© 2017 by Estuary Center

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Internal Family Systems (IFS)

The Internal Family Systems or IFS Model of psychotherapy offers a clear, non-pathological and empowering understanding of human problems and a philosophy of practice for practitioners.  IFS views a person as containing an ecology of relatively discrete minds, each of which has valuable qualities and each of which is designed to, and wants to play, a valuable role within. These parts are forced out of their valuable roles, however, by life experiences that can reorganize the system in unhealthy ways. A good analogy is an alcoholic family, in which the children are forced into protective and stereotypic roles by the extreme dynamics of their family. While one finds similar sibling roles across alcoholic families (e.g., the scapegoat, mascot, lost child, etc.), one does not conclude that those roles represent the essence of those children. Instead, each child is unique and, once released from his or her role by intervention, can find interests and talents separate from the demands of their chaotic family. The same process seems to hold true for internal families -- parts are forced into extreme roles by external circumstances and, once it seems safe, they gladly transform into valuable members.

What are the circumstances that force these parts into extreme and sometimes destructive roles? Trauma is one factor and the effects of childhood sexual abuse on internal families has been discussed at length (Goulding and Schwartz, 1995). But more often, it is a person's family values and interaction patterns that create internal polarizations which escalate over time and are played out in other relationships. This, also, is not a novel observation; indeed it is a central tenet of object relations and self psychology. What is novel to IFS is the attempt to understand all levels of human organization -- intrapsychic, family and culture -- with the same systemic principles, and to intervene at each level with the same ecological techniques. (www.selfleadership.org)