The Tree of Self

Diving into the Internal Family Systems (IFS) concepts and methodology led to these four insights at the intersection of the Four Needs Framework (4NF), IFS, and Adult Development Theory (ADT). 

Shearing Forces Lead to Multiplicity

At the core of the first insight is that the ever-present tension of the Four Needs and the resulting maelstrom of Existential Anxieties acts a powerful shearing force. I have been wondering before about the effect of the tug and pull of the Anxieties, and how there seems to be this rapid switching of Anxieties from one polar opposite to another. The framing of the internal family of Self, surrounded by Protectors and Exiles offered by Richard Schwartz provided a clarifying perspective: this process of rapid switching can be viewed as different, distinct parts within me taking the seat of consciousness one at a time. This idea hints at the notion that somehow, there’s an entire population of parts within me that emerged from my life experience. 
This is where it clicked: these parts are the outcome of my mind’s attempts to do its best to resolve the tension. Unable to bring coherence, especially at the earlier stages of my development, a split develops, creating two distinct parts. Each part embodies the respective Anxieties within the tension. Whenever the pull of Existential Anxieties proves impossible to resolve, the split repeats. Over time, the number of parts grows, populating the Internal Family System. Thus, the Fundamental Needs act as the part-splitting force, leading to multiplicity of agents within the System of Self that I was vaguely sensing last year. Unlike my early guesses back then, Dr. Schwartz provided a clear path to explore these parts and show that their formation does not correspond one-to-one to each Existential Anxiety (née Fear), but rather forms a unique sub-personality.

Branches Form a Tree

Taking this part-splitting idea further, it is evident that the splits form branches. The sub-personalities live the same story (that is, share identical models and sense-making capacity) until the split, but continue separate developmental journeys thereafter. When I have a conversation with a part–especially an Exile!–it is often a younger version of me, stuck in some past traumatic event. Unlike the branch that developed into a trunk to grow further, this branch remained undeveloped.

This is where the second insight arrived: these parts, these sub-personalities, branch by branch, form a Tree of Self. Some branches stop growing. Some turn into trunks to sprout new branches. This tree is a whole that is both coherent and disjoint. It is coherent, because every two parts share the same beginning of their life story. It is disjoint, because at some point, the story unfolds differently for each of the two. 

In this way, the Tree of Self is not like a tribe or a family. A tribe comes together as separate people deciding to become whole. When a family is formed, an offspring does not share the story of their parents: the story is conveyed through words, but not lived experience. In the Tree of Self, all parts are rooted in the same life story.

This same-rootedness is why the IFS practice appears so effective: at the core, all my parts recognize themselves in each other. They are innately connected in the ultimate kinship, and want to be whole. Unlike a tribe or a family, there is no “before” where the parts existed separately. The story began with oneness, and the part-splitting is just the middle of their hero’s journey. The happy ending that every part yearns for is togetherness.

The Tree Evolves as it Grows

This tree-like arrangement led to the third insight. The Tree of Self grows across developmental stages. Continuing the tree metaphor, each transformation to the next stage is a material change. New growth becomes more capable of managing the shearing forces. At earlier stages, the strategy for managing these forces might be the part-splitting. The later stages bring more resilience, leading to fewer splits. I am picturing this as the tree growing upward through the layers of atmosphere, drawing on the idea of “vertical development.” Each layer represents a developmental stage, starting with the earlier stages closer to the ground and later stages stacking on top.

Some branches reach into the later stages, and some are stuck at the earlier. Since each branch represents a sub-personality, each may occupy the seat of consciousness. As a result, what I show up like may appear as a scattering of selves across multiple stages of development. The ADT phenomenon of fallback effect speaks to the idea that in some situations, the lower-to-the-ground branches are more likely to claim the seat. 

Self-work as the Journey toward Wholeness

Recognizing this multiplicity and diversity across stages has been very clarifying and produced the fourth insight. The aim of self-work might not be about learning how to reach the higher stages faster, willing my branches to reach higher and higher. This process of growth seems to happen regardless of whether I want it or not. Instead, self-work might be about nurturing the Tree of Self to wholeness. The Tree of Self is whole when each branch has been examined and given attention, support and room to grow. IFS session transcripts often talk about how a healed Exile rapidly matures, as if catching up. My guess is that moment and the feeling of closure and quiet satisfaction that accompanies is the increase in wholeness of the Tree of Self. The previously-shunned branch soars to join the rest of its kin. 

There’s something very peaceful about this framing. Self-work is revealed as gardening, an infinite game of nourishing all branches of the Tree of Self, and helping it become whole even as each branch continues to grow.

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