5 Steps to Apply The Wisdom of Internal Family Systems Therapy to Your Own Life
The revolutionary form of therapy has significant benefits. Here you’ll learn how to apply its wisdom as a self-help practice.
A friend once shared that when they started looking for support for their mental health, they were shocked to find more than one type of therapy. I’d assumed everyone knew this, but the truth is, there are many options available, and finding the right type of therapy is just as important as the therapy itself. Internal Family Systems Therapy, or IFS, is a lesser-known form of therapy, which we’ll explore in this article.
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Internal family systems therapy was founded by Dr. Richard C. Schwartz in the 1980s. It takes an interesting view of the psyche; rather than one solid and fixed “self,” the IFS model is based upon the theory of multiple subpersonalities that have their own emotions, beliefs, and viewpoints. If this all sounds a little disconcerting, don’t worry — it’s less “out there” than it sounds, and is an evidence-based approach that has been proven to be effective.
In addition to walking through the various goals and components of the IFS model, we’ll also show you how to apply its theory as self-help, to give you a taste of its practical power.
What is the Goal of Internal Family Systems Therapy?
Schwartz developed IFS therapy having originally worked as a psychologist trained in family systems; the theory that families are complex, emotional units, and the way they interact influence the psychology of each member. Schwartz expanded upon this theory to apply it an individual, having noticed that many clients spoke of different “parts” of themselves, that have conflicting demands.
Schwartz also noticed that these inner parts communicated in ways that mirrored family dynamics. From there, he started to explore ways in which to heal the inner parts, moving the client to a more integrated and whole version of themselves. For Schwartz, traumatic experiences led to defense mechanisms and “extreme roles,” which have to be seen and healed in order to find greater emotional and psychological balance.
Although the idea of multiple “personalities” can bring up images of extreme disorders, many schools of thought in psychology have explored inner conflict as being one of the core elements of the human mind. To name a few, Sigmund Freud had his theory of the id, ego, and superego, whilst his protege, Carl Jung, spoke of different archetypes that exist within. Jung, in particular, was also concerned with “wholeness,” that is, the person bringing the fullest version of themselves to the forefront of their being.
Is Internal Family Systems Therapy Legitimate?
While the amount of research around IFS therapy isn’t as comprehensive as other forms of therapy, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), it is an evidence-based practice, with a growing body of evidence for positive results in treating conditions including depression, PTSD, stress, and anxiety. In 2021 a study published in the Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma found IFS therapy to be effective in reducing PTSD in survivors of extreme childhood trauma.
Leading world experts on trauma, including Gabor Mate and Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, endorse and have been inspired by Schwartz’s innovative approach to trauma-informed treatment. Tapping into Schwartz’s ethos, in The Body Keeps The Score, Kolk writes:
“The Self is like an orchestra conductor who helps all the parts to function harmoniously as a symphony rather than a cacophony.”
The Core Components of Internal Family Systems Therapy
The IFS model promotes self-leadership — that is the ability to self-heal and uncover a sense of inner resourcefulness, to find the answers and to kick-start self-repair. In this sense, it mirrors philosophical or spiritual approaches of inner wisdom. The relationship between the self, and parts, is the foundation of internal family systems.
Within the IFS model, parts come under different categories. Typically they are in conflict with each other and lack trust in the self. They may be “frozen” at different ages (think, for example, of the inner child). The goal is to find better harmony as an overall system, relying and trusting the core self as, as Kolk says, the conductor of the orchestra. The three categories are:
- Exiles: the most intense in feeling and memory, most often linked to trauma, and difficult emotions such as shame, humiliation, or even rage or anger. These parts are exiled, pushed out of consciousness, and suppressed, but in doing so, this depletes the availability of psychic energy available.
- Managers: these parts look for ways to control the system, and keep the exiled parts away, through concern over their level of disruption. These are known as proactive protectors, and are often healthy, keeping a person functioning and operating well.
- Firefighters: known as reactive protectors, firefighters take control if exiles break through the system, attempting to avoid pain in a more cavalier way, including forms of escapism such as substance abuse, self-harm, or thrill-seeking behavior. Firefights are at odds with managers for being more volatile.
The Core Self
What exactly is the self? Pinning down a definitive description of the self is complex. But different schools of thought, including the IFS model, have been able to identify a core self that holds, in some way, our highest potential — colloquially called a higher self or true self, it’s grounded in wisdom and clarity, compared to the reactivity or distortions of individual parts. Internal family systems categorize remarkable characteristics of the self as Eight Cs and Five Ps, which are:
- Calm, clarity, compassion, curiosity, confidence, courage, creativity, and connection.
- Presence, patience, perspective, persistence, and playfulness.
Schwartz discovered that when operating from the self, these qualities consistently appeared, catalyzing the healing process.
The Unburdening Process
Part of the goal of internal family systems is to allow the self to create the appropriate conditions for exiled parts to rise to the surface, share their pain, their needs, and their fears, and be communicated with from a different quality of consciousness. In doing so, they become healed and integrated, rather than shunned from the spotlight of consciousness. Schwartz calls this process unburdening, due to the nature of letting go of painful memories and unaddressed emotions.
How To Apply Internal Family Systems On Your Own
Although the IFS model is used as a therapeutic method, it’s possible to apply its tool and insights on your own — it is a model of self-leadership, after all. Similar to CBT, the ethos of the method can be used on yourself, although it may take more discipline, it can be effective. It begins by identifying the self. According to Schwartz:
“It helps to know when you’re in self and when you’re not. We have a meditation that helps people get their parts in open space and then feel what it’s like to be in self. And then, the simple practice of just noticing how many of those eight Cs you are finding. And noticing how open your heart is, or noticing if you have a big agenda.”
1. Discern What The Self Is, And Isn’t
The list of remarkable qualities above directs you towards the qualities of the self. But words alone don’t capture it; you have to familiarize with the self, when it’s most present. Personally speaking, this has been one of the biggest gifts of meditation. Through mindfulness practice, I was able to find the inner sense of peace and wisdom that catalyzed my own healing process.
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The self can be active spontaneously, too. It can feel as if a sense of calm and clarity suddenly comes over you, like an “aha” moment — maybe on a walk in nature, after exercising, or after a period of stress and anxiety, where suddenly, the clouds are lifted. Without trying to conceptualize, become as familiar as you can.
Don’t stress at this point or try to force connection, as the self is paradoxical; the more you clear your mind and become centered, the more likely it is to appear.
2. Finding Lost Parts
This task isn’t easily done alone, especially if you have experienced significant trauma. But it is possible to begin exploring your inner landscape, to identify the different parts, and how they surface in your day-to-day life. In the IFS model, this is known as “unblending,” as a way to clarify the individual components. Therapists use 6 Fs to locate parts, which you can also apply to yourself:
- Find: this requires self-awareness to be present to individual components, how they exist energetically and within the body.
- Focus: rather than ignore this part, deliberately focus on it.
- Flesh out: now start to fill in the gaps. Does this part have a visual element? Is it represented in a certain way, or by powerful emotions?
- Feel toward: the next step is to ask the question, how do you feel about this part? This will highlight whether the self is active, or whether another, secondary part is influencing (or judging) this part.
- BeFriend: start to enquire into the nature of this part, how it became the way it was, what it needs, what its intentions are. A core ethos of the IFS model is that all parts have positive intentions.
- What does this part Fear? This question will surface the protective mechanism of the part. For example, suppressed rage may be through the fear of causing harm, or being rejected, if that emotion comes to the surface.
3. Identify Managers and Firefighters
The next stage is to reflect on the way in which inner parts interact. What patterns do you detect? What managers or firefighters show up when you experience difficulty? This isn’t an easy task and takes a combination of patience and self-awareness to see how this inner complex system unfolds. Here are some questions to point you in the right direction:
- Where in my life do I attempt to control, or over-prepare? This can be obvious, such as planning all the different activities of a trip, or meticulously crafting your weekly schedule. Or it can be subtle, such as avoiding certain social scenarios to avoid triggering reactive qualities, such as fears of rejection or abandonment.
- What emotions do I struggle with the most? This can point you to the qualities of exiled parts, and their associated feelings. These emotions are also most likely to be linked to firefighting mechanisms.
- How do I escape from unpleasant feelings? It’s widely acceptable to escape unpleasant emotions, from anxiety to sadness, through different forms of escape. Can you detect patterns in your firefighting tendencies? What emotions do you avoid, and how do you avoid them?
4. Give Space to Each Part
Boldly claiming these steps will return you to a sense of wholeness, and “heal” you, would be misguided. This work takes a lot of time. The process of returning to wholeness, it could be argued, is lifelong. What’s most important is that you begin the journey of recovering exiled parts of the self — many different forms of therapy agree with the IFS model, in that sense.
Can you view the exiled parts as deserving of compassion, or acceptance? Know that the parts of you that cause pain, or avoid difficult feelings, was an intelligent way of attempting to self-protect, they had their purpose. So give space to each part; you may practice a journal technique of writing from a specific part. Intuitively, you’ll know this, as you’ll be tempted to describe the situation as “a part of me wants…”
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Always pull the thread when you feel this seeming inner fragmentation. It’s not a sign of madness, but, according to internal family systems, the true nature of mind. The more you can settle in the self, and become the conductor of your inner orchestra, the more harmony and peace of mind you’ll create, as well as unlock the energy it takes to keep parts exiled.
5. Practice Forgiveness and Letting Go
The unburdening process isn’t just a mental practice, but a full-body experience, which is why internal family systems are intertwined with healing trauma. Be willing to let go of past experiences, which may require forgiveness, towards yourself, and others. Remember that letting go of protective mechanisms, be it managers or firefighters, won’t send you into a downward spiral, but will liberate you from maladaptive tendencies.
This isn’t a one-off, but an ongoing process, as are all of the above steps. Internal family systems are a powerful tool for mental balance, emotional harmony, and self-discovery. It’s not a checklist but part of a toolkit of personal development. So keep these steps in mind. And if part of you feels skeptical, put that part aside, let the self take the lead, and see what you gain with a little experimentation, some faith, and a pragmatic approach to the multifaceted nature of mind.