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Internal Family Systems 

At the heart of Internal Family Systems therapy is the belief that there is a calm, compassionate core ‘Self’ within each of us that cannot be damaged.

The client might experience the IFS therapist as very open, welcoming of all their experience, with a warm interest without prying or judgement. As the work proceeds there is a building confidence in the person as they both differentiate and articulate relationships internally with their parts, and in-time externally with the larger world. At the end of this work one might have both multiplicity and connectedness, an internal fluidity and sense of harmony.

Internal Family Systems (IFS) uses Family Systems theory—the idea that individuals cannot be fully understood in isolation from the family unit—to develop techniques and strategies to effectively address issues within a person’s internal community or family. This evidence-based approach assumes each individual possesses a variety of sub-personalities, or “parts,” and attempts to get to know each of these parts better to achieve healing.

By learning how different parts function as a system and how the overall system reacts to other systems and other people, people in therapy can often, with the help a psychologist become better able to identify the roots of conflict, manage any complications arising, and achieve greater well-being. 

IFS THERAPY MODEL

IFS is based on an integrative model. The approach combines established elements from different schools of psychology, such as the multiplicity of the mind and systems thinking, and posits that each sub-personality or part possesses its own characteristics and perceptions. IFS also brings together various strategies from the Bowenian therapy base as well as techniques from more traditional narrative and structural modalities. The different elements are united through the goal of understanding and effectively addressing the different parts of the mind.

Though this therapy technique sees each level of consciousness as having different sub-personalities, each sub-personality has its own likes, dislikes, burdens, and history, and each sub-personality is thought to play a distinct role in achieving self-preservation for the person in therapy. Every part within a person is responsible for warding off behaviours, actions, or reactions that could result in dysfunction or disharmony within the individual. Thus, each part is validated and recognised as important due to its primary function. Parts may be identified as having either healthy and productive roles or extreme roles. Those parts with roles considered extreme may benefit from therapeutic work. The IFS model emphasises the network of relationships between parts as parts may not be able to experience change in isolation.

The IFS model has 5 basic assumptions:

  • The human mind is subdivided into an unknown number of parts.
  • Each person has a Self, and the Self should be the chief agent in coordinating the inner family.
  • Parts engaging in non-extreme behaviour are beneficial to the individual. There is no such thing as a “bad part.” Therapy aims to help parts discover their non-extreme roles. 
  • Personal growth and development leads to the development of the internal family. Interactions between parts become more complex, allowing for systems theory to be applied to the internal system. Reorganisation of the internal system may lead to rapid changes in the roles of parts. 
  • Adjustments made to the internal system will result in changes to the external system and vice versa. Therefore, both the internal and external systems need to be adequately assessed.

There are three distinct types of parts in the IFS model:

  1. Managers are responsible for maintaining a functioning level of consciousness in daily life by warding off any unwanted or counterproductive interactions, emotions, or experiences resulting from external stimuli.
  2. Exiles are most often in a state of pain or trauma, which may result from childhood experiences. Managers and firefighters exile these parts and prevent them from reaching the conscious level so that proper functioning and preservation are maintained.
  3. Firefighters serve as a distraction to the mind when exiles break free from suppression. In order to protect the consciousness from feeling the pain of the exiles, firefighters prompt a person to act on impulse and engage in behaviours that are indulgent, addictive, and often times abusive. Firefighters may redirect attention to other areas such as sex, work, food, alcohol, or drugs.

Managers and firefighters play the role of Protectors, while exiles are parts that are protected.

UNDERSTANDING THE SELF IN IFS 

In IFS therapy, the Self represents the seat of consciousness and what each person is at the core. The Self demonstrates many positive qualities such as acceptance, confidence, calmness, wisdom, compassion, connectedness, leadership and perspective. Unlike visible parts, the Self is never seen. It is the witnessing “I” in the inner world—this aspect of an individual does the observing.

The IFS model aims to differentiate the Self from the other parts (managers, firefighters, and exiles) making up a person’s inner world. The ultimate goal of IFS is to unburden or restore extreme and wounded parts and establish a trusted, healthy, harmonious internal system that is coordinated by the Self. 

Once in a state of Self, people in treatment will know what to say to each part in order to promote internal system harmony. IFS therapists therefore try to help people achieve and maintain a state of Self so they can become counsellors to own internal families. This increased internal harmony often results in positive thoughts and behaviours in the external life of the individual. 

ISSUES TREATED WITH IFS

IFS is used to treat a wide variety of mental health conditions and psychological wounds. It may be applied in family, couple, and individual situations. As of November 2015, this type of therapy is listed in the National Registry for Evidence-based Programs and Practices (NREPP) as an evidence-based practice. It has been shown to be effective for the improvement of general emotional and mental well-being and has been rated as promising to improve symptoms of phobia, panic, generalised anxiety, depression, and certain physical ailments. 

Issues treated with IFS therapy include:

  • Trauma
  • Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
  • Compulsive behaviours
  • Depression
  • Bipolar
  • Body image issues
  • Anxiety
  • Phobias
  • Substance dependency

WHAT HAPPENS IN AN IFS SESSION?

A session of IFS therapy may take the form of traditional talk therapy, but a therapist may also choose to focus on an affected individual’s internal environment and help the individual connect different parts to Self. For example, a person who is experiencing alcohol addiction may be asked to relax, take a few deep breaths, and try to feel the part inside that wants to keep drinking. That part may be identified via a body sensation, a visual image, or an inner awareness of the part’s existence.

With the person in treatment now focusing on the internal environment, the therapist may ask how the person feels about that part. The individual may report feelings of shame, disgust, anger, or even fear. The therapist will typically then explain the need to find out the reason behind the part’s actions, often gently encouraging the person in therapy to “turn down the volume” of any fear, hatred, disgust, or shame felt toward the part, in order for the part to communicate clearly.

The part may explain it acts in the way it does to help the individual deal with difficult problems being experienced. At this point, the therapist may instruct the individual in treatment to ask the part if it would be willing to stop its actions if other effective coping mechanisms were used instead. The part may strongly doubt any other methods will be able help the individual to cope, yet still be willing to try these methods as there is nothing to lose. With permission granted, the therapist will often then help the individual to deal with issues in healthy and constructive ways.

IFS TECHNIQUES AND EXERCISES

In IFS, people work to understand the inner self through the use of simple yet efficient exercises and techniques. Many exercises are linked to effective breathing control, which promotes relaxation and mental clarity.

Common techniques and exercises in IFS include:

  • Keeping a journal
  • Using diagrams to illustrate relationships between parts
  • The room technique. In this exercise one part watches as the Self interacts with another part (with which the observing part is polarised). This technique is used to bring polarised parts together.
  • Mountain or path exercise. In a safe setting, people in therapy visualise themselves walking along an inviting path. If one can see oneself in the image, the therapist will encourage the person to move into the body and view the scenery from within, asking the individual to pay careful attention to the thoughts, feelings, and sensations that arise. This exercise is believed to help a person in therapy explore and better understand the inner world.
  • Getting to know whoever’s there. An individual is encouraged to breathe, relax, focus on the inner world, and get to know the present parts even better.
  • Feeling one’s heart. An individual is encouraged to breathe, relax, and feel the heart. Does it feel emotionally open, or is it encrusted and closed? The individual may ask the protectors to step back for a while so the exiles may be better understood.