Trauma Therapy, and why I decided to give Internal Family Systems Theory (IFS) another chance

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Have you ever read something and had it go right over your head, only to return to it years later and have it speak to you in a profound way? Have you ever felt so excited about something you’ve come across that you want to write a blog post about it and share it with the world?

This, my friends, was my experience with Richard Schwartz’s (Ph.D. in Marriage and Family Therapy) theory of “Internal Family Systems” (IFS) – a theory that lived very much in the peripheral sphere of my therapy “toolbox” until I could actually figure out what it meant and how to use it. Most notably, IFS has helped me support clients to be kind and compassionate to the “parts” of themselves that act in ways that aren’t helpful to them, and this theory is deeply aligned with helping clients build the essential practice of self-compassion.

My understanding of developmental trauma:

I promise we will get to what IFS is…But first! Let me take you back to the foray of my career as a trauma-focused therapist, and why an understanding of trauma that is rooted in theory is helpful in supporting healing.

I became aware of the concept of “trauma” while working my first job as a social worker in a residential treatment program.  For those of you who don’t know what that is, residential treatment is a program that sees kids placed in a group-home where they are cared for by staff who are trained in responding to challenging behaviors in helpful ways (read: small child to staff ratio, lots of staff support, supervision, and training). At the same time that kids aren’t living in their homes, therapists work with these kids’ caregivers to help them understand the needs of these young people who present with behaviors that can be seen as “destructive”.  Ultimately the goal is to have caregivers understand the behavior as a function of the young person trying to get their needs met and keep themselves safe, and the goal is to return kids back into their homes or see them placed in another well-prepared setting (with extended family or foster-care placements).

Spoiler alert: this job was not easy.

The challenge is that you have stressed families who are tasked with responding to kids who are engaging in behaviors that are extremely difficult to manage. Let me paint you a picture – you have a child who is regularly trashing a classroom (and their school provides you with photos to show you how bad it is…), kids who threaten their classmates with sharpened popsicle sticks during art activities, heated outbursts in very public places to the dismay of those responsible for said kids, and a whole host of other socially undesirable behaviors that trigger caregivers into despair for very good reasons.

As this was my first job fresh out of grad school, I was eager to learn as much as possible about trauma– what was out there in the research that could support me to help these kids, and how do I look like I have a semblance of what I’m talking about when tasked to provide my expertise to teachers, principals, and children’s aid staff?

Cue my introduction to reading everything I could about developmental trauma.

Developmental trauma is trauma that exists as a result of a disruption in a child’s early relationships, which has profound impacts on how these kids develop and relate to themselves and the world around them. Instability in early relationships has the potential to fundamentally reorganize the nervous system to perceive threat where there may not be any (hence, angry outbursts “for no reason”) or, alternatively, causes a person to be desensitized to very real threat. In any event, the body’s “danger alert’ system” has been impacted.    

By definition, each child who comes to residential treatment is experiencing some sort of disruption in their care. My work in the field of developmental trauma has included work with kids in residential care, foster care, young offenders taken out of their homes and placed in custody, children who have witnessed domestic violence, and children who have themselves been survivors of abuse - all of these experiences mark early disruptions with later life impacts.

The Body Keeps the Score:

This line of work has led me to the purchase, read, re-read, and downright comb-through of my favorite trauma book – Bessel Van Der Kolk’s “The Body Keeps the Score”. The Body Keeps the score is divided into several parts – a helpful retelling of the historical views of how trauma has been understood, current research on trauma, and an overview of several different modalities used to promote healing. I have used many modalities in this book to treat trauma, but it is only recently that I’ve connected to the theory known as IFS, laid out in Chapter 17 of Van Der Kolk’s book.

So, what is IFS, you ask?

In his book, Van Der Kolk  devotes a whole chapter to Richard Shwartz’s theory of IFS, and explains that every major school of psychology recognizes that people have subpersonalities.

 In the theory of IFS, there is a central “self”, and three major sub-personalities that exist outside of the core “self”:  

1) Managers

2) Firefighters

3) Exiles

Stay with me, people. I, too, distinctly remember the names of the sub-personalities as being the reason I put this theory on hold for a few/five years and moved on to other modalities of treating trauma.

And yet, I’ve been looking for modalities for treatment that are at their core non-pathologizing, and IFS not only fits the bill but also provides a creative way to understand trauma and the behavior that I see so commonly in the clients I work with.

Here goes nothing - a cursory explanation of the “self” and the three sub-personalities that exist in the theory of IFS:

The self:

IFS maintains that there is a central “SELF”, and that there is a part of us that can observe our other “selves”. This would be similar to the part you access in meditation when you watch your thoughts float by, if you’ve ever had that experience.  IFS maintains that within everybody lives this “self”, and that the" “self” has the fundamental desire to be safe, happy and calm, without exception.

It would then follow that people would only do what’s best for them, right? Eat well and exercise, avoid harmful substances, avoid unhealthy relationships. And yet, time and time again I see people who are engaged in behavior that is counterproductive to wellness. IFS maintains that the reason for this lies in understanding that there are MULTIPLE parts to us that truly are doing their best, and these “parts” are listed below: 

1) Managers:

 Managers are the “part” of us that keep us safe by being proactive – they control relationships to make sure people don’t get too close or too distanced, try to control your appearance, and criticize you when you make a mistake.  While seemingly “positive”, when this part takes over it can be relentless  – think perfectionism, the part of you that wants to control everything to be perfect and feels out of control when things don’t go as exactly planned.

2) Firefighters:

This is the part of us that is the “emergency responder” that acts impulsively whenever triggered – this part will do anything to not feel an uncomfortable emotion. This is the “part” of us that engages in what may be called “self-destructive” behaviors, including binging and purging, acting out in anger, abusing drugs and alcohol, etc.

The important thing to note is that these parts have a FUNCTION, and the function is to try and keep the third and final sub-personality from experiencing deeply rooted pain. The third and final “part” is known as the exile.

3) Exiles:

Exiles are hurt parts of us that we often carry from childhood. These are parts of us that feel afraid, ashamed, and hurt. When the exile is triggered, the nervous system becomes completely dysregulated and truly fears annihilation.

Ultimately, the parts of us that act out destructively and the parts of us that are constantly trying to control our lives are just trying to make sure we don’t feel so hurt that we quite literally become too overwhelmed to go on.

IFS - from theory to practice:

So! We have different parts that have funny names. So what? How is this helpful in practice?

Since learning about IFS, I have found a new framework to talk to my clients about behaviours that they so badly want to change. I work with clients with disordered eating, or clients who feel the need to control every single aspect of their lives, leading to rigid thinking and anxiety.

The point is to understand that when people do things like abuse substances, the “firefighter” part is working hard to ensure that the body is regulating emotions in the best way it knows how, through using substances, and.. that’s okay. It’s only through the acceptance that we are doing the best we can that things ultimately start to shift.  When clients try to control every aspect of their lives, this is the “manager” trying to keep the client safe and regulated, and that’s okay, too. Ultimately all behaviors are seen with compassion and understanding, and this really fits for me.

Understanding unhelpful behaviors as “protective” is helpful for adults and kids alike – instead of judging people, can we instead curiously explore why this may be happening?

Befriending the different parts:

IFS explores these “parts” as, quite literally, distinct “people” with distinct characteristics, hence the name of the internal FAMILY system. The theory sees the distinct personalities as having a mind of their own.

I work with my clients to explore the following questions: What triggers the firefighters/managers to come out? What age do they act like? What kind of language do they use? What behaviors do they engage in?

We also look at what these parts are trying to “protect” – what are some unhealed wounds felt by the “exiled” part, the part of us that is so badly hurt that we will engage in “unhelpful” behaviors to not have to feel what is there?

 The results have been such that clients can meet the parts of them that they so badly want to ignore, show them compassion, thank them for the work that they’ve done so far, and literally ask the parts for permission to take a step back. People start to understand that the adaptive strategy that may have been helpful historically is no longer helpful.

There are many ways to communicate with the parts – this can be done with “chair-work” to speak to the parts in an empty chair, or communication/exploration can occur through journaling exercises. What’s fascinating to me is seeing the nervous system’s reaction to asking a part to please take a step back, the same way you would ask an unhelpful family member to leave a therapy session and wait in the waiting room. There is a dialogue that can happen between the selves, and it can be truly transformative.

And we’re learning and we’re growing:

And so it goes that each and every year I do this work I find new ways of understanding the complexities of human behavior, and creative ways of exploring all the ways we try to understand the past, function in the present, and heal so we can move on with the future.

My next task it to read Lisa Spiegel’s book, “ Internal Family Systems with Children” to see how this theory is applied to young people who are struggling. I’ll let you know how it goes!

Do you have experience or interest in IFS? I’d love to hear if you do, and the populations that you have found helpful to work with this theory.