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    What is Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy and what are some benefits of this approach?

    Internal Family Systems (IFS) is an integrative therapeutic approach that was developed in the early 1990s by Richard Schwartz. This model combines ideas from family systems theory and multiplicity of the mind into the main idea that each individual has various “parts” or sub- personalities that impact how the individual functions. Through IFS therapy, an individual can explore their different parts, understand their roles within the system, and develop a more unified
    and well-rounded internal world by identifying and resolving parts conflicts.

    The IFS model distinguishes three distinct types of parts: managers, firefighters, and exiles. Managers are responsible for maintaining the person’s functioning on a day-to-day basis, serving a protective role that keeps out unwanted or counterproductive interactions, emotions, or experiences. Some examples of managers can include people pleasers, overachievers, caretakers, and perfectionists. Firefighters provide distraction and prompt an individual to act impulsively to protect from emotional pain. Some possible firefighters an individual can have are overspending, eating disorders, addiction, and self-harm. Exiles are vulnerable parts that are often protected by managers and firefighters and are usually a result of painful and traumatic experiences. Exiles can show up as shame, feelings of worthlessness, dependency, and deep- seated negative beliefs. Each person also has a Self that oversees the internal family of parts and can provide a centered, compassionate, and accepting outlook on all the parts. One of the main goals of IFS is to help an individual adjust the internal system in a way that will be considerate and compassionate towards all parts while promoting healing.

    One of the main benefits of this type of therapy is how non-pathologizing it is. Richard Schwartz emphasizes that it’s important to have a compassionate outlook towards all parts of the self and not label any specific parts as “bad”. Hence, in using this approach, the client will be able to develop more compassion towards their unique parts and better understand that each part can have valuable qualities and can enter a more extreme role due to traumatic life experiences. This extreme role can be adjusted, and the part can reintegrate back into the internal family to help it function more healthily.

    Another important benefit of this approach is that it facilitates identity exploration and allows the client to explore who they are in a variety of ways. Richard Schwartz provides a variety of meditations and techniques that can help facilitate a better understanding of one’s inner parts and these exercises can be used within and outside of the therapy context. The therapist can also choose how they integrate IFS into their work. For some clients, a more externalizing approach may be used in which the client can imagine one of their parts in the room with them and facilitate a dialogue with it, while for other clients, it may be more helpful to approach IFS from an internal lens of having the client reflect by themselves and connect to a part somatically. Hence, there are many options for how this therapy can be approached and used to help clients, making it a more flexible and creative approach.

    Finally, IFS provides a different way of exploring trauma than other forms of trauma- focused therapies such as TF-CBT or EMDR. Instead of exploring any specific traumatic memories, it helps the client explore the part of themselves that experienced the traumatic experience, focusing on the aspect of their identity that may have gotten stuck in a specific age and/or in specific difficult emotions. This approach allows an individual to explore their trauma in a more indirect way that can feel more comfortable for some clients who don’t want to re-imagine the trauma they went through but would still like to understand how it impacted them and their internal system.