ifs Internal Family Systems Overview
The Internal Family Systems Model (IFS) is an integrative approach to individual psychotherapy developed by Richard C. Schwartz, Ph.D. It combines systems thinking with the view that mind is made up of relatively discrete subpersonalities each with its own viewpoint and qualities. IFS uses family systems theory to understand how these collections of subpersonalities are organized.
IFS sees consciousness as composed of various "parts" or subpersonalities, each with its own perspective, interests, memories, and viewpoint. A core tenet of IFS is that every part has a positive intent for the person, even if its actions or effects are counterproductive or cause dysfunction. This means that there is never any reason to fight with, coerce, or try to eliminate a part; the IFS method promotes internal connection and harmony.
Parts can have either "extreme roles" or healthy roles. IFS focuses on parts in extreme roles because they are in need of transformation through therapy. IFS divides these parts into three types—managers, exiles, and firefighters.
Managers are parts with preemptive protective roles. They handle the way a person interacts with the external world to protect them from being hurt by others and try to prevent painful or traumatic feelings and experiences from flooding a person's awareness.
Exiles are parts that are in pain, shame, fear, or trauma, usually from childhood. Managers and firefighters try to exile these parts from consciousness, to prevent this pain from coming to the surface.
Firefighters are parts that emerge when exiles break out and demand attention. These parts work to distract a person's attention from the hurt or shame experienced by the exile by leading them to engage in impulsive behaviors like overeating, drug use, violence, or having inappropriate sex. They can also distract from the pain by causing a person to focus excessively on more subtle activities such as overworking, over-medicating.
IFS also sees people as being whole, underneath this collection of parts. Everyone has a true self or spiritual center, known as the Self to distinguish it from the parts. Even people whose experience is dominated by parts have access to this Self and its healing qualities of curiosity, connectedness, compassion, and calmness. IFS sees the therapist's job as helping the client to disentangle themselves from their parts and access the Self, which can then connect with each part and heal it, so that the parts can let go of their destructive roles and enter into a harmonious collaboration, led by the Self. IFS explicitly recognizes the spiritual nature of the Self, allowing the model to be helpful in spiritual development as well as psychological healing.
The Internal System
IFS focuses on the relationships between parts and between the Self. The goal of IFS is to have a cooperative and trusting relationship between the Self and each part. There are three primary types of relationships between parts:
Managers and firefighters protect exiles from harm and protect the person from the pain of exiles.
Two parts are polarized when they are battling each other to determine how a person feels or behaves in a certain situation. Each part believes that it must act as it does in order to counter the extreme behavior of the other part. IFS has a method for working with polarized parts.
Two parts may be allied with each other if they are working together to accomplish the same aim.
IFS practitioners report a well-defined therapeutic method for individual therapy based on the following principles: (In this description, the term "protector" refers to either a manager or firefighter.)
- Parts in extreme roles carry "burdens," which are painful emotions or negative beliefs that they have taken on as a result of harmful experiences in the past, often in childhood. These burdens are not intrinsic to the part and therefore they can be released or "unburdened" through IFS. This allows the part to assume its natural healthy role.
- The client's Self is the agent of psychological healing. The therapist helps the client to access and remain in Self and provides guidance in the therapy process.
- Protectors can't usually let go of their protective roles and transform until the exiles they are protecting have been unburdened.
- There is no attempt to work with any exile until the client has obtained permission from any protectors who are protecting that exile. This makes the method relatively safe, even in working with traumatized parts.
- The Self is the natural leader of the internal system. However, because of harmful incidents or relationships in the past, protectors have stepped in to protect the system and taken over for the Self. One protector after another is activated and takes over the system causing dysfunctional behavior. These protectors are also frequently in conflict with each other, resulting in internal chaos or stagnation. The goal of IFS is for the protectors to come to trust the Self so they will allow it to lead the system and create internal harmony under its guidance.
The IFS method involves first helping the client to access Self. Then the Self gets to know a protector, discovers its positive intent, and develops a trusting relationship with it. With the protector’s permission, the client accesses the exile(s) it is protecting and discovers the childhood incident or relationship that is the source of the burden(s) it is carrying. The exile is retrieved from being stuck in that past situation and helped to release its burdens. Then the protector can also let go of its protective role and assume a healthy one.
This method was first described in Schwartz (1995). Two additional books describe the IFS approach in some detail.
IFS proponents claim to have a "complete" form of individual therapy that is used for the full range of human development, from the healing of trauma to personal and spiritual growth. It has also been applied in the following areas:
Richard Schwartz developed IFS while working with a population that had experienced considerable trauma, so IFS is thought to be very effective in this area  and has evoked much interest among trauma therapists. In working with a traumatized exile, the client learns to reside in Self and witness the exile's traumatic memory without being flooded by it. In this way the memory is revisited and processed so it can be healed without the danger of retraumatization.
• Couples therapy
IFS proponents claim to have successfully applied the method to couples therapy, investigating the interactions between the parts of the two people and how a part in one person can activate extreme parts in the other. The method incorporates short pieces of individual therapy in a couples session along with work on communicating from Self.
• Self-help and peer counseling
Because the Self is the agent of transformation in IFS, it naturally lends itself to self-help. The IFS method has been taught in classes on self-therapy and peer counseling for the general public.
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