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Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy

Internal Family Systems (IFS) is a popular form of psychotherapy that takes an integrative approach, assuming each individual has a variety of subpersonalities, or “parts” in their system. The goal of IFS is to facilitate healing through a client getting to know, understand, and work with these various parts. 

According to IFS Institute, there are five basic assumptions of the IFS model, including:  

  • “It is the nature of the mind to be subdivided into an indeterminate number of subpersonalities or parts.
  • Everyone has a Self, and the Self can and should lead the individual’s internal system.
  • The non-extreme intention of each part is something positive for the individual. There are no “bad” parts, and the goal of therapy is not to eliminate parts but instead to help them find their non-extreme roles.
  • As we develop, our parts develop and form a complex system of interactions among themselves; therefore, systems theory can be applied to the internal system. When the system is reorganized, parts can change rapidly.
  • Changes in the internal system will affect changes in the external system and vice versa. The implication of this assumption is that both the internal and external levels of system should be assessed.”

Internal Family Systems can be used to treat individuals, couples, or families, and this evidence-based approach has been shown to effectively treat anxiety, depression, phobias, eating disorders, physical pain and health conditions, substance dependency and addiction, and more. 

History of Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy 

Internal Family Systems therapy was founded in the early 1990s by American psychotherapist, Richard Schwartz. Dr. Schwartz developed Internal Family Systems after noticing that in his psychotherapeutic work, clients often described a sense of having various subpersonalities, or “parts,” within themselves. He studied this closely with his clients and began to focus on the patterns of interaction and relationships between these internal parts. He then identified and labeled common parts he noticed in many individuals, including “Managers,” “Exiles,” and “Firefighters,” along with the “Self” that everyone has. 

Managers are “protective” parts that run the day-to-day life of an individual and may exhibit behaviors of controlling, evaluating, caretaking, and striving. 

Exiles are parts that experience anxiety, trauma, or fear, and may become isolated from the rest of the system—often by managers or firefighters—in an effort for an individual to avoid feeling pain. 

Firefighters are other “protective” parts that react when exiles are activated and try to prevent a person from experiencing pain. Firefights may attempt to distract exiles in an effort to avoid feeling pain, which can lead to unhealthy behaviors such as substance abuse.

Self is described as “the absence of parts.” It is a person’s core being—the calm, centered, natural seat of consciousness that each person possesses. 

In application, an IFS therapy session may include talk therapy, and may also include an IFS therapist guiding a client to connect with a particular part, which may be experienced as a physical sensation, visual image, or inner awareness. Exercises such as meditation or mindfulness may also be incorporated. As IFS therapy progresses, a client and their therapist will begin to develop a greater understanding of their whole internal family system—all of the parts that come up and interact with each other—while developing new ways of connecting to Self and healing and integrating parts. 

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Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy For Addiction and Substance Abuse Treatment

As of 2015, Internal Family Systems has been listed on the National Registry of Evidence-Based Programs and Practices (NREPP), a searchable database of evidence-based mental health and substance abuse interventions that are scored on each outcome, in conjunction with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA.) 

IFS takes a unique approach to treating addiction. For example, IFS trainer and author Cece Sykes, LMSW describes addiction as “a systemic, unremitting inner power struggle or polarity occurring between two extremely oppositional aspects or parts of a person’s personality.” IFS applies an all-encompassing approach to addiction by working with an individual’s parts, through which addictive behaviors and impulses can be better understood. 

Addiction Treatment at Oasis Recovery 

If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction or mental illness, we encourage you to reach out to the professionals at Oasis Recovery. Our treatment specialists prioritize individualized care, ensuring that every client who seeks our help receives treatment that addresses their specific wants and needs. Contact us today for more information about IFS therapy, or any of our various services. You do not have to struggle alone. 

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