How the Internal Family Systems Model Views Individuals as Systems

Internal Family Systems (IFS) is a powerfully transformative, evidence-based model of psychotherapy, based on the idea that the mind is naturally multiple. This multifaceted mind is considered normal and not pathological. “Our inner parts contain valuable qualities and our core Self knows how to heal, allowing us to become integrated and whole,” explains the IFS Institute on its website. 

The Internal Family Systems model is an integrative approach to individual psychotherapy developed by Richard C. Schwartz in the 1980s. It combines systems thinking with the view that the mind is made up of relatively discrete subpersonalities, each with its own unique viewpoint and qualities. IFS uses family systems theory to understand how these subpersonalities relate to each other. 

“Systems thinking entered psychotherapy in the 1970s through the nascent field of family therapy, and I was fortunate to be steeped in it before I encountered the inner world of parts,” remembered Schwartz in Internal Family Systems Therapy. “As a result, rather than focusing on the qualities of each part, I was quickly intrigued by their relational patterns and how those patterns affected the larger system in which they were embedded—the person.”

Numerous conversations with clients revealed to Schwartz that “the chattering mind denotes a non-unitary, relational mind. Throughout the day all of us pass from one personality to the next.” One of his clients said she heard a “confusing cacophony of what she called ‘parts’ and ‘voices’ arguing in her mind.” He asked other clients and heard “remarkably similar stories.”

The interaction of the parts of the mind reminded Dr. Schwartz of families. “Each inner voice was idiosyncratic in character, complete with temperament, desires, and a distinct way of communicating. Moreover, parts had alliances and polarities.” Interestingly, in the case of a mental disorder, most parts—regardless of their role—apparently did not trust the client to lead.

Schwartz labeled that aspect of a person’s personality the “Self.” From birth, this Self has all the “necessary qualities of good leadership, including compassion, perspective, curiosity, acceptance, and confidence.” The Self is the best “inner leader” and the parts are “organized to protect the Self.” Like a family system, this inner set-up seeks homeostasis but can be disrupted by trauma and other external influences. 

IFS therapy encourages clients to give their parts names such as “sad part,” and “angry part,” etc. to better understand their roles. “All parts are precious and want to be constructive, though some are forced into extreme, destructive roles by external influences as well as by the self-perpetuating nature of inner polarizations and imbalances,” wrote Schwartz in Internal Family Systems Therapy. “When parts become frozen in the past, take on burdens, and assume leadership, their internal relations shift from harmony to conflict.” 

In their effort to protect the Self, parts can be driven to maladaptive behaviors that include self-medication with drugs and alcohol. This is the scenario the therapist has to reverse. “Even highly polarized inner systems can heal themselves if the therapist is able to create a safe, caring environment and point the person in certain directions.” If a person lives in an activating or dangerous environment, harmonizing the inner system will be difficult. When the Self stays present and leads the way, on the other hand, the client’s parts feel understood and negative feelings will subside.

“In IFS, all parts are welcome, including those parts of us that many treatment centers try to push away and shame, like our addictive parts,” says Valiant Living’s executive director Michael Simms who is a certified IFS therapist. “We believe that parts become extreme when an injury turns into an identity that starts living in the past. What once was helpful and adaptive becomes harmful and maladaptive. Therapy is about approaching these parts with compassion and understanding—it’s through understanding that our parts and our Self can make a decision to change.”

Valiant Living’s therapists frequently utilize IFS in their addiction treatment approach in order to help professionals understand and harmonize their minds and, thus, help them heal. We know that such clients need to balance a deep search for recovery with a work-life that demands attention. Our Professionals Program is designed to do just that, with a number of therapeutic options for men with challenging careers and a busy lifestyle. If you or a loved one has turned to drugs or alcohol to keep up at work and manage a high degree of daily stress, don’t hesitate to reach out for help by calling us today at 720-669-1285.