Cultivating Self-Leadership with Internal Family Systems Therapy
Have you ever felt like one part of you wants one thing while another part holds you back? This is the foundation of Internal Family Systems (IFS), the idea that we are all made up of many different parts, and that living authentically requires us to speak to these parts, address inner conflicts and help release the burdens that bury our true self under layers of protective, and yet, often self-destructive, responses.
IFS has been instrumental in helping me understand the human mind in a way that I can support clients to work through their patterns. The psyche is incomprehensibly complex and so much of the way it works is still unknown to us. By using the IFS metaphor of the mind, it becomes easier to identify and communicate with our patterns.
IFS categorizes our subpersonalities into three groups… There are managers, who proactively protect our inner system from pain, they can become a challenge when the critical voice becomes a stressor for our everyday happiness. There are firefighters, who reactively protect us from pain, they can become destructive when they numb out our difficult experiences with problematic behaviors or addiction. Finally, there are the exiles. These are our wounded parts that are often stuffed so far down into our psyche that we don’t even realize when they are activated. Our protectors (managers and firefighters) take their roles very seriously and do everything they can to keep our exiles safe and out of our awareness. This can cause a problem when unresolved issues keep the protectors stuck in self-damaging patterns.
Another important element of the psyche, as described by IFS therapy, is the Self. This is the core of all humans, born at birth and indestructible to any external or internal forces. The Self is usually described as compassionate, curious, kind, calm, confident, and connected. Unlike visible parts, the Self is not seen, rather it is felt as a core essence of who we are. By connecting to this place, that exists in all of us, we can learn, cultivate and enact the self-leadership needed to create inner harmony.
The important thing to remember here is that our parts are not the problem, rather the polarizations and destructive habits that the parts have taken on in order to fulfil their protective roles can be problematic. This does not mean that we need to deny or repress parts, these parts make us who we are and who we are is a wonderful thing. However, we can befriend and work with our parts to support them to choose more productive roles and patterns.
A key principle in IFS is that wanting to change, without self-acceptance, is a major obstacle for therapeutic or self-work. This acceptance of all parts, no matter how destructive, is transformative in itself and offers the appropriate environment for the internal system to communicate, strategize and act in a more cohesive and unified way The goal of this approach is to learn and appreciate the roles our parts have taken on, and in doing so, developing self-leadership: the capacity to lead our internal system to harmony, balance, and self-development.
For More Information:
Internal Family Systems “What is IFS?”
Good Therapy “Internal Family Systems”
Psychology Today “Internal Family Systems Therapy”
Books for Self-Work:
Greater Than the Sum of Our Parts by Richard C. Schwartz