Have you ever felt like there are multiple people in your head and the ‘real you’ drowns in their voice sometimes? According to Richard Schwartz, PhD, multiple sub-personalities reside in each of us and they constitute an intrapsychic family together. Each voice in our head has a role. Some operate in secret, some try to protect you, some are just angry and destructive… and just like families do, they build relationships with each other.
What is Internal Family System (IFS)
Based on this approach, Schwartz developed the Internal Family System (IFS), a trauma-healing psychotherapy method. According to Schwartz’s theory, there are sub-personalities within us that play roles to establish a balance within the intrapsychic forces. These sub-personalities are governed by the core of the person which is called ‘the Self’. Self is the unharmed part of us, that can be described as “the essence of who we are”. However, pain and trauma can disturb the harmony within and force some parts of you to fulfil extreme roles, taking control from the hands of the Self. With IFS it is possible for the Self to regain control and regulate balance in your inner world again. IFS can be used for various mental health conditions such as: ‘Anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, dissociative identity disorder, eating disorders, and addiction’.
Even though there was an understanding of intrapsychic properties thanks to Sigmund Freud and the psychoanalytic literature in general, Schwartz’s work helped to understand the interactions and associations between the intrapsychic properties. According to Schwartz, with proper professional interventions, we can operate on and restore these intrapsychic familial relationships. The main goals of IFS can be listed as Distinguishing the Self from the other members of the intrapsychic family and establishing trust within the Self, unburdening the extreme roles, and balancing and reconciling the parts of the inner world. At the end of IFS therapy, the client comes into a state of a balanced and synchronised inner system that is regulated by the Self. IFS therapists promote empowering the Self so that you can learn to coordinate harmony and become your own counsellor and healer.
The Self is conceptualised as the core of who we are. Some of the positive attributes of the Self are: “Confidence, calmness, wisdom, compassion, connectedness, leadership and perspective”. The Self is an invisible part, it is the over-I which is the part that merely observes and witnesses. What Schwartz conceptualised as the Self can sound very similar to spiritual practitioners from various traditions. Many spiritual traditions involve a concept like this with different names such as the soul, Atman, Dharma or Qalb.
Aside from the Self, Schwartz conceptualised three types of sub-personalities: Exiles, managers and firefighters. Managers and firefighters together are called protective parts. These sub-personalities are in a war with each other and with the Self.
Let’s take a closer look at the family in our psyche:
- Exiles: These are the wounded parts coming from your childhood. All the past trauma, pain, shame and feelings of worthlessness get stuck in the exile part of you. Since the exiles cause tremendous pain, the protectors do whatever it takes to keep them locked. But the lockdown doesn’t stop the exiles from playing an important part in our actions. They secretly operate to determine our behaviours, feelings and thoughts in many ways.
- Managers: These parts protect you via intense planning. They manage the situations to avoid pain. They try to keep the exiles from emerging into the consciousness and hurt you with the trauma. They are the first line of defence. Managers can be the inner critic, perfectionist, and anxious parts of you among many others.
- Firefighters: They protect the exiles when a trigger is activated. The pain is like a fire from within and the firefighters apply fast methods such as alcohol to extinguish the fire. If the exiles carry burdens that are too heavy, protectors gain more power and go to extremes to control the exiles. When managers fail, the firefighters come out and find ways to control the exiles. These firefighters can be binge eating, self-harm, dissociation and other pathologised issues.
To be able to release the exiles you need to get permission from the protectors to gatekeeping the exiles. The protectors need to learn to trust the Self so that the Self can find space to get in touch with the exiled parts and heal them. Once the Self is free to reach out to the exiles, it first observes everything about the exiles. After it has witnessed what the exiles wanted to show, the Self recreates the past trauma to do what needed to be done back then. This is called the redo. The exiles were too weak to react during the original trauma and during the redo part, the Self gives the reaction that the exiles couldn’t. When the Self gives what the exiles needed to be set free, the Self takes the exiles to a peaceful place. Here, the Self encourages the exiles to let their stuck toxic attitudes, beliefs and emotions go. Then, the Self reprograms the exiles to adopt new positive habits. When the exiles and the Self find a way to reconnect, the protectors can realise that the Self has done a better job than themselves. This entire process is called unburdening and it is the part where the past trauma gets cleared up.
What to expect in a session:
IFS provides many important tools to eliminate the chaos of the mind and harmonise the tangled associations between different sides of us. It is a way to exercise self-love and self-compassion and learn how to become your own guide and healer. To regulate your inner balance IFS therapists follow a six-step procedure:
- Find: The client is encouraged to look inward, meditating can be a good starting practice. It is important to observe each sensation in your body, your thoughts and your emotions. By following the sensations in your body, try to identify a part of you that is connected to that sensation.
- Focus: Now, pay attention to the part you have identified.
- Flesh Out: Try to learn more about that part by questioning yourself. Try to identify which emotions are associated with that part and if that part of you mirrors a certain age.
- Feel Toward: Now try to understand how you feel about that part so that you can identify how important it is in your life.
- Befriend: This step focuses on you understanding that part better and the role it plays in your life. You may need to exercise self-acceptance but sometimes certain parts need to be eliminated or minimised.
- Fear: After the last step, you find yourself understanding the fears of the part under examination. Question what type of catastrophic things could have happened and what fears could have come alive, if these parts of you didn’t exist. Do you think you can let go or minimise their role if the fears are irrational?
Some techniques IFS therapists use are:
- Feeling your heart: Breathing and relaxing are encouraged, and then the client is asked to examine their heart. Do you feel that your heart is emotionally open? Eliminating the protectors for a short while to understand the exiles is important here.
- Illustrating the parts of the internal family and how they associate with each other using diagrams
- The room technique: One part of the internal family is encouraged to watch the self interact with another part. With this method, the aim is to reconcile the conflictual parts.
- Mountain or path exercise: The client is encouraged to imagine themselves walking on a path. In this imagery method, the person is asked to be mindful of every thought, sensation and emotion that they encounter while walking on that path. This method is aimed to help the client get a better understanding of their inner world.
IFS and Spirituality
Aside from being systematised as a trauma-focused psychotherapy method, IFS is a deep spiritual practice as well. The practitioners can follow this path throughout their lives to increase their self-awareness and reach higher consciousness. IFS offers a systematic method to integrate spiritual traditions into Western psychological practice. This approach can play a pioneering role in opening the conversation between psychology and spirituality further.
IFS can help to bring out your spiritual self and it can become a part of your spiritual practices or be used to encourage them. It increases spiritual awareness, enhances compassion, and unmasks the spiritual part of the inner world. IFS provides you with tools to heal your trauma and start living your authentic truth. All the energy that goes into prisoning the exiles can be channelled into creativity, self-healing, awareness, spirituality, connection with others and many other positive practices.
Many spiritual traditions aim to help the person connect with their authentic self and reach their true potential. Thus spirituality and IFS have many common goals and teachings. Spiritual practitioners can quickly adapt to IFS techniques as they are used to go deeper into their inner world. Many spiritual traditions advise their followers to seek awareness and consciousness as they are the main source of existence. With IFS the individuals turn their focus inwards and increase their self-awareness.
Spiritual practices enhance a person’s connectedness with the self, others and the universe. IFS helps with the first step and is perhaps the key for the other two. As the person understands and heals themselves with IFS, their relationships with others will transform as well. When the internal balance is established, this harmony also manifests itself in the outer world of the client.
Discover the seamless fusion of spirituality and Internal Family Systems (IFS), where serenity and empowerment await. Embrace the captivating exercises that beckon a journey of mental clarity and tranquillity through the art of effective breathing. Unlock the full potential of your IFS experience with our invigorating Breathwork Method training, designed to equip you with indispensable skills for transformative practice. Delve into the world of meditation and breathwork, paving the way for profound self-discovery and relaxation. Elevate your spiritual exploration with us, and embark on a fulfilling adventure that harmonizes mind, body, and soul. Step into a new realm of holistic growth and harmony today!
Blanchfield, T. (n.d.). What to know about internal family Systems (IFS) Therapy. Verywell Mind. Retrieved September 15, 2021, from https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-ifs-therapy-internal-family-systems-therapy-5195336.
Get help. IFS Training Programs, Internal Family Systems Courses. (n.d.). Retrieved September 15, 2021, from https://www.goodtherapy.org/training-courses/internal-family-systems.html.
Holmes, T.R. IFS Spirituality and Self. Journal of Self Leadership, 3(1), 1.
IFS Spirituality and Self…… Internal Family Systems Therapy UK. (n.d.). Retrieved September 15, 2021, from https://ifsuk.org/node-36/.
Internal Family Systems (IFS). (2018, December 2). Internal Family Systems Therapy. Retrieved September 15, 2021, from https://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/types/internal-family-systems-therapy
Internal Family Systems for spiritual development. Personal Growth Programs. (2016, August 25). Retrieved September 15, 2021, from https://personal-growth-programs.com/ifs-courses/schedule/ifs-for-spiritual-development/.
Internal Family Systems (IFS) a game-changer for MEDICINE, PSYCHIATRY, & the spiritual path. Lissa Rankin. (n.d.). Retrieved September 15, 2021, from https://lissarankin.com/internal-family-systems-ifs/.
Internal Family Systems Therapy. (n.d.). Psychology Today. Retrieved September 15, 2021, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/therapy-types/internal-family-systems-therapy.