The Role of the Self in Internal Family Systems Therapy


The Internal Family Systems (IFS) 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.The subpersonalities are known as “parts” in IFS. “Most clients identify and work with between 10 and 30 parts through the course of therapy,” wrote Richard Schwartz and Martha Sweezy wrote in Internal Family Systems Therapy. “Because of the way parts present to us, we conceptualize them as inner people of different ages, temperaments, talents, and desires who form an internal family or tribe. … It is axiomatic in IFS that multiplicity is the inherent nature of the mind. This is not a product of external influences being introjected, nor is it the consequence of a once-unitary personality being fragmented by trauma.”Normally, parts perform roles that are healthy and functional. Problems arise when parts take on “extreme” roles in a desperate attempt to protect the person from emotional pain or physical harm. In IFS, an extreme role is any action, feeling, or thought that is considered dysfunctional. “We call extreme beliefs, emotions, and energies that enter through direct life experience personal burdens. We call the ones that were absorbed from family, ethnic group, or culture legacy burdens,” wrote Schwartz and Sweezy.No Bad PartsSpiritual traditions encourage us to have compassion for everyone. In IFS that means having compassion for all our parts. “IFS operates from the radically different assumption that each part—no matter how demonic seeming—has a secret, painful history to share of how it was forced into its role and came to carry burdens it doesn’t like that continues to drive it,” Richard Schwartz wrote in his 2021 book No Bad Parts.The plural mind revolves around what IFS calls the Self. This is the centerpiece of the model. The Self is the core of a person, which contains leadership qualities such as compassion, perspective, curiosity, and confidence.“In IFS, all parts are welcome, including those parts that are often pushed away and shamed, like our addictive parts,” says Valiant Living’s chief clinical officer 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.”During therapy sessions, Dr. Schwartz asked various parts of his clients to step back, and “the more of them that stepped back to allow the client to speak, the more mindful and curious the client would become. The simple act of getting these other parts to open more space inside seemed to release someone who had curiosity but who was also calm and confident.”After thousands of hours of working with clients, Dr. Schwartz felt that he could say with certainty that “the Self is in everybody,” he writes in No Bad Parts. “Furthermore, the Self cannot be damaged, the Self doesn’t have to develop, and the Self possesses its own wisdom about how to heal internal and external relationships.”The Self is just beneath the surface of our protective parts, such that when they open space for it, it comes forward spontaneously, often quite suddenly, and universally. “While parts attune to the extremes of other parts, the Self sees the exiled pain beneath extremes and wants to understand its origin even while opposing extreme behaviors,” Schwartz and Sweezy wrote in Internal Family Systems Therapy. “The Self is not attached to any agenda, but it does have the intention and ability to bring healing, harmony, balance, and connectedness to any system it encounters.”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 busy lifestyles. 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.

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