Internal Family Systems (IFS)
Internal Family Systems (IFS) is an evidence-based model of psychotherapy; it aims to help people notice, identify and work with "parts of self." Dr. Richard Schwartz is the founder of the IFS model. He began his career as a systemic family therapist and an academic. He developed Internal Family Systems (IFS) in response to clients’ descriptions of various parts within themselves. He focused on the relationships among these parts and noticed that there were systemic patterns to the way they were organized. He also found that when the clients’ parts felt safe and were allowed to relax, the clients would spontaneously experience the qualities of confidence, openness, and compassion that Dr. Schwartz came to call the Self (or the center of self). I have often found that when clients have tools and resources to create opportunities for self-agency or self-leadership, they experience greater capacity for change, healing and integration.
In IFS, all parts are welcome as there are no "bad' parts. Using the IFS approach means employing a method during session; it does not mean talking about a feeling or an event nor does it mean analyzing an interaction or reporting a story.
While there may be infinite parts within you, there are three main types: firefighters, managers, and exiles. The firefighter parts are protectors that are activated when a trigger is present. An example of this might look like being reminded of a painful memory and using a behaviour like substance use to put out the “fire” of the pain. The manager parts protect you by managing situations through intense planning to do whatever they can to avoid something that might bring you deep pain. Both the firefighter and manager, according to the theory, work to keep the exile from emerging and flooding you with memories of pain and trauma.
For clients doing IFS work in session, please note the following cues/questions:
Can you name the part that is activated? (be a parts detector)
How do you feel towards this part?
Is it okay to get to know this part? If not, let's stay with the connected with this part
Does that part know you are there?
Are you aware of the part's age?
Is your curiosity about the part available to you? If not, let's explore why you are not curious about it. Are you angry at the part? Are you afraid of the the part?
What information does this part have for you? ie: the part might tell you that it is alienated and alone, ashamed or that it protects you. How is it presenting that information to you? (in the body? in the visual? in feeling?)
Let the part know you hear it… how does it respond to you?
* the part has an agenda, for example, "to protect you" by acting "perfect" and not sincerely relational or by
fighting instead of using calm, collaborative and creative problem solving skills.
If you feel a "manager, defence or protector part" coming forward and you can't focus on the sad, young or hidden "exiled part"… does the manager need some airtime? Or, can you ask the manager to soften for a while...
or ask it to watch and observe in order to return to the questions? If the "manager" or "fire fighter" will not soften, work with the manager/defence part instead for now and let's see what we can do.
Thank the part for letting you know about itself today.
Let the part know you will return to it, if you wish.
Video and links to explore more about the IFS approach
Miriam Schacter Registered Psychotherapist, CTP Dipl. RP, BA