Internal Family Systems: No part left behind

Frank G. Anderson, M.D.

There’s a good chance that by now you’ve seen, or at least heard, about Pixar's movie Inside Out. The popular children’s film is set inside the mind of Riley Andersen, a young girl struggling to adjust to life after her family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco. Within Riley’s mind are five distinct emotions tasked with helping Riley navigate life. They include joy, sadness, fear, disgust and anger.

We can all relate to Riley’s conflicted emotions about moving to a new city. How often have you said “A part of me wants to… and then there’s a part of me that doesn’t…” as we grapple with our internal self, desires, and behaviors.

Developed by Dick Schwartz in the 80’s, IFS started as a grassroots therapy model and is quickly becoming a sought after treatment. We sat down with Frank Guastella Anderson, M.D., and director of the Foundation for Self Leadership, to get the scoop on what makes this emerging therapy the hot new kid on the block.

PESI: Now that folks have seen Inside Out and we can’t spoil anything, what’s your favorite part of the movie?

Anderson: We go through life assuming that happiness is the goal feeling: it's what we should strive to be feeling 100% of the time. Inside Out shows us that other feelings, even those that make us uncomfortable, have a really important role in our lives. In Inside Out, Sadness isn’t just a character, she’s the hero! The film provides a great way to start normalizing the idea that our parts, even those that are uncomfortable to feel, are all equally important at protecting our core self.

PESI: What’s unique about IFS?

Anderson: IFS is an emotional, body- based therapy that focuses on a person’s internal resources to heal. The thing that really sets IFS apart from other treatment models is that it is non-pathologizing and fosters permanent healing by getting to the root cause of wounds. Other therapies, like sensorimotor psychotherapy, AEDP, and EMDR, have similar elements, but in my experience IFS is the most complete model in the experiential realm.

In IFS, we believe that all parts of the mind have good intentions (even suicidal parts for example), they are either trying to protect us or they hold emotional wounds. We work compassionately with those protective parts to gain access to and ultimately heal the wounded parts. IFS also believes that all individuals inherently have the capacity to heal (called Self energy) and that it does not need to be cultivated or resourced, we are born with it. It’s a model that challenges some of the common assumptions made in the mental health field that are more pathology based.

PESI: Last time we talked, you told us that the Foundation for Self Leadership was focused on bringing evidence-based validity to the IFS model. Has this happened?

Anderson: We are pleased to say that IFS is now on the National Registry for Evidence-based Programs and Practices. Interventions listed in the NREPP have been subject to independent, rigorous scrutiny and are deemed to show significant impact on individual outcomes relating to mental health.

The NREPP has deemed IFS effective for improving general functioning and well-being. In addition, it has also been rated promising for each of: improving phobia, panic, and generalized anxiety disorders and symptoms; physical health conditions and symptoms; personal resilience and self-concept; and depression and depressive symptoms.

Such outcomes deepen our resolve to catalyze additional research studies, both in clinical settings and in applications beyond psychotherapy.

PESI: OK, let’s get real… this "parts" talk is a little confusing. How can we get a better feel for IFS?

Anderson: The best way to understand IFS is to experience it. When I teach clinicians about IFS, I do a number of guided meditations with everyone in the room. You can do this from home by watching the video below. In this meditation, we go inside our mind with an agenda of working with someone in our life that is triggering and activating some of our parts. Give it a try!

Frank Guastella Anderson, MD, completed his residency and was a clinical instructor in Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. He is an executive director of the Foundation for Self Leadership and has served on the research advisory committee and the speakers bureau for the Center for Self Leadership.

He has lectured extensively on IFS, the Neurobiology of PTSD and Dissociation, and wrote the chapter “Who’s Taking What” Connecting Neuroscience, Psychopharmacology and Internal Family Systems for Trauma in Internal Family Systems Therapy-New Dimensions. He has maintained a long affiliation with Bessel van der Kolk’s Trauma Center at Justice Resource Center in Boston and maintains a private practice in Concord, MA.

Topic: Internal Family Systems (IFS)

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