What is Internal Family Systems and Why You Need to Learn More About It Stat
Instead of trying to get rid of the part of you causing you so much pain, harm and distress – befriend it and acknowledge it has a purpose. Then get to know that purpose with curiosity and compassion.
Flashback to 10 years ago when I was sitting in a large auditorium filled with several hundred other therapists listening to another keynote lecture – at the annual iaedp conference. This is not how the majority of the people I know would find as a fun way to spend time, but I am a consummate learner and a raging extrovert – so I was in nerd heaven.
As I was taking in all the wisdom from Richard Schwartz, PhD, I was scribbling notes at a fast pace and my head was bobbing up and and down as I resonated with so much of what he was saying. He was trained in a systems theory approach that I had also studied from the beginning of my clinical career and so it was easy to connect to what he was saying.
He shared how he discovered IFS in his work, with bulimic clients and how he truly began to listen to his clients. But then I took a pause when he shared the mindset shift he had around how he viewed problematic behaviors.
Instead of pathologizing, labelling, trying to get rid of behaviors, Dick was instead asking me and the rest of the attendees to start to:
- Separate the person from the symptom
- Pause and witness these protective parts with compassion and curiosity
- Get to know the fears and concerns of these protective parts that often end up doing harm
- Learn with my clients the real story behind the symptoms
- Get to know our own relationship with our own various inner thoughts and emotions – as this impacts how we show up with our clients
Who does not want to be approached and interacted with in this way?
At the time of hearing Dick’s talk, I was early in my clinical career and everything I had been taught was how to drill down on the problem behaviors and beliefs and change them – if not eradicate them. The “problematic behavior’ was the enemy and we needed to bid farewell to all of them as soon as possible. Change the narratives. Push through resistance.
While listening to Dick, something clicked for me. It made so much sense to approach these behaviors as protective instead of resistance – which felt so judgemental anyway – and instead of focussing on an agenda, truly listening to them with compassion and curiosity. I was determined to help my clients do the same with their inner system. IFS felt more congruent, more aligned with what I new about connection, sustained, healing, and change. It felt way more respectful.
No more goodbye letters to eating disorders. No more shaming and pathologizing behaviors that were just coming from protective places. No more blaming clients – or anyone else, for that matter – for not working hard enough or having too much resistance. No more over-functioning and burnout for helping professionals. No more buying into fear or scarcity and the false truth promises of quick fixes.
And now yes to the sustained change through compassion and courageous work. Yes to more curiosity. Yes to the vulnerability taking the time to do healing different than we have been originally taught. And yes to more peace, more freedom, more confidence.
Love up the part of you that is causing you so much pain.
The Lens of IFS
IFS sees the inner world of a person divided into three parts:
- Protectors (managers and self-soothers or fire fighters)
- Exiles (younger parts that hold the burdens of our pain, shame, despair)
- Self (the space within all of us that has the capacity to heal our inner world)
Self has these incredible qualities: Courage, Compassion, Connectedness, Creativity, Confidence, Calm, Clarity and Curiosity.
You can read in great detail about this model, Internal Family Systems, where Richard Schwartz outlines at length the beauty of this lens and how it can be a catalyst for much needed healing in our homes, schools, churches, businesses, and communities.
“The IFS model offers specific steps toward a more control over impulsive or automatic reactions. It can transform your inner critical voice into a supportive one and can help you unload feelings of worthlessness. It is capable of helping you not only turn down the noise in your mind but also create an inner atmosphere of light and peace, bringing more confidence, clarity, and creativity into your relationships.”
Dick Schwartz, PhD, from the book Introduction to the Internal Family Systems Model
Let me be clear on a few things:
- There are many ways to heal. My colleagues at Potentia and myself are passionate about mind/body and trauma-informed approaches that take into account the whole person: mind, body, soul. Find the best approach that makes sense for you and your core values and your present needs.
- There is no such thing as a quick fix. It deeply saddens and, at times, infuriates parts of me when people are selling quick fixes to nuanced and complex struggles. Showing up day in and day out and doing the work to feel through pain, fear, uncertainty versus just think it through is where the sacred shift to healing happens.
- Healing looks different for everyone.
- Perfection and shame often push people to feel like they are failing in their healing journey
With gratitude –