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Understanding Our Emotions Through Internal Family Systems

by | Oct 8, 2021 | ATTACHMENT, MENTAL HEALTH, RELATIONSHIPS, THERAPY, TRAUMA

A person feels relief after Internal Family Systems therapy.

Understanding our emotions can be quite a complicated process for many of us. Having a history of trauma also makes identifying and regulating emotions very difficult and may cause you to feel strong and painful emotions in response to certain triggers, or feel very numb and dissociated from your feelings. Within this article you can learn more about how the Internal Family Systems (IFS) model can provide an inner map to your emotions, or least get you started on the path to building one.

What is Internal Family Systems Therapy?

The Internal Family Systems (IFS) model is a transformative, evidence-based model of psychotherapy developed by Richard Schwartz, Ph.D in the late 1990s. Inspired by Systems Theory and Attachment Theory, Schwartz started to find some resemblance between interpersonal dynamics of family members and the relationship with our own internal personality components. IFS puts the emphasis on understanding the individual in the internal family system and believes it is the nature of the mind to be divided into sub-personalities or different “parts.” Parts may be experienced in any number of ways – thoughts, feelings, body sensations, images, and more.

These little sub-personalities are often in conflict with one another. For instance, a part of you might want to be fit and healthy and there is another part of you that just wants to be a couch potato and eat dessert every day. A part that loves connecting with others versus the part that wants to isolate and not talk to anyone. Often times, we tend to alternate between those opposing parts and some may be more impairing and destructive than others.

According to the IFS model, when there is a history of trauma or attachment injuries, these parts tend to get frozen in the trauma scene where they get “burdened.” So they might be stuck in an earlier developmental stage. The model welcomes all parts and believes we all have inherent worth and wisdom as part of our birth right in addition to the ability to self-heal. The inner wisdom or inner coach is called the “Self” which is the centerpiece to the model. When you are in touch with your core “Self”, you are working towards personal growth and becoming more whole as a person with a more integrated sense of who you are. When this happens, all the parts get to work together in a more harmonious and balanced way. In this way the “Self” acts as a moderator between the parts.

IFS asserts that the core “Self” is the source of the following capital “C” qualities: Compassion, Creativity, Curiosity, Connectedness, Courage, Confidence, Clarity, and Calm.

What is working with an Internal Family Systems therapist like?

The IFS model believes in the mind’s natural ability to heal itself, so it’s not the therapist who does the healing but rather fosters a safe environment where the client gets to know different parts (internal systems) of themselves and relates to them in a new and more adaptive manner so the healing will organically take place.

Your therapist will most likely provide some mindfulness training and exercises to elicit some compassionate curiosity towards the different parts of you. Once you acknowledge all the parts, your therapist will assist you in facilitating conversations with them, hearing out their stories and explore their purpose or even pick a name for them or guess their age. The goal is to “unburden” the parts so they could go back to their natural state of being instead of taking on extreme and rigid roles.

IFS divides the sub-personality parts into 3 categories:

  1. Exiles– The first group are the Exiles; those are the younger, wounded parts of our personality that have been hurt usually during childhood due to trauma history or attachment injuries. Exiles still carry some painful emotions and memories. The system tries to keep those locked up or compartmentalized and out of our awareness in order to protect us. This is an attempt to keep us safe from getting hurt again or simply remembering how painful those experiences were. Some of the burdens you might find when working with exiles include: toxic shame, loneliness, emptiness, grief, fear, hopelessness, etc.

Exiles want to be noticed and healed, but because some of the emotions they carry are so overwhelming and painful, the system tries to maintain the balance by disowning those parts or keeping them away from our conscious awareness.

As some parts are exiled, others are forced more into protective roles that are divided into 2 types: Managers and Firefighters.

  1. Managers– Managers run our day to day life and are fearful that the Exiles will overwhelm the system and their job is to maintain the system’s stability. So they employ different strategies to protect parts and keep the Exiles away from the consciousness. Some of those strategies could look like perfectionism, controlling others, care taking, etc. The managers try to constantly manage our psyche and our interactions in a way that keeps the more vulnerable parts of us or Exiles safe from becoming overwhelmed, flooded, or triggered by trauma. Managers can play a healthy role and are necessary to our mental health, but they become problematic when they go to extreme measures to keep the exiles locked up.
  2. Firefighter- The last group are called the Firefighters; their job is to numb or distract us from the pain of the Exiles or extinguish the emotional fires when the Exiles become triggered or activated. When Firefighters are constantly working overtime trying to numb or control the Exiles, it could manifest in behaviors such as binge eating disorders, substance abuse, gambling, mindlessly scrolling through social media for hours on end, or other compulsive behaviors.

It’s important to note while all these parts have positive intent and are doing the best they can to keep the system’s equilibrium, they cause impairment when they are burdened and take on these rigid, extreme roles. As part of the therapy you will get to know your protectors and appreciate their roles while unburdening them from working all the time and instead become aware of what the Exiles are trying to communicate.

Why IFS over other methods of psychotherapy?

Internal Family Systems doesn’t believe in any “bad” parts, it believes that there is value in what they each bring to the table. Healing happens when you learn to become a compassionate witness to your own history which could be a very liberating experience. As a result, you are not trying to control or fight back against conflicting parts of you, or try to disown them. Instead, you can attempt to understand them and foster their healing. You will learn to externalize your emotions, pick different names for them, and have conversations with different parts while providing the nurturance and acceptance that those younger parts needed in the first place. The healing is about unburdening the parts and restoring their trust in the leadership of the “Self” to achieve more harmony and balance in life. Also, to differentiate and elevate the “Self” so it can be an effective leader in the system.

History of trauma and attachment injuries force some of our inner personality parts out of their natural state of being and into taking on extreme beliefs and emotions from the experience. As a result we might feel a polarization inside of us. Internal Family Systems assists you with developing an inner map of all these parts or sub-personalities, and explore their purpose through curiosity and compassion so the parts get to work WITH you and FOR you instead of AGAINST you.

Modern Intimacy is a group therapy practice, founded by renowned Psychologist and Sex Therapist, Dr. Kate Balestrieri. This inclusive blog is designed to provide a wealth of information and resources for mental health, relationships, and sexuality. Subscribe today to get the latest information from our expert contributors from all around the world.

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Author Bio

Elena Behar, LMFT earned her Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology from National University (NU) with a specialization in Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT). Elena is very passionate about working with individuals and couples who are looking to heal and grow, build a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives and reintegrate with their true selves.

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