Internal Family Systems

Internal Family Systems Therapy is a psycho-therapeutic approach, premised upon the idea that the Self exists as a collective of unique parts. It is harmonious with many spiritual dispositions and has been celebrated for its effectiveness in trauma-related therapies.
For practitioners of Internal Family Systems therapies (IFS), psychotherapeutic healing starts from an understanding of the mind as a process; one that exists in multiplicity as a constellation of parts, or sub-personalities. Reminiscent of Carl Jung’s psychological archetypes, IFS views parts as distinct personas, each with its own history, feelings, outlook and way of contributing to the internal ‘ecosystem’ that is our mind. The presence of these sub-personalities is commonly experienced as the hearing of ‘voices’. Although they seek to protect us and ensure our safety, the methods employed by our parts can cause them to become problematic forces in our lives. A protective sub-personality present during a traumatic experience may become overprotective and overbearing in its attempts to ensure our safety at all costs. Seeking to shelter us from emotional distress, our protective parts may attempt to obfuscate or exile the parts of us that embody our emotions and feelings toward certain memories or past experiences. This can prevent us from accessing and understanding our emotions, an important aspect of recovery and healing.
Also present in our internal world, albeit sometimes blended with our parts, is our Self: ‘the fundamental human spark with which we are all born’ . Symbolic of our innate faculties and energy, this concept of Self is closer to the Buddhist idea of ‘nonself’ [annata] than it is to the common Western notion of ‘the self’. Philosophically speaking, the Self in IFS is what remains in the absence of all parts, though this should not be taken to imply that IFS therapy seeks to bring about the rejection or denial of parts. Rather, clients of IFS therapists are guided toward an understanding of their parts as entities that are essentially trying to help and protect them. Clients learn to accept their parts, which functions to allow self-acceptance. ‘The primary goals of IFS are to re-establish safe and trusting connections between the person’s unique inner family of parts and the leadership of their Self energy,’ explains Baldwin. Understood as something inherent to all of us, Self-energy is characterised by ‘Eight C’s’: curiosity, compassion, calm, confidence, courage, clarity, creativity and connectedness. This last C, ‘connectedness’, is also central to the overall methodology of IFS. Drawing on the integrative mechanics of systems thinking, IFS views each constituent part of our internal system as interrelated, to the extent that ‘moving one part in the system results in movement in the whole system’.
Important to the IFS therapist, are the interrelations and correspondences that take place between a client’s parts and the self. In this framework, parts are like the many sections of an orchestra, and the Self, the orchestra’s conductor. When the self can direct the parts to act together in a way that is harmonious with a person’s deeper nature, IFS understands the person to be Self-led. In this state, parts are called upon in situations where their unique character or approach can serve to benefit the person, just as the conductor foregrounds the unique timbre of various parts of the orchestra during certain moments of a performance, to enrich the overall sound of the collective.
Integral to the idea of self-leadership is an understanding of the nature and role of each part within a given intra-psychic system. A conductor that understands the parts of an orchestra – one that knows the limitations, character and potential of each group of instruments – is more likely to succeed when directing the orchestra, than a conductor that is yet to gain this familiarity. Understanding the roles and personalities of parts first requires that clients are able to distinguish and identify these sub-personalities in themselves. Accordingly, the recognition and consideration of parts provides a fundamental aspect of the early stages of IFS and is central to the overall theoretical and practical framework of this non-pathologising modality.

Founder of IFS Therapy - Dr Richard C. Schwartz

More information available from the IFS Institute website.

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Article written by Jack Doepel