What is Internal Family System (IFS) or Parts Therapy?

By Mark A. Bakal, Psy.D.

           

At Personal Growth Associates (PGA), we have two clinicians who are highly trained in the IFS approach and several others who are engaged in intensive training in this model of Psychotherapy. IFS was developed by a Psychologist named Richard Schwartz approximately thirty years ago. This model is backed by research and is considered to be an evidence based form of Psychotherapy. As a clinician and as a person, I was attracted to this model of therapy because it is user-friendly, assumes that at the core people are generally healthy, and helps us to view our problems by learning about them rather than going to war with them. 

 

IFS relies on the idea that people are complicated and have many parts of their personality. If you think about the idea that a family (or any system) can be successful when the parents are compassionate and know the best ways to work with their children to motivate healthy behavior, it follows that people can be successful when they are able to be compassionate toward their internal parts and know the best ways to work with these parts to promote healthy behavior.  This idea that people can be helped by understanding their personality as a collection of parts is not a new idea in the field of Psychotherapy. There have been a number of models of Psychotherapy that utilize this concept of parts, although I believe Dr. Schwartz put this concept together in the most detailed and helpful way to date. This approach is widely used by trained clinicians all over the world. 

 

The general idea of this model is that we all have parts of our personality that are learned throughout our life, for the most part in an unconscious or automatic way.   These parts of us can often be great assets to our success and at other times are useful coping mechanisms. However, when these same parts of our personality are a bit more extreme, they can lead to a variety of symptoms/problematic behaviors that include: depression, anxiety, temper problems, trauma reactions, problems in relationships, intense bad habits like overeating, undereating, procrastinating, etc. This model helps people become more mindful of the parts of their personality that are leading to these problems/symptoms. Once a person is more mindful, they can learn to relate differently to these parts and eventually become their own Healthy Internal Parent.

 

If a family had a child that was acting in an extreme and unhealthy manner, we would want to help that child eliminate the extreme unhealthy behavior without losing their strengths or passion. Thus, when we are working with internal parts of us, we are not trying to get rid of these extreme parts, we are actually trying to get to know them so we can keep their useful traits while eliminating their more extreme or harmful aspects.

 

My hope in writing this short article is to offer a user-friendly overview of ‘parts work’ that may assist readers with their continuing personal growth work. I want to make sure that I mention that I am giving some of the very basic ideas of this model and there is much more to learn about it if one were interested. For more information on this method of Personal Growth please visit the website connected to Dr. Schwartz at www.selfleadership.org. 

 

It may be helpful to give a few examples of parts that many of us have:

 

Inner Critic: A part of us that is hard on us or self-critical

Inner Optimist: A part of us that wants to see the good in everything

Worrier Part: An anxious part that may spin in one’s mind over and over, in an attempt to make sure that nothing bad happens

Task Master: A part of us that wants to get things done

Angry Part: A part that feels great angry energy toward a part of someone else that it feels is mistreating us

Shut Down/Avoider: A part of us that shuts down when things are overwhelming, as it just wants to have peace

Soother/Indulger: A part of us that engages in a behavior in an attempt to feel better immediately. This part can lead to overeating, undereating, over-shopping, using alcohol or drugs, excessively watching TV, etc.

Silly Part:  This is a part that just wants to have fun

 

There are a few assumptions with this model that I will clarify before giving you a brief example of its utility.

 

 

    Multiplicity:  People are comprised of a number of parts to their personality.  A better way to say this is that people are complicated. For example, if someone has a bad habit like smoking cigarettes, they might be referred to as a “smoker”. But, they are much more complicated than that. They are a person who has a part of them that has the habit of smoking cigarettes. As is often the case with bad habits, they are likely to have a part of them that does not like the fact that they smoke cigarettes, because this part of them knows how unhealthy it is for them. They may also have parts of them that are sensitive, driven, caring, compassionate, etc. 

    All parts have a positive intention: The idea behind this is that every part of us is trying to help in some way. That doesn’t mean every part of us is being helpful at all times. Let’s use an example of someone who shops excessively. If you talk to this person and say something like this, “why do you spend money in such an irresponsible way, don’t you know it is unhealthy?” they are not likely to respond with, “Oh my goodness, I never thought of that. Thank you. All this time I was spending my money mindlessly and I never considered the idea that it is not healthy. Now, I am so motivated to stop this habit that nothing will stop me”. It is much more likely that there is a ‘part’ of them that hates that they spend money this way and very much is critical of themselves about the idea that they can’t seem to stop this habit. The truth is that the part of them that shops is an attempt to feel better or feel less stressed out. It is certainly not the healthiest way of feeling less stressed out, but the positive intent is to feel better.

    Parts of us having a positive intention does not mean that the part is good for us.  For example, if you had a friend that always wanted to make you feel better or distract you from facing something difficult, we might refer to that friend as good-hearted, but not necessarily helpful. 

    Most of our emotional problems are not solved by a logical process.  If we use the example of having trouble getting motivated to exercise, it is not a problem of logic. The person who struggles with this already understands logically that it is an unhealthy, bad habit. The part of them that procrastinates is most likely an emotional part of them that doesn’t respond well to logic.

    Parts work has a wonderful way of helping people get to the emotional (not logical part of one’s brain). The best way to help someone with a problem that is not logical is to find a way to understand the emotional part of their brain. That is the part that needs to be motivated. 

    The client is already healthy and has a part of them that is very much like an internal healthy parent. It is the job of the therapist to help the client access the part of them that is like an internal healthy parent.  We would all have been fortunate if we had ideal parents. These ideal parents would respond to our problems with compassion and curiosity while helping us to learn from these problems. Although most of us did not have ideal or perfect parents, we can learn to access our internal healthy parent.

 

 

The following is a very brief example of how ‘part’s work’ is used with a fairly common issue of “low motivation to exercise.” You will see in this example something that commonly happens when we are trying to change something. There is an internal struggle that can be quite subtle and exhausting. The struggle is between the part of the client that wants to make the change and a part that is critical of not making the change. I am using this example to illustrate how this model works, but the model works beautifully with much more complex issues including: depression, anxiety, anger problems, trauma reactions, couples issues and many more. The story of the following client is one where the client is very comfortable with this way of working, which often takes much more time. The story is not based on a real client, but many of us can relate to this.

 

 

Client:  I am having trouble getting motivated to exercise.

Parts interpretation:  So there is a part of you that really wants to exercise and another part that is having trouble getting going on this?

Client: Yes. I do want to exercise, but I really am horrible at getting myself to do anything (Inner Critic part enters the conversation).

Therapist:  Is there a part of you that criticizes you when it realizes that you just can’t get yourself going with this exercise plan?

Client: Yes. Part of me hates that I can’t get moving on this.

Therapist: I wonder if this inner argument between that critical part and the part that wants to exercise is familiar.

Client:  Yes. I have been doing this on and off for years and it is exhausting.

Therapist:  I can sure see why there is a part of you that struggles to get motivated.  Do you think we could get that critical part to take a step back, so we can really understand this part of you that struggles to get going?

Client: Sure.

Therapist: Okay, take a minute and go inside and imagine a time when you may want to exercise but it is very hard to get moving? You may imagine what your body feels like, what you hear yourself saying to yourself, any gut feelings, any way you experience this moment (we are attempting to understand the part of the client that is not logical by slowing down and entering any way of experiencing, not just intellectual).

Client: My body feels tired all over. I have a stress headache. I hear myself saying that I will never be able to get this going the way I want to (inner critic re-enters).

Therapist: Is that the critical part again? See if it will step back. But if it won’t, we can learn from that part too.           

Client: It just seems that I always say that I will get going with this and I never stick with it (Inner critic is talking).

Therapist: That seems like the inner critic again, is that right?

Client: Yes.

Therapist: Let’s remember that the critic can be like an internal version of an overly critical parent. They mean well, but they are really making it worse. Okay, let’s give this critical part some attention and understanding. Can you ask the critical part what it is concerned will happen if it doesn’t stay on top of this other part of you?

Client: It says that it is afraid that I will stay ‘lazy’.

Therapist: Let’s ask the critic what would happen if it could get this other (‘unmotivated’) part of you to listen to it and not be ‘lazy’.

Client: It thinks I would get some discipline and start getting in shape.

Therapist: Ask it what it thinks is important about that.

Client: It says that if I am more disciplined and in shape, I will be motivated to do a lot of things and I think it has a point. (We have found the positive intent of the critic)

Therapist: I think so too. So, this critical part really just wants you to be more disciplined, be in better shape. It seems to know that you will be more motivated for other things in your life. Is that right?

Client: Yes. But, it knows it is not going to work.

Therapist:  It sounds like it wants you to be successful but is afraid that a plan for this will not work. Let’s ask the critic if it is open to stepping back and hearing from the part of you that is struggling to get motivated, so we can work on a better plan.

Client: Okay it will step back. 

Therapist: Can you check in with the ‘unmotivated part’.

Client: I am checking in with the part that is so unmotivated to see what makes it so hard to get going. It says that it is often so exhausted from being pushed all the time and sometimes it just doesn’t feel like pushing any more. I think that inner critic in me does mean well, but it is always driving me in so many ways and I am exhausted.

Therapist:  Let’s ask the ‘unmotivated or tired part’ if there is a better way to motivate it than just pushing all the time.

Client: It says that it doesn’t mind some accountability, but it would like to be asked how I am doing first and then take that into account. So if I am tired, maybe I don’t have to do the exercise in an all-or-nothing way, because that often leads to nothing. 

Therapist: Check with the part that struggles to be motivated if it would like it if you (Internal healthy parent) check with it and see how it is doing before you ask it to do something. It may be helpful to not ignore the things in your life that drain you in general.

Client: It likes that. I have not had a lot of that in life where it really matters how I am doing. I am used to an attitude of continuing to move forward.

Therapist:  And there is nothing wrong with this attitude, as long as we are also taking into account the times that it feels like too much or you just need to take a breath.

Client: I think if I take that into account, I may be able to get started and do what I can.  Once I get started, I usually will feel like doing more.  But, I will have to make sure that it is me (healthy internal parent) checking in and not the critical part.

Therapist: Do you think you can practice checking in with this part of you daily and see how it is doing. 

Client: Yes. It may be hard to slow down and do this (there is probably a part that is a ‘task master’ that is used to just getting things done) but I think it’s a good idea to get started. The old way of just letting that critical part take over sure isn’t working.

Therapist: And if it struggles with staying motivated, we can try and look at it as something to learn from rather than letting the critic take over again. Is that okay?

Client: That would be nice to look at it that way.

 

 

If you have any questions about this approach or want to learn more about it, please feel free to contact me at 847-413-9700, ext. 314. In addition, the website that I referred to earlier (www.selfleadership.org) has a number of wonderful resources, books and ways to find an IFS therapist. For excellent self-help books and resources on this topic please visit the website of the author noted below, Jay Earley. This website is www.personal-growth-programs.com

 

References

 

Website    www.selfleadership.org

 

Earley, Jay. (2009). Self Therapy: A Step-By-Step Guide to Creating Wholeness and Healing Your Inner Child Using IFS, A New, Cutting-Edge Psychotherapy. Second Edition. Larkspur, CA: Pattern System Books.