Matthew HarwoodJungian Analysis, Psychotherapy, Internal Family Systems
Internal Family Systems (IFS)
(‘One of the most innovative, intuitive, comprehensive and transformational therapies to have emerged in the present century.’ Gabor Mate)
Internal Family Systems (IFS) is a radical new way of doing psychotherapy which has been pioneered in the USA by Dr Richard Schwartz and is becoming more and more popular within the therapy world internationally. It is a cutting-edge approach which specialises in working in the borderland between psyche & soma (mind & body). Prof Bessel van der Kolk, the world’s leading authority on working with trauma, has described it as: ‘the treatment method all clinicians should know.’
IFS has an established legacy of effectiveness in treating depression, anxiety, and pretty much most of the psychological & emotional issues which comes into the consulting room. It is a treatment par excellence for working with trauma. It is recognised as being an ‘evidence-based therapy’ in the USA, and its approach is both gentle and respectful. It has revolutionised my practice as a Jungian Analyst, and because the results are so beneficial, I am using it more and more in my work
The Underlying Assumption
Contrary to what many of us may think, IFS starts by recognising that no person is a single, integrated, unified human being. The truth is that we all have many different ‘parts’, and they don’t all see eye-to-eye. Don’t worry, this doesn’t mean we suffer from the illness known as Multiple Personality Disorder! Multiplicity of parts is in fact a normal, healthy human experience. It gives us our richness. But it is also our curse. So many of our ‘parts’ are in internal conflict, and try to pull us in different directions. And that’s why we end up with problems and stucknesses which prevent us from living life to the full, and achieving our maximum potential.
This isn’t so strange as it sounds. The truth is that we all know about ‘parts’ when we find ourselves in everyday speech saying things like:-
- ‘One part of me wants to do more exercise. But another part of me always finds something else more important to do.’
- ‘One part of me wants to give up alcohol (or eating junk food, or gambling, or whatever…) But another part loves to sabotage my attempts to do so.’
- ‘One part of me is capable of doing some very good work. But I have another part that is a terrible procrastinator.’
- ‘One part of me is strong and confident. But another part is like an internal voice which tells me I’m useless (or stupid, or unloveable, etc….).’
The last of these examples is what I call an ‘Inner Critic’ part. It specialises in trying to diminish us and put us down. We all have one – but some worse than others. For more information about working with ‘Inner Critics’ please click here.
Finding & Meeting Your ‘Parts’
The primary focus in IFS is on enabling the client to find and meet the ‘parts’ (or ‘sub-personalities’) which underlie their issues and bedevil their attempts to solve them by more conventional methods. The astonishing thing is that these ‘parts’ are like separate intelligences. They have their own personalities, their own convictions, and their own ways of looking at the world. Their ideas as to what’s good for us are often quite different from our own. Guided by the therapist, nearly everyone finds that they can access these parts with ease. It’s possible to do it on your own, once you are trained, but not so easy. Some people experience the ‘parts’ as subtle felt-senses in or around the body, others get them as images. And once the initial connection with a part has been made the next step is for the client to get to know it and to begin to build up a relationship with it.
Inner Critic parts. by the way, tend to manifest as internal voices. I’m not talking about hallucinations, more about an inner sensing. They tend to say things like: ‘You’re not good enough!’, ‘You always get things wrong!’, ‘You’re not lovable!’ etc. We all have at least one of these internal voices, to a greater or lesser extent, and for some people, they ruin our lives.
All ‘Parts’ Are Welcome!
One of IFS’s most important insights is that all of our ‘parts’, even those that are actually sabotaging or hindering our best intentions, genuinely believe that they are working towards helping us in our lives. The problem is that the individual parts don’t have the full picture and therefore misunderstand what is truly for our benefit and what isn’t. However knowing that they want to work for our good is what gives us the hope and opportunity to bring about change. And one of IFS’s most important principles is: ‘All parts are welcome!’ By this we recognise that you don’t get ‘parts’ to change by fighting them, only by getting to know them and understanding where they are coming from.
How It Works
In an IFS session, once the ‘parts’ which are causing us trouble have been identified and accessed, the aim is set up an internal dialogue with them in order to find out why it is that they do what do. Most of my clients are able to do this with ease, with a little bit of facilitation from me. Often it turns out that these ‘parts’ are usually guarding (or protecting) a wounded ‘inner-child’ part known as an ‘exile.’ ‘Exiles’ are invariably ‘parts’ that have been wounded at some time in the past, often in early childhood. As the name implies, they are usually hidden deep within the psyche at the deepest level. Once the ‘exile’ lying underneath the problem has been detected and brought into consciousness the idea is to bring you into a new relationship with it. If all goes well, we get to the point whereby the burdens of pain which the ‘exile’ is carrying can be released, and healing and transformation can occur. And once the hidden ‘exile’ is healed then the final step is to go back to the ‘part’ carrying the original problem and seeing how that can now be resolved.
The Healing Power of ‘Self’
One important IFS insight which is of particular interest to Jungians is that in order for this work to be effective the client has to be helped to get into connection with ‘Self’. Once there is sufficient ‘Self-energy’ within the system the natural self-healing tendency of the psyche takes over and spontanously knows what to do. IFS has a particular set of skills for helping clients to quickly get into ‘Self’ – even if they’ve never had such an experience before.
In IFS we don’t try to destroy the part that is causing all the trouble, or even push it away. Instead we learn how to gain its trust, and then to befriend it – with gentleness and respect – in order to find out why it does what it does, and what it is trying to achieve.
Surprisingly, it turns out that all of our parts want to help us in our lives, and genuinely believe that they are doing so. This is the case even when, from our perspective, they are actually sabotaging how we want to be. Learning how the part understands what it is doing is the first step on the road to change.