INTERNAL FAMILY SYSTEMS

Have you ever been asked what kind of movie you would like to go to and you say “Well, a part of me would like to see a comedy, but another part of me would like to see a drama?” Inherent in this experience is 2 different parts of your “Self” pulling you in separate directions. Another common experience is when a Part of you says “I really need to get some work done” and another Part of you says “I would rather goof off and watch TV.” It just seems to be the case that what we refer to as our “Self” is really made up of multiple, divergent selves or “parts” that each have their own agendas and functions within us.

This is not a controversial notion within psychotherapy theories, nor is it a new concept historically. From ancient Greece and Plato’s tripartite model of the soul to Freud’s Structural model of the mind (Id, Ego and Super Ego), the notion that our Self is made up of a variety of parts has been a consistent way to understand our internal experiences. More contemporary thinkers refer to this as multiplicity of the mind. 

The idea of multiple parts is not about fragmentation of the self or about multiple personality disorder. It is not a metaphorical way to understand our internal lives. It is simply the way our internal, psychological experience of self is organized. Three ways to begin to understand the nature and implications of multiplicity are 1) The Linear Model, 2) General Systems Theory and 3) Internal Family Systems Theory.

The Linear Model

The Russian Matryoshka Doll, commonly referred to as a Russian Babushka or stacking doll, refers to a set of wooden dolls of decreasing size placed one inside the other. This provides a good visual way to understand the linear model of the self. Generally speaking, every age we have ever been literally lives on inside us as separate parts. Thus we have an infant part, a toddler part, a child part, an adolescent part and so on. Those parts that received a healthy amount of attention and nurturing tend to make less “noise” inside us and therefore coalesce into a comfortable community of our parts inside us. However, those parts that received less then a necessary level of attention and nurturing, or that were traumatized in any number of ways, may carry and continually resonate with emotions such as shame, hurt, sadness, confusion, fear, or even terror.

General Systems Theory 

Whereas the linear model helps us to understand parts in a static way, General Systems Theory (GST) adds the important notion of parts interacting in a dynamic fashion. GST uses the analogy of an organism. An organism is more than the sum total of its parts. An organism is alive with all of its parts acting in dynamic interaction to create a system wide equilibrium. For example, when the human organism gets hot, it creates sweat to cool itself to reestablish its core temperature or equilibrium. GST has been used by a wide array of sciences to understand both the internal functioning of systems as well as how individual systems interact externally with other systems, or systems nested within ever larger organizations of systems. Family social scientists and family therapy theorists have used GST to explore how families work as systems. Family members as individual parts interact dynamically with each other to form a family system. Dr. Murray Bowen introduced Family Systems Theory (FST) to suggest that individuals (parts) cannot be understood in isolation from one another, but rather as a part of a family emotional unit. Families are systems of interconnected and interdependent individuals who as a group work together to establish equilibrium. If one member of the family creates a change or challenge to the family, it has ripple effects throughout the whole family. The family must therefore re-establish a new emotional and systemic equilibrium to accommodate this change. For example, parents’ divorcing requires the whole family to create new ways of interacting in order to eventually arrive at a new organizational system and equilibrium. Another example would be if a child comes out as gay and thereby challenges the ideology of the family culture. It will have emotional ripple effects through out the family system to accommodate this new reality and re-establish a new ideological equilibrium. 

Internal Family Systems Model

Internal Family Systems Theory (IFS) was developed by Richard Schwarts who married the conceptual frame works of Family Systems Theory and Multiplicity of the Mind to create a very powerful way to work with and heal trauma and unresolved losses. He applied the Family Systems concepts of the dynamic interaction of family members to create an equilibrium to the internal notion of multiple parts of the Self. He created both a way of categorizing our parts in terms of how they function within us, and a way of understanding how they then interact inside us to create an organismic equilibrium among them.

His functional analysis of our internal parts includes the assumption that each part has its own perspective, interests, memories, and viewpoint. Additionally, he states each part has only good intentions for the person and endeavors to protect the person from pain, even if the end result of a part’s efforts causes dysfunction.

Therefore, IFS concludes it is counter productive to try to get rid of a part or to force it to change. Instead, the IFS method of therapeutic intervention is to promote internal connection and harmony among all our parts. IFS theorizes 3 types of parts: Exiles, Firefighters and Managers. 

Exiles

Exiles are usually traumatized childhood parts that carry emotional “burdens” such as sadness, hurt, shame, fear or terror. They literally live on inside us in a constant state of emotional distressed, that if allowed into our awareness might overwhelm us with clinical symptoms such as anxiety, panic attacks or depression. Managers and Firefighters try to exile these parts from consciousness to prevent this pain from coming to the surface.

Managers

Manager parts operate in a proactive role to protect the person from pain. They work externally to protect us from being harmed by other people and internally to prevent painful feelings carried by Exiles from flooding into our immediate awareness. 

Firefighters

Firefighter Parts are our internal emergency first responders. When an Exile threatens to break through the Managers and cause us to feel the fire of their emotional pain, Firefighters work to erect a firewall between Exiles and our conscious awareness by triggering distracting behaviors. These behaviors include impulsive drinking or eating, taking drugs, compulsive sex and over working to name only a few. 

IFS Therapy

The IFS method involves first helping the person develop an awareness of their internal parts. Then the person gets to know their Managers and Firefighters in order to understand their positive intentions towards the Self (protection from pain) and develop a relationship of trust with them. Next, by gaining the permission of these protector parts, therapist and client work to access one Exile at a time in order to understand the childhood incident that caused the emotional burden it carries. Finally, the exile is retrieved from being stuck in that past situation and helped to release its burdens, thus allowing the protector parts to let go of their protective roles and assume healthy ones. Ultimately, all internal parts realign in a healthier equilibrium, creating a new, more harmonious internal family of parts.