INTERNAL FAMILY SYSTEMS THERAPY (IFS)
The first thing that perhaps needs to be clarified about Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS) is that it is not a form of therapy developed for families. Although it did grow out of a systemic understanding of the psyche.
The easiest way to describe this therapy is to start with a discussion about Parts.
We all have Parts.
Right now a part of me feels like going for a walk; another part wants to push on with writing this page about IFS.
Still feeling injured by an offensive e-mail message, a part of me wants to hit “reply” on a stinging put-down, while a different part wants to shrug it off. Most people who know me have seen my intense, sincere, and irritable parts; some have met the little snarling dog that lives inside me. Others have experienced my playful and adventurous parts.
When you walk into the office in the morning and see the storm clouds over your boss’s head, you know precisely what is coming. That angry part has a characteristic tone of voice, vocabulary, and body posture—so different from yesterday, when you shared pictures of your kids. Parts are not just feelings but distinct ways of being, with their own beliefs, agendas, and roles in the overall ecology of our lives.
How well we get along with ourselves depends largely on our internal leadership skills—how well we listen to our different parts, make sure they feel taken care of, and keep them from sabotaging one another. Parts often come across as absolutes when in fact they represent only one element in a complex constellation of thoughts, emotions, and sensations. If Margaret shouts, “I hate you!” in the middle of an argument, Joe probably thinks she despises him—and in that moment Margaret might agree. But in fact only a part of her is angry, and that part temporarily obscures her generous and affectionate feelings, which may well return when she sees the devastation on Joe’s face.
Every major school of psychology recognizes that people have subpersonalities and gives them different names. In 1890 William James wrote: “[I]t must be admitted that … the total possible consciousness may be split into parts which coexist, but mutually ignore each other, and share the objects of knowledge between them.” Carl Jung wrote: “The psyche is a self-regulating system that maintains its equilibrium just as the body does,” “The natural state of the human psyche consists in a jostling together of its components and in their contradictory behavior,” and “The reconciliation of these opposites is a major problem. Thus, the adversary is none other than ‘the other in me.’”
Modern neuroscience has confirmed this notion of the mind as a kind of society. Michael Gazzaniga, who conducted pioneering split-brain research, concluded that the mind is composed of semiautonomous functioning modules, each of which has a special role. In his book The Social Brain (1985) he writes, “But what of the idea that the self is not a unified being, and there may exist within us several realms of consciousness? … From our [split-brain] studies the new idea emerges that there are literally several selves, and they do not necessarily ‘converse’ with each other internally.” MIT scientist Marvin Minsky, a pioneer of artificial intelligence, declared: “The legend of the single Self can only divert us from the target of that inquiry. … [I]t can make sense to think there exists, inside your brain, a society of different minds. Like members of a family, the different minds can work together to help each other, each still having its own mental experiences that the others never know about.”
Internal Family Systems and Schema therapists are trained to see people as complex human beings with multiple characteristics and potentialities (Parts/Modes) and so can help them explore their system of inner parts and take care of the wounded facets of themselves.
This is particularly necessary after trauma. In trauma the self-system breaks down, and parts of the self become polarized and go to war with one another. Self-loathing coexists (and fights) with grandiosity; loving care with hatred; numbing and passivity with rage and aggression. These extreme parts bear the burden of the trauma.
In IFS a part is considered not just a passing emotional state or customary thought pattern but a distinct mental system with its own history, abilities, needs, and worldview. Trauma injects parts with beliefs and emotions that hijack them out of their naturally valuable state. For example, we all have parts that are childlike and fun. When we are hurt or abused, these are the parts that are hurt the most, and they become frozen, carrying the pain, terror, and betrayal of abuse. This burden makes them toxic—parts of ourselves that we need to deny at all costs. Because they are locked away inside, IFS calls them the exiles. In Schema Therapy these parts would be referred to as Vulnerable Child Modes.
At this point other parts organize to protect the internal family from the exiles. These protectors keep the toxic parts away, but in so doing they take on some of the energy of the abuser. Critical and perfectionistic managers can make sure we never get close to anyone or drive us to be relentlessly productive. Another group of protectors, which IFS calls firefighters, are emergency responders, acting impulsively whenever an experience triggers an exiled emotion.
Each split-off part holds different memories, beliefs, and physical sensations; some hold the shame, others the rage, some the pleasure and excitement, another the intense loneliness or the abject compliance. These are all aspects of the abusive or upsetting experience. The critical insight is that all these parts have a function: to protect the self from feeling the full terror of annihilation.
Children who act out their pain rather than locking it down are often diagnosed with “oppositional defiant behavior,” “attachment disorder,” or “conduct disorder.” But these labels ignore the fact that rage and withdrawal are only facets of a whole range of desperate attempts at survival. Trying to control a child’s behavior while failing to address the underlying issue—the abuse—leads to treatments that are ineffective at best and harmful at worst. As they grow up, their parts do not spontaneously integrate into a coherent personality but continue to lead a relatively autonomous existence.
Parts that are “out” may be entirely unaware of the other parts of the system. Most of the men evaluated with regard to their childhood molestation by Catholic priests took anabolic steroids and spent an inordinate amount of time in the gym pumping iron. These compulsive bodybuilders lived in a masculine culture of sweat, football, and beer, where weakness and fear were carefully concealed. Only after they felt safe in therapy or some other trusted relationship would they allow themselves at times to meet the terrified kids inside.
We may really dislike the parts of ourselves that are out: the parts that are angry, destructive, or critical. But IFS offers a framework for understanding them—and, also important, talking about them in a nonpathologizing way. Recognizing that each part is stuck with burdens from the past and respecting its function in the overall system makes it feel less threatening or overwhelming.
As Schwartz states: “If one accepts the basic idea that people have an innate drive toward nurturing their own health, this implies that, when people have chronic problems, something gets in the way of accessing inner resources. Recognizing this, the role of therapists is to collaborate rather than to teach, confront, or fill holes in your psyche.” The first step in this collaboration is to assure the internal system that all parts are welcome and that all of them—even those that are suicidal or destructive—were formed in an attempt to protect the self-system, no matter how much they now seem to threaten it.
IFS recognizes that the cultivation of mindful self-leadership is the foundation for healing from trauma and emotional suffering. Mindfulness not only makes it possible to survey our internal landscape with compassion and curiosity but can also actively steer us in the right direction for self-care. All systems—families, organizations, or nations—can operate effectively only if they have clearly defined and competent leadership. The internal family is no different: All facets of our selves need to be attended to. The internal leader must wisely distribute the available resources and supply a vision for the whole that takes all the parts into account.
What happens when the self is no longer in charge? IFS calls this “blending”: a condition in which the Self identifies with a part, as in “I want to kill myself” or “I hate you.” Notice the difference from “A part of me wishes that I were dead” or “A part of me gets triggered when you do that and makes me want to kill you.”
Schwartz makes two assertions that extend the concept of mindfulness into the realm of active leadership. The first is that this Self does not need to be cultivated or developed. Beneath the surface of the protective parts of a trauma survivor or someone struggling with a stressful reaction to a life challenge there exists an undamaged essence, a Self that is confident, curious, and calm, a Self that has been sheltered from destruction by the various protectors that have emerged in their efforts to ensure survival. Once those protectors trust that it is safe to separate, the Self will spontaneously emerge, and the parts can be enlisted in the healing process.
The second assumption is that, rather than being a passive observer, this mindful Self can help reorganize the inner system and communicate with the parts in ways that help those parts trust that there is someone inside who can handle things. Again neuroscience research shows that this is not just a metaphor. Mindfulness increases activation of the medial prefrontal cortex and decreases activation of structures like the amygdala that trigger our emotional responses. This increases our control over the emotional brain.
Even more than encouraging a relationship between a therapist and a helpless patient, IFS focuses on cultivating an inner relationship between the Self and the various protective parts. In this model of treatment the Self doesn’t only witness or passively observe, as in some meditation traditions; it has an active leadership role. The Self is like an orchestra conductor who helps all the parts to function harmoniously as a symphony rather than a cacophony.
GETTING TO KNOW THE INTERNAL LANDSCAPE
The task of our sessions together would be to separate this confusing blend into separate entities, so that they are able to say: “This part of me is like a little child, and that part of me is more mature but feels like a victim.” We might not like many of these parts, but identifying them makes them less intimidating or overwhelming. The next step is to encourage you to simply ask each protective part as it emerges to “stand back” temporarily so that we can see what it is protecting. When this is done again and again, the parts begin to unblend from the Self and make space for mindful self-observation. In this way we can gradually learn to put our fear, rage, or disgust on hold and open up into states of curiosity and self-reflection. It’s not easy and it takes a lot of practice, but it can be done in time. From the stable perspective of Self we can begin constructive inner dialogues with our parts, getting them to work together as best they can for our general well-being.
Working to an IFS paradigm, we might try and identify the parts involved in the current problem, like feeling worthless, abandoned, or obsessed with vengeful thoughts. As we ask ourselves, “What inside me feels that way?” an image or phrase may come to mind. Maybe the depressed part looks like an abandoned child, or an aging man, or an overwhelmed nurse taking care of the wounded; a vengeful part might appear as a combat marine or a member of a street gang.
Next I might ask you, “How do you feel toward that (sad, vengeful, terrified) part of you?” This sets the stage for mindful self-observation by separating the “you” from the part in question. If you have an extreme response like “I hate it,” that would allow us to know that there is another protective part blended with Self. I might then say: “See if the part that hates it would step back.” The protective part is often thanked for its vigilance and assured that it can return anytime that it is needed. If the protective part is willing, the follow-up question is: “How do you feel toward the (previously rejected) part now?” We might gradually get to a place of curiosity where we can say “I wonder why it is so (sad, vengeful etc.).” This sets the stage for getting to know the part better—for example, by inquiring how old it is and how it came to feel the way it does.
Through this kind of work, we can gradually attain a critical mass of Self, to the point where this kind of dialogue can begin to take place spontaneously without me prompting it. Slowly but surely we can start to have different conversations with these different parts of ourselves: dialling down some of the extreme behaviour of some of our Protectors, Managers and Firefighters, as well as healing and comforting the hurt or traumatised Exile, enabling us, in a deep and compassionate way to unburden ourselves from the pain we’ve carried, maybe for much of our lives.