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Powerful ways to heal trauma with internal family system psychotherapy

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, Ph.D, 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 fulfill extreme roles, taking the 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 on 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, 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 counselor and healer. 

Intrapsychic Family

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: 

Unburdening

To be able to release the exiles you need to get permission from the protectors 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: 

Some techniques IFS therapists use are:

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 to Western psychological practice. This approach can play a pioneering role for 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 channeled 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. 

Another connecting point of spirituality and IFS is that the exercises commonly encourage effective breathing to bring mental clarity and relaxation. You can practice meditation and breathwork methods as a part of your IFS journey. Check out our Breathwork Method trainings to acquire necessary skills to implement into your practice.


References 

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) is 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. 

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