Internal Family Systems Therapy
Most theorists who have explored the human psyche have viewed it as inhabited by subpersonalities. Beginning with Freud's description of the id, ego, and superego, these inner entities have been given a variety of names, including internal objects, ego states, archetypes and complexes, subselves, inner voices, and parts. Regardless of name, they are depicted in remarkably similar ways across theories and are viewed as having powerful effects on our thoughts and feelings. In his important new book, Richard C. Schwartz applies the systems concepts of family therapy to this intrapsychic realm. The result is a new understanding of the nature of people's subpersonalities and how they operate as an inner ecology, as well as a new method for helping people change their inner worlds. Called the Internal Family Systems (IFS) model, this approach is based on the premise that people's subpersonalities interact and change in many of the same ways that families or other human groups do. The model provides a usable map of this intrapsychic territory and explicates its parallels with family interactions. The IFS model can be used to illuminate how and why parts of a person polarize with one another, creating paralyzing inner alliances that resemble the destructive coalitions found in dysfunctional families. It can also be utilized to tap core resources within people. Drawing from years of clinical experience, the author offers specific guidelines for helping clients release their potential and bring balance and harmony to their subpersonalities so they feel more integrated, confident, and alive. Schwartz also examines the common pitfalls that can increase intrapsychic fragmentation and describes indetail how to avoid them. Finally, the book extends IFS concepts and methods to our understanding of culture and families, producing a unique form of family and couples therapy that is clearly detailed and has straightforward instructions for treatment. Offering a comprehensive approach to human problems that allows therapists to move fluidly between the intrapsychic and family levels, this book will appeal to both individual- and family-oriented therapists. Easily integrated with other orientations, the IFS model provides a nonpathologizing way of understanding problems or diagnoses, and a clearly delineated way to create an enjoyable, collaborative relationship with clients.
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For those interested in finding out more about the Internal Family Systems Model of psychotherapy, this book is quite simply a seminal text. First published in 1995, Dr Schwartz begins by describing how, when working as a family therapist in the US in the 1980s, his clients seemed to make good progress in the early weeks of therapy, but then would plateau and make limited further headway. Schwartz was puzzled by this, and after much soul-searching, turned to his clients for an explanation. It soon emerged they each appeared to possess a unique population of inner personalities, most of which carried out specific functions. Furthermore, each had a core self that never lost its potential to lead their internal system, even in cases where the person had been subjected to experiences such as trauma, neglect, exploitation or abuse.
The book goes on to describe how, when working with clients with eating disorders, he was able to help the extreme aspects of their character and guide them towards a more harmonious collaboration, characterised by reduced symptoms and an improved sense of wellbeing. Dr Schwartz explains: ‘All parts are valuable and want to play constructive inner roles. They are forced into extreme and destructive roles by external influences [but] will gratefully find or return to preferred, valuable roles once they believe it is safe to do so.’
IFS comes across as a model of therapy that is collaborative, non-pathologising and compassionate, which takes clients on fascinating journeys into their inner and outer worlds, increasing insight and releasing resources at every turn. It has certainly contributed immeasurably to my own psychotherapy practice.