Internal Family Systems is an evidence-based, therapeutic modality that underpins all of my work, and is the basis for the Inner Insight process.
It turns our attention away from the circumstances, busyness and dramas happening in our external world, and encourages us to focus within.
It recognises that our inner world is impacting on our external world, and that inner focus is a powerful site for change.
Internal Family Systems offers a roadmap for inner exploration and a step-by-step process for true transformation.
It offers a way to understand ourselves, and others, and a path to creating meaningful and lasting change in our lives.
Origins of Internal Family Systems
Richard Schwartz PhD, a family therapist and academic, developed IFS in collaboration with his clients when his usual approach to therapy wasn’t delivering the outcomes he expected.
As a family therapist, he was accustomed to seeing how individual change could be facilitated or constrained by the family system.
But what he didn’t fully realise was the extent to which individual change could also be facilitated or constrained by people’s internal systems. That’s when he got curious about what was happening in his clients’ internal worlds.
When he began listening to how his clients described their inner worlds, he noticed patterns.
People talked about having different parts within themselves.
A client might have a part that was angry with their mum for not standing up to their dad but another part that felt sorry for their mum.
Or a client might have a part that gets anxious in meetings, forcing them to keep quiet but another part that makes them feel stupid for not speaking up.
At first, Schwartz encouraged his clients to try and challenge these parts to change by using convincing arguments, intimidation or coercion.
But that caused parts to become even more vigilant, demanding and intense.
Over time, his approach softened and he began seeing these parts as characters in a person’s inner life that needed some loving respect.
He started asking them questions to get to know them better like, How are you? What is your role? How do you get along with other parts?
The more questions he asked, the more he realised that each part has a distinct voice, temperament, role in our inner world, and relationship to each other.
The more that he and his clients treated these parts with interest and respect, the more they were willing to cooperate.
And the more that the parts were validated and appreciated, the more they began to change.
As parts changed, the more clients, naturally and effortlessly, felt calmer, clearer, more curious and compassionate.
These qualities, Schwartz realised, were not another part but the client’s core Self.
All of Schwartz’s clients, even those who had experienced terrible trauma and very challenging life circumstances, had a Self.
And everyone’s Self displayed the same compassionate and calming qualities.
This notion of the Self and our many parts forms the roadmap for self understanding and for healing and transformation.
Internal Family Systems as a framework for self understanding
Internal Family Systems provides a pathway into our inner world and a framework for true self understanding.
The two key landmarks in our inner world are our Self and our parts.
We all have a Self.
At the heart of Internal Family Systems is the assumption that we have a Self or a core sense of who we are.
This is not a new concept.
Almost every spiritual tradition speaks of an essential self or higher self or true self or enlightened mind or awakened heart or seat of consciousness or soul, which sits at the heart of us.
Our Self is the natural leader of our inner world and is the one who is able to help the many parts of us.
In Internal Family Systems, our Self is known by its qualities, the 8Cs - Curiosity, Calm, Courage, Confidence, Clarity, Creativity, Compassion and Connectedness.
When we are being curious, calm, courageous, confident, clear, creative, compassionate or connected, we are in Self energy.
With Self energy, we can connect with, understand, form a relationship and help transform the parts of us that need our help.
We also have many parts.
Another key assumption of Internal Family Systems is that our inner world is naturally multidimensional.
We are not one singular, unitary personality. We have many parts.
Our parts often first show up as feelings, thoughts, sensations. But it’s helpful to see them as more than that.
Why? So we can connect with them, relate to them, and be in relationship to them.
When we begin to form a relationship to our parts, rather than trying to get rid of them, we realise that every part has good intentions for us and is trying to help in some way.
Our parts can be divided into two distinctive categories based on the key role they play: A part’s role is either to protect or to hold onto hurt.
Our hurt parts are often younger, more vulnerable parts of us that have been holding onto shame, loneliness, worthlessness, abandonment, powerlessness, meaninglessness or rejection.
Our protector parts step up to protect our younger more vulnerable parts or our system as a whole and often appear as critics, responsible, distracting, pleasing, analytical, avoidant or perfectionist parts.
Parts that we often associate with mental health symptoms such as anxiety, depression, overwhelm, panic, OCD and others are often trying to protect us in some way.
When our parts are in balance and harmony with our Self and each other, they bring helpful qualities to our inner world and play a constructive role.
But parts can get thrown out of balance and harmony when, in response to events in our life, they feel forced into a more extreme role such as holding onto pain or being highly protective.
Internal Family Systems and transformation
One of the key benefits of the Internal Family Systems protocol is that includes steps for true healing and transformation.
Neuroscience explains why Internal Family Systems is so effective.
The explanation comes from a particular strain of brain research: Memory reconsolidation.
Bruce Ecker, a psychotherapist who was once a research physicist, became interested in this clinical question: What creates transformational change?
Not incremental change or symptom relief, but true transformational, breakthrough change, or deeper healing, where you think, feel and behave fundamentally differently, and in a way that is more aligned to who you are and want to be.
To explore this question, Ecker began studying the neuroscience of learning and memory, and his first insight was this: It’s our emotional learnings or memories that drive our problem thoughts, feelings or behaviours.
If we have a difficult emotional experience such as vulnerability, shame or suffering, the emotional potency creates a learning or memory. That emotional learning can then generate problem thoughts, feelings and behaviours.
We may not be aware of the learning happening, but it happens anyway.
Neurobiologically, the emotional learning or memory is encoded in a strong set of neural circuits, which can be re-triggered at any time.
It was once believed that these emotional learnings could never be erased.
The best we could do was create a new learning to override or challenge or diminish the power of the original emotional learning.
But then they discovered that memory reconsolidation, an innate form of neuroplasticity in our brain, allows emotional learnings to be permanently, irreversibly, and comprehensively erased so they no longer have an impact in our life.
Ecker argues that, on a neurological level, most therapies create a new competing learning, but they don’t eliminate the old learning, which means it can still be re-activated.
Internal Family Systems is one of the few approaches that has healing steps embedded within it, which leads to true transformational change.
What happens in an Internal Family Systems session?
We begin by focusing on the presenting issue. It might be persistent thoughts, feelings or responses to a situation or issue.
You turn your focus inward, and check in with your inner world.
You use the Inner Insight step-by-step process to map and explore the parts of you that are impacting on the issue, including those that are in conflict or causing difficulties.
You engage your Self energy to understand, appreciate, and heal what needs your attention.
This then allows you calm the inner chaos, and access more clarity, so you can get unstuck, make decisions, and move forward with your life.
The goal of Internal Family Systems is to differentiate our parts from our Self, allow our Self to come into relationship with our parts, and help our parts to either release their hurt or move into a more collaborative and less highly proctecive and reactive role.
The more we access our Self energy and the more harmonious are parts are, the more we feel authentically ourselves.
When our inner world is in a better place, we can meet the external world in a different way too.
For even more information about IFS click the link below.
What is Internal Family Systems?