Internal Family Systems (IFS)
Most therapies are based on a deficit model. Harm to our hearts and psyches created a deficit in us that needs to be fixed or filled from the outside in. Internal Family Systems (IFS) is a constraint model. Everything we need to heal and grow and thrive is already within us. However, it is covered over, hidden, or constrained by the efforts of parts of us to create ways to protect us which they will not relinquish until they are convinced that we are safe.
BASIC TENETS OF IFS:
All parts of us are good and have a positive intent even though their strategies may be problematic and have destructive outcomes for ourselves and others.
We all have within us an incredibly loving and healing force that doesn’t need to be developed or improved upon and cannot be destroyed or harmed.
YOU ARE NOT A PROBLEM TO BE SOLVED!
On this inward IFS journey, often with the help of a therapist/practitioner or coach, any seemingly stuck behavior or impenetrable wall is the doorway and path to healing and growth. The goal is relationship – so that parts of us who are overly responsible and under-resourced and believe that they are all alone and all we have, can have a different experience – of being seen, known, felt, understood, accepted, appreciated, and resourced. By us. With the energy of our own healing core waiting to be accessed. The means is the IFS model, which helps us find and befriend parts of us who can tell their story before a safe non-judging witness. The model helps you access that longed-for compassionate witness within you.
MULTIPLICITY: WHAT ARE PARTS?
Looking through the lens of the IFS model, human beings beautifully express multiplicity. We are multiple and have ‘parts’ that naturally come into being at different times to express skills, take on roles and reflect unique aspects of our developing personality. When we experience relational harm that seems to reflect negatively on our worth or lovableness, this harm doesn’t necessarily happen to our whole being. Some parts absorb that darkness and pain and the shameful meaning it has for them. In IFS we call these parts Exiles because we (through some of our parts) want to keep them exiled – out of sight, out of mind. Other parts of us take on protective roles to make sure the pain stays hidden and doesn’t affect or destabilize our entire life which allows still other parts to go about their roles and tasks seemingly unaffected. This is key: multiplicity is not a pathology or system flaw but a deep wisdom in our design!
YOU MAKE SENSE!!
We are a collection of experiences and deeply felt stories that urgently need to be told – and deeply heard. As we take in the stories our parts long to tell us, we discover that choices and actions that seem foolish, unhealthy, and even dangerous make sense – in the context of that part’s options and understanding - and age! For instance, an 8-year-old child who discovers she can blunt the pain of a parent’s tirades through numbing continues to do this into adulthood using drugs, alcohol, food, sex, shopping, etc. And it is the 8-year-old part of you – stuck in that time where this was its only option -who continues to take over your system with its soothing or blunting protective behavior. Parts, like memories, are often very young and stuck in the past. We are not a problem to be solved or fixed. We have young parts that experienced deep loss of connection and trauma, took in pain greater than their capacity to bear, understand or metabolize or took on heroic, protective roles way beyond their years and skills. They don’t know another way. But there is. one!
THE WHOLENESS WITHIN
Within each of us is a core Self that has super-powers of compassion, creativity, curiosity, courage, and other gifts that we need to heal and flourish. This core of our being cannot be harmed or diminished. It also cannot be improved upon, added to, or buffed up. When my hard-working perfectionist part learned this, it felt hope and breathed a huge sigh of relief!
This core goodness and strength takes time to develop its functionality or interface within a growing human. Self seems to be absent or MIA when hard things happen in childhood. We need love, attention, and security and when that is missing, or when there is abuse and neglect in the void, our young parts spring into action to do SOMETHING to mitigate the pain.
Our parts take on heavy duty protective roles like hyper-organizers or pleasers, medicators, overachievers, or quitters and use dissociation and depression to alleviate pain. Young parts take desperate and extreme measures to alleviate pain even if the downstream consequences of their actions aren’t beneficial. They also don’t believe this core goodness and love exists that Dr. Schwartz calls Self. But experiencing is believing. Self is waiting to be with parts in compassion for what they have gone through and to help them heal and return to their original and valuable design. IFS provides the model for the process that enables these transformations to occur.
HARM IS RELATIONAL / SO IS HEALING
IFS is a profoundly relational model. In a traumatized system, parts are no longer secure and working together. Often, they have very different strategies for helping us and it can feel like a war inside. An example might be a part dedicated to only A+ achievement all the time, every time and a countervailing part dedicated to tuning out by sleeping or streaming movies. The stronger the push from one necessitates an even stronger response from the other, escalating uncomfortably and making goals, and life, feel unmanageable. IFS provides a way for these parts to be compassionately known and witnessed, learn about each other’s positive intentions, soften, and find common ground. Their strategies protect hidden and vulnerable parts of us who absorbed and bear a lot of pain. They also cause us a lot of pain when they refuse to be exiled and take over our body, emotions, and beliefs. The battle between polarized parts helps us to find and free exiled parts. I use the IFS model to help you meet these tender, exiled parts with Self-energy and invite them (and their protectors) into a journey that heals.
Important note: IFS is very cognizant of, and addresses, the constraints caused by larger systems of oppression that deeply impact us and are even passed down through burdens carried by those who came before us. These systems of oppression concerned with race, sex, gender, religion and age deeply affect our efforts to be the people we want to be and have communities where we can all flourish.