I am depressed and it’s hard to get out of bed in the morning.
I am so anxious I can barely function.
I am stuck and don’t know what to do next.
I am really angry and can’t move on.
Therapists hear statements like this very often. People describe the symptoms that bring them into treatment and often talk about the many things they have tried in order to get these problems to go away. Depression, anxiety, confusion, anger—these are all feelings we would like to escape or avoid. They are unpleasant emotional states, and they can feel intolerable or even dangerous. We all want to neutralize overwhelming, distressing feelings. This makes perfect sense and sounds like a worthwhile therapeutic goal. However, an Internal Family Systems (IFS) approach says, “Not so fast.” Let me explain.
THE IFS APPROACH
Internal Family Systems is a model developed by Richard Schwartz, Ph.D. It promotes an approach to psychotherapy that is respectful of our inner emotional worlds. It views all feelings as important, meaningful, and valuable. Each individual is seen as containing an internal family made up of different emotional parts. These parts play different, unique roles in helping us function. All parts of us have value and no parts should be banished. “All parts welcome” is the gift of this approach.
Every person inherently contains a core of healthy qualities called “the Self.” These qualities include compassion, courage, and calm. When we are led by the Self, we are at our best. We are balanced, clear-minded, in harmony with ourselves, and connected to others. We act and think in ways that are wholesome and healthy. We experience a full range of emotions, but no emotion overwhelms us or gets to “run the show.” All our feelings are integrated and balanced. The Self is similar to a counselor who leads the internal family and keeps all the parts of the system running smoothly.
What prevents us from being Self-led? To put it differently, why do we get hijacked by our emotions? How does this happen?
As we grow up and develop into adults, we all face challenging people and hurtful situations. We all experience pain and distress. Rejection, criticism, betrayal, loss, traumas both large and small, they befall every one of us at some point. As a result, every person carries inner wounds. Some examples include feelings of inadequacy, shame, or worthlessness. These wounds are our most sensitive, vulnerable areas. They are referred to as “exiles” because they are banished from our consciousness due to the deep emotional burdens they carry. Our exiles get locked away to keep these injured parts from surfacing and flooding us with emotional pain. Consequently, we develop a strong protective system that keeps those wounds buried deep down inside of us.
All people develop a protective system that prevents us from re-experiencing rejection, insecurity, abandonment, and other painful feelings that we felt at one time but desperately hope to never feel again. A protector may show up as the inner voice that harshly criticizes us, making sure we do everything necessary to “measure up” and circumventing a feeling of shame. At times you many notice an anxious part that holds you back in your relationships, shielding you from rejection. Maybe you have a taskmaster part that keeps you working in overdrive, so that you do everything “perfectly,” preventing feelings of failure. A people-pleasing part can help us avoid the displeasure of others, which risks activating a feeling of being un-loveable. Some of us have a part that soothes by numbing, over-eating, or using chemical substances. Protectors work very hard to keep our exiles contained, but when protectors take over we pay a price. Protectors have good intentions but, in their quest to keep us safe, they can become extreme, dominate us, disrupt our lives, and make us feel out of control.
THE GOAL OF IFS THERAPY
Internal Family Systems therapy is non-pathologizing. Depression, anxiety, anger—none are viewed as “bad” parts of us. All feelings are regarded as playing an important role and deserving of our respectful curiosity. When protector parts are appreciated for the work that they do and for the help they are trying to provide, they tend to soften and become less intense. Balance is restored to the internal system as we get to know and work with our various parts, and space opens up within us for more Self-leadership. As the process unfolds, protectors will also share valuable information about the exiles they protect. The ultimate goal of IFS therapy is to heal our vulnerable parts. The wounded exiles can be helped to release their burdens, healing their pain and re-integrating them into the internal family.
This article provides a brief glimpse into Internal Family Systems therapy. For more information, you can visit www.selfleadership.org or you can read “Introduction to the Internal Family Systems Model” by Richard C. Schwartz.
Frady Kess, LCSW is a therapist in private practice in Brooklyn, NY. She specializes in treating individuals and families facing the challenges of domestic abuse, addictive disorders, and trauma. To contact Frady you can email her at email@example.com.