Internal Family Systems (IFS)

Internal Family Systems (IFS)

Internal Family Systems (IFS): A psychotherapy model which works with inner conflict, ‘exiled’ parts of you and dysfunctional coping mechanisms, restoring harmony and self-acceptance to your life.

 

Internal Family Systems is one of the fastest-growing models of psychotherapy today. Developed in the 1990s by Dr Richard Schwartz (USA), it has impressed many experienced therapists with its transformative power.

 

IFS therapy is based on the understanding that each of us has different parts of our identity and personality, and these parts have different roles and relationships within us, like an internal family. This is clearly reflected in our everyday language. For example, we might say:

  • “One part of me hates that idea, but another part of me is a bit curious…”
  • “There’s a part of me which loves to draw, and then there’s another part which is afraid people will laugh at me…”
  • “I feel furious with my partner, but I also have a nagging voice which is saying that it’s probably my fault and it’s making me feel guilty…”

 

It’s a natural way to express different things that we’re thinking or feeling – and it reveals the sense of internal tension and conflict we often experience. When parts of us are in conflict with each other, it can feel like we’re stuck or out of control. Sometimes, one part might hijack or sabotage us, making us do or say things that cause trouble in our lives (e.g. our inner Perfectionist, a Workaholic part, a frightened Inner Child or a chocolate-gorging part!).

Different types of parts

MANAGERS

tend to proactively run our lives and they influence many of our thoughts and behaviours in order to protect us. For example, a Perfectionist part could be trying to protect us from failing; our Inner Critic part often aims to keep us ‘small’ and fearful so that we don’t risk too much; a People Pleaser part just wants us to be accepted and to avoid dangerous conflicts. Managers also exile other parts of us.

EXILES

are parts of us that carry a lot of fear, shame or trauma, usually rooted in childhood experiences. They are exiled from our consciousness because they are too painful and overwhelming for our system to deal with. Or we may have learned that certain feelings and parts of us (e.g. an angry part or a flamboyantly artistic part) are not acceptable in our family, community or culture, so we exile them in order to belong and stay safe. But suppression of these parts doesn’t work very well and Exiles often attempt a jailbreak when triggered by a life event or painful memory. 

FIREFIGHTERS

are another kind of protector, which react like an emergency service.  When an Exile breaks out, Firefighters jump into action to distract or numb us from the fear, hurt or shame that is flooding our system. At their most extreme, Firefighters prompt behaviours like binge-eating, drug addiction, self-harm or violence. They also take more subtle forms, like overworking, compulsive shopping, physical pain or brain fog. Firefighters can cause additional damage to our systems (like using big water-hoses to put out a small house-fire), creating a vicious cycle of self-criticism, shame and more Firefighter action. 

MANAGERS

tend to proactively run our lives and they influence many of our thoughts and behaviours in order to protect us. For example, a Perfectionist part could be trying to protect us from failing; our Inner Critic part often aims to keep us ‘small’ and fearful so that we don’t risk too much; a People Pleaser part just wants us to be accepted and to avoid dangerous conflicts. Managers also exile other parts of us.

EXILES

are parts of us that carry a lot of fear, shame or trauma, usually rooted in childhood experiences. They are exiled from our consciousness because they are too painful and overwhelming for our system to deal with. Or we may have learned that certain feelings and parts of us (e.g. an angry part or a flamboyantly artistic part) are not acceptable in our family, community or culture, so we exile them in order to belong and stay safe. But suppression of these parts doesn’t work very well and Exiles often attempt a jailbreak when triggered by a life event or painful memory. 

FIREFIGHTERS

 are another kind of protector, which react like an emergency service.  When an Exile breaks out, Firefighters jump into action to distract or numb us from the fear, hurt or shame that is flooding our system. At their most extreme, Firefighters prompt behaviours like binge-eating, drug addiction, self-harm or violence. They also take more subtle forms, like overworking, compulsive shopping, physical pain or brain fog. Firefighters can cause additional damage to our systems (like using big water-hoses to put out a small house-fire), creating a vicious cycle of self-criticism, shame and more Firefighter action. 

Self-leadership

 

When we ‘unblend’ from our parts – seeing them for what they really are rather than being wholly identified with them – the parts become less controlling and something shifts. We start to glimpse and gain more access to a sense of ‘Self’ which lies beyond our parts and is the essence of who we really are.

 

The Self already contains all the qualities and resources we need, even in those who are deeply troubled or traumatised, but we frequently lose sight of this ‘blue sky above the clouds’. When Self is present, we experience and exhibit Self-leadership qualities defined by these ‘8 C’s’:    

 

Calmness  –  Clarity  –  Confidence  –  Curiosity  –  Creativity  –  Compassion  –  Courage  –  Connectedness

 

Not surprisingly, these qualities of Self-leadership help us to navigate more effectively and gracefully through life. We can tackle any challenges that arise and build the resilience to heal ourselves at a deeper level. You might notice that this sounds quite similar to Zen Coaching in its understanding of Self or ‘Essence’.

 

The added contribution of Internal Family Systems is that it helps us to work directly, methodically and safely with specific parts that are blocking Self-leadership – the parts that hold thorny defence mechanisms or underlying trauma. Once in Self-leadership, we can connect more deeply with these parts to complete their unburdening and healing. Finally, they are reintegrated into our system as a more constructive, resourceful collaboration of parts – with Self at the helm.      

How does an IFS session work?

 

IFS sessions look pretty much like other therapy sessions, involving a dialogue between you and the therapist. We focus on a question or challenge in your life by identifying and exploring the different parts of you that are relevant.

 

To connect with a particular part, we use an intuitive process of ‘focusing your attention inwards’, inviting the part to share its perspective with you. People are often surprised at their ability to have meaningful inner conversations with these parts, even if they are initially sceptical. The answers can come very clearly, and it feels quite different from imagination or analysis.

 

Generally, an IFS process is slower than Life Coaching but faster than traditional forms of psychotherapy. The collaborative approach and the presence of Self-energy makes for stimulating sessions. Clients report that they find their IFS sessions fascinating, highly insightful, reassuring and fun.   

Some principles of IFS therapy

 

  1. 1. All parts are welcome. There are no ‘bad’ parts, only parts stuck in bad roles. Each one has a positive intention for you but sometimes its effects can be counterproductive or dysfunctional.

 

  1. 2. This is a non-pathologising approach. Unlike other forms of psychotherapy, IFS doesn’t start from a diagnosis of mental illness or “something is wrong with you”. We know that your system is simply responding to its experience in the best way it knows. We just need to help unburden and rebalance the different parts of you so that the qualities of Self-leadership can come through more clearly.

 

  1. 3. You are the expert in terms of your own experience, so the IFS practitioner doesn’t assume the authority role in the relationship. We trust your judgment and we listen carefully so that you’re able to guide the direction and pace of the process. A big part of my role is to hold space for Self-leadership (yours and my own) to support the process.

 

  1. 4. Any concerns or doubts you may have are invited in and explored – because that’s an important part of you that needs to be seen and heard. We never try to argue with, coerce or discredit a part; the IFS process is patient, highly empathic and collaborative. This means that it’s safe to work with quite extreme parts without overwhelming them or other parts of your system.

For more details about Internal Family Systems therapy, please see this article or this video featuring its founder, Dr Richard Schwartz.