How Does IFS (Internal Family Systems) Work?
Do you ever feel you act differently at work versus with family? Have you ever said to yourself, “Part of me wants to do X, but another part of me wants to do Y.” The complexity of the human brain is such that we are capable of having multiple emotions, perspectives, and goals at the same time. Within our overall personality, we also have distinct sub-personalities that we shift between depending on what’s needed in the present moment.
The evidence-based psychotherapy model called Internal Family Systems (IFS) harnesses this understanding of sub-personalities, called Parts, and provides a roadmap to help people implement profound change in their lives. My clients love that IFS is gentle, non-pathologizing, and deeply impactful in helping them live more meaningful lives.
So, how does IFS work?
Think of the human brain like a cell phone. Our brains all have the same basic operating system, but each person has a plethora of unique apps (parts) to use. Each app/part is a neurobiological network in the brain that has a unique pattern of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that support our overall functioning. Each app has a useful purpose, and we consciously and unconsciously shift between them to get our needs met and cope with the challenges of life.
We can think of these apps in three categories:
Some apps carry suffering and pain from life experiences, and manifest as felt emotional pain such as fear, sadness, or anger.
Some apps try to prevent suffering and pain, usually by thinking and acting in ways to avoid, control, or preemptively distract from emotional pain. Examples can include excessive worry to prevent something bad from happening, staying quiet to avoid conflict, perfectionistic expectations to avoid possible failure, or exerting control over a partner to avoid abandonment.
Some apps react to suffering and pain, usually by attempting to extinguish the pain through extreme distraction. They take the form of compulsive action or addiction to food, sex, alcohol, shopping, pornography, video games, etc. This can also look like angry outbursts/rage or shutting down/numbing.
As a psychotherapist, most of my clients initially seek therapy because some of their apps are buggy. They find themselves having strong emotional reactions or are stuck repeating patterns of preventing or reacting to pain. IFS is a system of helping us hit the home button and get out of the apps when they take over–A way to see them from the home screen instead of being in them. This allows us to see from a perspective of compassionate self-awareness. We then work to calm the defensive apps and access and debug the apps that hold emotional pain and suffering. After that, our defensive apps won’t be as active, because there is less emotional pain to prevent and to react to in the first place. That way, all apps can work together as a unified system.
All the apps, all of our parts, have an important purpose and function, even when the outcome may be objectively unhelpful to a person’s life. Smart, competent people everywhere get stuck repeating patterns they don’t like, feel baffled as to why they can’t change, and then blame themselves. Through the lens of IFS, we can begin to understand the real purpose behind the pattern, discover what pain is being protected, and resolve the true root causes.