What is Internal Family Systems?
Despite what it sounds like, Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS), is not a form of family therapy. Rather, Internal Family Systems is a specific type of individual therapy that targets trauma, attachment, shame, self-criticism, and self-hatred and transforms them into self-compassion and authenticity.
IFS recognizes that our psyches are made up of different parts, sometimes called subpersonalities. You can think of them as little people inside us–similar to what was portrayed through the animated feature, Inside Out. Each part has its own perspective, feelings, memories, goals, and motivations. We all have parts like the inner critic, the abandoned child, the pleaser, the angry part, and the loving caretaker. For some people, all parts are integrated, and for others they seem in conflict. IFS helps you get to know all the parts of you and heal the parts that have been exiled or are not serving you well.
Haven’t seen Inside Out? Ohh man, it’s one of my favorites. Here’s one of the trailers:
Who needs IFS?
Quick answer: everyone.
Long answer: People benefit from Internal Family Systems therapy when there are parts of themselves, their lives that seem out of place with what they want and who they want to be. If shame and self-hatred are something you’re well acquainted with, IFS could be for you! If internal judgement and criticism run your life–let’s talk about IFS.
Internal Family Systems has discovered that every part has a positive intent for you, no matter how problematic it might be. For example, Sam has a part that says, “You couldn’t be successful at your ambitious goals. You are just a failure. Who do you think you are?” This is hurtful to her and prevents her from taking action toward her goals, but when she got to know this part, she discovered that it was actually afraid she would be punished or judged if she stuck her neck out, and it was trying to protect her from pain.
How does IFS work?
It’s a lot of imagining and remembering. First, I will educate you about the different titles we give certain parts, just in case I use those titles instead of your own words by mistake. Then, you and I will talk some about how you relate to your Self and your parts. We might name your parts or even draw them so we can get to know them a little better. Finally, we work on healing the parts that disrupt your peace, your sense of compassion, your life. You will be able to use your adult Self as you are to comfort, nurture, and heal the parts of you that are in need. When you understand that a part has a positive intent, it doesn’t mean that you give the part power, it means you understand its purpose and can develop healing compassion.
This is fundamentally different from the way we ordinarily relate to our parts.
Usually when we become aware of a part, the first thing we do is evaluate and judge it: is it good or bad for us? If we decide it is good, we embrace it and give it power. We act from it and honor its purpose. If we decide it is bad, we try to suppress it or get rid of it. We reject it and tell it to go away. However, for most people this doesn’t work. You can’t get rid of a part of your Self. You can only push it into your unconscious, where it will continue to affect you, but without your awareness.
Why does IFS work?
With Internal Family Systems, we do something altogether different and radical. We welcome all our parts with curiosity and compassion. We seek to understand them and appreciate their efforts to help us. And we don’t lose sight of the ways they may be causing us problems. We develop a relationship of caring and trust with each part, and then take the steps to release it from its burdens so it can function in a healthy way.