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What Is Internal Family Systems Therapy?

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What Is Internal Family Systems Therapy?

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Whether it’s addressing our “inner demons” or engaging in shadow work, a lot of modern mental health discourse operates under the assumption that all people have “good” and “bad” parts of their personalities that impact our mood and behavior.

But there’s a newer school of thought that challenges some of those assumptions about the nature of our psyches. For example, what if the road rage you feel when someone cuts you off in traffic is actually a protective, important piece of your inner workings? What if the way your partner retreats during an argument is actually an old piece of their personality that helped them get through their childhood? What if there are no “bad” parts at all?

These are the fundamental questions proposed by the newly popular Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy model. This modality argues that the parts of us that might seem problematic or negative are actually things we need to embrace to heal. And according to therapists and patients alike, it’s worth considering as a long-term healing solution.

What is IFS all about, anyways?

Internal Family Systems therapy is founded on the idea that each of us are made up of a “Self,” which is our innate inner being that is already wise, calm, and developed. You likely feel your Self come out when you’re feeling grounded, balanced, and in tune with your own needs. We are all capable of tapping into this core part of ourselves, but it’s not always easily accessed.

That’s because the Self hides behind a range of other “parts,” all of which interact together to shape your personality and inform your relationships with others. In order to have balance and harmony (and ultimately live in connection with your true Self), IFS therapy asks us to identify, and then hold and understand all of the parts of our personalities, without judging or shutting them off. (There are no “bad” parts, according to the IFS Institute.)

This model was created by Richard C. Schwartz, PhD, in the 1980s. Dr. Schwartz was working as a family psychotherapist at the time, and noticed the connection between family counseling and working with the dynamics that exist inside each of us (put simply, our own internal families). He has since acknowledged many of the connections between the tenets of IFS theory and Buddhist teachings that have existed for centuries.

“At its core, IFS is a loving way of relating internally (to your parts) and externally (to the people in your life),” Dr. Schwartz wrote in his 2021 book, No Bad Parts, which outlines all the basics of IFS theory.

As for the parts themselves, Dr. Schwartz has them broken down into three main categories: exiles, managers, and firefighters. Exiled parts “have frequently been called inner children,” Dr. Schwartz wrote in his book. They are younger parts of us that are likely to be way more sensitive, and have carried the trauma from our past within them. Because these parts think in extremes (i.e. “No one loves me”), they are often shut away from the rest of us, pushed down so we don’t need to feel those tough emotions.

“We have the power to help ourselves heal, but that connection has been lost through traumatic experiences.” —Kasandra Lundquist, LCSW

The second category, Managers, attempt to pull things together so that we can move through the world in a positive way. They can end up becoming very critical, though—”often by yelling at us the way our parents or teachers once did so that we’ll try harder or look better,” Dr. Schwartz wrote. They are often the hypervigilant, controlling parts of your personality that do everything in their power to avoid triggers and roadblocks.

Finally, the Firefighter category of parts represents the pieces of us that engage when our exiled parts’ worst fears come true. Schwartz described them as “go[ing] into action to put out that inner fire—the flames of emotion bursting out from the exiled place.” For instance, if it feels like the refrain of “No one loves me” is coming true, a Firefighter will do whatever it takes to distract and avoid that feeling, sometimes creating more damage along the way.

As an example, imagine that your partner is upset with you because they thought you were being flirtatious with the bartender. While at first their anger might seem confusing, it can be helpful to understand it as a Firefighter: this part is lashing out because it’s protecting some Exiled parts from feeling deeper, scarier feelings. Underneath it all might be a very young part of your partner who first felt jealousy when a younger sibling was born and created the narrative that they will lose the love and attention of the people closest to them. This Exiled part, when brought to light, illuminates why your partner’s reaction feels mismatched with the situation, and you both can acknowledge the parts and move on. By understanding how these parts impact behavior, your partner will hopefully be less likely to let the parts take over, and you can be more empathetic when they do.

While other forms of therapy are often very specific to particular diagnoses (like Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing for post-traumatic stress disorder), IFS is a broader mode used for all kinds of mental health concerns. In that way, it could be most similarly related to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a common therapeutic modality that has been proven to work for a wide range of issues like depression, anxiety, and substance misuse disorder.

But the two modalities have different approaches. CBT asks people to challenge and reprogram their thought patterns in order to better manage their response to their situation and circumstances. Meanwhile, IFS asks for patients to go to the root of their problems and perform self-analysis in order to accept oneself and shift around the parts that are actively getting in the way of growth. Essentially, CBT routes us around negative or unhelpful thoughts, while IFS walks us right up to them to understand their origins.

How does Internal Family Systems therapy work?

According to trained IFS practitioner Kasandra Lundquist, LCSW, sessions in IFS have “no agenda” because various parts come in and out of focus. “I get to go in and see with my client, who showed up this week? Who got in the way? No session is the same,” Lundquist says. Questions like these help people identify their parts, alongside other activities that ask one to reflect on the emotions that are present in their body or mind and trace those emotions to a particular starting point.

Once those parts are identified, clients can work with their therapist in a safe space to ask those parts questions. For example, you might ask a part that’s particularly dominant in the moment “if there’s something it wants you to know,” and silently waiting for an answer, bringing in meditation techniques to try to listen to these parts instead of allowing the Managers to speak for them. Lundquist calls this a “compassion-based approach” that helps a person unlock a connection with their Self. “We have the power to help ourselves heal, but that connection has been lost through traumatic experiences,” she says.

IFS is a newer modality, but budding research shows the potential for this process. One small trial from 2013 focused on people with Rheumatoid Arthritis found that patients had lowered depression symptoms and overall pain after receiving IFS therapy. Another trial in 2017 found preliminary evidence that IFS lowered depression symptoms in college-aged women as well as “typical treatment” (aka CBT and interpersonal psychotherapy).

Lundquist’s sessions have led her to love the modality as well, because she’s seen change first-hand in clients suffering from anxiety and depression. “As we get to know these parts, one thing [clients] notice is ‘Oh, I can start to maintain boundaries with people. I can get my needs met and notice that I have worth and value as a person.’ The narrative of how they talk about themselves really starts to shift.”

IFS was formally recognized as an “evidence-based practice” by the National Registry for Evidence-based Programs and Practices in 2015, but it’s important to note that more trials should be done before making larger conclusions about its effectiveness.

Still, IFS therapy is in high demand. “IFS is definitely getting a lot of attention these days, and rightfully so,” says practitioner Sarah Shea, LCSW. “It’s a pretty incredible modality.”

The downside, though, is that it’s not easy for therapists to become officially certified in IFS. “Receiving IFS training with the IFS Institute [the official and only certifying body] is extremely competitive and awarded on a lottery system,” Shea says. “It is also extremely costly,” Shea adds—according to the IFS Institute’s site, tuition for Level 1 class is $4,300. (There are three total levels of training.) “This is one of the reasons why it is difficult to find a therapist who is actually ‘trained’ or ‘certified.’” Lundquist won the lottery draw for a spot in the class and was able to receive the training, which she calls “transformative and unlike anything any other training could prepare you for.”

Still, IFS is not off-limits just because a trained therapist might be hard to find. For those interested in trying the modality, there are plenty of IFS-informed therapists, who have worked with texts like Internal Family Systems (an educational book written by Schwartz and clinician Martha Sweezy) to bring this model alive in sessions but who might not yet have full certification. Because this work, deemed “Parts Work” by many followers, is so reflective, it’s possible to practice the theories of IFS outside of a therapy setting as well—but make sure that you have a trusted friend or therapist on call in case larger feelings or issues arise.

“IFS is great for any and everybody,” Lundquist said. “My specialty is trauma and complex trauma, so it’s really effective there, but it’s also really effective for maybe the person who’s successful at work but struggling with ‘How do I get along with this coworker who’s starting to irritate me?’ It’s good with the full spectrum.”

Many people have found it helpful to draw out their parts and personify them even (similar to the film Inside Out), or simply meditate on specific pieces until they become much more clear. You can also order the No Bad Parts book, which is full of individual exercises and tips to guide you through a self-taught IFS journey.

There’s a reason therapists like Lundquist advocate for the use of IFS and understanding of its framework. Self-acceptance and self-love are central to any healing process, and IFS’s emphasis on those factors make it all the more beautiful.

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