“Every part, every symptom has a positive intention.”
Richard Schwartz, founder of IFS
Internal Family Systems
Internal Family Systems (IFS) is a revolutionary approach to healing which fundamentally differs from traditional methods in a number of ways:
Fundamental to IFS is the notion that our minds consist of parts, rather than being a singular entity. While this may sound strange at first, it's typically a fairly easy concept to grasp because it aligns with how we typically experience our minds. We often say things like "A part of me wants to do this, but a part of me doesn't", or more generically, "I feel conflicted about this issue". These types of thoughts are reflections of our parts at work. In addition, behavioral tendencies such as an uncontrollable temper are the work of parts; for example, someone may have a part that is
prone to angry outbursts and essentially takes over the person's system (generally for a short period of time) when triggered. Yet at other times this part is invisible, operating in the background.
Despite the ease and frequency at which most people experience their parts, the field of psychology has largely spent its 150+ year history denying parts-based views of the mind. In fact, it has pathologized this perspective by viewing Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), formally known as Multiple Personality Disorder, as a condition where a person's mind is fragmented into parts as a result of severe trauma. The unstated assumption here is that the rest of us have unitary minds. In reality, DID is simply a more extreme situation whereby one's parts tend to be unaware of each other, causing the person to have a number of independent personalities.
The IFS position is that we are born with parts – they are inherent to our minds from the beginning, much like our bodies have parts. These parts, collectively, are a family that forms the inner system that we colloquially refer to as the mind – hence the name Internal Family Systems.
IFS is a trauma-informed approach: It aims to heal our parts from the traumas they have sustained, restoring harmony to the inner system. When a part behaves in a maladaptive way (e.g. the raging part discussed above), this is the result of trauma – the part’s behavior is a coping strategy intended to protect the system against further trauma. Contrary to the majority of psychotherapy approaches, working with this part as its own entity tends to be more effective than simply treating it as an undesirable behavior to be eliminated.
The recognition that the mind consists of parts, and that their undesirable behavioral patterns are due to trauma, results in a much less pathologizing perspective on dysfunctional thoughts and behaviors. A parts-aware perspective allows us to separate from the thoughts, behaviors, and reactivity of our parts – providing a pathway to understanding and self-compassion rather than blame and shame. Self-compassion is a critical component of true healing. As the spiritual teacher A.H. Almaas says, "It is only when compassion is present that people allow themselves to see the truth." Healing requires seeing the truth about ourselves, and seeing the truth requires self-compassion. Without a parts-aware mindset, however, we essentially have no choice but to identify with our behaviors ("I have an anger issue") and blame ourselves ("I should be ashamed of myself").
IFS is a bottom-up approach in the sense that it largely works with the unconscious to effect change. This is in contrast to common approaches such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which focus on changing behaviors. Such approaches are top-down in that they work with conscious processes to attempt to change the system. CBT and the like are often based on a principle of addition – adding new insights and skills on top of maladaptive thoughts/behaviors that are already in place, and trying to get the new to ‘push out’ the old.
The aim of IFS, on the other hand, is to release constraints which hamper the inner system, at which point more adaptive behaviors and relational skills come along as a natural outcome.
It is my belief that the unconscious is usually in the driver's seat; hence, a bottom-up approach to therapy tends to be more effective for healing. Conscious thoughts and behaviors are largely the result of unconscious emotional processes. As such, attempting to work on thoughts/behaviors directly is an example of treating symptoms rather than causes*, and is often ineffective beyond the short term. As an analogy, if your car's Check Engine light comes on, you don't ask a mechanic to disconnect the lightbulb so that it turns off; instead, you want them to fix the underlying issue that caused the light to turn on. By the same token, when a maladaptive behavior is caused by unconscious processes, directly targeting the behavior itself likely won't be effective.
IFS is a wonderful modality for trauma healing because it focuses on root causes rather than simply attempting to address symptoms. The IFS position that trauma symptoms are actually the coping strategies of parts – along with its in-depth understanding of why parts behave in the ways that they do, and how to heal them – truly sets IFS apart as a therapeutic approach to work with trauma.
[*] Much like how western medicine treats disease