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The ABCs of IFS (Internal Family Systems Therapy)

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April 7, 2015
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Annie Olinick

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Benefits of IFS Therapy

  • Potential for Rapid Progress
  • Client Develops Self-Reliance - not dependent on therapist for support
  • Client-directed Therapy - pace and intensity set by you

IFS, or Internal Family Systems Therapy (developed by Dr. Richard Schwartz,) believes that we each have multiple personalities or “parts” of ourselves. These parts interact with each other in patterns that are similar to how people interact, just internally instead of externally. Problems arise when some of these parts become louder or more pronounced and create trouble.

Wait a minute, are you saying that I have multiple personalities?

In a certain way, yes! Have you ever found yourself saying, “Well a part of me is scared to go to therapy and talk about my feelings, but another part of me knows that I will feel better if I talk to someone”? There you go! In that example we have a logical part that wants to advocate for our well-being, and a part that is more emotional and is trying to protect us from the possibility being hurt or feeling vulnerable. We have many different parts within each of us.

Ok, I guess I can see that I have “parts” but where does the family piece come in?

Think for a minute about your family of origin. What labels were created for each person? For example, maybe you have the golden child, the scapegoat, the trouble-maker, the artist, the story-teller, etc. These labels describe the essence of the person and how they might relate to or interact with other family members, but it doesn’t portray who they are in their entirety. IFS believes that in a way, we have all of these family roles or “parts” within each of us, a whole family that is internal, and collectively makes up what is referred to as the Self.

So I have all of these “parts” that make up the Self…now what?

IFS therapy asks the client to work on identifying all of the parts and inviting each of them to be present and acknowledged within a session. Each part contains talents and resources that can be activated at different times depending on the client’s history and current environment. The challenge is that each part can become frozen or dysfunctional at various points, often as a result of experiencing trauma, external criticism or any disruption in their attachment to primary caregivers.

IFS divides the idea “parts” into three general categories, Exiles, Managers and Firefighters.

Exiles carry emotional memories and often hold feelings like shame, vulnerability or fear. These parts are often isolated from the rest of the system and kept deeply hidden or protected by the Managers and Firefighters.

Managers work hard to keep the system running on a day-to-day level, scanning for danger, controlling relationships and preventing against things hurt, abandonment or rejection.

Firefighters are re-active, especially when an exile is at risk of being exposed. Firefighters may manifest in the form of drug or alcohol abuse, sexual risk-taking behaviors, suicidal thoughts or other self-harming activities.

It sounds like the managers and firefighters mostly do a good job protecting the exiles. What’s the problem?

The problem is that these are extreme roles, pushed to exaggeration, that contribute to a system that is actually dysfunctional. IFS believes that we each have parts that can help run the entire Self in a healthy way, but that this ideal Self can be obscured by the extremities of these parts.

What does it look like when the Self operates in a healthy way?

A healthy Self arises from being in a mindful state and embodies some or all of the following 8 traits: clarity, compassion, courage, confidence, curiosity, creativity, calmness and connectedness.

Having read those 8 traits, take a moment and see which ones you feel connected to right now. How many have you felt connected to in the past week? Month? Year? Which ones would you like to feel more connected to and what parts of yourself might need to change to help with that process?

Can anyone do IFS?

IFS can work well for individuals and also for couples. Often couples are initially drawn to each other either because they protect each other’s exiles or allow them a safe space to immerge. The problem arises when the partner inevitably re-enacts the initial problematic experience that first sent the exile away. Using IFS techniques, a trained therapist can help work through these roadblocks.

*Note: As with all therapy, it is ideal if the client is currently in a place in their life where the environment is safe enough to embark on doing this work.

Does everyone at BETA do IFS?

Traditionally, therapists will go through an intensive IFS training through Dr. Schawrtz and his colleagues and will focus mainly on this modality of treatment. Many of those trained therapists can be found at the Center for Self Leadership (see link below). The therapists at BETA incorporate elements of the IFS model into the work that we do and find that it has been a useful therapeutic element.

Where can I learn more about IFS?

Check out the Center for Self Leadership

Any final thoughts I should know about IFS?

As a therapist, there are several elements of the IFS approach that I am particularly drawn to. The first is that this model presents a trajectory towards health. Often, clients report that they feel a real difference after only a few sessions. The work can be deep and intense but change may come about rather quickly compared to other modalities of therapy. Second, this approach really supports and encourages agency within the individual. At times, clients may feel that they are reliant on their therapist for ongoing support. With IFS, the support comes from within as the individual learns to love, respect and integrate all of their parts. Finally, this is a permission based and client-led treatment. The client indicates where the session goes from week to week, how fast or slow they move and what they are ready for. This creates a sense of agency, control and safety, factors that are inherently important elements to productive therapy and lasting change.

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