Working with Internal Family Systems therapy
Internal Family Systems, or IFS, is a model of therapy that its founder – Dr Dick Schwartz – is confident can heal people in all sorts of different situations with all kinds of different symptoms and diagnoses.
What is Internal Family Systems?
More and more research is supporting the healing power of IFS. In the US, IFS is recognised by the National Registry for Evidence-based Programs and Practices as an evidence-based practice.
Parts of the mind
IFS suggests that the mind is not one thing, but made of many different parts. When you reflect on your own mind, you might recognise parts with common roles such as the inner critic, greed, a part that wants you to withdraw, a striver, and so on.
Parts like this have our best interests at heart, but they often cause the problems that bring us into therapy.
There are also parts of the mind that carry wounds, burdens or unhelpful beliefs. These parts persist when they are cut-off from our awareness and left unhealed. These wounds are often created very early in our lives, when we don’t have the resources or support for healing. These wounds lie underneath or behind the protective parts described above.
There are also parts that are helpful and supportive; playful creative parts, confident compassionate parts, and so on. The model doesn’t pay much attention to these parts, as they are already doing a great job and don’t need healing.
Lots of spiritual and psychological traditions have recognised the values of working with different parts of the mind.
What does IFS add to these existing models?
IFS recognises that the parts of the mind that drive unhelpful actions and feelings are protective. These parts think that they are doing us a favour, even if when we step back we can see that the strategy of that part doesn’t work in the long term. Think of greedy parts that try to distract us from our pain, or people pleasing parts that shy away from conflict in the short term, but leave something unaddressed.
What are they protecting us from? From either being overwhelmed by feelings from parts that carry wounds, or from getting ourselves into situations where we will be wounded again.
All parts have good intentions – but they don’t always lead to good results.
IFS also recognises another crucial part, and it calls this part the ‘Self’. Dick says that through working with clients, he "...encountered what people called their 'true Self', or 'core Self'"[i]. Other models call 'Self' the curious observer, or compassionate witness. Dick discovered that this Self is not just an observer, but can also be an active leader. You might think of the Self like your own inner therapist.
How does IFS heal wounded parts, and support parts to let go of negative beliefs?
The first session or two of IFS might look like any other modality of therapy. The therapist will be getting to know the client through empathising and listening to whatever parts appear in the session.
You will usually choose a specific protective part to work with - an inner critic, for example. The therapist will encourage the client's 'Self' to get to know the protective part, empathising with it and beginning to understand it. Other protectors might appear during this process and ask to be listened to as well.
IFS is a very safe way of working. The therapist makes sure that all the different parts of the client agree when it’s time to take a step forward in the process. Wariness and resistance (protective parts) are listened to and respected rather than pushed through. As the client begins to empathise and understand their own wariness, resistance and fears, those parts begin to relax and allow the process to move on.
At some point, the protective parts will agree that the therapist and the clients self can speak to the wounded parts. At this point in the process, there is a witnessing of the wounded part as the self begins to listen to the wound. Following this witnessing, there is a letting go of unhelpful beliefs and burdens which consolidates the healing.
Working with all of the different parts of the mind in this way facilitates healing of these early wounds.
As I said earlier, it is often the down-sides of protective parts that bring us into therapy: the results of our greed, our people pleasing, or something similar. When the wounded parts are healed, these protective parts relax and are freed from their roles, and no longer drive those unhelpful strategies.
If you are interested in this way of working, search for Internal Family Systems, or IFS, on the Counselling Directory.
[i]p37 Schwartz, Richard C. Internal Family Systems Therapy The Guilford Press 1995