Internal Family Systems

Internal Family Systems (IFS)
Internal Family Systems (IFS)

Internal Family Systems (IFS) believes the mind is its own ecosystem: we are made up of several “parts” that, when functioning ideally, work together to produce a healthy centered individual. Significant stress arrives when these parts of us are in conflict, blocking our ability to make decisions, accomplish tasks, or relate to others in positive ways. These parts within us assume healthy or unhealthy roles that have risen in response to life experiences; traumatic or highly stressful life events can push us into those unhealthy extreme roles and away from more adaptive healthy roles.

The goal of IFS is not to get rid of parts or judge them, but rather to identify these parts, discover what their needs and function are, and help them move toward more healthy roles so we can achieve integration. While an individual may contain within them any number of parts, the general categories of parts include the Self, Exiles, Firefighters, and Managers. The Self is the core, centered part of us that we typically describe as either who we “truly are” or who we would like to be. The Self leads the internal system and at its essence is secure, competent, at peace, and able to receive criticism or compliments in a healthy manner. The Exiles refer to parts of us that experienced trauma; these parts will often hide or isolate themselves to shield us from having to relive that pain. If ignored or repressed for extended periods of time, these parts may resort to extreme actions or emotions in a desperate attempt to be heard and cared for. The Managers are parts of us that can go to great lengths to try to control all aspects of our lives in an effort to ensure the exiled parts of us stay hidden and the sense of control stays intact. Being able to compartmentalize in order to function day-to-day is a great managerial skill, but constant efforts to be in control can lead to clinical distress. The Firefighters are the parts of us that go into action when an Exiled part, such as abandonment from childhood neglect, is activated. This role tries to “put out the fire” and is an extreme version of the Manager. In an effort to avoid the pain or terror of the Exile(s), the Firefighter may engage in more impulsive, dangerous strategies such as drug use, complete isolation, or self-destructive behaviors.

It is important to note that these “parts”, in the view of IFS, are not separate identities as in Dissociative Identity Disorder, nor are they hallucinations or delusions. Rather, they are akin to that conflicting inner voice we might be describing when we say, “Part of me wants to be more social, but part of me dreads the idea of being around people,” or “Part of me loves my mother and wishes our relationship was better, but part of me just can’t trust her and I get so easily irritated by her.”

Some examples of how these roles can play out may be the boyfriend who comes to therapy wondering why, just when things seem to be going smoothly in the relationship he so desperately wants to work, he “self-sabotages” and gets into explosive arguments with his partner. Or the student who wants to pass her classes and make honor roll, but finds herself constantly talking out of turn in class or daydreaming rather than focusing on the content or using good study habits. Or the father that shuts down, gets irritable, and minimizes his kids’ emotions when they cry or exhibit signs of anguish, despite the fact that he loves his children more than anything. Processing in IFS with these clients may reveal an Exile in the student who experienced great criticism and shame when she did poorly in a previous class or academic task. It may bring to light a Manager in the father who is working on overdrive to avoid tapping into an Exile of contempt or abuse he was met with if he or anyone in his family of origin showed sadness or fear. And it may help process why the boyfriend’s Firefighter is using verbal insults and threats just when things feel “safe” in the relationship, as safety in the boyfriend’s past usually meant his guard was down right before something really terrible happened.

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Is Internal Family Systems Therapy right for me?

Internal Family Systems can be used as a standalone treatment, but it is frequently used in conjunction with other forms of therapy, like CBT, EMDR, and various Attachment and Emotionally Focused treatments. An indication this may be a good treatment approach for you to try with other forms of therapy or on its own is if you’re noticing significant conflict between what you would like to be doing, or how you would like to be, and how you are presently operating. One of the best parts of IFS is its ability to take us on a journey towards self-compassion. So often we try to run away from, deny, repress, and criticize parts of ourselves that we fear or are ashamed of. This ultimately results in us spinning in circles rather than progressing, and leaves us feeling frustrated, hopeless, and wondering why that’s happening despite our best efforts. Giving all parts of ourselves space to finally be heard and having compassion for those pieces of us who so desperately need it allows us to release pain, restore a sense of balance and joy, and finally be able to move forward.

***This treatment is currently only offered in combination with EMDR at this practice