Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS)

What is IFS?

Have you heard the phrase, “We are every age we’ve ever been all at once?” Do you sometimes think that you’re your current age, but also a teenager, a child, and a toddler at the same time? Our ages and experiences shape our sub-personalities.

These sub-personalities are sometimes hurt. They have experienced shame, anger, and regret. Many of our sub-personalities don’t “get along” in perfect harmony. These conflicts can hurt our “core self” and get in the way of us being a compassionate and happy person.

Using IFS for addiction treatment involves a skilled therapist treating our sub-personalities that are hurting. Some of the most common emotions for the sub-personalities of addicts include:

  • Severe lack of self-confidence - If one of our primary sub-personalities has poor self-esteem, doesn’t feel “good enough,” or is always looking for compensation, it’s no wonder that drugs or alcohol can help this sub-personality feel better or otherwise operate.
  • Rage - Rage can stem from historical trauma, personal past/present trauma, and a wide range of abuse. Addiction simultaneously feeds anger while numbing it for the short-term.
  • Jealousy - Jealousy is a common human emotion, but when it is fueling a sub-personality, it can make addicts reach for their vice in order to compensate. Treating the root of jealousy can help bolster addiction treatment.

At the core of IFS is healing the negative sub-personality characteristics to increase harmony. It’s a model that can be used for just about any type of patient, but can be especially helpful for addicts.

Internal Family Systems Approach To Addiction

A lot of people haven’t heard of the Internal Family Systems, or IFS, therapy model for addiction treatment until they’re in the thick of looking for the best program for themselves or a loved one. It’s a model that was developed over 20 decades ago by Dr. Richard Schwartz as a psychotherapy approach that considers “family members” within the patient’s mind.

Keep in mind that although “family” is part of the title, Internal Family Systems (IFS) does not center on or necessarily involve physical family members. Instead, this type of therapy operates under the idea that everyone has a number of “sub-personalities” inside them.

This doesn’t mean IFS assumes “multiple personalities” or another co-current disease or disorder. It’s simply addressing the many “personalities” we all carry inside us. For the addict, some of these sub-personalities exacerbate addiction while getting in the way of addiction treatment.

Internal Family Systems Model

Even though IFS is a type of “talk therapy” that often takes place one on one, there is also the potential to use the model in a couple or family setting. For the addict, this is usually recommended in addition to individual therapy.

When you start Internal Family Systems (IFS), you may hear about its foundation in the “multiplicity of mind” and “systems thinking.” IFS utilizes successful therapy models to create a new kind of approach that treats sub-personalities.

A lot of people talk about their “inner lives.” They might feel like they’re a totally different person when talking to their friend as opposed to talking to their boss, or when they’re writing in a journal in private. These “different selves” can become even more dissimilar for the addict.

An addict can feel like they’re a different person, even their “real self”, when they’re drinking or taking drugs. However, they have to hide this self from most other people in their lives. Drugs and alcohol can increase a feeling of loneliness because of how they affect the body, but also because of the vast differences in a person’s “addiction life” and “other lives” (i.e. family, work, or school life).

During your first few IFS sessions, the focus will be on identifying your unique sub-personalities. Your therapist may refer to these inner selves as your “families.” Next, the following steps may be taken:

  • Identify and acknowledge - It’s important to acknowledge your most dreaded or dangerous sub-personalities in order to heal. This process can bring out emotions that have been suppressed for years. It can be uncomfortable and scary, but it’s necessary in order to dig into the real problems.
  • Relaxation exercises - These techniques aren’t a requirement for Internal Family Systems (IFS), but many patients find them helpful. There are countless options, and your therapist will help you find the best exercises to keep you as secure and comfortable as possible while you process emotions.
  • Visualization exercises - Visualizing yourself in different scenarios can be a fantastic way to test out various tools and help yourself overcome obstacles. Visualization is used in a variety of scenarios, and studies have shown that it even helps professional athletes perform better.
  • Journaling - Homework in IFS often includes keeping a journal. Writing, especially by hand, can help your mind process complex scenarios in new ways.

However, remember that at the heart of IFS is talk therapy. This should only be managed by an expert who specializes in Internal Family Systems (IFS).

The founder of Internal Family Systems (IFS), Dr. Schwartz, believed that everyone has an “undamaged self” at their core. This undamaged self is the real you, but many people—through trauma and experiences—grow to include three primary sub-personalities. The concept of a “real self” is nothing new. It is based on the teaching of Hinduism, though there is no innate religious component to Internal Family Systems (IFS).

These three sub-personalities include:

  • Exiles - We can imprison ourselves mentally when we feel shame, hurt, embarrassment, or a host of other negative emotions. When this happens, these imprisoned parts of ourselves are called Exiles in Internal Family Systems (IFS). In severe cases, an Exile can get so upset that they incapacitate a person with negative feelings, making them extremely vulnerable. In these instances, the odds of using drugs or alcohol spikes.
  • Managers - The Exile is not without help. Managers hustle to keep Exiles from feeling a flood of negative emotions, but do so by ensuring these high-voltage feelings aren’t allowed in the conscious mind. Locking up these vulnerable emotions can be effective in the short-term, but ultimately leads to a person “bottling up” their emotions. Imploding becomes a possibility, but the Manager is just doing its job.
  • Firefighters - The firefighter comes to the rescue when Exiles are operating on a high-stress level and the Managers can no longer control them. However, the Firefighters’ goal is to “put out the flames” as quickly as they can. This sub-personality is impulsive and can doggedly override the feelings of an Exile. Firefighters have one goal in mind: to do whatever it takes to make the person feel normal. This can mean a drug or alcohol binge, or using other Band-Aid approaches to feel better.

It might sound like Managers and Firefighters are partially to blame for the actions of an addict and that they’re harmful sub-personalities, but that’s not the case; they are both protectors. Issues arise because these sub-personalities have innate characteristics and don’t have all the knowledge, tools, and experience necessary to offer a healthy source of protection.

The Three Goals of IFS

Fortunately, through Internal Family Systems (IFS), there are three key ways to address these sub-personalities. The three goals of IFS include:

  • Offer freedom from extreme pigeon-holing - While the three sub-personalities have some standard roles, that doesn’t mean they can’t learn new roles. IFS can free up these roles by teaching these sub-personalities new, healthier tactics.
  • Increase trust in the self - The real Self hasn’t gone anywhere. However, our traumas and experiences can bury it and make us not trust it. That’s why we become so dependent on the sub-personalities. Through Internal Family Systems (IFS), the addict can regain trust in the Self.
  • Increase harmony with the sub-personalities - You don’t want to get rid of or totally suppress your sub-personalities. When used effectively, they can optimize your life. However, you do want to make sure they are balanced and work in tandem with your real Self. That’s where IFS comes in to play.

Getting Help for Addiction

Detox and rehab facilities often have resources on local experts in a variety of fields. An IFS therapist might be called a psychotherapist, counselor, mental health therapist, or even a social worker. All of these experts can have training in IFS therapy. They should be licensed with the right credentials.

With so many types of therapy available, it can be difficult to figure out which is the best for you. Keep in mind that your “best” might also change over the years. However, if you resonate with the idea that you have different “inner lives” and tend to lean on destructive coping habits, IFS may work for you.

Remember that you can try different therapies simultaneously. You can even try out IFS before truly committing. Many insurance companies cover all or part of psychotherapy, but you should always check with your insurance provider first before beginning any mental health therapy. Talk with a local IFS therapist today and see if this approach is right for you.

Written by
Northeast Addition Editorial Team

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This page does not provide medical advice.

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