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Internal Family Systems therapy: is it right for me?

Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy has a growing reputation for helping people overcome a wide range of symptoms, from low confidence and self-esteem, anxiety, depression and panic attacks, through to eating disorders, compulsive behaviours, and issues arising from early-life abuse or trauma. 

IFS is a relatively young model of psychotherapy that was founded and developed by Richard Schwartz when he was based at Northwestern University in Chicago in the mid-1980s. Dr Schwarz’s in-depth clinical work with individuals, couples and families led him to some groundbreaking conclusions.

In Dr Schwartz’s view, every individual has a core self – an energy we are born with that has the potential to guide us through life with qualities such as confidence, connectedness, courage and creativity at our centre.

He also concluded that, although as human beings we only have one body, our personalities are made up of many different aspects – or parts. This view is common to certain other therapy models such as Ego State Therapy and Transactional Analysis. What made Schwartz’s view unique, however, was that these parts are organised as an identifiable system, with parts taking on specific roles within us.

Parts can be divided into two types: parts that protect us, and parts that need protection. Taken together, our parts make up a complex internal family which, when led by our natural self energy, has the capacity to steer us through our complex daily lives. 

The good news is that the light of self never can be extinguished. However, due to challenges we may encounter during early life, our self energy can sometimes get submerged and lose its power to lead our system. Examples of such challenges might be the loss of someone close to us, poor or inappropriate attachments to family members, or exposure to shaming behaviour, bullying, abuse or trauma.

IFS therapy begins by helping us get to know the parts that are protecting our system. These parts may be associated with certain patterns of behaviour, such as striving, controlling or criticising, or by certain actions, such as eating or drinking too much, spending too much money, spending too much time on the Internet, having affairs, or feeling really angry, numb or detached.

Then, when we start to understand the parts that help us function in the best way we can, we ask their leave to make contact with the parts they protect. It is from our interaction with these more vulnerable parts that lasting healing springs.  

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