I was recently introduced to a therapeutic technique called IFS (Internal Family System), developed by Dr Richard C. Schwartz, Ph.D., in the early 1990s. The idea of this therapy is to heal trauma and restore wholeness within the internal family system model. I have spent some time learning about how it works, and I have had many “aha” moments along the way; it makes a lot of sense to me and is an interesting way to think about the goings-on inside myself.
Firstly, IFS assumes we are all made of sub-personalities called “parts” and a “self“. The idea being that our parts work together to help protect our “self“. The mode of therapy is designed to heal trauma and restore wholeness within the internal family system model.
I found it quite interesting, so I decided to write this blog and share with you my findings, maybe the concept can be helpful to you too, and you can explore it further or search for a mental health therapist near you who is trained in IFS to help you use this technique. I will break down what I have learned for you below.
IFS is used to treat a wide variety of mental health conditions and psychological wounds. IFS may be applied in family, couple, and individual situations. As of November 2015, this type of therapy is listed in the National Registry for Evidence-based Programs and Practices (NREPP) as an evidence-based practice.
This information is based on my own research, and I have linked the pages where I have gathered information in the body of the text below. I am particularly interested in learning more about IFS to help reduce the symptoms of my PTSD. You can read more about that here. I would love to understand my mind better and what is going on when I start to experience emotional overwhelm and anxiety.
So how does it all work?
The role of Self
Each person has a self, and the self, when in harmony, should be the captain of the whole system. Learning how to access self is the first part of the IFS journey.
Being in self is marked by effectively communicating with your parts and identifying as feeling one or more of Schwartz’s 8 C’s of self-energy, which are:
The role of Parts
What are parts and how do they work
Parts perform a role in our internal family system. There are no bad parts, only bad roles that our parts perform. Each part has its own likes, dislikes, burdens and history, which all play a role in the preservation and harmony of self. Each part has its own beliefs, thoughts, and feelings. Parts may be a different age or gender than the self, and most importantly, all parts act from a positive intention.
Parts can lose trust in self when they feel threatened, which pushes them to respond and play a role to protect the entire system. Because parts have all of their own beliefs, thoughts and feelings, the actions they take can be polarizing and out of touch with the reality of the situation, and this can cause disharmony within the system.
When the parts trust the self, they play their roles in sync, and there is harmony in the system. So you can see how this could create a whole lot of mayhem inside of us when parts of our system are on different pages, trusting and not trusting our self and then running around in different directions. Chaos ensues, and confusion is natural.
There are 3 distinctive parts in the IFS system
Exiles are the part that holds the most extreme memories and feelings. Traumatic feelings of abuse, neglect, humiliation, and shame are housed here, and these can be some of the youngest parts of the system. Managers and firefighters exile these parts and prevent them from reaching the conscious level to maintain proper functioning and preservation, to keep the system safe.
Managers are the proactive protectors of the system. They maintain a functioning level of consciousness in daily life by warding off any unwanted or counterproductive interactions, emotions, or experiences resulting from external stimuli. Most managers fear that the exiled parts might come to the surface and overwhelm the system with the intensity of the memories and feelings they hold. They often imitate the Self with such effectiveness that they appear actually to be the Self. Managers may take the form of a critical parent or overbearing boss. Stepping in and taking over whenever they think they know best.
These are the reactive protectors of the system who serve as a distraction to the mind when exiles break free from suppression. When the exile has got past the manager, it is time for the firefighter to step in. To protect the consciousness from feeling the pain of the exiles, firefighters prompt a person to act on impulse and engage in indulgent, addictive, and oftentimes abusive behaviours. Firefighters are often polarized with managers who despise the ways firefighters act out. Firefighters may redirect attention to other areas such as sex, work, food, alcohol, or drugs. Once the firefighter has caused a whole host of problems for the system, the manager steps back into clean up; the whole system is left disappointed.
To recap: Exiles are protected from flooding the system. Managers and firefighters are the parts that protect.
Unburdening is when we allow exile and other burdened parts to heal their wounds. This is when exile’s experience is listened to by self and feels understood, cared for, accepted and loved. Self offers exile what it needed at the time of trauma and then ceremonially releases the memories, feelings and beliefs using imagery.
Self then invites that part into the present moment and asks the other parts to meet the healed part and form a new healthy role within the system. Creating harmony.
The ultimate goal of IFS is to become self-led. The first step is accessing self. The second step is making friends with the manager and firefighter. The self will then access exile and heal the wounds that exist there using the unburdening process. When we are self-led, the idea is that we will decrease anxiety, improve relationships and recover from our trauma.
The 5 basic assumptions of IFS
As listed by Good Therapy:
- The human mind is subdivided into an unknown number of parts.
- Each person has a self and the self should be the chief agent in coordinating the inner family.
- Parts engaging in non-extreme behaviour are beneficial to the individual. Thre is no such thing as a “bad part”. Therapy aims to help parts discover their non-extreme role.
- Personal growth and development leads to the development of the internal family. Interactions between parts become more complex, allowing for systems theory to be applied to the internal system. Reorganization of the internal system may lead to rapid changes in the roles of parts.
- Adjustments made to the internal system will result in changes to the external system and vice versa. Therefore, both the internal and external systems need to be adequately assessed.
Hear from Dr Richard Schwartz
Which mental health disorders can IFS help with?
According to this article about IFS written by Hart Haragutchi MA, LMHCA, some issues that IFS could help with are:
- Anxiety disorders
- Eating disorders
- Depressive disorders
- Obsessive-compulsive disorders
- Self-harm/suicidal ideation
- Substance use disorders
- Trauma disorders
- General feelings, issues and dissatisfaction
I hope this blog has been a helpful read and given you a new insight into some workings of your mind using the IFS model or, at the very least, something new to think about and research further. Let me know in the comments if you have any experience with IFS; I would love to hear of some real-world experiences of its benefits and/or successes. Best of luck accessing your own self and creating harmony with your parts.