Written by Valiant Living Recovery on Friday, February 4th, 2022
The Internal Family Systems (IFS) model is an integrative approach to individual psychotherapy developed by Richard C. Schwartz in the 1980s. A key assumption of the IFS model is the multiplicitous nature of the mind.
“The natural state of the human mind is to contain an indeterminate number of subpersonalities that we call parts,” Richard Schwartz and Martha Sweezy wrote in Internal Family Systems Therapy. “Most clients identify and work with between 10 and 30 parts through the course of 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. Often it is a maladaptive reaction to trauma.
“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. For example, if a parent pushed someone to work very hard and criticized them when they didn’t, that individual may develop an inner critic that does the same thing, taking on this legacy from the parent.
Cultural legacy burdens are “racism, patriarchy, individualism, and materialism,” Dr. Schwartz wrote in his latest book No Bad Parts. “Each of these legacy burdens combines with the others to create the pervasive sense that we are all disconnected and on our own in a dangerous, dog-eat-dog world.”
According to the IFS Institute, burdens are “extreme ideas or feelings that are carried by parts and govern their lives. Parts accrue burdens from exposure to an external person or event.”
Many personal burdens are related to traumatic experiences, especially in childhood. “The most fundamental and common burdens such as ‘I am worthless, I am too much, I am unlovable,’ tend to develop in response to first-hand experience. When a child is shamed, terrorized, or in some other way injured, the child’s system may take that experience in as factual information about himself,” wrote Schwartz and Sweezy. “Any personal experience of being rejected, abandoned, shocked, scared, or abused (physically, sexually, or emotionally) can burden our most sensitive parts with fear, shame, and emotional pain.”
The defense mechanism of the internal system is to exile vulnerable parts. This is done by managerial parts that “adopt different strategies to avoid interactions and situations that might trigger an exile.” There are many kinds of managers in IFS, such as the denier—well known to addiction professionals—and the worrier.
Sometimes managerial parts fail to prevent the activation of exiles, an emergency that summons a group known as “firefighters.” Their techniques include “numbing activities such as self-mutilation, binge eating, drug or alcohol abuse, dissociation, and sexual risk-taking,” explain Schwartz and Sweezy. This is a core addiction concept in IFS: the seemingly destructive behavior of the firefighter part, its “extreme role,” is actually an attempt to protect traumatized exiled 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. The Self is best equipped to lead the internal system, it cannot be damaged and always knows how to heal.
The point of IFS therapy then is to help clients access their Self. That way, IFS intends to reharmonize the inner system and liberate parts from extreme roles, so they can be what they were meant to be. If the traumatized parts are “unburdened,” they can “transform into their original, valuables states,” writes Dr. Schwartz.
In the case of an addiction, it makes no sense to shame the person misusing substances. “The only real solution to destructive impulsivity and compulsivity is to heal the pain that motivates the behavior, wrote Schwartz and Sweezy in Internal Family Systems Therapy.
IFS assumes that “the part that seeks drugs is protective and carries the burden of responsibility for keeping this person from severe emotional pain and even suicide.” There are no bad parts, “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. “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 303-816-3571.