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What is Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS)?
IFS, which is commonly referred to as “parts work”, is a type of psychotherapy that helps clients understand themselves and work with themselves in a way that leads to more peaceful, congruent and pleasing internal experiences.
IFS is a therapeutic framework that more and more psychotherapists are embracing to help clients. IFS was developed and brought forth into the field of psychotherapy by Richard Schwartz, Ph.D.
The concept that we are divided in our thinking goes a long way back in history. Plato talked about the psyche being divided as into parts (Lavery, 2015). In the Bible, Paul talks about “for that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not, but what I hate, that I do…”. Freud understood the mind to be constantly in conflict with itself. Jung taught about the conscious and unconscious, archetypes and the shadow self. Currently, the concept of multiplicity is a central theme in Pixar’s Inside Out, in an episode of the Big Bang Theory, and even in Thomas Rhett’s country song, “Half of Me.” We all feel divided and conflicted inside.
It should be noted that this multiplicity of parts is not indicative of a mental illness, it is a naturally occurring way of thinking that makes sense on a fundamental level. Although there is a mental health condition of Dissociative Identity Disorder, that condition has symptoms completely unassociated with the IFS definition of parts.
Why is it called Internal Family Systems Therapy?
The “internal” means within the person. Richard Schwartz chose to include “family” because as a family therapist, he noticed how a person’s internal parts resembled the organization within a family. The term system means a set of things working together as part of an interconnecting network. So, although it may not be the most catchy or elegant moniker, it does explain the concept when dissected. Luckily, it has the nickname of “parts work” which rolls of the tongue easier.
Do you remember the jigsaw puzzles that had a board underneath upon which you laid the pieces? The board wasn’t the pieces, but it was the bones of the game, right? That is a metaphor that can be used to describe the authentic self. Another way to think about the authentic self would be the soul, spirit, inner wisdom, highest self, etc. In IFS, the authentic self is that immutable, deeply wise essence of a person. This essence is unchanged by circumstances and is calm, clear, confident, courageous, compassionate, curious, creative, and connected. (These qualities are labels the “8 Cs” of self.) Openheartedness is another such quality, though it doesn’t start with a C.
You might be feeling left out and feel you don’t possess an authentic self. Rest assured, that every human being I’ve ever met has a foundation that has these qualities. You probably have that worry because you so often feel just the opposite; anxious, befuddled, insecure, scared, selfish, judgmental, critical, depressed, and alone. That is because your authentic self is being elbowed aside by your very loud parts.
The overall category of protector includes any part that isn’t the self and isn’t an exile (more on that later). Protectors work to keep the system in balance and to keep us out of painful thoughts, feelings, and memories. Some protectors are proactive and work to keep us from ever tapping into painful material. Some protectors are reactive and work to push the pain away that has started to arise within the system. The proactive protectors are called managers while the reactive ones are called firefighters.
Have you ever noticed that you have competing agendas in your head? For example, a part of you wants you to get up early to get a workout in before the day starts while another part keeps hitting the snooze button? If you were to sit with that part quietly and inquire, you might learn that its intention for you is for you to have a better day, a healthier body, to lose a few pounds, to be disciplined. It wants you to be all you can be. As you read this, take a moment to see if you have a part like that and give that part some appreciation for how it is trying to help you. The extra sleep part, which is polarized with the first, noticed that you are behind on the rest your body needs, knows that you may feel better with a couple of extra minutes of sleep and/or just isn’t prepared to face the demands of your day. You were to sit with that part quietly and inquire, you might learn that its intent is also to help you. It is trying to help you in its own way. If you have a part like that, take a moment to pause and extend some appreciation to this part and how it has been trying to help you. You might uncover an inner critic part that has very high expectations that it feels you aren’t meeting. You might discover that you have a rebellious part that disdains all the criticism the inner critic dishes out or a just wants to be left alone. Perhaps, the rebel hates having to give your time up to your employer and because you can’t avoid work, it sneaks out by rebelling against other areas of your life. Who knows. By working with your system and curiously noticing the messages you are receiving (in words, pictures, body sensations, emotions, etc…), you can learn about what is really going on for you in the mornings and be able to help your system move into more alignment.
Manager parts generally gets lots of kudos for you from the world. If you are a good saver, you have a part that does that for you. If you honor your commitments, you have a part or parts following through for you. If you have a people-pleasing part, you can bet you have a part that values getting along with others. This is just a small list, but you can see how manager parts work.
When I first heard the reactive parts called firefighters, I felt confused. In my mind firefighters are amazing guys that save the day and my firefighters felt pretty darn destructive. Then I realized that firefighters are singularly focused on saving lives and putting out the blaze. They aren’t concerned with the belongings that get waterlogged while they are saving the house. Then it made sense to me. Firefighters see the fire (emotional pain) and rush in to put the emotional fire out.
Depending on your history, your firefighter(s) will use some distraction, usually one that has worked for you in the past, to get you away from the painful emotions that the situation or memory is invoking. Some firefighters will use alcohol, drugs, sleeping, food, restricting, spending, gambling, gaming, porn, sex, stealing, suicidal ideation, anger, etc.
I want to let you and your firefighters know that these firefighters are trying to help you and your system. Even though other parts may hate the damage the behaviors cause, the firefighter parts are doing what they can to help the person avoid feeling the pain the situation somehow stirred up. When we look at parts that are addicted, we can appreciate how they are trying to help. (There are physiological components involved in addiction as well.)
As the manager and firefighter parts of us begin to trust the self and/or the therapist, they will relax and allow us to work with the parts of us that carry the painful emotions, memories, and beliefs. These parts are called exiles.
We use the term “exile” to refer to parts of us that are stuck in the past and are still in pain. Sometimes, I refer to them as memories, but in parts work, we see them as younger parts. As protector parts allow us permission to access and work with these younger parts, we can be with the part in your imagination and give the part what it needed. Sometimes, the part just needs to be seen and witnessed, sometimes that part needs some type of imagined intervention to help it move out of the pain. Once the part is ready to leave the pain, we help it release the burdens it has been carrying from the experience, release any beliefs it developed from the situation(s), and invite any qualities and beliefs that it would like.
Once the part feels completely understood and witnessed, it can move forward into whatever imagined life if wants to live. The protector parts can see that the exile is no longer suffering, and they then can release burdens and beliefs they have been carrying. Once all that is done, the protector parts often change or modify how they show up in the system.
To strengthen the new neuropathways built in the imagined experiences, it is suggested that clients check in with these parts for the next several weeks to deepen the experience in their memory networks. I have found that my parts will tell me whether they want me to do that or not. Often my parts are healed and don’t want to be intruded upon. I’ve found that the parts will tell us what they need.