Internal Family Systems (IFS) is an evidence-based model of psychotherapy that aims to help people notice, identify and work with parts of themselves or "self-parts."
For most of us, intimacy problems are driven by a background ache, fear, sense of emptiness, embarrassment or shame. In IFS-inclusive therapy, we meet our own parts and take responsibility for them; in this way, a truer intimacy with self and with others becomes possible. IFS serves as an excellent adjunct to couples or relational work in that the method spotlights where co-dependency, enmeshment or boundary impingement distracts from self-part healing and integration.
Dr. Richard Schwartz, the founder of the IFS model, began his career as a systemic family therapist and an academic. He developed the practice in response to clients’ descriptions of various parts within themselves. For example, a client might share something such as, "I have a part that gets so enraged, vibrate-y and heated and I want to leave an event or interaction right away;" or, "I have a part that becomes shut down, silent, submissive and intimidated. Why does that happen when I am a leader in other capacities?" Schwartz found that when the clients’ parts feel safe and are allowed to relax, the clients spontaneously experience the qualities of confidence, openness, and compassion in “the Self.” In this way, a person can authentically access their more protective-based coping mechanisms/behaviours to better meet their pained and “exiled” (repressed/hidden) parts.
The Parts: There are three main categories in parts work - Firefighters, Managers, and Exiles.
Firefighter Parts are protectors that are activated when a trigger is present. An example might look like drinking vodka or using pot to put out the “fire” of a painful moment or memory. The Manager Parts protect you by managing situations through intense planning to do whatever they can to avoid something that might bring you deep pain or cause fear. Both the firefighters and managers, according to the theory, work to keep the Exiles (hidden, repressed, forgotten, afraid or unwanted parts) from emerging and flooding you with memories of shame or pain.
Using the IFS approach means employing a technique during session. For clients doing IFS work in session, the following cues/questions are written below in support of your process:
Can you name the part that is activated today? Be a "parts detector"
Is it okay to get to know this part today?
How do you feel towards this part?
Does that part know you are there?
How old is the part? Is it 6 years old? 18 years old? A combination of different ages?
Is your curiosity about the part available to you? If not, let's explore why you are not curious about it. Are you angry or afraid or the part?
What information does this part have for you? The part might tell you that it is alienated and alone, ashamed or that it protects you by fighting for justice.
How is the part presenting information to you? In the body? In the visual realm? In feeling and body sensation?
Is the part a feeling state... or a she or he or they? Let's orient to it... and it to you.
Let the part know you hear it's concerns without judgement. How does it respond to you?
Note: There are no bad parts. Every part has an agenda to help you even if it's method is rough or chaotic. In fact, if it has an agenda... you know it's definitely a self-part because it is not just being and breathing.
To find out what a part does... ask it what would happen if it didn't do it's job?
If you feel a "manager, defence or protector part" coming forward and you can't focus on the sad, young or hidden "exiled part" does this manager need some airtime with you? Or, might you ask the manager to soften for a while... or ask it to watch and observe in order to return to the questions above? If the "manager" or "fire fighter" will not soften, work with the manager/defence part instead for now and let's see what we can do in session together.
Thank the part for letting you know about itself today.
Let the part know you will return to it, if it so wishes
Derek Scott: Getting to Know (parts of) You
Richard Schwartz: No Bad Parts
Dick Schwartz guides you through a parts work process
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