Internal Family Systems Therapy: Putting All the Parts Together

By Nancy Ebbert, LCPC

Internal Family Systems

When you ask therapists what kind of therapist they are, you will often hear the word eclectic. That is, we learn and practice many models of therapy and choose among them to find the best tools to help each client. I, too, am eclectic in my approach and excited to share one therapy model in particular that I have found to be uniquely helpful.

Do any of these situations sound familiar to you?

  • You’re anxious, agitated and miserable. Someone tells you to calm down and your angry response is “you’ve got to be kidding. I can’t do that!”
  • You need to make a decision and your thoughts endlessly circle your choices, doubting and second-guessing all the way.
  • You find yourself getting into the same argument with the same person with the same result again and again.
  • You’re chronically late to work and you keep promising to go to bed earlier, but each night you find yourself saying, “I’ll just watch one more show.”

You know the damage caused by these chronic patterns, and you may feel helpless to change them. And, then, you feel even worse about yourself because what’s wrong that you can’t change?

Personality System

Internal Family Systems (IFS) is a model for working with the dynamics of your own system using your internal resources to resolve these problem patterns. Most of us recognize the internal pushes and pulls behind these situations. For example, you may have a running commentary in your mind about getting yourself organized for the day: you may be figuring out what time to get up, how to organize the kid’s lunches and what time you have to be out the door. At the same time there may be another thread about how tired you are, you could stay in bed another fifteen minutes, the kids could buy their lunches today and the boss is out, so it’s okay if you’re a little late. About that time a critical commentary picks up telling you how lazy you are and you’re never going to get anywhere this way. And the manager who was so sure you’d get to work on time starts to freak out!

In IFS we find it useful to think of those threads of commentary as characteristics of our personality, each with its own point of view and agenda. Together they form the system of our personality. Most of the time the system works amazingly well: we usually do get the kids to school with their lunches and get to work on time. In IFS the short-hand term we use to refer to these characteristics is “parts.” Parts aren’t the sum total of our system, however. All people also have a calm, compassionate core that we refer to as Self. We think of Self as the leader of the system with the goal that all parts are empowered and working together.

IFS was developed by Dr. Richard Schwartz, a psychotherapist who was trained to help families by working with the interactions among family members. If he could support family system to build on their strengths and wisdom, he could also help individual members of the family. He began to see parallels in working with individuals. If the members of their “internal family” were strengthened, the whole system was stronger.

All Parts of the System

An important aspect of IFS therapy is learning how your system works by identifying your parts, even identifying the relationships among your parts. Parts are identified by the thoughts, feelings, and actions associated with them. As you focus on them you may identify images or body sensations related to those parts. Perhaps you can pick out a thread of commentary that is critical of your accomplishments and you feel tension in your gut. You may find another thread that seems related, but tells you that you deserve something to make you feel better. You experience this part as a craving: chocolate, anyone? We believe that all parts want to have a positive role in your internal system, but some of them developed more extreme roles in response to painful childhood experiences.

Over time working with this therapy, parts begin to build trust in your leadership of the system; they relax and take on new roles, letting go of old patterns. Wounded parts carrying burdens from the past gain confidence to release those burdens, freeing up the system to be more Self-led. Many clients report having more choice about their behaviors and interactions with others and less internal “noise.”

You might be concerned that identifying parts refers to a serious condition such as dissociative identify disorder (multiple personalities) or schizophrenia. In these illnesses, parts of the mind are completely walled off or seriously distorted. Rather, I am talking about a normal give and take that we all experience.

Self Leadership

IFS is a gentle, accepting therapy. Progress is led by the client, at the pace of your parts. Using the IFS model, we believe that you already have every resource you need. With IFS it is not necessary to re-live past trauma, and we are guided by your parts at all times in this process. IFS is a creative, comforting and efficient therapy that gets right to the heart of the matter and puts your parts together.

If you would like to learn more about the IFS model, I recommend this:
Introduction to the Internal Family Systems Model
Richard Schwartz, PhD
Trailhead Publications, 2001

If you would like a free phone consultation about using IFS in therapy or to make an appointment, please contact me below.

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© 2014 Nancy Ebbert