Book Review: Internal Family Systems Therapy

RfG Newsletter, Volume 5, Number 1, Fall 1995

Internal Family Systems Therapy
Richard C. Schwartz. New York: Guilford, 1995.

Throughout the history of psychology, personality theorists have explained the variability of human thought, emotion and behavior between persons far more confidently than the variability within them. With the relative decline of the importance of psycho-dynamic theories and practice, clinicians have given more emphasis to typologies that guide differential diagnosis than to models which aid in dealing with intrapersonal variability. Behaviorist-oriented clinicians, together with most family systems therapists, have largely turned away from the internal process of individuals.

Unlike those who have relied on Object Relations concepts to integrate theories of individual and family therapies, Richard Schwartz, a prominent family therapist, has developed a new model of clinical practice that views the individual psyche as a system. While he acknowledges that the elements of his model are not novel (crediting Assagioli’s psychosynthesis and Minuchin’s Structural family therapy), Schwartz has developed an integration that stands apart in being clinically useful.

The Internal Family Systems (IFS) model views the individual mind as multiple, not unitary, consisting of numerous subpersonalities, or parts. Schwartz believes these parts to be real, full personalities, not merely mental constructs or unidimensional roles. These parts are grouped into: Exiles, likened to traumatized children whose pain threatens to emerge and damage the inner system; Managers, functioning to protect the system by working strategically to keep the environment safe; and Firefighters, automatically avoiding negative feelings by numbing or acting out. Presiding over the other parts is the Self, an entity that functions both as an active leader-part and as a passive observer-seat of consciousness. The parts organize and interact in the same manner as family members.

A major strength of the IFS model is that therapists move between the interpersonal (external family members) and intrapsychic levels of systems according to where change may best be effected (a later chapter on applying the model at the Cultural/Societal level is conceptually interesting but is too general for practical clinical use). At all levels of systems, human problems are located on one of four dimensions: Constrained Development (“burdens”), Imbalance of Power, Disharmony, and Problematic Leadership (by the Self). Schwartz gives most attention to this last dimension, viewing IFS as particularly effective in empowering the Self to take both executive and nurturant leadership of the parts. In this process, the therapist serves as co-therapist (I would say, consultant) to the client’s Self.

The two distinctive IFS therapeutic techniques for working with inner parts are: In-sight (similar to Jung’s “active imagination”), in which the observing Self is asked to focus on a part and describe it, sometimes putting it in an imaginary room by itself to avoid evoking other conflicting (“polarized”) parts; and, Direct Access, where the therapist talks directly to one or more parts, often having the client change chairs to enact different parts (similar to Gestalt work, but with the therapist working systemically with all evoked parts). Somewhat disappointingly to me, Schwartz uses only conversation in his inner parts work; in passing, he mentions other IFS therapists who work with children, using drawings, clay, puppets, and psychodramatic techniques. I wanted more of this!

In the IFS model, multiplicity is an inferred characteristic of individual consciousness, organized and watched over by a core Self. In RfG, by contrast, multiplicity is a feature of the observable social/interpersonal self (in the form of dramatic characters); the RfG model remains agnostic about the existence of a core, or true self. As the IFS model appears to have been formulated largely out of work with clients who experienced trauma, RfG techniques could be used adjunctively to reduce fears. In IFS terms, Exiles could be evoked as characters in RfG games; presumably, the as-if context of play would allow Managers to relax their vigilance and protectiveness to some degree. Enactment of scenes between characters that “stand in for” polarized parts could prove helpful. Also, Firefighter behaviors could be dealt with in-role more safely than in conventional social reality.

Although not trained in IFS, I have been using elements of this model in my clinical work over the past three years and can attest to their usefulness. Unlike Schwartz, I prefer to think of internal parts as descriptive metaphors, just as I treat all clinical and psychological constructs. I (or at least parts of me) am uneasy with a theory of persons-within-persons; this thinking appears similar to the idea of an “homunculus,” the Medieval European concept of a “seed-person” used to explain human conception, which defers rather than provides meaningful explanation.

Internal Family Systems Therapy is clearly written and well- organized. Though theory is set forth in some detail, the author’s perspective is pragmatic, with a wealth of case material and practical pointers (a weakness, though, is that clinical examples are drawn disproportionately from work with bulemic clients). An appendix helpfully outlines the model’s detailed steps in working with individuals. Toward the end of the book Schwartz stresses the therapist’s differentiated use of Self as paramount, since the therapist’s parts may easily be evoked in the therapeutic encounter. If the therapist maintains self-leadership and a connection with the clients’ Selves, s/he can overcome mistakes. “Therapists should work with the parts of them that fear mistakes, instead of letting such parts constrain their work.” (p. 218) I heartily agree!

Overall, I view IFS as a promising approach that both individually- and systems-oriented clinicians at intermediate-level or above could benefit from. This book serves as an effective introduction to therapists willing to explore this model.