The Internal Family Systems (IFS) model of therapy has been developed over the past two decades by Richard Schwartz and is based on the concept of self-leadership as the ideal. IFS relies on a client’s own intuitive wisdom and therefore offers a safe, nonpathological, and empowering approach to psychotherapy. Schwartz believes that any client can benefit from the techniques used in IFS therapy, but that it is particularly helpful for the client who has been humiliated and feels worthless, or for those who have suffered loss or been devastated by trauma.
The basic premise of IFS is that internally, an individual is constantly listening to many different voices and is engaged in various thought patterns and emotions, which are similar to complex external relationships he may have with other people. When a person believes himself to be “thinking,” he is often having an inner dialogue with one or more of his parts. As people develop, their parts develop and form a complex system of interactions among themselves, and the functioning of this internal system can be examined using the systems theory. The IFS model posits that each individual is composed of many internal parts, and that the Self is the true core of each individual. The Self is not only viewed as separate from the other parts, but the goal of IFS is to for the Self to be recognized and respected as the leader of the other parts. Schwartz uses a board room analogy to illustrate the ideal role of the Self at the head of the table and in the position of chairman, with the parts in the chairs around the table. The parts are all respected and important in their roles, but the chairman (Self) does not give up his seat at the head of the table to any of them.
IFS also contains spiritual components in reference to the Self as being similar to the soul of a human being. Schwartz promotes that all individuals have at their core a true Self that innately possesses qualities such as curiosity, compassion, calmness, confidence, courage, clarity, creativity, and connectedness – natural leadership qualities. As individuals go through life and experience various events which their system perceives as traumatic, or other extreme emotional consequences, their true Selves become obscured by these new emotions and beliefs, which become their parts. IFS assumes that the intention of each part is something positive for the individual, such as protection or motivation, therefore there are no “bad” parts. The goal of IFS therapy is not to eliminate the parts, but to help them find less extreme roles. The goal for the individual is to be able to separate his true Self from the parts, view the parts with compassion and curiosity, and regain his innate sense of calmness, confidence and clarity.
The parts in the IFS model of therapy are those separate internal characteristics of an individual that are not qualities of his true Self. They could be emotions or beliefs such as anger, fear, shame, or distrust, which have been programmed into a person by external events or messages, and they all have a reason for being there or an ingrained role to play. For instance, if a girl grows up in an abusive environment, she may eventually come to believe that she is worthless and is not deserving of being treated with kindness and acceptance. Through IFS therapy, her worthless part can be separated from her true Self and be seen as only a part of her. Then perhaps her true Self can be curious about how the worthless part came to be, what it is telling her, and how she can develop compassion for it. In this way, her true Self can come to acknowledge and respect the worthless part, and either unburden it of its feelings of worthlessness based on the abuse she suffered, or give it a more helpful role to play in protecting her. Schwartz believes that after an individual’s true Self becomes curious about one of his parts and begins to acknowledge and respect it, he can begin to have compassion for its purpose in his internal world.
One of the most important aspects of the IFS model of therapy is the safety of its use with the client, and the safety the client feels in referring to any undesirable emotion or characteristic as only a part of him. In IFS parts sessions, the client is in control of which parts to address and to what depth, so the therapeutic process is safely client-driven. Likewise, most clients are more accepting of referring to an undesirable trait as only part of them, and not their true Self. For instance, the woman who was abused as a child may be more comfortable saying, “Part of me is still very angry at the person who hurt me when I was a little girl,” rather than, “I am still very angry at this person.” The difference is that while it is healthy to acknowledge the anger and hurt, it may be liberating to accept that the adult woman is not obligated to carry it around with her and allow it to affect every aspect of her life if it is only a part of her, and not her true Self.
Debbie Parrott, MSW, P-LCSW