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Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS) and Addiction Treatment

Family issues are a part of life. All families, no matter how coherent they seem, have their own set of problems. Each individual's family dynamic has a big impact on the people they become and how they relate to the world.

Internal Family Systems Therapy

We learn to relate to ourselves and the world around us largely through how we relate to our family. Internal family systems therapy (IFS) is a therapy technique that aims to help people understand the different parts of themselves, and how those parts developed as a result of their family dynamic growing up and currently.

The internal family systems therapy technique can be used to help recovering addicts. In this article, we will outline what internal family systems therapy programs are, how they work, and what to expect when using IFS as part of an addiction treatment plan.

What is Internal Family Systems Therapy?

Internal family systems therapy is based upon Family Systems theory. This theory is basically the idea that a single person cannot be totally understood without understanding the family from which they came.

IFS therapy takes it one step further and works on the assumption that all people have “parts” that have developed through their family dynamic. Just like a family has multiple people in it who all interact and work together to make a whole, this type of therapy believes that each person has these parts within them.

This therapy model also works on a belief that a ‘Self’ exists underneath all of the parts. The goal of an IFS therapy program is to help an addict get to know how their ‘parts’ work. By understanding this, they can make better decisions from more of a ‘Self’ standpoint.

What to Expect with IFS

IFS is a form of talk therapy. This means that your therapist will be using certain techniques and principles related to IFS. Your main responsibility as a patient will be to talk to your therapist. Through conversation, your therapist will help you get in touch with your ‘parts’. These are the sub-personalities that make up your internal world.

For example, a patient with an addiction to heroin might be asked to take some deep breaths, relax, and look inside to see the part of themselves that wants to shoot up. Sometimes, this part is identifiable via a feeling in the body, an image in the mind, or just an awareness that it exists.

Once you and your therapist have worked to identify these parts, the focus turns towards feelings about suppressed emotions, especially those that come from family interactions.

When internal family systems therapy is used as part of an addiction treatment plan, the focus is usually to use the IFS model to understand the underlying issues that led to substance abuse. This is a part of many kinds of therapy, but in IFS, focus remains on understanding which parts are associated with which emotions.

There are some techniques that your therapist might use during a session, as well as some exercises they might ask you to complete at home. This is kind of like supplemental ‘therapy homework’, and it can be really helpful for addiction recovery because it keeps you engaged with the work outside of therapy.

Common Techniques & Exercises of IFS

  • Diagrams: Used to show how the ‘parts’ relate to each other.
  • Keeping a journal: This can help recovering addicts to stay engaged with the work. Usually, journaling assigned by an IFS therapist is done in the ‘language’ of IFS, with parts and a Self.
  • Identifying parts: It is not always easy for patients to identify their parts. Sometimes, this takes work involving meditative exercises, relaxing, and becoming more present. From this relaxed, present place, your therapist can help guide you towards getting to know your different parts.
  • Feeling into the heart: Your therapist might use techniques to help you feel into your present emotions. Usually, this will be done towards the beginning of a session to help patients identify where they are at and how open they feel to therapy.

How Does IFS Work?

Internal family systems therapy is based on a number of assumptions. These assumptions are basically the principles of this kind of therapy, and most therapists who practice IFS use these assumptions to base their work off of. There are 5 main assumptions, or principles, at the foundation of IFS therapy:

  • Everyone’s brain has an unknown number of parts.
  • Everyone has a Self. This Self is the core part of each person who is confident, happy, compassionate, and whole. The Self should be the one ‘running the show’, meaning that the Self should be aware of the parts and be able to control them.
  • There are no ‘bad’ parts. That being said, parts that don’t act in an extreme way help the whole person be happy.
  • As a person grows and develops, so do their parts and the relationships between them. Often, people get more complex with age.
  • Changing the way that the parts interact with each other can change a person’s external life. In a substance abuse context, this could mean that through the understanding of a person’s internal parts and how they work, an individual could learn to control their addiction.

These assumptions make up the base of IFS, and is what therapists work off of.

Three Main 'Parts' of IFS

Since so much of the work has to do with the ‘parts’ that make up a person, there are also three main types of parts outlined in IFS. They are:

  • Managers: fend off difficult emotions, experiences, and interactions in order to keep a person functional.
  • Exiles: are parts that carry difficult emotions with them. Usually, these parts come from childhood. Managers and firefighters keep exiles away in order to continue functioning.
  • Firefighters: When exiles come to the surface, bringing with them difficult suppressed emotions, firefighters distract the person from feeling these emotions. Firefighters prompt a person to engage in behaviors that are indulgent, addictive, and sometimes even abusive - all to distract a person from the feelings of the exiles.

Anyone who has struggled with addiction can probably identify with the ‘firefighter’ part (or parts) of themselves. This is why internal family systems therapy is so effective in treating things like substance abuse and eating disorders. The behaviors that people with these disorders show are usually firefighter behaviors.

IFS helps a patient understand that this is just a self-defense system. They can work to look at the emotions of the exiles and work through the pain they have been avoiding.

Getting Help for Addiction

Internal family systems therapy programs are offered in many addiction treatment centers. In order for addiction treatment to be successful, detox has to be paired with good therapy and strong support systems. It can be hard work recovering from addiction, but it is worth it.

Many addictions come with major, potentially life-ruining consequences. In some cases, overdose could be fatal. Addiction treatment is a worthy investment, and the time to take action is now. With treatments like internal family systems therapy, addicts can make a full recovery.

Ready to make a change? Talk to a specialist now.