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Conducting the Symphony Within

Updated: Jan 25, 2020

I’m sure many of you have seen Inside Out… it’s a cute Pixar film about five core feelings that compete and scramble for leadership inside a 12-year-old girl’s mind. If you haven’t seen it, stop reading and go watch it on iTunes or Disney Plus. You’ll thank me later.  In the film, Anger, Disgust, Fear, Joy and Sadness are personified as cartoon characters fully decked out with personality, agendas, and attitude. Each has the capacity to be incredibly helpful or harmful, and each has the capacity to interact with, influence, override or submit to the others. What none of them has and desperately needs, however, is a leader. 

The concept that drives this film was pioneered in the second half of the twentieth century by emotion researchers such as Silvan Tomkins, Paul Ekman and Cal Izard. It was not until the 1990s, however, that Richard Schwartz developed his theory of Internal Family Systems to show mental health clinicians how to help their clients develop self-leadership. In my own journey, I have found Schwartz’s model to be an invaluable tool for connecting with and strengthening my own self who is capable of leading the inner symphony of feelings (or parts, to use Schwartz’s language).


For example: at the moment, I am writing a blog that will soon be emailed out to a few hundred of my colleagues around Nashville. One of my “parts” that shows up during this writing process is an elementary-aged boy who worries that his ideas will not be clear or useful and that others will not think well of him. This little guy reminds me alot of me at that age -- precocious, insecure, and driven by his perceptions of what others may be thinking. When he shows up, I could tell him to be quiet, stop worrying, or try harder, but what he really needs is for me to listen closely to what he’s so concerned about. If I can do that, I’ll soon discover that what this part most longs for is to be recognized, nurtured, and led by what Schwartz would call the self. This part needs me to love him. If you aren’t sure what I mean by this, picture what it looks like for a dad to hug his daughter after she has experienced her first broken heart. What does he do in those quiet moments? Does he tell her to shake it off and get back out there? Likely not. Instead, he asks her to tell him what hurts, he holds her quietly, and he assures her that he loves her and that, with time, she’s going to be okay. When we learn to lead the symphony of feelings inside us like this -- when we learn how to parent our internal family -- the chaos and anxiety of our emotional world settles and we begin to experience harmony, healing and wholeness. 

It’s safe to say that there are stories, emotions and parts within us that need attention, consideration or healing. Regardless of the terminology we use, therapy ought to provide us with a time and space to identify and listen to all that swirls within us. In the attuned presence of a skilled guide, we begin to develop a capacity for successfully navigating the challenges of life, connecting deeply with others, and experiencing the aliveness we all long for. If you know someone who may be interested in taking the next step in that process, please encourage them to reach out to us. We’d be honored to walk alongside them on this exciting journey of coming alive.

Before beginning his career as a professional counselor, Richard Cowan (LPC-MHSP temp, MEd, MTS) made a few stops on his journey at UVA (wahoowa!), Covenant Seminary and Peabody College. He served as a school administrator in Nashville and New York and was the Executive Coordinator of Nashville Psychotherapy Institute. When not helping individuals and couples rediscover love and connection in their personal and professional relationships, Richard spends time with his wife and daughters, takes care of his chickens and garden, dreams of entering the next season of MasterChef, and reads anything Wendell Berry ever wrote.

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