Do you have internal debates often? Do you find that it’s hard to find a way to feel centered? Are there traumas kept deep down inside? A newer therapy model, Internal Family Systems (IFS), is a form of psychotherapy that may be able to help. IFS is designed to help individuals understand different parts of the whole self. IFS is not primarily about family systems in the traditional sense, although this model can be used with a family.
The IFS therapy model involves identifying internal parts of who you are so that you can configure your internal system. Dr. Richard Schwartz, the founder of the IFS model, argues that we each have different family systems (or groups of sub-personalities) within us. He presents ‘The Self,’ and three distinct groups: managers, firefighters, and exiles.
It is important to note that all of the parts of the self try to work for the ultimate good of The Self. The manager is hard at work getting us to places on time, helping us complete homework, or attend to life’s various duties. The firefighter is the part of the self that distracts us when we feel overwhelmed or wounded. The exile is the part of the self that notices trauma, feels pain, and that shares vulnerabilities with others.
As humans, we may have an internal debate that goes similar to: “part of me thinks I should do A... but part of me thinks I should do B instead.” With the IFS model, the ‘parts of me’ in conflict can be labeled, interpreted, and understood in a new way. Accessing ourselves through a new lense can help us defuse, or unblend, from the parts of us that may be overwhelming the system.
In the IFS model, the different roles make up the internal system. The Self is treated like a leader, and each of the parts is able to provide input to The Self. Each part has an inherent role; however, when a part is disrupted, unregulated, or overly burdened — that part may act more and more extreme in order to mitigate distress. Each part reacts to distress in a different way.
For example, the manager may be busy at work getting us to places on time, but an overburdened manager may step into unhealthy control strategies and thus cause anxiety about time management. The firefighter may be ensuring we feel a level of ease, entertainment, and distraction throughout our days, but an overwhelmed firefighter may seek out harmful coping strategies, such as overeating, drug use, or impulsive behavior.
A part of the self that is unregulated, can cause discord within the system. For example, a burdened firefighter that seeks out behavior such as drug use, which then may distress the manager because drug use impacts the managers agenda of protecting The Self through adhering to day-to-day activities. The internal cooperation of the systems is a primary goal of the IFS approach. Let’s examine this a bit further in relation to the exile.
The exile part of us collects our vulnerable moments, and seeks to share with others. Once the feelings of the exile are acknowledged, this can improve overall functioning. The process of hearing out the exile regarding emotions is an ongoing process. The exile has a fundamental need to be heard by the other parts, and by other people - which is why we ‘tell our story.’
Although vulnerability is the exiles’ pursuit, this can be a source of stress to other parts of The Self. The manager can try to protect the system from vulnerability by occupying the person with business, or controlling the aspects of life that it can control.
Similarly, in order to avoid explicitly recognizing suppressed emotions, the firefighter may intervene with distractions that range from watching television, to inappropriate or impulsive behaviors.
Therapists attempt to build relationships with the managers parts first. This part of The Self is often a rational, controlled part that is likely to show up to therapy. The IFS model provides a framework to reference while in therapy.
In a therapeutic setting, the aim is to assess and change dynamics that may promote conflict amongst the different groups. IFS functions on the basis that The Self is confident, courageous, and compassionate. IFS therapeutic services can improve overall well being, and it has been a useful application for anxiety and depression.