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Why do I Feel So Conflicted?: Working with Your Internal Family System

Have you ever felt pulled in two opposing directions, unable to make a decision? Or planned to have a productive day, only to find yourself easily distracted and unable to focus? Do you have a critical voice that berates you for being lazy or making mistakes? Internal Family Systems (IFS) is a counselling orientation that works with these different parts of the mind, seeking to establish balance and harmony in our internal systems.

The Internal Family of Parts
IFS asserts that the human mind is naturally divided into many different parts. You might think of them as little people inside, each with their own personalities and perspectives. IFS categorizes the parts of ourselves into protectors (managers and fire-fighters) and exiles. Managers push us to work hard and succeed in order to feel good and keep feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy at bay. Fire-fighters on the other hand, are more reactive and impulsive, and could take the form of a compulsion that drives addictive behaviours whenever one is threatened by feelings of shame, hopelessness or despair. These parts have their own characters and agendas, which naturally leads to internal conflict when these agendas contradict each other. For example, a manager may want you to focus on your work, while a fire-fighter recognizes your rising stress level and wants you to blow off some steam. Tension between parts often manifests as anxiety and confusion which can be paralyzing and lead to exhaustion when left unresolved.

Self-Leadership
Thankfully, we all have the ability to take leadership over these internal personalities. In IFS this is called Self-leadership. The concept of the Self as the caretaker of our own parts is a unique component to IFS and can effectively end the internal war we may be experiencing. Instead of experiencing the chaos and tension of parts clamouring for attention, the Self is able to compassionately witness parts’ perspectives while negotiating an outcome that benefits the whole system. By asking ourselves how we feel towards our angry, sad, or impulsive parts, we can determine whether we are interacting with them from the wise Self. We know we are “in Self” when we can access the qualities of compassion, creativity, courage, connectedness, calmness, clarity, curiosity and confidence.

Parts can only see situations from their own limited perspectives, but the Self has access to the wider “bird’s eye” view. Think of the difference between a child’s perspective and that of an adult. With more experience and a greater capacity to make predictions the Self is better equipped to handle conflict between parts and restore balance to the internal system.

An Example
If you receive a failing grade at school or some negative feedback at work, a cluster of parts can get activated. An internal critic may arise, berating you for not working hard enough. This internal criticism can trigger another part’s feelings of unworthiness or inadequacy (exiles). You may feel another part urging you to give up, or an angry part who wants you to work harder. The triggering of old wounds mixed with the current negative feedback can be an overwhelming experience for the internal system. A fire-fighter part may arise to put out the feelings of overwhelm and unworthiness using dissociation or numbing substances and behaviours. Often, this results in a polarization between the fire-fighting strategies and the manager parts. Instead of getting trapped between the differing needs of separate parts, the IFS therapist works to restore balance in the system by helping the client’s Self work with each part from a compassionate, calm, and creative stance.

Outcomes of Self-Leadership
The goal of Internal Family Systems Therapy is to help one connect to the Self, and from this place connect to the various parts and care for them. This shift in relating to oneself in a caring, compassionate way can have many benefits, including:
• Heightened feelings of peace, presence, and purpose,
• A reduced desire to numb or avoid,
• Increased energy,
• Processing of unresolved trauma,
• Improved relationships with others.

If you feel curious about the IFS model, this handout from Derek Scott provides further details, including examples of the different parts as well as qualities of the Self:
 
 

Andrew Phillipps is an intern at Sojourn Counselling and Neurofeedback who uses an IFS lens with his clients. If you would like to experience therapy with this model, Andrew provides counselling services at a reduced rate. Book your first session with him today.

Sojourn Counselling and Neurofeedback serves the Greater Vancouver and the Fraser Valley regions from offices in Cloverdale, Surrey BC.

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