Internal Family Systems Model
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The Internal Family Systems Model (IFS) is an integrative approach to individual psychotherapy developed by Richard C. Schwartz in the 1980s. It combines systems thinking with the view that the mind is made up of relatively discrete subpersonalities, each with its own unique viewpoint and qualities. IFS uses family systems theory to understand how these collections of subpersonalities are organized.
IFS posits that the mind is made up of multiple parts, and underlying them is a person's core or true Self. Like members of a family, a person's inner parts can take on extreme roles or subpersonalities. Each part has its own perspective, interests, memories, and viewpoint. A core tenet of IFS is that every part has a positive intent, even if its actions are counterproductive and/or cause dysfunction. There is no need to fight with, coerce, or eliminate parts; the IFS method promotes internal connection and harmony to bring the mind back into balance.
IFS therapy aims to heal wounded parts and restore mental balance. The first step is to access the core Self and then, from there, understand the different parts in order to heal them.
In the IFS model, there are three general types of parts:
- Exiles represent psychological trauma, often from childhood, and they carry the pain and fear. Exiles may become isolated from the other parts and polarize the system. Managers and Firefighters try to protect a person's consciousness by preventing the Exiles' pain from coming to awareness.
- Managers take on a preemptive, protective role. They influence the way a person interacts with the external world, protecting the person from harm and preventing painful or traumatic experiences from flooding the person's conscious awareness.
- Firefighters emerge when Exiles break out and demand attention. They work to divert attention away from the Exile's hurt and shame, which leads to impulsive and/or inappropriate behaviors like overeating, drug use or violence. They can also distract a person from pain by excessively focusing attention on more subtle activities such as overworking or over-medicating.
IFS views people as whole underneath their collections of parts. According to IFS, everyone has a true self or spiritual center, called the Self, and everyone has access to it as well as its healing qualities: curiosity, connectedness, compassion, and calmness.
IFS therapists first help clients to disengage from their parts and connect with their true Self. From there, they can understand each part and heal it. The aim is to let go of the destructive roles and enter into a harmonious collaboration, led by the Self.
IFS emphasizes the spiritual nature of the Self, allowing growth for spiritual development and self-awareness as well as psychological healing.
The internal system
IFS focuses on the relationships between parts and the core Self. The goal of therapy is to create a cooperative and trusting relationship between the Self and each part.
There are three primary types of relationships between parts: protection, polarization, and alliance.
- Protection is provided by Managers and Firefighters. They intend to spare Exiles from harm and protect the individual from the Exile's pain.
- Polarization occurs between two parts that battle 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.
- Alliance is formed between two different parts if they're working together to accomplish the same goal.
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 past harmful experiences, often in childhood. These burdens are not intrinsic to the part and therefore they can be released or "unburdened" through IFS therapy, allowing the part to assume its natural healthy role.
- The Self is the agent of psychological healing. Therapists help their clients to access and remain in Self, providing guidance along the way.
- Protectors usually can't let go of their protective roles and transform until the Exiles they are protecting have been unburdened.
- There is no attempt to work with Exiles until the client has obtained permission from the Protectors who are protecting it. 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 past harmful incidents or relationships, Protectors have stepped in and taken over for the Self. One Protector after another is activated and takes the lead, causing dysfunctional behavior. Protectors are also frequently in conflict with each other, resulting in internal chaos or stagnation. The aim is for the Protectors to trust the Self and allow it to lead the system, creating internal harmony under its guidance.
The first step is to help the client access the Self. Next, the Self gets to know the Protector(s), its positive intent, and develops a trusting relationship with it. Then, with the Protector's permission, the client accesses the Exile(s) to uncover the childhood incident or relationship which is the source of the burden(s) it carries. The Exile is retrieved from the past situation and guided to release its burdens. Finally, the Protector can then let go of its protective role and assume a healthy one.
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:
IFS has been supported by multiple studies to be an effective treatment of trauma. Richard Schwartz developed IFS while working with people who had experienced considerable trauma. By understanding the traumatized Exile, the client learns how to reside in Self and witness the traumatic memory without being flooded by it. In this way the trauma is revisited, processed and healed without the risk of retraumatization.
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, the IFS method naturally lends itself to self-help. The method has been taught in self-therapy classes as well as peer counseling for the general public.
IFS therapist Alexander Hsieh pointed out that the method of self-discovery can take extensive time and effort, which can be multiplied when dealing with multiple family members. Therapist Sharon A. Deacon and Jonathan C. Davis said that working with one's parts "can be emotional and anxiety-provoking for clients", and that IFS may not work well with delusional, paranoid, or schizophrenic clients who may not be grounded in reality and therefore misuse the idea of "parts".
- Minor, Amanda J. (2016). "Internal Family Systems Model". In Carlson, Jon; Dermer, Shannon B. (eds.). The SAGE Encyclopedia of Marriage, Family, and Couples Counseling. SAGE Publications. ISBN 978-1-4833-6956-3. Retrieved 28 January 2020.
The Internal Family Systems (IFS) model was developed by Richard C. Schwartz in the 1980s and describes and integrative, nonpathological approach to psychotherapy.... The premise of IFS is that similar to the complex external family system, individuals are composed of separate and multifaceted internal parts in relationship with each other. IFS's primary focus is to work with individuals and help differentiate parts or subpersonalities in the mind.
- Logan, Sadye L. M. (2008). "Family: Overview". In Mizrahi, Terry; Davis, Larry E. (eds.). Encyclopedia of Social Work. Oxford University Press, USA. pp. 2:175–182. ISBN 9780195306613.
- Burgoyne, Nancy (2018). "Schwartz, Richard C.". In Lebow, J.; Chambers, A.; Breunlin, D. (eds.). Encyclopedia of Couple and Family Therapy. Springer International Publishing. pp. 1–2. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-15877-8_927-1. ISBN 978-3-319-15877-8.
[Schwartz] brought family therapy theory and technique to the intrapsychic worlds of clients and, in so doing, discovered ways of working with individuals, couples, and families that is unique and evidence-based. IFS has become not only a school of family therapy but also a major form of psychotherapy in general, with a vast literature and training institutes throughout the world.
- Scott, Derek (2012). "Grief and the Internal Family System". In Winokuer, Howard; Harris, Darcy (eds.). Principles and practice of grief counseling. Springer Publishing Company. pp. 168–169. ISBN 9780826108739.
The "parts" in this model may be understood to be autonomous aspects of the personality that have specific roles. [...] The exiled parts hold extreme feelings or beliefs about themselves.... When these vulnerable parts get triggered, other parts jump up to distract us from them and these reactive protective parts are termed "firefighters." [...] The other group of protectors in the system are referred to as "managers," and they seek to ensure that the vulnerable parts do not get triggered.
- Sweezy, Martha (April 2011). "The Teenager's Confession: Regulating Shame in Internal Family Systems Therapy". American Journal of Psychotherapy. 65 (2): 179–188. doi:10.1176/appi.psychotherapy.2011.65.2.179. PMID 21847894.
Therapeutic work with parts can help to unpack an amalgamated experience of shame like Angie’s into its component parts, differentiating its origin from the ways in which it is maintained.
- Carlisle, Robert M. (2015). "Internal Family Systems Model". In Neukrug, Edward S. (ed.). The SAGE Encyclopedia of Theory in Counseling and Psychotherapy. SAGE Publications. pp. 567–569. ISBN 978-1-4833-4649-6. Retrieved 28 January 2020.
The internal system consists of the types of relationships between each of the parts and the self. The three primary relationships consist of protection, polarization, and alliance.
- Kolk, Bessel A. Van der (2015). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Penguin Books. p. 286. ISBN 978-0-14-312774-1. OCLC 861478952.
The task of the therapist is to help patients separate this confusing blend into separate entities.... Patients learn to put their fear, rage, or disgust on hold and open up into states of curiosity and self-reflection. From the stable perspective of Self they can begin constructive inner dialogues with their parts.
- Carlisle, Robert M. (2015). "Internal Family Systems Model". The SAGE Encyclopedia of Theory in Counseling and Psychotherapy. SAGE Publications, Inc. pp. 568–569. doi:10.4135/9781483346502.n195. ISBN 9781452274126.
The IFS model was developed in the mid-1990s by Richard C. Schwartz, marriage and family therapist and founder of the Center for Self Leadership in Illinois. IFS has been researched in multiple studies and has been shown to be effective for treating trauma in individuals, couples, and families.
- Blum, Ben (2020-07-21). "Inside the Revolutionary Treatment That Could Change Psychotherapy Forever". Medium. Retrieved 2020-08-01.
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To begin with, the process of therapy and discovery of the core self by removing layers upon layers of polarizing parts could progress through a time-consuming process with the therapist and client. [...] Finally, one can foresee that IFS has limitations when it comes to incorporating systems with multiple members involved because of the increased burden in managing exponentially more individual parts.
- Deacon, Sharon A.; Davis, Jonathan C. (March 2001). "Internal Family Systems Theory: A Technical Integration". Journal of Systemic Therapies. 20 (1): 45–58. doi:10.1521/jsyt.18.104.22.16810.
Parts work can be emotional and anxiety-provoking for clients and therapists must have a rationale and direction in order to guide clients on such internal journeys. [...] Although Schwartz may disagree, we believe that IFS therapy, in general, may not work well with delusional, paranoid, or schizophrenic clients. Clients who are not grounded in reality may misuse the idea of "parts" or become more entrenched in delusional thoughts by such interventions.
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