Internal Family Systems Therapy and Parts Work
Internal Family Systems (IFS) is a remarkable form of behavioral therapy that identifies and addresses the various sub-personalities, or “parts” within us. When we experience trauma, our personality breaks into various parts that represent our feelings of hurt, sadness, anger and shame. IFS has been used to successfully treat anxiety, depression, various forms of abuse, PTSD, eating disorders and a variety of other issues.
Parts can develop within us to protect us from the pain of our traumatic experiences and the associated challenging emotions. Often these parts are in direct conflict with one another and our core Self, which is the happy, confident and whole person that is at the center of us.
IFS addresses all of these wounded parts, providing them with a voice and an opportunity to express their unique perspective on our past trauma and what their role is in protecting us. With the support of a skilled mental health professional, we can create a dialogue with these parts, allowing them to be acknowledged and release their pain, moving the stuck energy that is locked within them to provide more ease and freedom in our lives.
“A part is not just a temporary emotional state or habitual thought pattern. Instead, it is a discrete and autonomous mental system that has an idiosyncratic range of emotion, style of expression, set of abilities, desires, and view of the world. In other words, it is as if we each contain a society of people, each of whom is at a different age and has different interests, talents, and temperaments.” – Richard C. Schwartz, Ph.D.
Designed to Help Family Members Achieve Harmony in Their Lives
Internal Family Systems Therapy helps us shift our trust back to the core Self so that we can live a life that is happy and harmonious.
We must allow the parts that are managing our past traumas to be acknowledged so that they can dissipate their energy and settle back into their appropriate role of supporting the Self in our decision-making process.
The Theory of Internal Family Systems Therapy
IFS was developed in the 1990s by family therapist Richard Schwartz, Ph.D. The premise of Internal Family Systems Therapy is the concept of an undamaged core Self that is at the center of who we are. Surrounding that core center for self-leadership are three different sub-types of personalities that each play a particular role in managing our past trauma, as described by the Internal Family Systems Model:
• Young parts that have experienced trauma and often become isolated from the rest of the system in an effort to protect the individual from feeling the pain, terror, fear, and so on, of these parts.
• If exiled, can become increasingly extreme and desperate in an effort to be cared for and tell their story.
• Can leave the individual feeling fragile and vulnerable.
• Parts that run the day-to-day life of the individual.
• Attempt to keep the individual in control of every situation and relationship in an effort to protect parts from feeling any hurt or rejection.
• Can do this in any number of ways or through a combination of parts -- striving, controlling, evaluating, caretaking, terrorizing, and so on.
• Group of parts that react when exiles are activated in an effort to control and extinguish their feelings.
• Can do this in any number of ways, including drug or alcohol use, self-mutilation (cutting), binge-eating, sex addiction, etc.
• Have the same goals as managers (to keep exiles away) but different strategies.
In a general sense, our exiles, or hurt parts, are cared for by our managers in an effort to keep us from experiencing additional pain from our past traumas. When an exile is triggered, a firefighter will step in to mitigate the pain as quickly as possible, often in unhealthy ways. Firefighters can manifest as some of our biggest character defects, such as alcohol or drug addiction, as a way of distracting us from facing and re-experiencing our past traumas.
The most important thing to remember is that our parts can be healed and transformed when they are given a voice and acknowledged in a supportive environment. Their pent up energy can be discharged, providing us with more ease and freedom. The ultimate goal is to liberate the parts from their extreme roles so that they can more effectively trust the core Self and work together as a team to support our happy and healthy lives.
Internal Family Systems Therapy in Practice
• Assessment of parts: The first step to utilizing Internal Family Systems Therapy is to develop a comprehensive understanding of all of the parts that exist within you, especially in relation to the most disruptive problem that you are currently experiencing in your life. As we learn about our parts and how they function in our lives, we also learn how we connect and respond to similar parts in others.
• Discussing awareness of parts: We need to know how you understand and interact with your parts, including the thoughts, feelings and experiences that you have when certain parts are actively manifesting in your life.
• Familiarizing with the language of IFS: At first it can be a little confusing to talk about various parts of ourselves as if they are separate individuals. With some practice, the language of IFS becomes more natural and provides a liberating way to acknowledge how our parts are attempting to manage our lives and protect us from past trauma.
• Discussing fears of the managers and their value: Managers are constantly working to keep us safe and protected from our past trauma so that we can live functional lives. They are driven by fear of re-exposure to the pain of past trauma. It is important that we discuss how we can work through problems without the fears of the managers actually occurring. It can be helpful to discuss the value of managers in our lives and to acknowledge how they help us.
• Discussing firefighters and their coping methods: Firefighters are there to step in the instant that our exiled parts are triggered, especially when the methods of the managers are not enough to keep us safe and protected. Often the firefighters can manifest as unhealthy coping methods, including addictions and withdrawal tactics, that do not support our ability to function in a healthy way. It is important to discuss the tactics our firefighters utilize to mitigate pain as it emerges.
Goals and Challenges
The ultimate goal of Internal Family Systems Therapy is to unify your internal family of sub-personalities so that they work together to support your core Self and end the conflicts that cause additional pain and suffering in your life. When you are unburdened, there is a sense of ease, freedom, unification and a clarity of understanding of how to move forward and make responsible decisions in your life.
Focus on the Positive
• Focusing on strengths: It is important to remind you that however wounded your parts have become from past trauma and challenging emotional experiences that your core Self remains and will always remain undamaged. The parts that have taken on dysfunctional roles to protect us from our past trauma can be liberated and restored to positive roles in our life, where they can support our strengths and ability to exist as healthy, autonomous individuals.
• The language of IFS as a tool for growth: When we learn how to discuss our inner struggles in terms of the various sub-personalities that are involved, it empowers us to view ourselves with a new perspective that can provide tremendous insight into the ways in which we cope with challenges and deal with the problems in our life. It also supports our ability to see how we connect with other people's parts and how this affects our interpersonal relationships, giving us a powerful tool to take responsibility for our behavior.
• A respect for your experience of your problems: IFS does not rely on an all-knowing therapist who "fixes" you. So much of the growth that occurs with IFS has to do with your innate ability to understand your own challenges and to provide the ideas and connection to your parts that ultimately results in the resolution of their burdens. Your therapist is simply a guide, and by providing language and a framework for you to do the work, they empower you to address your own problems in a new and effective way. Not only does this work more effectively than your therapist telling you what your problems are, but it helps you to develop trust in your innate ability to take care of yourself and take responsibility for your own life.
• The internal family system has innate wisdom: Similar to the previous point, IFS work occurs on a foundation of respect for the wisdom that your internal family system possesses regarding your past trauma and what is best for you. Often the system is working rather well, but needs some adjustment and optimization to encourage more balance and harmony in your life. The IFS model relies on your ability to provide the most effective direction for your own healing. Your therapist is a single part of the larger support system that you are developing.
• Your protective parts: Often it is not so easy to work directly into the core trauma that affects you, as there are various parts that are functioning with the sole purpose of keeping old trauma from being re-experienced.
• Working with exiles before the system is ready: We cannot directly address the exiled and hurt parts until we address the managers and firefighters and receive permission to do so. Attempting to work directly with an exile before the family system is ready may result in the managers taking a more active role in protecting you from the resurgence of painful memories and could even trigger a firefighter to emerge and provide even more intense protection from the experience of past trauma. We must work with the system as a whole and be sensitive to the hurt parts and the opportunities that they provide for us to work with them in order to make real progress.
• Therapist thinking they are talking to the Self with they are really talking to a part: Your sub-personalities have developed over a lifetime to protect you from your most painful past experiences. Often they function subconsciously and we are unaware of how active they can become, especially through moments that intentionally bring up past trauma like a treatment session. A mistake that therapists can make is thinking that they are addressing your core Self when in reality it is a manager that is stepping in to take over, further protecting your exiles from an opportunity to re-experience past wounds. It is important for your therapist to develop a deep understanding of all your parts so that this can be avoided and parts can be worked with more effectively as they manifest themselves.
• Differentiating the Self from parts: Often when beginning IFS work, we have little understanding of the separation of our parts. Our experience has been more or less a continuous stream of feelings and sensations coming from a single place. As understanding develops, our ability to differentiate parts from one another improves, allowing us to begin working towards an understanding of our core Self as it exists underneath our parts. Getting connected to your core Self can support your ability to see clearly when a part is attempting to take control and can also provide you with the inspiration to keep moving through the therapeutic process as you get in better touch with your core Self on a regular basis.
• Dealing with extreme parts: When trauma is particularly intense, the parts that emerge to protect us from re-experiencing it can also be quite extreme. The intensity of certain parts presents a challenge when attempting to develop a deeper understanding of them, as the volume is simply turned too high for identification and rapport. This can be addressed with techniques such as EMDR to help you work through some of the more painful aspects of your trauma, allowing the intensity of the parts to diminish, providing better access to them.