Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS)
Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS)
IFS at The Wave
What is Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS)?
IFS is an evidence-based approach to psychotherapy, developed in the 1990s by family therapist Richard Schwartz, PhD., that can be used to treat a wide variety of mental health conditions and their symptoms.
It is based on two simple concepts:
- The first key idea in IFS therapy is that each of us possesses a variety of sub-personalities (or families)within our mental system. These different ‘parts’ play common but dynamic roles in helping us to navigate our lives and achieve self-preservation.
These parts interact with each other in patterns that are similar to those found in family interactions, just internally instead of externally. Those parts engaging in non-extreme behaviours are beneficial to us, but problems arise when some of these parts are extreme, or in conflict with each other (and with one’s core Self), creating disharmony within our internal system.
- The second key idea is that everyone has a ‘Self’. The Self represents the seat of consciousness – what each of us is at our very core. The Self has many positive qualities, such as confidence, calmness, wisdom, compassion, acceptance, leadership, perspective and connectedness. The Self is never seen but is the witnessing ‘I’ of the inner world that merely observes.
As a therapy, IFS aims to help parts discover and return to their non-extreme roles. It helps us to identify and address our sub-personalities, to build relationships with these different parts of ourselves and to be curious about why they are present and what their intentions are.
Through IFS the relationships between our sub-personalities can be improved, changing the dynamics that are causing conflict amongst them and the Self. The Self can step forward and take on its role as chief agent in coordinating the internal family.
The turning point during IFS therapy is the knowledge that ALL our parts have good intentions for us and are innately present in us. By accessing our Self and, from that core, coming to understand and heal our parts, IFS helps to heal and restore mental balance and create inner and outer connectedness.
What are the different types of IFS sub-personalities?
There are three distinct types in the IFS model:
- Managers are in the system to create calm through control. They are responsible for keeping the system running day-to-day and sustaining a functioning level of consciousness. They work hard to protect us from any unwanted or detrimental experiences, interactions, or emotions that might result from external stimuli, including rejection, abandonment and hurt. The managers are the protectors, designed to keep the exiled parts suppressed, and can appear as inner critics, perfectionists, caretakers, pessimists, etc.
- Exiles are the parts in the system that carry the pain and trauma of our experiences when we are unsupported and no one is there to help us discharge them. The managers and firefighters often keep these parts isolated from the rest of the system so that proper functioning and self-preservation can be maintained. These wounded and suppressed parts in us can show up as pain, shame, fear, loneliness, etc.
- Firefighters are the distractors in the system. They serve to distract the mind when exiles break free from their suppression. To protect the consciousness from feeling and re-experiencing the uncomfortable emotions and pain of the exiles, firefighters step in and prompt us to engage in behaviours that are indulgent, addictive, and even abusive. They redirect our attention to other areas such as sex, work, food, alcohol, or drugs. They can present as dissociation, self-harming, addictions, suicidal ideation, etc.
Managers and firefighters are the protectors, while exiles are the parts that are being protected.
All of these parts can be healed, transformed, and better managed by the Self as the three goals of IFS are achieved:
- Free the parts from their extreme roles
- Restore trust in the Self
- Coordinate and harmonise the Self and the parts so that they can work together as a team, with the Self in charge.
How does IFS work?
Guided and facilitated by a therapist at The Wave, our young people begin accessing their different parts; some more active, some that protect, as well as some that are more vulnerable and have been hidden for many years.
Once all the parts have been identified, the therapist helps the young person to acknowledge their feelings about these parts, teaches them techniques to release suppressed emotions, and ultimately to find positive, healthy ways to manage conflicts on their own.
Every part within each of us is responsible for preventing actions, behaviours, or reactions that could result in dysfunction or disharmony. Thus, in IFS, each part is validated and recognised as important and valued for its primary function: self-preservation.
As communication is mediated, healthy relationships and potential friendships are built within the young person’s internal system, allowing a deeper understanding of each of their parts and the roles they each perform. Eventually, a sense of comfort is achieved, allowing each part to hand control and power of the system back to the Self.
The ultimate goal of IFS is to release or recover our extreme and wounded parts, and to reconstruct a healthy, harmonious, trusted internal system that is coordinated by the Self. With the Self holding the power, the young person begins to unburden their system, regain control, build hope and start a journey to healing.
From a state of Self, they know what to say to each of their parts in order to promote internal system harmony. Our IFS therapists, therefore, help each young person to achieve and maintain a state of Self so they can ultimately become their own counsellors to their unique internal family.
‘We hold the power to heal ourselves’ is a statement that stands at the root of the Internal Family Systems approach to healing.
Typical techniques and exercises used to achieve IFS goals:
- Keeping a journal
- Creating diagrams/chartsto help illustrate the relationship between Self and the different parts.
- Visualisation: The room technique.This technique is used when working with more than one part, to bring polarised parts together. Under the guidance of the therapist, one part is invited to watch as the Self interacts with another part. This visualisation is often used when the part observing is polarised from the part interacting with Self.
- Visualisation: The mountain or path exercise.In a safe setting, the young person visualises themself walking along an inviting path. If they can see themselves in the image, the therapist then encourages them to move into their body and view the landscape from within, asking them to pay careful attention to the thoughts, feelings, and sensations that arise. This exercise helps them to explore and better understand their inner world.
- Relaxation exercises: getting to know who’s in there.The young person is encouraged to breathe, relax and focus on the inner world, to get to know their present parts better.
- Feeling one’s heart.The young person is encouraged to breathe, relax, and feel their heart. Does it feel emotionally open, or is it tightly closed? During this exercise, they can ask the protectors to step back for a while so the exiles can be better understood.
What are the benefits of IFS?
Reorganising and restructuring the internal system through IFS can lead to rapid changes in the roles the parts play. Adjustments made to the internal system inevitably lead to changes to the external system and vice versa. The internal and external systems both need to be effectively assessed and treated for maximum benefit.
The benefits of IFS therapy include:
- Potential for rapid progress – young people report that they feel a real difference after only a few sessions.
- Development of self-reliance – this approach encourages agency within our young people, so they are not dependent on the therapist for ongoing support.
- Focuses on strengths – using the undamaged core of Self as ‘co-therapist’ and trusting the parts can shift into more positive, healthy roles.
- Client-directed – the young person leads the sessions, deciding pace and intensity based on what they feel able to manage. This creates a sense of safety and control, which are essential elements in effective therapy and lasting change.
What is IFS used to treat?
IFS can be used to treat a wide variety of mental health conditions and their symptoms, including:
- bipolar disorder
- body image issues
- compulsive behaviours
- panic disorders
- physical, emotional or sexual abuse
- substance dependency
It can be applied in family, couple, and individual settings to treat these conditions and to improve general functioning and overall well-being.
Is IFS therapy effective?
IFS is listed in the National Registry for Evidence-based Programs and Practices (NREPP, 2015) as an effective treatment for the improvement of general emotional and mental well-being.
As an evidence-based treatment, IFS has also been highly rated for its effectiveness in improving the symptoms of generalised anxiety, depression and certain physical illnesses.
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