If you’ve cruised around the Evergreen Wellbeing site, you’ve probably seen multiple references to Internal Family Systems (IFS), Self, and parts. I was introduced to IFS early in my journey to becoming a therapist, and as soon as I heard the premise of the model, it instantly resonated. I had, I realized, been having discussions with my parts for many years. And, when I am at my best, I am embodying Self energy.

About IFS

Internal Family Systems (IFS) is a therapeutic approach developed by Dr. Richard Schwartz in the 1980s. It is based on the premise that the human mind is made up of a “Self,” the core of each person, that is whole and perfect (regardless of life experience), as well as different “parts” that interact with one another.

These parts can be thought of as distinct inner beings with their own unique thoughts, feelings, and motivations. Many of us can identify our Inner Critic, for example, or the Perfectionist or the part who drives us to work incessantly. Or, think back to a time when you’ve said something like “Well, a part of me really wants to take this job but another part of me is scared to take the risk…”

IFS believes that all parts have positive intentions, but sometimes these parts can become polarized or in conflict with one another, leading to inner turmoil and psychological distress. The goal of IFS therapy is to help individuals develop a harmonious relationship in their internal system. Specifically, IFS works to build trusting relationships between a person’s Self and their parts, establishing the Self as the leader of the internal systems, helping the parts to heal and live in harmony together.

The three main types of parts in the IFS system:

  1. Exiles: These are wounded or traumatized parts of the self that carry painful emotions, memories, or beliefs. Exiles are often hidden from awareness and may be associated with past experiences of trauma or neglect.
  2. Managers: These parts are proactive– they assume their protective roles by maintaining control, avoiding vulnerability, or striving for perfection. They are responsible for managing and organizing the individual’s life and may manifest as controlling behaviors or critical self-talk.
  3. Firefighters: These parts are reactive– they emerge in response to distressing emotions or memories. They seek to distract or numb the individual through impulsive or addictive behaviors such as substance abuse, excessive work, or overeating. They are called firefighters because, when a fire team is working to put out a fire in a building, they aren’t concerned about breaking windows. Similarly, as our internal firefighters are working to put out the fire of our pain, they might be breaking a few windows in the process.

The IFS process involves the IFS practitioner guiding the client to access Self energy and, from there, develop a compassionate and curious stance towards these different parts. The practitioner helps the individual establish a connection with their parts, understand their intentions, and foster dialogue between them. The ultimate aim is to facilitate healing, integration, and self-harmony.

IFS has been applied to a wide range of mental health issues, including trauma, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and relationship problems. It is often used in individual therapy but can also be applied in group settings or couple’s therapy.

IFS and Spirituality

IFS is a natural complement to many spiritual practices, which posit a core of divinity in each of us. Though the terminology may be different, the idea of turning inward and accessing an inner resource, a timeless knowing, an ocean of calm and compassion…that is the Self in IFS.

IFS believes that everyone is born with a Self and, in attachment theory, the Self can provide a secure attachment figure even for people who have had incredibly difficult upbringings and who did not have secure attachment bonds as children.

The qualities of Self are condensed by the model into the “8 C’s”- Curiosity, Compassion, Courage, Connection, Clarity, Calmness, Confidence and Creativity and the “5 P’s”- Presence, Persistence, Perspective, Playfulness and Patience.  Basically, the Self is any of us on our best days as a parent or person.

Exploring IFS

Each of us can begin to do our own internal IFS exploration with or without professional guidance. Richard Schwartz’s book No Bad Parts is a wonderful introduction to the model and the audiobook includes guided meditations to map parts etc. However, I would suggest that if you have a significant amount of trauma in your background that you don’t seek to do extensive internal work without support.

I’d love to help you with your internal IFS exploration. If you’re interested in learning more, please reach out to book a free consultation.

Warmly,

Mariah

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