Internal Family Systems Therapy

By March 5, 2022July 31st, 2023Therapy
Internal Family Systems Therapy

Each human being, despite having only one physical body, has many different faces to their personality. We have multiple sides to us, variable moods, hidden traits that only come out in certain settings. 

If, upon reflection, you don’t already instantly agree, you might think about all the times you feel you are fighting yourself. If a part of you thinks you should get up off the couch and go work out, but another part wants to stay put, you can see already that there are two parts of you at play who apparently want different things.

In fact, this is so much the case for human beings, that psychologists have realized psyches are less like one individual, self-consistent person than they are like a group of people—a motley crew, bound together and related but not always getting along well with each other. 

In truth, put together, all the many sides and aspects of us resemble nothing so much as a family. With all the love, the fighting, power dynamics and the enmeshment with each other, these inner worlds are just like the outer psychological worlds we grow up in. 

Families are full of the same types of interactions that also take place among the different sides of our own natures: shifting alliances, avoidance of problems, in-fighting, blaming and marginalizing, addictions and troubles, as well as longing, heartache, unmet needs, and deep bonds of affection. 

Richard C. Schwartz, who developed the Internal Family Systems Therapy model, discovered that, logically enough, the inner family of parts within us responds to therapy in a very similar way that families do. 

Family Systems Therapy rests on the understanding that when we can create a good enough recognition of the fact that, like it or not, we’re all in this together, and we all need each other to co-create a family system that feels good for all, much can be accomplished and also forgiven.  

Of critical importance is seeing how each family member’s most problematic behavior exists in service to the needs of the whole family. In a very real sense, at the psychological level we do all we do “for the family”, whether we are conscious of it or not. 

Building on the remarkable insight, that inner families can be healed using the same tools that help outer families, Schwartz built his Internal Family System Therapy model into a beautiful library of thought and tools that helps create harmony and understanding among the many sides of us. 

The power of this discovery is hard to emphasize enough: were we to live in harmony within our own selves, we would not live in such a discordant and incoherent outer world. Holding peace, satisfaction, and deep connection internally, actions taken in the outer world would hold that same signature of coherence and beauty. Collectively, we could create a very different world if only we could achieve such a state of inner unity. 

The goal of Internal Family Systems Therapy is inner reunification. In another sense, it is restoration of relationship, the healing of fracture. This is a unification which allows diversity. It is not about forcing any part to subsume to another, it is no inner subjugation, but rather an agreement to co-exist and to co-create as equals. 

This is the cure for all inner and outer pain, to at last give up domination, bloodlust, control, force and exploitation, suppression and otherizing, and simply to share life together, no one having any more value or authority than another. As equals, in recognition and humility that none among us owns life, we are all only human: receivers, players and expressions of life.

This understanding is missing at the outer level of human life, as we all can see.  And what helps both external families and inner ones is the same: to create bridges of dialogue and empathy across all points of view. 

IFS as a system of thought can help us get there, by showing what it is that heals our insides and our outsides, both. What heals is to hold space for unburdening. Unburdening happens when there is true compassionate, curious interest to hear each and every true story. With no dismissal, allowing all truths into the record. 

Where does this all lead? To the understanding that we aren’t any single part of us, just as no other is who they seem to be at the moment. We are all, at any time, only expressions of certain sides and aspects of the shared one psyche we all emanate from. As streams sourcing from the same spring, we have the same essence deep in our natures. In this reflection, we can finally recognize all life as kin. 

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