Internal Family Systems
“Beneath the surface of the protective parts of trauma survivors there exists an undamaged essence, a Self that is confident, curious, and calm, a Self that has been sheltered from destruction by the various protectors that have emerged in their efforts to ensure survival. Once those protectors trust that it is safe...the Self will spontaneously emerge, and the parts can be enlisted in the healing process”
― Bessel van der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps the Score
The Premise of IFS
Most of us were brought up with the idea of the 'mono-mind' - the belief that we have one mind out of which our different thoughts, emotions and impulses arise. Internal Family Systems believes instead that our internal world is made up of a multiplicity of sub-personalities, each with their own agenda and beliefs about us and the way the world works. This internal system of 'parts' form different alliances and conflicts inside us, in much the same way that members of an external community or family might. The internal chatter that we call thinking is generally these 'parts' talking, negotiating and disputing with one another. IFS believes that multiplicity
of parts is a normal, healthy human experience. It is part of what gives us our richness as human beings, but it is can also be the source of many of our internal (and external) conflicts. We all have an instinctive sense of the different ‘parts’ inside us when we find ourselves saying things like:
‘One part of me wants to take up running but another part of me always sabotages my attempts, and I end up in front of Netflix instead’
'I don't know why I behave this way in relationships. Everything seems to be going fine but then a part of me always wants to start pulling away.'
One of the most helpful insights that IFS brings to the healing process is that all of our 'parts' - including those that seem to be actively hindering or sabotaging our progress - genuinely believe they are working in our best interests. And no part of us, even those that are burdened with unpalatable emotions such as rage, terror, shame, depression, humiliation or grief, is bad. These parts usually came into being at a particular time in our lives - often when we were quite young - and aren't carrying an awareness of the bigger picture. It's easy therefore, for them to misunderstand what might truly be of benefit us at this point our lives. Understanding that all our parts - even the difficult ones - have good intentions for us can give hope and an opportunity for change. We can't get parts to change by fighting them, but rather by getting to know them and understanding where they are coming from.
The other key assumption of Internal Family Systems is that everyone has within them a core 'Self'. This Self is characterised by qualities such as compassion, curiosity, courage, and connectedness. Contrary to many other models of therapy, IFS believes that everyone inherently possesses these qualities - they don’t need to be created or built through doing meditation, therapy or good works. The IFS process supports us in contacting these inherent qualities, so that the Self can shine through and take the lead in our internal system as we undertake the sometimes tricky work of healing. The Self provides an anchor, a place of warm neutrality, curious witnessing and self-compassion from which to do that work.
Once we can begin to get our heads around it, the idea of a Self tends to resonate deeply for many of us. It touches a universal longing we intuitively recognise, and may be one of the reasons why IFS has exploded in popularity in the last decade or so. People are drawn to the concept of the Self and the inspiring idea that there is actually something inside us that has an inherent capacity to grow and heal. The IFS process touches into the yearning we have to remember this capacity and use it to help improve the quality our lives and the lives of those around us. The Self is an expression of the goodness and love we have to offer once the internal noise of warring parts has quietened down.
How Does IFS Work?
The primary focus of Internal Family Systems is to enable us meet the parts of ourselves that are driving many of the issues we face in life. Often, these parts will have undermined our attempts to solve these issues through more conventional methods. In an IFS session, once the ‘parts’ that are causing us conflict have been identified and accessed, the aim is set up a dialogue with them, in order to find out why it is they do what do. Often, it turns out that these parts are guarding (or protecting) a wounded ‘inner-child’ part of us known as an ‘exile.’ Exiles are invariably ‘parts’ that have been wounded at some time in the past, often in early childhood. These exiles may have taken on extreme ideas, behaviours, or feelings derived from the painful events of our earlier life, and carry these like burdens that organise and constrain them. Once the ‘exile’ and the burden it is carrying have been brought into awareness, we can, with the support of the Self, begin to build a new relationship with it. In time, we get to the point whereby the burden (of, for example, pain, rage, loneliness, confusion, or unlovability) the ‘exile’ is carrying can be released and transformed.