What is the Internal Family Systems model?

The Internal Family Systems (IFS) model is a powerfully transformative, well researched approach to psychotherapy. Its focus is on finding and then addressing the different ‘sub-personalities’ that a person has. IFS believes that we all have many sides to our personalities. Further more, it is valuable to get in touch with these sides, or ‘parts’ as they are referred to.

We have all been in situations where our parts had a little disagreement. Every time we cannot make a decision or feeling pulled to in different directions we experience the existence of our sub-personalities. We may get excited about going to a party but then suddenly feel deflated about the whole idea. Or buy something on impulse just to feel guilty about it an hour later.

All parts welcome!

Although we may think, in order to feel better about ourselves, we should simply block out the ‘difficult’ parts. However, shutting out or perhaps numbing a side of ourselves is not only futile but also leads to unwanted consequences.

Engaging in Internal Family Systems therapy will provide more sustainable ways to improve a wide variety of emotional distress including depression, anxiety, disordered eating or addictions. Clients learn to recognise their sub-personalities, understand and to appreciate the work they each do. An IFS therapist welcomes all their client’s parts to the session. Together, client and therapist work towards exploring how and why certain sub-personalities became powerful and how others withdrew.

For those of you interested, here is a short video on IFS, presented by Dr Richard Schwartz, the developer of the therapy.

How does a session using this model look?

During an IFS session the counsellor will focus on building the trust and rapport that clients need to safely reveal their different sides. Then the therapist will use various techniques to find clients’ ‘exiled or wounded parts’. These are often heavily guarded by others with protective functions. Ways to do this include

  • creating a dialogue between the client’s sub-personalities.
  • encouraging the client to locate parts within their body (this aims to build awareness of the felt sense of the sub-personalities).
  • supporting the client to ‘step back in time’ to understand a specific aspect of their personality.
  • uses imagery to create new, more compassionate interactions between the parts.
  • outside therapy sessions, the therapist may ask clients to take notes of any important inner dialogue they witness. Or perhaps draw diagrams to depict the relationships between parts.

The aim of Internal Family Systems therapy is to empower the core Self. Everyone of us has a Self that is wise, compassionate and able to connect and heal. This Self can navigate us through our challenges by being able to listen to, appreciate and lead all our parts. This ‘Self-leadership’ (to use the IFS terminology) will lack the harshness, the tormenting self-judgement or self-criticism and their manifestation in ‘acting out’ behaviours. Instead it will lead with self-compassion, courage and wisdom.

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