What is Internal Family Systems therapy?

Oct 25, 2019
“Once I was able to set aside my preconceived notions about therapy and the mind, and began to really listen to what my clients were saying, what I heard repeatedly was descriptions of what they often called ‘their parts’…” Richard C. Schwartz, Ph.D. The Internal Family Systems Model.
While many others have spoken about these “parts” within us (including Freud and Jung), Dr. Schwartz discovered the importance of paying attention to the interactions between the different internal parts of ourselves.
This was an extremely important discovery. From that, he was able to develop a way for therapists to help their clients finally understand all of those confusing and sometimes devastating internal conflicts that we feel and the equally confounding behaviour we often see in those around us. He discovered that we have a kind of inner family inside our brains, with different parts of this family playing specific roles. He was able to make a map of the way these aspects of ourselves organize within us. The Internal Parts Map consists of one Self and a number of parts in each of the other categories: Managers that try to keep them functional and safe, Exiles who are vulnerable and needy parts managers lock away in inner closets for safety, and Firefighters who try to put outbursts of inner flames of extreme feeling and/or vulnerability as quickly as possible.

The ultimate goal of IFS therapy is for the Self to resume the leadership of our lives. As little children, we developed Exile parts when we were hurt. Managers and Firefighters came along to protect us from the outside world. Just as in any external family, these parts of ourselves were born along the way and now exist within us.

The work with an IFS therapist begins by learning to step back when you are fused inside of one part and to actually see or sense it in front of you. From this perspective, you can talk to or sense the feelings of the part. Once you can do this, you are on the route to deep and lasting healing.
One of the biggest gifts Dr. Schwartz has given to the world of therapy, in my view, is that he takes the existence of parts within us seriously. While many of us sense that we have different aspects of ourselves inside there, we tend to ignore or discount that fact. This is one of the reasons that it is so hard for us to heal sometimes. A big part of the IFS process is to stop ignoring our internal parts and start really listening to them, just as we would our own children. Over-reactive parts of ourselves need to tell us about their fears and worries. When we ignore them, just like children, they act out more and more. Until they get heard and trust your core Self again, they will not let go of the extreme role they have within your system.

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