We have all heard clients use this phrase in sessions. They, like us, can describe themselves using “parts” language. Something like this may sound familiar, “A part of me wants to do this but another part of me wants to do that.” Internal Family Systems (IFS) is a model of therapy that helps clients to develop relationships with their various parts in a way that feels integrative, healthy, and clear, thereby alleviating the symptoms causing them distress. There are many “parts” to this model, but for this blog’s purposes, I will help illustrate how to utilize IFS language in a clinical encounter and also speak to the conceptual nature of this model that serves as its foundation.
Parts are categorized into “firefighters”, “managers”, and “exiles” to help categorize their function in the client’s system. A firefighter is a protector part that acts swiftly, quickly, and intensely to help manage a situation that feels overwhelming or too scary. For example, a firefighter part may tell a client to drink alcohol excessively to avoid something too big, too much. A manager part (also a protector) may tell a client to work excessive hours at his job to help manage the uncomfortable feelings of fear, anxiety, sadness, grief, etc. An exile is a part that typically has gone “underground” for a significant period of time due to the pain, shame, or fear it once experienced at an earlier time, and the manager and firefighters have come on the scene to help protect these exiles from ever having to feel that pain again.
You might be wondering at this point how this model of therapy can help with the many issues clients bring to therapy. IFS therapists devote a lot of time helping clients appreciate the positive intentions of these protector parts in their systems. These parts are very used to feeling shamed, criticized, or “bad” for how they go about protecting the client from feeling pain. We help clients develop a new relationship to these parts that feels more accepting, nurturing, and understanding. This relational shift opens an opportunity for these parts to change roles in the client’s system. A firefighter part who tells a client she has to binge eat in order to avoid an aversive feeling or to possibly feel more control in an overwhelming situation, will inevitably feel the freedom to support the client in more adaptive, healthy ways. However, first, this part has to feel the freedom to shift into its new role, and that comes with the confidence that the client can handle life’s circumstances on her own.
Where to begin you may ask? Well, curiosity is a great access point to making contact with these protector parts in non-judgmental, open, accepting ways to help understand their positive intentions. It’s remarkable how these parts reveal their concerns, beliefs, and worries when approached with open curiosity. They sense the spaciousness the curious energy brings with it and can rest in the awareness of new possibilities. This awareness serves to soften its edges. The softening of the edges and dampening down of the intensity of these protectors allows for the space to trust the client’s Self Energy. Once trust is established between these protectors and the client’s Self, the IFS therapist works to expand this Self Energy as it’s energy knows no bounds.
In the IFS model, Self is energy we all possess. It comprises of curiosity, compassion, courage, clarity, confidence, connection, calm, and creativity. This is the energy we can bring to our protector parts who play their respective roles only with the intention to help and protect, always with unintended consequences. Think of the person who tends to criticize or shame himself before someone else does or the person who incessantly stays busy to feel competent or in control. These are protectors doing their due diligence so intolerable pain and vulnerability can be thwarted. An IFS therapist will help orient the client toward this Self Energy before nearing toward the exiles, or old wounded parts of the client. This is where trauma resides, frozen in time, fiercely protected by Protectors.
There are additional stages to this model such as the Witnessing and Unburdening stages which carry with them their own techniques for trauma reprocessing and/or symptom relief. However, I honed in on the aspects of curiosity and Self Energy to illuminate the transformative, resourceful energy we all possess and how to see our individual protector parts more clearly for all their positive intentions. I find this aspect of the model to be so crucial because it offers hope and compassion, and orients our clients to a path forward out of their pain.
Stephanie Carpizo, LPC is trained in the IFS model and currently taking new clients through Telehealth.
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