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Internal family systems

Internal family systems (IFS) is a therapeutic approach that views the human psyche as a complex system of interacting parts, each with its own characteristics, motivations, and roles. IFS aims to help clients understand and harmonize their inner family of parts, as well as heal the wounds and traumas that have caused some parts to become extreme or dysfunctional. In this article, we will introduce the main concepts and principles of IFS, explain how it differs from other forms of psychotherapy, and provide some examples of how it can be applied in clinical practice.

“I’m not suggesting that you have Dissociative Identity Disorder, but I do think that people with this diagnosis are not so different from anybody else. What are called alters in those people are the same as what I call parts in Internal Family Systems, and they exist in all of us. The only difference is that people with DID suffered horrible abuse and their system of parts got blown apart more than most, so each stands out in broader relief and is more polarised and disconnected from the others”

Richard C. Schwartz

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What is internal family systems?

Internal Family Systems (IFS) is a form of psychotherapy, proposed by Richard C. Schwartz, that views the mind as a complex system of subpersonalities, or parts, that interact with each other and with the core Self. The Self is the essence of who we are, and it has qualities such as compassion, confidence, and wisdom. The parts are aspects of the self who normally operate synchronously with the core Self, and serve to support its functions. However, they can become out of sync with the self and form a separate, negative character which is often developed in response to life experiences, especially trauma. They may carry burdens of pain, shame, fear, or anger. Some parts may try to protect us from these feelings by taking on extreme roles, such as being critical, controlling, or avoidant. Other parts may be exiled or suppressed by the protectors, causing them to feel isolated and rejected. Because these parts often have other responsibilities than simple carrying the burden of our suppressed pain, for example, when they go out of sync with the core Self, they often take with them other aspects of self, such as the ability to feel certain emotions, which disappear into our unconscious mind. They may also affect aspects of our physical health.

According to IFS, everyone has these multiple parts, and in the normal person they act in harmony and unity, and as a result, we have erroneously come to think of our mind as a “mono-mind”. However, the suggestion is, this is incorrect. Each of us is a multiplicity of individual mind parts, and inner denials caused by such events as trauma can cause those disparate parts to work against each other, causing mental dysfunction.

Blending is a term used in internal family systems (IFS) therapy to describe the state of being identified with a part of oneself. When a person is blended with a part, they lose perspective and awareness of their true self, and take on the attributes of that part. Blending can cause problems such as emotional reactivity, inner conflict, or self-sabotage. To unblend from a part, the person needs to practice self-leadership, which is the ability to access the qualities of the self and relate to the part with curiosity and compassion. By unblending, the person can gain more clarity, balance, and harmony in their inner system.

Another key concept in IFS is the idea of bending, which refers to the process of changing or adapting one’s parts to fit the expectations or demands of others, such as family members, peers, or society. Bending can happen when a part feels threatened, ashamed, or rejected by external or internal forces, and tries to protect itself or the whole system by conforming to a certain role or image.

Bending can have both positive and negative consequences. On the one hand, bending can help us survive in challenging or traumatic situations, by allowing us to cope with stress, avoid harm, or gain acceptance. On the other hand, bending can also limit our authenticity, creativity, and self-expression, by suppressing or distorting our true feelings, needs, and desires.

IFS is based on several assumptions and principles that guide its practice. Some of these are:

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  • Everyone has a Self and parts, and the Self can and should lead the individual’s internal system.
  • There are no bad parts, and the goal of therapy is not to eliminate parts, but instead to help them find their non-extreme roles.
  • Parts that become extreme are carrying burdens, which are energies that are not inherent in the function of the part and don’t belong to the nature of the part.
  • Parts can be helped to unburden and return to their natural balance.
  • Parts that have lost trust in the leadership of the Self will blend with or take over the Self.

IFS therapy aims to help us access our Self and heal our parts by creating a safe and supportive inner environment. The therapist guides us to identify our parts, listen to their stories and needs, and unburden them from their painful emotions. By doing so, we can restore harmony and balance within our internal family system, and enhance our well-being and functioning in the external world. The process is similar to the Jungian concept of individuation of the shadow aspect of the personal unconscious.

“The big conclusion here is that parts are not what they have been commonly thought to be. They’re not cognitive adaptations or sinful impulses. Instead, parts are sacred, spiritual beings and they deserve to be treated as such”

Richard C. Schwartz

A typical internal family systems therapeutic approach

“If, on the other hand, you believe that the part that seeks drugs is protective and carries the burden of responsibility for keeping this person from severe emotional pain or even suicide, then you would treat the person differently. You could instead help them get to know that part and honour it for its attempts to keep them going and negotiate permission to heal or change what it protects.

Then you would help the person heal by returning to the now liberated “addict” part and help it unburden all its fear and responsibility…..after which it finds a new role. The former addict part now wants to help you connect with people”

Richard C. Schwartz

An example of a typical internal family systems therapeutic approach is as follows:

The therapist begins by asking the client to identify a part of themselves that is causing them distress or conflict. This part is called the target part. The therapist then helps the client to access and explore the target part’s feelings, thoughts, beliefs, and motivations. The therapist also asks the client to notice any other parts that may be interfering with or reacting to the target part. These parts are called the managers, firefighters, or exiles, depending on their roles and functions. This could be, for example, identifying repetitive negative thoughts or behaviours that are impacting on the client’s life.

The therapist then guides the client to separate themselves from the target part and any other parts, and to connect with their core self. The core self is the essence of whom the client is, and it has qualities such as compassion, curiosity, calmness, clarity, confidence, courage, creativity, and connectedness. The therapist helps the client to access their core self by asking them to focus on their body sensations, breathing, and inner wisdom.

The therapist then invites the client to relate to the target part and any other parts from their core self, using a dialogical process. The client is encouraged to listen to each part’s perspective, validate its feelings and needs, appreciate its positive intentions, and negotiate new roles and relationships among the parts.

The therapist also helps the client to heal any wounded or exiled parts by providing them with empathy, acceptance, and support, and by negotiating a way in which they can be relieved of their burden. A part who is relieved of their burden will return to its primary function. An inner critic part, for example, will become an inner cheerleader.

The goal of this approach is to help the client achieve greater harmony and integration among their parts, and to enhance their access to their core self. This can lead to increased self-awareness, self-compassion, self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-expression.

IFS therapy involves several steps and techniques that help clients achieve these goals. Some of these are:

  • Finding a target part that is causing distress or difficulty for the client.
  • Focusing on the target part and fleshing out its characteristics and qualities.
  • Unblending from the target part and noticing the Self.
  • Developing a relationship between the Self and the target part.
  • Exploring the history, role, fears, and needs of the target part.
  • Asking permission from the target part to access its burdens.
  • Witnessing and retrieving the burdens from the target part.
  • Inviting the target part to do something new or different.

IFS therapy has been shown to be effective for various issues and populations, such as trauma, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, addiction, couples therapy, and more. IFS therapy can help clients develop self-awareness, self-compassion, self-leadership, and self-transformation.

Evidence-based practice

IFS therapy has been designated as an evidence-based practice on the National Registry for Evidence-based Programs and Practices. Several studies have shown the efficacy of IFS therapy in different populations and settings. For example:

  • A pilot study found that IFS therapy improved pain, physical functioning, depressive symptoms, and self-compassion in rheumatoid arthritis patients.
  • Another pilot study found that IFS therapy reduced PTSD symptoms and increased self-compassion among survivors of multiple childhood trauma.
  • A third pilot study found that IFS therapy reduced depression symptoms among female college students.

These studies suggest that IFS therapy can help people access their core Self, a confident, compassionate, and whole person that is at the centre of every individual. The core Self can then heal the wounded parts and restore mental balance and harmony by changing the dynamics that create discord among the sub-personalities and the Self.

Evidence of effectiveness
There is a growing body of evidence to support the effectiveness of IFS for various mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), eating disorders, substance use disorders, and chronic pain. Some of the studies that have evaluated IFS include:
A randomized controlled trial (RCT) that compared IFS with a waitlist control group for 79 adults with complex trauma. The results indicated that IFS was superior to the control group in reducing PTSD symptoms, depression, anxiety, and dissociation, and in increasing self-compassion and self-esteem. The effects were maintained at a 12-month follow-up (Schwartz et al., 2017).
A pilot RCT that compared IFS with a treatment-as-usual group for 13 women with binge-eating disorder. The results indicated that IFS was more effective than the control group in reducing binge-eating frequency, severity, and associated distress, and in improving body image and quality of life. The effects were maintained at a 6-month follow-up (Anderson et al., 2017).
A quasi-experimental study that examined the effects of IFS on 81 veterans with PTSD who participated in an intensive outpatient program. The results indicated that IFS was associated with significant reductions in PTSD symptoms, depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation, and with significant increases in self-compassion and mindfulness. The effects were maintained at a 12-month follow-up (Shadick et al., 2018).
A case series study that explored the feasibility and acceptability of IFS for 10 adults with chronic pain. The results indicated that IFS was well-tolerated and appreciated by the participants, and that it led to reductions in pain intensity, pain interference, depression, anxiety, and physical disability, and to increases in pain acceptance and self-compassion. The effects were maintained at a 3-month follow-up (Hulme et al., 2019).
These studies suggest that IFS is a promising intervention that can help people cope with various psychological and physical challenges by fostering their inner healing capacity and their connection with their true-self.
Further reading

If you would like to learn more about IFS, here are some weblinks for further reading:

What is Internal Family Systems? | IFS Institute

Internal Family Systems Therapy | Psychology Today

Internal Family Systems Model | Wikipedia

Internal Family Systems Therapy| GoodTherapy

The Internal Family Systems Model Outline | IFS Institute

Internal Family Systems Therapy: 8 Worksheets and Exercises| Positive Psychology

How to Connect With Your soul Using Internal Family Systems (IFS)

Internal Family Systems Therapy: How It Works & What to Expect | Choosing Therapy

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