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Take Care Of Your “Unwanted” Parts Too!

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Meet The Family…

If you’ve heard talk of “healing your inner child” or similar ideas, then today’s featured type of therapy takes that to several extra levels, in a way that helps many people.

It’s called Internal Family Systems therapy, often “IFS” for short.

Here’s a quick overview:

Psychology Today | Internal Family Systems Therapy

Note: if you are delusional, paranoid, schizophrenic, or have some other related disorder*, then IFS would probably be a bad idea for you as it could worsen your symptoms, and/or play into them badly.

*but bipolar disorder, in its various forms, is not usually a problem for IFS. Do check with your own relevant healthcare provider(s), of course, to be sure.

What is IFS?

The main premise of IFS is that your “self” can be modelled as a system, and its constituent parts can be examined, questioned, given what they need, and integrated into a healthy whole.

For example…

  • Exile is the name given to parts that could be, for example, the “inner child” referenced in a lot of pop-psychology, but it could also be some other ignored and pushed-down part of oneself, often from some kind of trauma. The defining characteristic of an exile is that it’s a part of ourself that we don’t consciously allow ourselves to see as a current part of ourself.
  • Protector is the name given to a part of us that looks to keep us safe, and can do this in an adaptive (healthy) or maladaptive (unhealthy) way, for example:
    • Firefighter is the name given to a part of us that will do whatever is necessary in the moment to deal with an exile that is otherwise coming to the surface—sometimes with drastic actions/reactions that may not be great for us.
    • Manager is the name given to a part of us that has a more nurturing protective role, keeping us from harm in what’s often a more prophylactic manner.

To give a simple illustration…

A person was criticized a lot as a child, told she was useless, and treated as a disappointment. Consequently, as an adult she now has an exile “the useless child”, something she strives to leave well behind in her past, because it was a painful experience for her. However, sometimes when someone questions and/or advises her, she will get defensive as her firefighter “the hero” will vigorously speak up for her competence, like nobody did when she was a child. This vigor, however, manifests as rude abrasiveness and overcompensation. Finally, she has a manager, “the advocate”, who will do the same job, but in a more quietly confident fashion.

This person’s therapy will look at transferring the protector job from the firefighter to the manager, which will involve examining, questioning, and addressing all three parts.

The above example is fictional and created for simplicity and clarity; here’s a real-world case study if you’d like a more in-depth overview of how it can work:

American Journal of Psychotherapy | The Teenager’s Confession: Regulating Shame in Internal Family Systems Therapy

How it all fits together in practice

IFS looks to make sure all the parts’ needs are met, even the “bad” ones, because they all have their functions.

Good IFS therapy, however, can make sure a part is heard, and then reassure that part in a way that effectively allows that part to “retire”, safe and secure in the knowledge that it has done what it needed to, and/or the job is being done by another part now.

That can involve, for example, thanking the firefighter for looking after our exile for all these years, but that our exile is safe and in good hands now, so it can put that fire-axe away.

See also: On Being Reactive vs Being Responsive

Questions you might ask yourself

While IFS therapy is best given by a skilled practitioner, we can take some of the ideas of it for self-therapy too. For example…

  • What is a secret about yourself that you will take to the grave? And now, why did that part of you (now an exile) come to exist?
  • What does that exile need, that it didn’t get? What parts of us try to give it that nowadays?
  • What could we do, with all that information in mind, to assign the “protection” job to the part of us best-suited to healthy integration?

Want to know more?

We’ve only had the space of a small article to give a brief introduction to Family Systems therapy, so check out the “resources” tab at:

IFS Institute | What Is Internal Family Systems Therapy?

Take care!

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