it's like, “Oh really?”, I'm just in the lifeboat over here, and then it's this big relief, “No, I'm not trying to drive the ocean liner, I'm not piloting the 747”.
AR: Remember you saying something in the book about where this multiplicity paradigm was most kind of thought with historically. At times, when there was a really rational perspective dominating, and so it's almost like there is, I think you used the word that there was a dethronement of a part, when we have to look at it this way. And that's who you're talking about. That little guy on the lifeboat. No, you are not in charge. You don't have to control all of this, is at first scary, unknown, uncertain would it then when it, who am I, if I'm not this and what's going to happen, if I'm not in control and then what a relief I don't have to do all of this, can lean into something greater. Something that you and Dick mentioned in the book is that this paradigm shift, and not only toward multiplicity, but also toward recognizing the essential Self, it gives us this way of understanding ourselves in relating to others that has this enormous potential benefit for humanity. So, wondering, you know, given our highly polarized world, how do you see this paradigm is potentially helpful at the level of larger systems, more than just the individual’s Internal system?
RF: Well, it gives us a flexibility and a resilience that we didn't have. And I also think it makes it possible to be compassionate for behaviors and people, we could not be compassionate for before. Knowing that when somebody acts in a truly horrible way, it's just a part of them. That Self is still in there undamaged and they can give us a lot more tolerance, compassion, flexibility. I think those are the big ones.
AR: Absolutely, and I know that an area of interest of yours that is not mentioned in the book is the idea that not only is the mind multiple, but that is also porous, and I'm just curious on your perspective of that.
RF: Well, that's, that's the next book I'm working on, and this one, I mean, if you stop and think about it for a little bit, I think it's undeniable and obvious. Every living cell is surrounded by a semi-permeable membrane. It has to be or it's dead, right? Every human being is permeable. You take in food, you excrete wastes, you take in information, you know, we are not these like rock, like citadels, like this myth of the mono mind, is what Dick would call it, but we're also permeable, you know. And I think one thing that clearly shows this is, I think it's Siegel of interpersonal neurobiology, he talks about our number one way of regulating our own internal states is through relationship with other people. Our emotional mind is very, very permeable. So, I think if you put this together with this idea of multiplicity and Self, it takes this paradigm shift to a whole another level.
AH: Bob, as a Portuguese fellow, and like to leave this lovely conversation with a quote picked from Antonio Damasio, referring the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa that says and goes, “my soul is like a hidden orchestra, I do not know which instruments grind and play away inside of me, strings and harps, kettledrums and drums. I can only recognize myself as a symphony”. So, even for the poets, the need to see myself as an integrated coherent symphony, co-exists with the aknowledgement of multiplicity?
RF: Yeah, beautiful, beautiful Anibal. And he, he wrote under heteronyms, I believe. He had all these different identities that would write different sets of poetry.
AR: I found that is so interesting. You mention that in the book, various writers would do that, It's not synonyms, but these names where they would actually right from different parts of themselves. I had no idea.
AH: Bob, what is coming for you? Are there more writings coming?
RF: Yeah, this book I'm doing on a permeable mind and I'm teaching a lot now. And I'm getting a very interest in IFS in the third world. I mean, the Western model of one-on-one Psychotherapy is just too expensive and too slow. For countries where are the average annual income is $10,000 or something. So, China has a really interesting program, inner peace coaching of Dr. Hailan Guo, that's reaching many, many, many people. I just led a training in Pakistan where we are trying to develop something like that for Pakistan. This wonderful woman there, Dr. Yasmeen Khan, she got a bunch of those, sealand containers, you know, those big metal boxes, they have in the back of the freighter ships. He took them, cleaned them up, put them in the worst slums of Karachi and they are walk-in mental health clinics. We’re helping train her staff, and the goal is to get people who live in those neighborhoods, who don't have any education, basically some kind of basic training and then hierarchy of supervision above that, so that we can reach very large numbers of people and relieve human suffering on a much faster scale than one-on-one Psychotherapy could do. So that's, that's one thing that I’m very into.
AR: That's incredible.
AH: Bob thank you again for having us and for this amazing work you and Dick Schwartz have done, tracking the unity multiplicity pendulation throughout times. It's always a joy to talk with you and learn from you, so much wisdom and love you share. So, my hope and Lexi’s hope is that we can keep meeting and sharing our work and our lives. Thank you so much.
Recorded the 10th March 2021
Transcript Edition: Sara Costa