What is Internal Family Systems?

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My focus as an integrative bodyworker is to support the health of the whole person: all body parts, all systems, all symptoms.  With this in mind, I strive to help restore balance and ease in both body and mind for all of my patients. In my last blog post I shared a bit about manual therapy – one of the main approaches I use to support the body and enhance physical health and well-being. In this post I’ll share a little about Internal Family Systems (IFS) - one of the primary modalities I use to support mental/emotional health.

IFS is a powerful, evidence-based, treatment modality primarily used by counselors and mental health therapists.

IFS was developed by Dr. Richard Schwartz, a Marriage and Family Therapist. Dr. Schwartz’s training as a family therapist gave him insight into the complexity of families (or “family systems”) and an understanding of how the beliefs, culture, and experiences of a family can influence the behavior and personalities of individual family members.  In healthy families with access to the resources they need, individual family members can thrive. At the other end of the spectrum, in families impacted by negative influences (such as poverty, discrimination, intergenerational trauma, etc.), the individuals are more likely to suffer from mental health issues and are more likely to demonstrate unhealthy behaviors. Instead of thriving, members of these families may get stuck in acting in ways that they don’t enjoy. For example, in a family where the parents abuse alcohol to cope with extreme stress or trauma, the children may take on roles such as the “scapegoat”, “rescuer”, or “rebel”. When stuck in these roles, these children don’t have the chance to explore their full potential, or the full range of their personalities and interests.  

When Dr. Schwartz applied this awareness to therapy with individuals, he found that his clients frequently spoke about different “parts” inside of them; these internal parts had their own personalities and roles and interacted with other parts similar to the ways individuals in a family interact. He began to listen to these internal parts and work with them the way he would with a family – this was the beginning of IFS.

The idea that all humans can have different facets of their personalities isn’t new. That concept, known as “multiplicity of mind,” has been seen before in the work of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and in many contemporary psychotherapy models. If you’ve noticed that your friends or family have different sides of their personalities that come out in different situations, you get the idea.  You’ve probably noticed it in yourself too. For example, you’ve likely had days when you were eager to go out and socialize with friends, followed by days where you just wanted to stay in an watch a movie at home alone… these two parts (the socializer, and the homebody) can co-exist within you, taking turns showing up depending on the circumstances.

What is unique about IFS is that it puts an emphasis on understanding on how the different internal parts function in relation to each other.  If the parts within you are functioning in relative harmony (like a healthy internal family) you likely feel pretty good and won’t be chronically plagued by devastating depression, anxiety, addiction, etc. If, however, these parts aren’t getting along and working well together -that’s when you may find yourself stuck in negative thought patterns, or repeating behaviors that you wish you could stop.

During the development of IFS, Dr. Schwartz found that there were three general categories of parts common to all people. There are the parts that help us get stuff done: known as “Managers.” Parts that carry old wounds from the past: called “Exiles” because we often push them down/send them away because their feelings of shame, guilt, fear, pain, etc. are very uncomfortable. And parts called “Firefighters” that jump in to stop us from feeling something very uncomfortable when we’re not ready for it (often by dissociating or distracting with numbing behaviors like drinking, binge eating, or over-working). Often our parts live below the level of conscious awareness and are executing their roles without a person recognizing which parts are surfacing at any given time.

To make this more concrete, here is an example of a hypothetical person, Susan, and her parts. Imagine that as a child Susan experienced harsh judgement and criticism from her father that left her feeling humiliated and full of shame. The shame and humiliation are incredibly uncomfortable feelings for her to bear, so she pushes them down and focuses her attention elsewhere, effectively creating an “Exile” part that is burdened with shame.  That Exile stays in the recesses of her subconscious mind, and as she grows up she has other parts that help her function in her daily life, including a part that is very focused on her outward appearance and what she eats. This part shows up as thoughts in her mind that tell her to exercise every day, diligently track the calories she consumes, and occasionally skip meals so she doesn’t gain weight. During stressful times, these thoughts creep in more frequently and with greater intensity until the exercise and calorie-counting become almost obsessive. These thoughts are from one of Susan’s managers. If asked, this Manager would say it is trying to help her avoid uncomfortable feelings of embarrassment and shame by maintaining a certain outward appearance in order to avoid the judgement of others. Sometimes, despite the Manager’s best efforts, those uncomfortable feelings start to surface, so another part jumps in and dowses those feelings by binging on potato chips, sweets, and other junk foods. You guessed it – that’s a Firefighter part. The Manager and the Firefigher seem at odds: one wants to meticulously control her food and exercise, and the other drives her to mindlessly consume large quantities of comfort foods, leaving Susan feeling at a loss, defeated, and overwhelmed.  Paradoxically, these two parts both want the same thing; they are both trying to prevent Susan from feeling the deep shame carried by the Exile in her system. The good news is that in IFS therapy Susan begins to learn how to identify and listen to these parts. Her therapist helps her connect to the Exile and free it from the heavy feelings of shame and humiliation. Once the Manager and Firefighter no longer have to work to keep the Exile’s uncomfortable feelings at bay, Susan works with them to find them new roles that feel supportive. She notices that her obsessive thoughts about calories and exercise diminish, she no longer finds herself binging, and she starts to enjoy eating again.

How is it possible to transform these parts and their behaviors? There’s one thing that sets IFS apart from other multiplicity of mind models and makes IFS incredibly effective: the Self.  According to the model of IFS, every person has a core Self. I often describe it as one’s highest wisest self. Most people have had some experience of being in a state of Self: it’s when you’re feeling open, loving, curious about the world around you, interested in connection, confident, courageous, and things seem to flow naturally with clarity and ease even in the face of a challenge. Self is expansive, patient, and wise.  It is this Self-energy that we all have within us that can help us heal.

In IFS therapy, the goal is to help the client gain greater access to their own Self in order to help the parts get what they need to heal. When a client has access to the inner wisdom of the Self they are able to find guidance and solutions that are exactly right for them, rather than relying on the therapist to advise or “fix” them.

As an IFS-trained practitioner, I love connecting clients to their own healing wisdom empowering them to find greater ease and flow in their lives. Stay tuned for future posts on how I integrate this with bodywork…

To learn more about IFS visit: https://selfleadership.org/