An Introduction to Internal Family Systems
When I was growing up, there was an expression I would often hear people in my family use to describe their experience of wavering back and forth on a decision that had to be made. The situation usually wasn’t anything significant, but they at least weren’t super settled on what they actually wanted to do. When that was the case, someone would often say, “I’m of two minds about that.” I’ve realized, of course, it’s one of those regional idioms that might vary from place to place – I’ve heard the of replaced with in or on depending on where a speaker might be from. Either way, it speaks to the inner conflict that we all often feel at some point or another. Maybe you picture the classic cartoon scene of a character with an angel speaking in one ear and a devil speaking in the other.
Two voices. Two perspectives. Two motivations.
As a therapist, I find inner conflict incredibly interesting. This is partly true because I often practice a type of therapy that isn’t very far removed from this very idea. No, we don’t speak about angels and demons on your shoulders, but we do recognize that we often have these inner dialogues and debates. Even if you’ve never said, “I’m on two minds” about something, you might have recognized that “There’s a part of me that wants to say yes, and another that wants to say no.” What are these parts? Why are they so conflicted? How can we get them to come to a resolution? When you can’t come to a resolution, which part wins?
This approach to therapy (called Internal Family Systems Therapy, or IFS) embraces the idea that these parts represent aspects of ourselves. Noticing these tendencies in himself and his clients, Dick Schwartz founded and developed IFS into a truly effective approach to working with clients. You’ve probably recognized that your thoughts and behavior is contextual. Depending on the particular situation, it can feel as though a different version of yourself shows up. For example, it might feel like you’re generally a happy, friendly person who enjoys having fun and getting to know people. But what happens when you have to sit in a meeting with that annoying coworker? You become cold. You give curt answers. You might even be mean to her. It is as though a different person is sitting in your chair.
In the language of IFS, we all have a unique collection of these parts of ourselves. Different parts assume internal leadership roles based on past experiences and other factors. This leadership is as much about managing your internal, emotional state as it is navigating how to deal with the annoying coworker. In our example, it’s most often the friendly part of you that is in the manager’s chair. The presence of your coworker requires a colder, vindictive part to take control.
Another phrase that I love within the therapy room is that “Everything communicates” and the fact that this leadership role shifts in the presence of a particular means there is probably something worth listening for. Why does the vindictive part come out when this person shows up? If this vindictive part could talk, what would it say? Everyone’s situation is different, of course, but for the sake of our example, let’s imagine some scenarios. This part might say that your coworker reminds them of someone similar from your past who got the promotion that you wanted. It might say that there is something about the way that she talks or smiles that reminds you of the bully from middle school. Or, maybe you were vulnerable with someone who used flattery and friendliness and who then used that information to manipulate or take advantage of you. A vindictive part in this situation might list any of these scenarios, but what they have in common is that it is about protecting you from getting hurt again.
Of course, from a distance, we can recognize that a vindictive approach may not be the healthiest, but it does have the effect of keeping the other person – and the associated negative memories – at bay. IFS is about listening to what these parts have to say and exploring the implications. Like people, parts often just want to be heard and noticed.
For people that engage in this kind of work, it’s not uncommon to begin to uncover all kinds of parts. There are parts that are loving and kind. There are parts that focused on helping others or about finding definitive answers to questions. There are parts that may be spiteful, or full of pride, sadness, or shame. Some parts seem to have a temper and don’t seem to care who might get offended. At the core, all of these parts want to ensure our physical and emotional safety, but sometimes, we get into unhealthy patterns and let parts take on more of a leadership role than they actually should.
There are many different ways to understand ourselves more deeply and to improve the quality of our relationships. One of those ways is to get more acquainted with these members of our internal family. These parts have so much to teach us about how we see the world and our place in it. When you engage with a therapist in this kind of way, they can help you identify the parts of yourself that lead and the parts that have been forgotten or pushed aside. It is about honoring the complexities of who you, about helping you learn from your past experiences, and about integrating your parts in order that you can lead yourself through the world in a brand new way.