Internal Family Systems

an approach to psychotherapy that identifies and addresses multiple sub-personalities or families within each person’s mental system.

Currently treats

ACST has been used to treat a variety of conditions, both physical and psychological. The Upledger Institute lists the following disorders as suitable for treatment with CST:

The Inaura Key Healing Pillars

Foundations

Mental

Neuro

Somatic

Energetic

Spiritual

A message from the founder

Intro to Internal Family Systems Therapy

Have you ever found yourself judging, criticizing, or regretting something you’ve said or done – and it almost feels like you are two (or more) separate people? Perhaps you lashed out at someone (or yourself) or zoned out in front of Netflix for an hour with some ice cream instead of doing the laundry like you were “supposed to”. I’m willing to go out on a limb here and guess that everyone reading this can relate to this “inner battle” situation that we all seem to encounter on a regular basis in our lives.

According the creator (or more accurately, the discoverer) of the Internal Family Systems model, Dr. Richard Schwartz – the reason we have this experience is because we actually do have an internal family of sub-personalities called “parts” who can take over our executive function and act on our behalf.

By learning to recognize, connect with, relate to, understand, validate, and ultimately heal these parts, individuals may experience significant increases in self-awareness, compassion for self and others, and the ability to navigate life in a new way. The mantra of IFS is that “all parts are welcome”. The IFS model states that if we meet our parts with acceptance, appreciation, and compassion, instead of hostility, judgment, and resistance, it’s possible to create an aligned, harmonized internal family.

First discovered by Dr. Schwartz in the 1990’s

Origins of IFS

Internal Family Systems was accidentally “discovered” by a family therapist, Richard Schwartz, PhD in the 1990’s while he was working primarily with clients suffering from eating disorders. It is heavily influenced by family systems therapy, which holds that individuals are inseparable from the relationships in their lives. Early in his career, Dr. Schwartz became a vocal advocate for the family systems model of therapy – so it was natural for him to apply similar concepts, ideas, and practices with the newly discovered “internal family”. Like its predecessor (family systems), IFS remailed largely on the fringe due to being in direct opposition to more conventional models of psychotherapy, which reject a “multiple mind” model. In the last 10 years, however, IFS has seen a rapid growth in popularity. For those into pop culture, this general concept was brilliantly and powerfully portrayed in the recent Pixar film Inside Out.

The discovery of the internal family was a bit of an accident. Dr. Schwartz observed that many of his clients suffering with eating disorders would refer to their harmful, compulsive behaviors as “parts” that had taken over, and other “parts” which feel shame, guilt, and anger around their behaviors. At first, this was alarming to him, as he was concerned that his clients were suffering from split personality disorders. Upon further investigation, however, Dr. Schultz and his patients discovered (to their surprise) they were able to isolate, identify, and communicate directly with these parts rather easily.

It was realized that these parts have actual personalities, preferences, aversions, and most importantly, roles within the individual’s internal system. They also had relationship dynamics among each other, within the individual’s internal system – just like our external family systems. In addition to discovering parts, Dr. Schultz and his clients also met the Self, or the “seat of consciousness at their core”, which is akin to the “true self” or “higher self” in many other models and traditions. In IFS, this is referred to as the “big S” Self – which is compassionate, intelligent, curious, undamaged, and capable of providing healing to the wounded parts.

Being trained in family systems therapy, Dr. Schultz started helping the clients to work with their internal systems using principles and strategies that he’d been applying to external families in his practice. (Such as asking an intrusive part to “step back” like a family member may be asked to step out of the room during family systems therapy.) By exploring this new method, many of his clients experienced breakthroughs – turning his entire approach upside down and ultimately leading the creation of the Internal Family Systems model, which is now practiced by therapists, counselors, and other practitioners all over the world.

The IFS model of today has been influenced by dozens of other therapists, researchers, modalities, theories, and systems – including, but not limited to:

Family Systems Therapy | Systems Thinking | Jungian “Voice Dialog” | “Empty Chair” Technique – Gestalt Therapy | Narrative Therapy Traditional Indigenous Healing Practices/Shamanism (Soul Retrieval)

Origins of IFS

IFS THEORY

Essentially, IFS is based on the premise that we all possess an internal family of sub-personalities or parts as they’re often referred to in this context. These parts have always been there since birth, and they learn to take on roles in response mainly to traumatic life events or experiences. When our parts get triggered – which can happen due to external experiences and events or internal experiences – they “take over” and drive our impulsive and reactive behaviors, tendencies, patterns, addictions, and actions.

In the IFS model, it is believed that every “voice” in our head is the expression of a part. Each one of our parts has its own perspectives, interests, memories, and viewpoints. They also possess their own likes, dislikes, history, and burdens – or their core wound, fear, belief, or emotion. Each one of our parts has learned a distinct role to play – all with the goal of our own survival.

As we go through life and accumulate trauma and other wounding, our parts shift into roles that can ultimately become harmful – as their defense mechanisms are no longer necessary or serving our needs. They are frozen in time, essentially. Stuck in a loop, repeating the same behaviors that were once necessary to cope, protect, soothe, adapt, defend, distract, or numb to the situation we found ourselves in.

It must be noted that the IFS model is quick to stress that every part, no matter how their role currently presents itself (many are self-harming or damaging to those around us), is ultimately good. They’re simply doing what they know how to do to protect us from perceived dangers which remind them of their core wounding (burden).

These parts, however, are not our true Self, according to the IFS model. This is often referred to as the “Big S Self”, higher Self, or true Self/true nature. This is who we really are. When we find ourselves at peace, acting with compassion and understanding, feeling connection to others and the world around us – it’s likely our Self is “driving the bus” of our consciousness. This is where IFS brings a spiritual component to inner work – in realizing the Self is who you truly are. This personal liberation is the key to liberating often-suffering parts and bringing harmony to the system.

PARTS & BURDENS

Internal Family Systems was accidentally “discovered” by a family therapist, Richard Schwartz, PhD in the 1990’s while he was working primarily with clients suffering from eating disorders. It is heavily influenced by family systems therapy, which holds that individuals are inseparable from the relationships in their lives. Early in his career, Dr. Schwartz became a vocal advocate for the family systems model of therapy – so it was natural for him to apply similar concepts, ideas, and practices with the newly discovered “internal family”. Like its predecessor (family systems), IFS remailed largely on the fringe due to being in direct opposition to more conventional models of psychotherapy, which reject a “multiple mind” model. In the last 10 years, however, IFS has seen a rapid growth in popularity. For those into pop culture, this general concept was brilliantly and powerfully portrayed in the recent Pixar film Inside Out.

The discovery of the internal family was a bit of an accident. Dr. Schwartz observed that many of his clients suffering with eating disorders would refer to their harmful, compulsive behaviors as “parts” that had taken over, and other “parts” which feel shame, guilt, and anger around their behaviors. At first, this was alarming to him, as he was concerned that his clients were suffering from split personality disorders. Upon further investigation, however, Dr. Schultz and his patients discovered (to their surprise) they were able to isolate, identify, and communicate directly with these parts rather easily.

It was realized that these parts have actual personalities, preferences, aversions, and most importantly, roles within the individual’s internal system. They also had relationship dynamics among each other, within the individual’s internal system – just like our external family systems. In addition to discovering parts, Dr. Schultz and his clients also met the Self, or the “seat of consciousness at their core”, which is akin to the “true self” or “higher self” in many other models and traditions. In IFS, this is referred to as the “big S” Self – which is compassionate, intelligent, curious, undamaged, and capable of providing healing to the wounded parts.

Being trained in family systems therapy, Dr. Schultz started helping the clients to work with their internal systems using principles and strategies that he’d been applying to external families in his practice. (Such as asking an intrusive part to “step back” like a family member may be asked to step out of the room during family systems therapy.) By exploring this new method, many of his clients experienced breakthroughs – turning his entire approach upside down and ultimately leading the creation of the Internal Family Systems model, which is now practiced by therapists, counselors, and other practitioners all over the world.

THE SELF

The concept of the Self within the IFS model was discovered by Dr. Schwartz and his clients when they would ask intrusive or abusive parts to “step back” during sessions. This strategy would ultimately lead them to discover there is something different than the parts remaining present once all parts have stepped back. The name given to this “something” is the “Big S” Self – our true essence or nature. The core of who we really are.

Dr. Schwartz often talks about the “8 C’s” when discussing the characteristics of the Self: calm, compassion, confidence, clarity, curiosity, courage, connectedness, and creativity. It is never “seen”, but is the witness itself, the “I” which exists in all of us. This is also referred to as the “seat of consciousness”, “true self”, or even “soul”. The exploration of this unharmed, pure Self is where IFS merges psychology with spirituality. Ultimately, it is this Self which can unburden our parts, and free them from the bondage of their duties.

GOALS & PROCESS

Ultimately, the goal of IFS therapy is to free the parts from their burdens and unwanted roles in the internal family. Over the years, Dr. Schwartz and the growing field of IFS practitioners have discovered an effective process to achieve this goal.

Step 1: Find and gain access to the Self. It is from this place of compassion, strength, non-judgment, and love that we may be able to meet and work with our parts in an effective and productive way.

Step 2: Restore trust in the Self. If our protectors trust the Self, they will allow the Self to both lead our internal family, and to unburden/free our parts.

Step 3: Coordinate and harmonize Self and parts. This will lead to a situation in which the Self is “driving the bus” with the parts providing support – everyone working together.

To unburden parts, the Self must meet them with understanding, compassion, and gratitude. This process generally involves an acknowledgment of all they’ve done, how difficult it has been, how important their role has been to our survival and safety, and a genuine expression of thanks. Once they feel like the Self really “gets” what happened, the emotions involved are witnessed and validated, and they’re led to understand that we’re no longer living in that past situation, the burdens begin to loosen.

Compassion is key. If parts are attacked or vilified (which always comes from another part – not from Self), they often dig in harder and this process becomes much more difficult. Once unburdened, parts can transform back to their original, natural state – and can choose new roles which they would much prefer. This can be an immensely powerful experience for the individual – as their response to certain situations, people, environments, etc… may shift drastically as the parts become unburdened.

Learn more

ifs-institute.com
by Robyn Michele Jones, MA, CMT, RCST®

psychologytoday.com/IFST
by Dominique Clothiaux, RCST®

Wellnessinstitue.org

medicalnewstoday.com

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Research & Science supporting IFS​

Research and clinical studies into IFS therapy is still in a very preliminary stage, although there are a few studies which deserve mention.

IFS & Rheumatoid Arthritis

A controlled randomized study involving 79 patients, published in the Journal of Rheumatology, showed positive effects on RA patients. Benefits included a reduction in pain and depressive symptoms, and an improvement in physical function and self-compassion. The study concluded that “IFS is feasible and acceptable for patients with RA, and would effectively complement medical management of the disease, with future trials warranted.

You can see the full study HERE.
(Link: http://www.jrheum.org/content/early/2013/08/10/jrheum.121465.full.pdf )

 
Pilot Study: IFS & PTSD

In this pilot study, 13 subjects received 16 sessions of IFS therapy. After the 16 sessions, only 1 still qualified for a PTSD diagnosis, with the same result at the one-month follow up. (92% no longer met PTSD criteria) The subjects reported a decrease in depression, dissociation, affect dysregulation, and disrupted self-perception. Due to these very promising results, there is a larger, randomized control study being planned to measure the benefits of IFS in individuals suffering with PTSD.

 
IFS & MDMA

Michael & Annie Mithoefer are the lead therapists involved in the large scale MDMA clinical trials currently being done for FDA approval. They are also trained IFS practitioners. The formal structure of the sessions does not involve IFS, but it has been reported that many subjects in the study begin addressing and working with parts without much queuing from the therapists. In fact, the study therapists have been encouraged to educate themselves on IFS to better accommodate this phenomenon.

It appears that people will do the IFS process naturally when they have access to enough Self energy. (92% in active dose sessions report an increase in Self access vs. 29% in the low dose/placebo group) The physiological explanation for this likely involves a decrease in amygdala (danger sensing) activity and an increase in prefrontal cortex (self) activity brought on by the drug. Michael Mithoefer is quoted as saying “it often allows the client to condense or skip the first 6 steps of IFS” (which focus on unblending parts).

The Seeker Experience

While it can be extremely helpful to have professional guidance with the IFS process, the ultimate goal is self-practice.

There are many books, meditations, and other resources available to help individuals access Self, work with (and ultimately unburden) their parts, and create a harmonized internal family. A practitioner is recommended when beginning, when struggling to unblend from parts, and/or when working with particularly challenging parts. It can also be greatly beneficial to have someone there who sees your blind spots and can skillfully guide the process.

In sessions with IFS practitioners, you may be guided into a relaxed, meditative state, asked to drop your awareness into your body, and explore whatever emotions, sensations, or parts arise. They may address your parts directly or work through you and your Self in a more indirect way. The individual will be communicating and relating directly with these parts to learn more about them, what their role is, what it enjoys or doesn’t, how it feels about other parts, etc… It’s common that our parts don’t realize how old we are and that we’re not stuck in the past – so bringing them up-to-speed in a soft, compassionate way is also part of the general process.

Here are a few personal experiences shared by Seekers who have been through IFS therapy:

Finding a Guide & Guide Perspectives

While it can be extremely helpful to have professional guidance with the IFS process, the ultimate goal is self-practice.

There are many books, meditations, and other resources available to help individuals access Self, work with (and ultimately unburden) their parts, and create a harmonized internal family. A practitioner is recommended when beginning, when struggling to unblend from parts, and/or when working with particularly challenging parts. It can also be greatly beneficial to have someone there who sees your blind spots and can skillfully guide the process.

In sessions with IFS practitioners, you may be guided into a relaxed, meditative state, asked to drop your awareness into your body, and explore whatever emotions, sensations, or parts arise. They may address your parts directly or work through you and your Self in a more indirect way. The individual will be communicating and relating directly with these parts to learn more about them, what their role is, what it enjoys or doesn’t, how it feels about other parts, etc… It’s common that our parts don’t realize how old we are and that we’re not stuck in the past – so bringing them up-to-speed in a soft, compassionate way is also part of the general process.

Here are a few personal experiences shared by Seekers who have been through IFS therapy:

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