Therapy That Heals: Internal Family Systems
By Dan Pollets
Ben is a 31 year old single man who is suffering from erectile disorder and it is threatening his new relationship. Performance anxiety grips him in the sexual act and takes him out of the sexual experience. This anxiety is with him at other times when he feels pressure to be successful. He describes his father as highly volatile, demanding and impossible to please.
Sharon is a 38 year old single woman with a history of depression. She shares that she has been withdrawing and isolating since the blow up of her six month relationship. She reveals a sense of numbness that encases and this is the same feeling she felt four years ago when she attempted suicide. She is aware that she is attracted to selfish and self-involved men not unlike her father.
The case stories above are culled from recent client I have worked with who come seeking help for their suffering. For the past three years, I have been immersed in learning and practicing an experiential model of psychotherapy called Internal Family Systems (IFS) developed by Richard Swartz, Ph.D. Dr. Swartz had a prominent reputation as a family/systems therapist and found that he could apply what he had learned from his work with family systems to individuals with profound mental health issues. He achieved striking results working with the client’s inner “family” (of parts). Clients that benefited included those with eating disorders, dissociative disorders, depression, anxiety and other forms of adjustment/stress disorders. Dr. Swartz found that if he could help the “Self” (ego or “functional adult part capable of Mindful Awareness) separate (“unblend”) from Protective Parts or Managers he could help the internal system re-calibrate or achieve greater balance and well-being.
In the IFS model, the personality is conceptualized as made up of sub personalities. These are called Protectors and Exiles. Protectors make up the defensive system and develop to keep the person from feeling pain/shame. This pain is contained and encased in young and vulnerable parts called Exiles. Exiles are banished from consciousness and pain/shame thus prevented from overwhelming the system. The therapeutic process in IFS involves creating collaborative relationship with the client’s self and then helping the client access internal process (called going inside) or sub personality parts. As the Self separates from parts and can witness the story of the Protectors, they relax and grant access to the exile parts (that contain trauma, pain and shame). The next step in the IFS process is called Unburdening where these “survivor” parts (exiles) are accessed and retrieved. The client is supported to listen from an open and curious perspective the pain/shame carried by the Exiles. As more Self Energy is liberated as a function of the unburdening symptoms are relinquished.
I am aware that I am condensing an extremely complicated scenario into a brief description and it might sound confusing and farfetched. It was to me when I first heard about this model. I can, however, speak from the expertise of my own personal experience as a client as well as from the therapist perspective. IFS is powerful force of healing and gets to the source of suffering and transforms it relatively quickly.
Fundamental Assumptions of IFS:
The basic operating assumptions of IFS make it intuitive and therefore highly accessible to clients. I have attempted to extract and condense what I consider most noteworthy and what distinguishes IFS from other psychotherapies...
- The role of the therapist: The role of the IFS therapist is best described as a guide (for the inner journey) and collaborator with the functional adult, mindfully aware Self. His/her job is to create the safe conditions in order to facilitate forming an alliance with the client’s Self. The therapist then helps to empower the natural healing capacities of the Self. In the model, these capacities and qualities of Self are being obscured by Protective Parts. Symptoms are the result of these Protectors high jacking or taking over the system. In IFS, the power and authority is shifted from the therapist as the “expert” to the client. Dependency on the therapist is not the goal (traditionally called transference). Cultivating the client’s sense of self evolves as parts are differentiated. Emotion is expressed and released as exiles are retrieved and the painful affects and experiences witnessed and ultimately unburdened.
- Origin of Protective Parts: Our dependency on our families of origin and the need we all have for attachment figures to meet these needs creates the fertile ground for protective parts to develop. When there is a mismatch between the needs of the developing child and the parental environment’s ability to meet these needs, sub personalities or parts develop in order for the person to adapt and survive. There can be multitudinous parts. Categories of parts include Firefighters, Protectors, and Managers in descending order beginning with the most extreme. Protective Parts are balanced with or protect Exiles. As in family systems, there is an internal organization or system between these parts, different for everyone. The more abuse, neglect and abandonment experienced by the person, the more extreme or polarized the system (e.g. Borderline Personality, Eating Disorders, and addictions). Protective/Manager Parts shield the person from pain/shame that could not be metabolized or integrated by the child. The emotion and memory of the experience is not forgotten, however, but exist suspended in time in exile parts. The inside work of IFS consists of helping the client unblend Self from the Protectors from an open and curious perspective. The Self is then guided towards connecting with the young and vulnerable Exiles that have been stuck at the time the developmental arrest or trauma occurred. This process then frees up more Self-energy and Protectors relax their hold and symptoms remit.
- Role of Self: Dr. Swartz has compared the Self and its role in personality to an orchestra where the self is likened to the conductor and the Parts are the individual musicians*. As the conductor values each individual instrument and the ability of each musician, he knows when to call on each to play and how to mute other instruments to achieve a rich and resonant sound. The timing is crucial and all musicians important; the result of the well led orchestra are harmony and beautiful music. Likewise, in the self-led mind. All parts are welcome and valued but they are “conducted” by a mindfully aware Self. There are eight “C’s that characterize being Self-Led. These qualities include: being calm, connected, creative, courageous, connected, curious, compassionate, and clear. This capacity to be self-led is inherent in all of us, our “Buddha nature.” Swartz compares IFS to the work of the legendary and brilliant psychiatrist Milton Erikson who believed that people already have the resources they need inside to solve their problems. You do not have to help the client create a functional “ego” but change the network of relationships amongst internal family parts and the self emerges. This is compares to the Buddhist teachings where it is our birthright or nature to be well and worthy. Well Being and health in this perspective is our fundamental birthright and nature.
My Personal IFS Journey:
To practice IFS is to do your own IFS work. You can’t take others to where you haven’t gone yourself. In my IFS therapy, I have gone inside in order to retrieve young parts frozen in time and protected by driven, achieving, perfectionist, monomaniacal, and compulsive protectors/managers. From Self, guided by my skilled therapist, I have followed the sometimes rocky, obscured, often painful path from my “critic and perfectionist” to the inner child exile who lost his mother to a physical disability and depression. I found that my exile believed his mother’s injury and resulting disability was his fault. I have retrieved and witnessed other exile parts associated with family traumas subsequent. My protectors did help me survive and made me appear on the outside as highly functional. However, this was a brittle and fragile shell insulating me from an inner core of pain and shame. In my therapy, I have developed gratitude for the help my protectors provided while helping my inner critic voice step back. Authentic well being has followed the retrieval and unburdening of my encased young exiles. As my IFS therapy has progressed, I have noticed changes that can best be described as my being calmer, anchored, and centered. Not that my parts are never heard from; but I can listen to their concern, moderate, and find the wisest course of action - not always, but most of the time.
Case Vignettes Revisited:
In the case described above, Ben immediately took to the parts work of IFS. He was able to go inside and separate or unblend from this very critical and judgmental voice. This part turned out to be the incorporation or problematic identification with his father who was never able to validate him and was impossible to please despite his high achievements at school and on the athletic field. This “judge” (protector) attacked him whenever he was threatened with falling short, especially during sex. Ben was able to connect with his exiled young inner child part and show this vulnerable exile part compassion and release burdens of fear and shame. Ben was able to take this young part out of that stuck place in the unburdening ritual. He has described a lessening of his anxiety and his erectile disorder has remitted.
Sharon had a previous positive experience with IFS following a suicide attempt four years ago. She was recently triggered when a relationship that was abusive fell apart and she began to feel similar to prior to her suicide attempt. The protectors she identified was one that made her go “numb” and one made her isolate and kept her alone. Unblending from these parts was the first order of therapeutic business. There exists in Sharon a deep wound of abandonment and neglect and we agreed to approach her vulnerable exiles with care and caution after getting permission from the protector parts. Sharon was of course fearful of trusting me and opening to the pain held in her exile parts. Therapy is ongoing. I am confident that the IFS process can again help her to retrieve and embrace her young and vulnerable parts stuck in time.
IFS therapy is an experiential and inner process that empowers and enables the client’s natural healing capacities. Contrary to talk therapies that encourage a narration or intellectualization, the client is coached to go inside and separate from and then befriend the parts that are creating problems, symptoms or making life unmanageable. IFS is user friendly but at the same time a highly technical roadmap to healing trauma. It is for most clients easily understood and accessible. This is because it is an intuitive model of our multitudinous mind. With help from an IFS therapist, clients can soon step away from habitual problems and heal the parts wounded and long suffering parts of self.