Internal Family Systems (IFS): An Innovative Approach to Psychotherapy

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I have heard a lot about IFS.  What exactly is it?

Internal Family Systems is a contemporary psychotherapy developed by Richard Schwartz, a family therapist.  Its key concept is that your mind is made up of “parts”.  Each part has its own beliefs and feelings and an important job to do for you.

We have parts that help us function in our daily lives, parts that protect us from painful feelings, and parts that get exiled, pushed out of consciousness, when the feelings are too hard to bear.

In IFS, all parts are welcome.  As you feel, listen to and validate your parts, you discover their intention has always been to help and do something positive for you. 

 

Tell me more about the kinds of parts I have.

Everyone has their Managers.  These parts do their best to keep you in control of yourself, your relationships, and your environment.  Managers assume roles they believe are necessary to achieve wellbeing and success in the world.  They get you up to get to work on time, make sure you are well-groomed and presentable, organize your work, and make plans for the weekend. 

Protectors make up another very important group.  Your Protectors react when you feel hurt or rejected.  They help you stand up for yourself when you feel threatened, or shut you down when  your feelings overwhelm you.

An extreme version of the Protector we call a Firefighter.  You can think of Firefighters as Protectors on steroids.  When emotions are too overwhelming, Firefighters try to extinguish the emotion through any means they can devise.  Addictions, eating disorders, and thoughts of suicide are the Firefighter’s heroic efforts to help you bear emotional pain.  

What is most unique to IFS is the concept of Self.  Self is not a part, but rather a transcendent state of mind.  You feel calm, centered, and connected to something greater than yourself; a state akin to what may be experienced through meditation.   When protective parts relax their vigilance, distressed and exiled parts can be healed through the compassionate Self. 

I’m afraid to talk about my traumatic experience because it is too painful.  How can I get over this fear?

We go very slowly, incrementally.  Your Protector will decide when it is safe for you to talk about a particular painful experience.    

The greater the pain, the more fiercely you will be protected.

Sometimes a traumatized, wounded part becomes inaccessible to you because the Protector believes you can’t handle the part’s feelings.  IFS calls this part an Exile.  These parts are usually younger, you as a child or teenager. The Exile longs to be heard, validated and comforted.  And the amazing thing is, as you gain the trust of the Protector, these parts begin to give voice to their feelings and experiences.  This younger part of you begins to heal as it unburdens itself of its secrets and fears.

 

Does this mean I have Multiple Personality Disorder?

Not at all!  Everyone has parts.  This is perfectly normal.  The concept of a multiple mind has been around for a long time and has now become main-stream.

 

How long will IFS therapy take?

We go as slowly or as quickly as the Protector allows.

 

How can I learn more about IFS?

An informative book about IFS is Internal Family Systems Therapy by Richard Schwartz.  For another source of information, go to www.ifs-institute.com.


about the author:

Ruth Washton, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in private practice in New York City.  Her focus is the healing of complex trauma, using an approach that integrates Internal Family Systems (IFS) with EMDR.  If you would like to experience IFS therapy for yourself, you can reach Ruth via her website: ruthwashtonlcsw.com


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