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Internal family systems therapy: Therapy for the people

Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder (BPD), depression... Nowadays more people than ever before are familiar with the labels humans have given other humans to help categorise their problems and develop effective treatment models. One part of me is pleased that our variety of human struggles are becoming more generally accepted and openly discussed. This is an amazing time to be a practitioner in the sense that clients are often more well informed about their issues and taboos are breaking down around all things 'mental health'.

Another part of me feels sad that while doors are swinging open to allow our human emotional and mental struggles to come out of the shame and fear filled rooms they have been locked away in; no sooner are they out than we stick a label on them and turn them into disorders of one kind or another. I understand that it can really help to identify areas of ourselves which need attention, and then those of us who are trained professionals can use our knowledge, experience and skill to help our clients heal and change and live more fulfilling and meaningful and happy lives. But I do not believe that the pathologising of our humanity is helpful.

Internal Family Systems therapy (IFS), developed by an American psychologist called Richard Schwartz, and growing rapidly in the States and around the world, is an evidence based model which absolutely does away with the need for labels which separate us from our common humanity. Yes the therapist initially holds the expertise, but soon the client becomes the expert on his or her own inner world and able to turn within and help those parts which are struggling to cope. The therapist must apply the model to themselves in order to be truly effective, so here again is the idea of the all knowing and distant therapist helping the sick and helpless client done away with.

The key tenet of this model is that we all have many parts of our personality and a Self. Someone with BPD for example (and please forgive me if the following seems simplistic; my intention is to give a snapshot not a comprehensive study) is likely to have at least one part that feels deeply sad and helpless and at least one part that tries to help by being full of excitement. Speeding up the thought process, going into flights of fancy and profound imaginings. This part aims to provide an antidote to the stuck and agonising hopelessness of the other part. Of course, eventually it leaves the individual exhausted, over committed, and with relationships possibly compromised or damaged. This can then lead to a part attacking the individual and shaming them which triggers the very vulnerable hopeless part to take over again. 

When the client can talk to and help understand these parts and what is making them act this way then together they can and will change. The part of the client that can help these parts, and the part of the therapist that can help the client, is the Self. Whatever the combination of parts is, whatever the issue, the goals are the same, to develop self leadership, unburden young parts that took on burdens from childhood and trauma, and create a harmonious balance in the internal system.

This model is used to help human beings with the issues human beings face when they live on this planet with other human beings; which can be severe and crippling, or small and niggling. IFS is relatively new in this country, but to my mind it is part of a new world in therapy. A truly honouring, equal, empowering and inclusive model- and not a diagnosis or label in sight.

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Peacehaven, East Sussex, BN10

Written by Matt Ingrams Dip Couns, Dip Sup, MBACP(Accred)

Peacehaven, East Sussex, BN10

I am a qualified counsellor and supervisor with over twenty years in the field. I am BACP accredited. I have completed the first part of my training in IFS, (IFS Level one) and was lucky enough to be trained by the founder Dick Schwartz. IFS has changed the way I do therapy.

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