Internal Family Systems Therapy (ISF)
Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS), developed by Dr. Richard Schwartz, is a trauma model that draws upon systems theory and family systems in particular. IFS proposes that we each have different inner "parts" than can get stuck in rigid roles similar to the way members of a family can get stuck in roles. In addition to these parts, IFS proposes that we each have a Self that is inherently clear, calm, compassionate, wise, and capable of leading. IFS uses specific therapist-client dialogues and techniques to help clients access and un-blend their parts from their true Selves. Usually IFS is used in individual therapy and clients are asked to turn within, towards their own intra-psychic system.
According to IFS, parts can be thought of as sub-personalities with likes, dislikes, histories and burdens. Parts are autonomous yet are in various forms of relationships with each other. All parts try to accomplish something positive. All parts are valuable. Unfortunately, because of traumatic or difficult life events, parts often acquire extreme and rigid qualities. Parts end up burdened and stuck in the past and this creates disharmony within the internal system. Some parts may be polarized, merged or form fixed alliances. While some parts may be overprotecting through extreme means, others may be using compulsive behaviors to numb out the pain. In general, parts tend to fall into three categories: exiles, managers an firefighters. The following discussion describes the three types and their roles.
These parts are often developmentally young. They are vulnerable, wounded and sometimes damaged. They are the receptacles of trauma and/or developmental injuries. They feel isolated from the rest of the system. They carry burdens (i.e. memories, secrets, deep loneliness, confusion, freezing, dissociation, etc) and are stuck in the past. Positive attributes, such as creativity, sensitivity and power can also be exiled. Exiles are isolated from the rest of the internal system and feel a great need for protection and acknowledgement, yet they are forced by other parts to stay in exile in order to protect the rest of the internal system from being overwhelmed by pain. Exiled parts are containers of somatic constrictions and tensions as well as negative introjects (i.e. "I am a failure", "I deserve to be treated badly", etc). Victims of incest and sexual/physical abuse often hold potent exiles. Under stress, exiles may eclipse the Self.
These parts manage our lives; they run our day-to-day experience. Their job is to make sure that the person is function and that everything is under control. Managers keep tight rein over the exiled parts. Behaviorally, they can look like care taking, intellectualizing, avoiding, risk-taking, looking for approval, being passive, detaching emotionally, perfectionism, worrying, and so on. Managers tend to compensate in order to keep the system in homeostasis. They are highly protective and invested in controlling the environment for continued safety. They are usually forced into their roles; they work overtime and feel very identified with their jobs. They also eclipse the Self and would actually rather relax and release their gripping control if they really knew it was safe to do so.
Like the manager, the firefighters' job is to keep the exiles away, though they act from a more intense and impulsive place. They leap into action to contain or extinguish feeling, sensations, or images coming from the exiles. They act up when the managers can no longer contain the exiles. Firefighters will do anything to keep the exiles away. Firefighters are compulsive parts that stimulate drug or alcohol use, gambling, suicidal ideation, rage, self-destructing eating behaviors, over-spending, self-mutiliation, sex binges, dissociations and freezing.
The Self is the seat of consciousness. It is the witnessing "I". It is not visible because it is the one who is observing. The Self holds qualities of compassion, confidence, creativity, calmness, connectedness, wisdom, courage and good leadership. Differentiating the Self from wounded and/or protective parts is a main tenet of the IFS model.
Ultimately, the idea is to unburden all the parts and assist the emergence of a healthy system organized around trust, acceptance and integration of differences under the compassionate leadership of the Self. Deep down, parts want to be released from their extreme and destructive roles and will transform when it is safe to do so. Restoring the Self, with its inherent capacity to lead, is key to creating a harmonious internal system. As the healing energy of the compassionate Self is reinstated, the internal system goes through growth and transformation. The exiles, managers, and firefighters let go of their grip and extreme positions. Under the umbrella of the Self, parts learn to find a more harmonious way to relate to each other, thus bringing new balance to the internal system and outer life of the client. In IFS, the Self, when unblended from the parts, becomes a co-therapist working towards healing and transformation.