Nietzsche, Making True Myths, and the Myth of IFS
A Nietzschean approach to the parts in Internal Family Systems
“Happy am I who can recognize the multiplicity and diversity of the Gods.”
Carl Jung, Liber Novus
Nietzsche might augment this Jung quite to read “Happy am I who can recognize the multiplicity and diversity of the parts of the self.” Not only did Nietzsche declare the death of the Christian God, he also declared the death of the Christian concept of the singular soul, making way for the multiplicity of the soul. These “drives” as he called them, underlie the entirety of our existence: our every thought, belief, desire, need, or want. And, each of these drives have their own unique thoughts, beliefs, desires, and needs.
When was the last time you had a disagreement with yourself? Perhaps one where you were “torn” between two options with part of you wanting to go one way and another part going elsewhere.1 Which part wins? And how is it decided which part is allowed to act out their desire in your body?
If we are made up of many parts, who is reading this essay? Is it you? Is it just one part of you? Even if this is not the case, perhaps I can persuade you that it is nonetheless a “true myth.” First we’ll look at what entails a true myth and how they arise.
Making True Myths
The 19th century German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, argued that there are no innate structures. There are merely culturally-sanctioned myths. Philosophers, he suggests, are these myth-makers. One of Nietzsche’s overarching projects is a revaluation of value, in other words re-evaluating the values and drives that we hold and that are fundamental to our culture, keeping what is beneficial and “life-affirming” and ridding ourselves of that which is harmful or “life-denying”. What is, or should be, true to Nietzsche is what is life-affirming.
Every morality contains certain “truths” that are inherent to it. These truths determine what kind of life the individuals will live out in this culture. Because we are enmeshed in a culture from birth, we often take for granted the fundamental tenets of the dominant morality and are beholden to them. Behind every intuition, every story we might tell to make sense of our behavior, lies this (sometimes) hidden morality.
In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche opens by arguing that “being conscious” or higher order thinking isn’t the “opposite of what is instinctive.” In fact, “most of the conscious thinking of a philosopher is secretly guided and forced into certain channels by his instincts” (BGE 3). As rational as you may think you are, this “rationality” is actually a front for an underlying motivation. Behind all of this logic and the appearance of “overcoming” instinct, “there stand valuations.” Behind every theory and justification exists an underlying morality and an attempt at “the preservation of a certain type of life.” Appeals to rationality or objectivity then, are a defense mechanism defending the world as we think we know it.
Whenever one looks at a thinker, Nietzsche suggests, it is easy to see their childishness and lack of honesty in their work. He mocks them for making “a lot of virtuous noise when the problem of truthfulness is touched even remotely” (BGE 5). They claim the objectivity of their discoveries and ideas and “baptize ‘truths’” without the courage to admit where these truths come from. Denying the origin of their ideas, denying their intuitions, and projecting them onto the world as an objective “truth” is the very essence of life-denying.
So where do these truths come from? Where do our intuitions have their origin? Drives! Parts!
The philosopher Giorgio Agamben recognized, similarly to Nietzsche, that “modern science [objectivity] has its origins in an unprecedented mistrust of experience.”2 The 16th century philosopher Montaigne’s Essays shows that experience is fundamentally incompatible with certainty. Once an experience has become measurable and certain, it loses all authority as an experience. There’s no way to tell a story where scientific law is in place.
However, Agamben also recognizes that our attempts to “verify” experience through science responds to this loss of certainty of experience by displacing actual experience with instruments and numbers. No longer does our experience of the sun rising each morning matter. No longer does our experience of the traveling of the stars matter. Why? Because we have telescopes. We have mathematics to tell us where the stars and sun will be.
Nietzsche claims that “The falseness of a judgment is for us not necessarily an objection to a judgment.” In fact, “we are fundamentally inclined to claim that the falsest judgements are the most indispensable for us” (BGE 4). Without accepting the fictions of logic . . . without a constant falsification of the world by means of numbers, man could not live—that renouncing false judgements would mean renouncing life and a denial of life—instead we must “recognize untruth as a condition of life.”
We’ve become so separated from our parts, the places of our intuitions, that we feel the need to project them as “objective truth” or objective experiences to feel validated. However, these tendencies are life-denying.
So, let’s look at exploring a “true myth,” one that is life-affirming.
The Multiplicity of the Soul
Nietzsche suggests that the way is open for rethinking the soul hypothesis. In fact, he suggests conceptions such as the “soul as subjective multiplicity” and the “soul as social structure of the drives and affects” ought to have a place in our thinking. In contrast to both the Christian conception of a single soul and the Platonic tripartite soul, Nietzsche envisions a multiplicity of the soul.
Drives can be thought of in both a general sense (e.g. a drive to eat, a drive to write, a drive to love etc.) and a specific sense (e.g. a drive to see this particular place, a drive to study a particular topic, a drive to live a certain way etc.). These drives guide not only our actions but also our perceptions of the world they shape and mold our perceptions of the world as a potter’s hands shape the clay. What is most salient to us is dependent upon what drive we are seeing the world through. These drives are where our “truths” come from. They work to construct our experiences around this meaning and claim that this is really what the world is like.
As a general example, when I’m driven to write, finding a pen might be more important to me than finding an ice cream shop, but when I’m craving ice cream, I couldn’t care less about where my pens are. This points to an important distinction between physical behavior and the workings of the mind. For Nietzsche, drives can be both subsystems of the physical organism and subsystems of the mind as well.
Drives don’t only explain our behavior. Nietzsche claims that drives “interpret the world,” and that drives also include an evaluative aspect of their interpretations (BGE 6). Drives both illuminate what is important but also what is salient or irrelevant. In doing so, they urge our character and actions in their direction. When I am hungry, I do not simply wait for food to appear. The drive causes me to actively work towards getting food. The drives also evaluate whether or not the food is good, a certain action is good, or whether my situation is good.
While this description might throw the drives in a simplistic light, this is not the case. Drives are not only oriented towards one specific thing. The drive to love and be loved for example is a complicated thing. It involves our relationships to our parents and the other drives involved in navigating those waters: our relationship to other people more broadly, whether we feel like we are safe enough to express love, and our relationship to our significant others.
The drives are enmeshed in a system of competitions, alliances, and partnerships with other drives. And, as just mentioned, they color our perception. The drive to love, when fulfilled in new relationship energy, is particularly potent. The drives, by directing our perceptions, give meaning to the world.
If we take a moment and imagine our body as an avatar or as a starship with a main bridge, we will notice that at any given point, some drive, some personality is in control, is leading the way. They are driving the starship in the direction that they see as good, whether that be to satisfy a food craving, explore an interest, or express love. When one drive has been satisfied, it can take a backseat role enabling another to take control, or perhaps it must spend part of its energy fighting off other drives so that it can remain in control. The drive to read when sleepy must exert a particularly large amount of its energy in fending off the warm embrace of a nap and the drive to sleep.
What drive is at the forefront of your body presently? Does it have a name? A texture? A form? What are its origins? How dominant is it? Does it captain your body the majority of the time? What is your relationship to it like? What is its relation to the other drives within?
Our Cultural Drives and Becoming a Sovereign Individual
Drives for Nietzsche do not only come from internal or biological desires, they also have external origins: the dominant culture and morality. These drives are given to us as we are raised in a specific culture. Some of these drives are so fundamental to surviving and succeeding in the culture we inhabit that they become central to the way we view ourselves and the world. Nietzsche’s goal is to reevaluate the values and drives that we hold and that are fundamental to our culture, keeping what is beneficial and “life-affirming” and ridding ourselves of that which is harmful or “life-denying”. Becoming a sovereign individual requires taking a step outside of the cultural morality and re-evaluating the drives and truths it has ingrained in us.
To become an autonomous individual, one capable of making their own decisions, one that is causa sui (for the most part at least), we must perform that revaluation of our own selves and our own drives. This takes a significant amount of self-knowledge, something which Nietzsche is highly skeptical of our abilities to have and acquire:
“However far a man may go in self-knowledge, nothing however can be more incomplete than his image of the totality of drives which constitute his being. He can scarcely name even the cruder ones: their number and strength, their ebb and flow, their play and counterplay among one another and above all the laws of their nutriment remain wholly unknown to him” (Daybreak 119).
In other words, we are ignorant of multiple facets, not just of our various parts and drives but also which drives and affects play a part in a causal action, how these drives interact with each other, how the drives manifest themselves, and the triggers that cause a drive to become active.
Self-knowledge then is knowing your drives, having the correct ordering, fostering healthy relations between them, and continuing to interrogate yourself and have the ability to add new drives into the existing order of things. This is crucial to the healthy, flourishing human being.
The key is to have the right relationships between your drives. What this means is ordering the drives in the most helpful, healthy, balanced way possible so that when a certain task arises, the correct drive is available to take the helm and navigate the situation that presents itself.
It means that the stronger drives are balanced with the weaker ones if need be and that the drives we most want to identify with are in control more often than the ones that harm us or steer us in directions we do not want to go in.
One way to imagine this is that there is an Alex that remains in control and puts them in the correct hierarchy. This does not mean that Alex is the starship Enterprise any more than Jean-Luc Picard is the starship Enterprise. What it means is that Alex is the captain of the ship that is “me” and has its best interests in mind (as well as the rest of the crew’s). Without the crew he is nothing and without him guiding and directing, the crew is thrown into disarray, each vying for control. The captain can always be overthrown or voted out. His position is tenuous and built on how well he can meet the needs of all of the drives. This doesn’t mean that Alex, or the captain, is what we would traditionally call “the self”.
As we will see below, the Internal Family Systems model subscribes to a capital S “Self” that is on a different plane than the parts. Nietzsche’s conception is much more loose. First though, we’ll look at how the idea of parts can be life-affirming and lead us to more authentic living.
The Multiplicity of the Soul as Life-Affirming
The drive to anger, the feeling of almost euphoria as you unleash your anger on another person (or aspect of yourself) is all-encompassing. It fills the entirety of your body with the feeling of justified release. The anger colors your perception. It tells you that you are justified in feeling the way you do and the other is at fault. Yet some, perhaps small, part of you might worry that this rage might alter a tender relationship with another. And, depending on its strength, its cooperation with other drives might be just enough to soften the angered part of you, or might be strong enough to simply suppress it altogether.
One benefit to this approach of the multiplicity of parts is that it allows us to take responsibility for our actions without taking an overtly negative view of ourselves. For someone with a singular sense of self shame and/or guilt might be one reaction to the anger. Their first instinct might be to immediately respond with “I don’t know why I said those things, I didn’t mean it,” (despite knowing that a part of you did mean it even if you deny it). They might feel like they don’t really know themselves or are no longer deserving of respect. This is clearly a life-denying response. They are denying the reality of their experience.
Another response to avoid the shame, guilt, or blame of the situation would be to outsource our reaction to some outside Other. “You made me angry. You did this.” Or, under a Christian conception, we might even attribute it to the workings of the devil. As long as someone other than us is to blame.
Meanwhile, if we approach the same situation via the multiplicity of the self, we can recognize that a part of me was angry and is to blame for the outburst. But at the same time, it wasn’t the totality of drives that is me, it was a part that needed to be expressed, but perhaps could have been managed better. Thus we can approach the situation and our behavior with a more life-affirming, productive approach.
Who is currently captaining your ship? What members of the crew are present? What is their internal life like right now? How are they getting along with each other? Are each of them having their needs met?
It’s no easy task to have a correct (and complete) understanding of the crew, the relationships every crew member has with each other, and knowing the history and baggage each crew member brings, let alone making sure each member’s wants and needs are met. Yet, it is a crucial task for us to achieve the status of a sovereign, flourishing, and healthy individual.
This is also fundamentally key in overcoming the cultural and societal harms and baggage that have been ingrained in us. To move beyond what the dominant cultural morality dictates as good and evil requires overcoming the drives that have been ingrained in us and figuring out what is properly good and what is “life-affirming” rather than “life-denying”. This is not to say that the drives or parts that have been given to us by our culture are bad simpliciter. Nietzsche thinks that a drive itself has “neither this moral character nor any moral character. . . it acquires this only when it enters into relations with drives already baptized as good or evil” (Daybreak 38).
In other words, no drive itself is necessarily bad or good. It is only bad if it promotes life-denying in conjunction with the other drives extant in the individual. Consider the following example:
As a child I, like many others, was bullied quite extensively. In order to survive this bullying, a part of me split off, hardening itself as a shield around other parts of me to prevent the harm from this bullying. However, this part had an extremely negative view of other people, and understandably so. He spent years soaking up the taunts, jeers, and horrible comments from other people in order to protect other parts of myself. Due to the frequency and many years of bullying I endured, he became one of the dominant parts, almost always the one in control of the starship that is me.
However, as I got older, his default stance of “I hate people, they are terrible and mean,” that for years had served me well became inaccurate and was keeping me from making authentic connections with others. Other parts of me were craving this authentic connection. And so, this protective drive, while once life-affirming, was now life-denying. And so, it was time for him to retire and take his new, lower place in the hierarchy.
Because of the extent to which he was required to be my defense-mechanism, it took a significant amount of coaxing, crying, and healing to reorder the hierarchy and relationships of my parts with each other. It took work. I had to show this part why he could let go of his dominant position.
One of the results of this was doing 100 video chats with people from Twitter and coming to this realization in the process:3
That part of me has been given a reprieve. He carried his burden for far too long. I like to imagine his new life as one of luxury on a tropical island, but the reality of it is that he still is very much a part of me and still makes his existence known from time to time.
While Nietzsche was my primary therapist as I was exploring my parts and healing this one, Richard Schwartz has developed a remarkably similar ontology of parts and devised a therapeutic system from his research.
Internal Family Systems Therapy
Schwartz developed the IFS psychotherapeutic approach after repeatedly coming across thinkers elucidating the “multiplicity of the soul.”4 He distinguishes three different categories of parts: the Exiles (usually from psychological trauma as a kid), the Managers (influence the way we interact with the world and try to protect us from harm), and the Firefighters (these emerge when the exiles come out and try to put out the fire and divert us from the exile’s pain).
IFS also defines three primary types of relationships between the parts: protection (of the exile by the other two parts), polarization (occurs when two parts “battle” each other to determine how a person will feel and behave in a situation), and alliance (when two different parts work to accomplish a mutual goal).
IFS makes the ontological claim that there is a Self and that this Self is separate from the parts. The goal of IFS therapy is to bring balance and harmony within the system by elevating the Self so that it is the leader of the system: the parts will provide input and use their talents, but ultimately defer to the Self and its decision.
This differs from Nietzsche’s thinking in a few important ways. First, Nietzsche, while arguing for the importance of the sovereign individual, does not make the ontological claim that there is a singular Self that parts and drives should be subject to. Rather, each part takes control of the starship in the proper circumstance and for the proper amount of time.
Secondly, while IFS suggests that all of the parts have a “positive intent” and “mean no harm,” Nietzsche would suggest the opposite. Not all of the parts have what we might say is the best intent. They pursue their goals and ends and intend towards what they see as important regardless of the wishes of other drives. However, it is the totality of the drives that make up ourselves that decide what is good or bad. Some drives, some parts, intend towards things that might never be beneficial to the whole and merely satisfy a particular craving. These drives might then be labeled life-denying depending on how they interact with the other drives in the system.
Nietzsche also adopts the language of struggle, power, and domination more so than IFS. The goal is to strengthen the correct drives, and increase the power of the individual in interacting with their reality.
I think that despite their differences, there’s a useful synergy found within a Nietzschean framework of approaching IFS therapy. IFS therapy provides a very specific approach to healing trauma and parts of ourselves in order to overcome past negative experiences.
Nietzsche’s approach is founded less on healing exiles and dispersing their pain and more on a drive for self-knowledge (even if he thinks that’s a near impossible task). His process also has the goal of creating a completely sovereign individual, one who recognizes all of their parts both innate and culturally constructed, understanding what role they play in the individual’s life, and choosing which drives are appropriate for their goals, and applicable to the specific situations they find themselves in. This is one way we become the Ubermensch: one who can create and shape his own reality. The one who can make true myths that support a healthy, flourishing life.
The do 100 things actually has its origin in Nietzsche! Visa on twitter has popularized this idea and was my inspiration for it but Nietzsche spoke of it as well:
"Let a person make a hundred or more drafts of short stories, none longer than two pages, yet each of a clarity such that each word in it is necessary; let him write down anecdotes each day until he learns how to find their most concise, effective form" (Human, All Too Human 163).
What is interesting is that he mentions people like Hermann Hesse, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and other theorists but leaves out the even earlier thinker who influenced all of the former theorists: Nietzsche.