The Best IFS Movie… and it’s not Inside Out
Warning! This blog is a total geek-out on Internal Family Systems theory. If you’re unfamiliar with Internal Family Systems, let me do my best to catch you up to speed. IFS is an awesome psychotherapy theory and model that helps promote a strong sense of identity, as well as, helping people heal their emotional wounds. A central thesis to IFS theory is that we all have “multiplicity”… and no, not the kind that Hollywood uses to scare people (I’m looking at you M. Night!). It’s a more common and mundane conceit that all of us experience throughout the day. Have you ever said “a part of me wants to stay but another part of me wants to go” or “a part of me always seems to self-destruct right when I get comfortable in a relationship”... and so on? IFS is a beautiful way to navigate these internal experiences and develop a sense of confidence, compassion, and healing. To learn more about Internal Family Systems visit The Center for Self-Leadership.
I've found the best way to describe IFS to someone is to say “Have you seen Inside Out?”. It is a beautiful visualization of the idea of “parts”. And, yet here I am doing a blog post on how a different movie is “better”. Most wouldn’t say “Have you seen where the Wild Things Are?”, but as mentioned this theory geek-out is going deep. So, bear with me IFS-ers (PS I think we should be called Selfies, just sayin').
I will not spend much time summarizing each movie so if you have not seen either you may find the pacing of this article a bit abrupt.
Note: For brevity Where the Wild Things Are will henceforth be referred to as “Wild Things”… not to be confused with the awful movie from the ‘90s with Matt Dillon and Neve Campbell.
Stronger example “Self-leadership”:
-> Riley never interacts with her parts. The protagonist in Wild Things, Max, a growing child himself, goes into the world of a child and joins his managers, exiles, fire-fighters, and quite literally, his fire starters. The one criticism (or better, observation) that Schwartz gave of Inside Out was this very point, in a letter sent out to the IFS community he stated: “The only aspect of IFS that isn't overtly represented in the film is the Self as an active inner leader or inner parent. It is clear by the end of the story that Riley and her parents are each much more Self led, and I'm not sure how I would have portrayed the Self as a character in the movie since Self is the seat of consciousness and not an image we can see when we do inner work.”
-> I concede that Max is not always IN “Self” as he exists AS himself in this creative internal landscape, and yet there are many moments when he is. As Max interacts with the monsters (his parts) he becomes “king” over them. Max, of course, has the Self of a 9 year old and does his best "ruling over" the monsters that a 9 year old boy experiences He truly does begin as imperfectly as we (and clients) all do; colluding with protectors, guiding, teaching or helping them re-role with compassion and curiosity. What could be more "IFS" than that?
-> Ultimately, Max leaves having a different relationship with his parts than when he first arrived in his imaginary world. Max had seen and felt the “secret histories” of his monsters, and as a result Max also had a different relationship with himself and his family when he "returns" home.
-> In IFS theory it is not up to the parts to work things out amongst themselves, like Sadness and Joy do in Inside Out. Without Self (using strict theory) doesn’t that make Inside Out a better Ego State movie than IFS?
-> The Monsters literally threaten to eat Max… need I say more. Though, now that I think about it, Inside Out may actually take this category. That control panel visual is hard to beat. Congrats Inside Out you win this round.
Bright and Overt vs Dark and Subtle
-> This may seem like more of a preference, but bare with me. Admittedly, I am a lover of subtlety, and Wild Things was indeed subtle. Inside Out literally glows and shines in ways that only Disney/Pixar can. It is as fun and bright as it is well-organized. Inside Out serves in many ways as a brilliant teaching tool. The movie even goes as far as to inform kids of all ages about short and long-term memory, sleep cycles, the sub-conscious, abstract thought and many more neuro/ psychological concepts. Emotions are well defined by both trait and effervescent color. I love it!
-> On the other hand, Wild Things simply dives head first and with little explanation into the imaginations of a child. It’s dark and messy. There is no manual for Max to follow as he navigates the complex, and at times, delicate personalities of his parts.
No where is this more exemplified than with the monster Bernard the Bull, a dark, brooding and somewhat scary character who’s nearly silent the entire movie, and yet his presence is tangible and foreboding. Some of my clients' parts are exactly like that… until they share their secret history, and until I get to know them. Bernard’s only speaking line comes at the end of the film as a sheepish request to Max that he “say good things about us”. Both in the therapy room, and in my own experience, parts tend to be less Disney and more Sendak. (Or technically speaking Spike Jonze)
-> If you watch the bonus features on the bluray/ dvd combo pack of Inside Out the creators comment that in the initial stages of development Disgust was drawn as a “disgusting looking character… but that wasn’t going to work out for appeal’s sake.”
We Will See More Maxs Than Rileys... and Rileys need help too
-> Just like the movie there is often much fan fare surrounding the bright, bubbly, and precociousness of Riley. “THE Rileys” of the world often mask well their sad, hurting exiles with well-presenting managers. This of course was a central thesis of Inside Out. It should be noted that Riley also came from what appears to be a well attached family structure. This is another "win" for Inside Out. The main female character didn’t have to be a Disney orphan to have protective managers, which normalizes her emotional spectrum. However, we as clinicians are much more likely to have a Max come into our office (or rather brought into our office) than perhaps a Riley at this age.
"Maxes" arrive with all his or her monsters in tow; complete with their diagnoses of ODD, ADHD, and the like. They typically find themselves trying to navigate a world where attachments are not safe, and monsters are not goofy cartoons with familiar voices. They live in a world where monsters are big and scary and confused and reactive and irrational. Much like the world created in Wild Things.
Clearly I love both these films. If asked to share with a friend or client a good visual of IFS, Inside Out is always the first choice. It also has "rewatchability" (which is good because my two-year old requests it daily). Where the Wild Things Are is heavy and brilliant requiring time to breath between viewings.
The reality though is that within us there may be a beautiful combination of both bubbly Pixar characters and large scary monsters. A place where Cinderella roams the halls of the death star; where Darth Vader makes visits to the enchanted forest and maybe does battle with Snow White.... or goes fishing.
This disruption to continuity, that may be jarring to audiences (like, remember when Lucas put aliens in Indian Jones!? Whyyyyy?!) may, in our own minds, be quite common place.