Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy: a non-pathologising stance
Updated: Jul 31
The medical mono theory of mind continues to be the dominant paradigm in psychiatry and psychological therapy. In this way, individuals are seen to be fully integrated - having a single mind and personality. Psychological assessment is usually organised around this, diagnosing pathology, which is designated according to checklists of symptoms chosen by committees of professionals: bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression, PTSD, OCD, and a host of personality disorders to name a few.
The Internal Family Systems (IFS) understanding of the psyche orients assessment away from the pathology-based focus into a different direction. One of the primary underlying assumptions in IFS is that the mind is plural, so we assess the activities of an individual from the perspective of their plural mind. At the outset of therapy, the IFS Therapist hears the client’s challenges as those of one part, and then we start to get a rough map of the internal terrain by getting a sense of any other parts that may be involved. As the therapy goes along, we ask the parts to “unblend” (separate or differentiate) which makes some space for the client’s Self to be curious about how these parts serve the client’s internal system (if they are protective parts - managers or firefighters) or to be unburdened (if they are Exiles).
At the start of therapy, before we even know the client’s system, we also start to check their level of Self-energy (characterised by the 8c’s of Self) by being interested in their inner experience. The plural model of the mind guides us to be curious about the contributions of client’s inner relationships to their current distress. We can wonder about many things such as: how the client treats themselves? Can the client be compassionate towards themselves? Do they have a brutal self-critic that constantly pushes themselves to do more? If this is the case, we can be curious about how this self-criticism is trying to help, and what function it serves in the internal system. In this way we can trust that the client’s symptomatic behaviour will make some sense once we know them and see their parts in the context of their developmental experiences.
While a trek back into the client’s personal history is central to the process - unlike other approaches - in IFS we assume that we are not hearing the whole story at the outset of therapy. Indeed the client themselves may not initially know the whole story as dissociative parts may be blocking this. Additionally, any story told by a “storyteller” part in the initial sessions may not actually be that relevant to what actually unfolds in the therapy, as the story of parts may be told in body sensation, images, and emotions - not just in verbal narrative. In some cases, because the work is purely internal, the clients does not need to ever articulate content, and the therapist focuses almost solely on the process of building the Self to part relationships.
To try this out for yourself, I invite you to use the following meditation from Internal Family Systems founder, Dr Richard Schwartz to get in contact with part of you purely through body sensation and notice what happens.