4.) Can you briefly describe how you use Internal Family Systems (IFS) theory in your work?
KP: Shifting gears here, earlier you were talking about doing “parts” work and I know you have some advanced training in the Internal Family Systems methodology, which is another interesting and sound approach to psychotherapy. Could you briefly describe what Internal Family Systems (IFS) work is and how it’s used to treat trauma?
Sinead: Just to clarify, I’ve done a decent amount of training in Internal Family Systems theory, but I’m not officially “certified” – which involves extensive training. From what I understand about IFS, as humans we all have these different parts inside of us that are essentially sub-personalities. That’s just normal.
Sometimes, parts of the self are forced into rigid roles, as a result of negative life experiences. The model identifies two common roles that you tend to see in many people. These are known as the “protectors” and the “protected.”
For instance, somebody may have a guarded part that serves to protect a vulnerable part. The protected parts are referred to as “exiles.” Those are the parts that the person may have negative feelings about, like shame, and they tend to be kept away in a locked state, rather than being resolved.
For example, if somebody has been sexually abused, then the shame and guilt may be the exiled part. Or, perhaps the sad part from that trauma may be exiled as well. The protective part tries to keep those more vulnerable exiles at bay. So, the work is about exploring the parts without necessarily having answers, by engaging in a dialogue with these different parts that make up the human psyche in everybody. I’m actually working with an IFS therapist myself right now to better understand the process.
In this process, say we start noticing an angry, or judgmental part show up – which is some type of protector. We’ll then ask that judgmental or self-critical part to step to the side for a moment to see if we can understand the sad or guilty part that has been pushed to the side.
People can spend their lives organizing themselves so the exiles never get triggered. The protective parts, like the judgment or self-critical part, may then always be dominating the picture because they’re trying to protect the exile from any further harm. In other words, the person may find themselves being self-critical much of the time, as a means of avoiding those uncomfortable feelings, like fear or shame.
Talking with exiles, instead of always keeping them in the background, can help them essentially unload their pain. Once that’s done, these parts can transform from more limited and destructive roles (e.g., self-judgment) to those that are healthier and constructive.
KP: Yes, from my understanding, there’s this integration process that takes place with this work, whereby you increase communication between parts, with the ultimate goal being to get to a place where the person is being led by what Richard Schwarz, the founder of IFS, refers to as “the Self.” He likens this core Self to what the Buddhists would call “Buddha nature” or Christians would call “Higher Self,” which is a deeper, healthier place (that exists within everybody, regardless of their life circumstances). He describes qualities of the “Self” using words like curiosity, compassion, calmness, clarity and confidence. So, when one is functioning at their best, rather than having parts like a protector wrangling with an exile, you have what he described as “one big happy family” of parts led by the core, healthy Self.
Sinead: Yes, and I’d like to add that the work is not always about using words and vocabulary, but can be more about using images and sensations, describing the parts in an abstract way, like what age the part is, what it looks like, etc. That’s a way to explore the parts rather than just doing it on a cognitive level.
There’s also “parts work” that is not unique to IFS. In the field of trauma work it’s completely understood that you are going to be speaking “parts language.” When you’re working with somebody who has experienced trauma, you’re going to have to accept that there will be conflicting parts that are there to manage their understanding of who they are or what happened to them.
For example, somebody who has been abused by a caretaker may have a part that is very angry, but at the same time, another part that feels very responsible, or very much loving toward the caretaker. So, it’s about working with all those conflicting parts and helping the client to accept them all. Not one is bad, or one is good, but they just are. It’s important to be curious about them, accept them as they are, and learn from them. That can be healing.
KP: I’m glad that you clarified that “parts” work is core aspect of trauma work in general, not just IFS.
Sinead: I read an article by Richard Schwarz many years ago when I was working with patients with eating disorders. The article talked about the bulimic self and how as a therapist, if you align against this part of the person by simply labeling the bulimic behavior as something bad that is to be abolished, then you’re doing a disservice to them. It’s important to recognize the purpose that the bulimia is serving, even though the patient says they don’t like it.
You do this by getting to know the behavior – being curious about it, looking at all the “positive” pieces of the behavior, in order for the patient not to have to defend it, or feel shame about it. This understanding can then eventually lead to letting go of the behavior, or finding alternative, healthier ways to fulfill the purpose that the bulimia is serving at that time.
KP: This makes me think of when I first grasped the concept that every behavior actually “makes sense” when you explore it on a deeper level. It might carry a lot of negative trade-offs, but there’s a reason for it; otherwise it wouldn’t be happening over and over again.
Sinead: Yes, the bulimia is a short-term, useful strategy, even though in the long run it’s harmful. For example, during the moment of stress, the person is hyper-aroused and the only way they can get themselves back down is to engage in some binging behavior. At that point in time, it’s helping them. It’s not a long-term solution, of course. As a therapist, I don’t want the client to feel judged, but rather I want them to feel free to explore so they can understand the role that the binging serves.