Richard Schwartz, PhD
Richard Schwartz, PhD, is a psychotherapist and researcher most widely known for developing Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS).
Richard uses this treatment approach to help clients release suppressed emotions, implement healthy strategies for stress management, and overcome trauma.
Richard has published more than 50 articles and several books on his methods, including No Bad Parts.
What is Internal Family Systems?
Internal Family Systems is a model that says people have distinct subpersonalities – or “parts” – within them.
Parts interact with each other in ways that are similar to how people interact – hence the name, Internal Family Systems. For this reason, Richard often sees parts as internal people with their own characteristics, thoughts, feelings, likes and dislikes, motivations, histories, and perspectives on the world. They each play a role in influencing a person’s behavior.
When parts are cooperating and working together towards a common goal, the system is functioning in a healthy way.
However, if parts have conflicting desires and engage in maladaptive behaviors to attain these desires, then the system is unstable – and this can lead to suffering.
This is how the IFS model can help clients understand why they may act in contradictory ways – and particularly why they may engage in behaviors that contribute to psychological distress, despite these behaviors often being acts of self-sabotage.
Now, when certain parts engage in these unhealthy behaviors, it’s often because those parts carry what Richard refers to as “burdens,” or their “burden of worthlessness.”
Burdens are extreme negative beliefs and emotions that were formed from hurtful events in the past, but that parts continue to hold to this day. When a part carries burdens, it can often feel the need to protect itself by engaging in unhealthy coping mechanisms.
Although a person’s parts may be causing them harm, the IFS approach works under the assumption that all parts have a positive intent – even if they are engaging in destructive behaviors. A core goal of IFS therapy is not to banish or eliminate any parts, but to instead heal the wounded parts and help restore balance.
As Richard puts it,
“Everybody has these different parts of themselves. It’s not a sign of pathology. It just simply is the way we are structured as human beings, to have a bunch of little minds working together ideally to try and help us survive and thrive – and they’re all valuable.”
– Richard Schwartz, PhD, Expert Strategies for Working with Traumatic Memory
The Types of Parts in IFS Therapy
Based on Richard’s IFS Model, people contain three different types of parts. Those three types are:
- Exiles – Exiles are our youngest, most vulnerable parts. They exhibit our most “childlike” qualities, like exuberance and unfiltered curiosity. However, when these child parts are shamed, rejected, or even abused, these painful, traumatic memories leave a lasting imprint on these impressionable parts. As a result, our Exiles will hold deep childhood wounds even years into the future. They’ll often feel abandoned and unloved by the rest of the world, and will often isolate themselves to prevent future harm. But deep down, these parts are desperate for love, attention, and safety – and this is why they may act out in unrestrained, disorderly ways.
- Managers – In attempt to protect our child parts from experiencing further harm, our Manager parts will stifle and control our Exiles and their unruly behavior. Accordingly, these parts often manifest as perfectionsim, being judgmental of others, and/or as a person’s inner critic. Managers often feel responsible for keeping the entire system safe. They fear that if they let their guard down, they’ll no doubt get hurt – and that the pain of these reopened wounds will be unbearable.
- Firefighters – When Managers fail at keeping Exiles in check and the overwhelming emotions of our Exiles break loose, our Firefighter parts react by doing damage control. They’ll frantically work to deny, suppress, ignore, avoid, or distract themselves from distressing emotions. This might look like self-harm, substance abuse, binge eating, or even dissociation.
Our Managers and Firefighters also fall under the umbrella of “protector parts,” since they work – though, often in maladaptive ways – to keep our Exiles safe from further harm.
But according to Richard, while experiences can have a significant effect on parts, parts are not created by experiences. In other words, an individual is “born” with their parts – everyone has them.
And an essential part of IFS therapy involves helping clients identify these parts inside them . . .
How to Use IFS Therapy in a Clinical Session to Treat Trauma
IFS therapy can be used to work with a number of psychological issues, including depression, anxiety, and perfectionism, among other conditions. And it can be a particularly relevant intervention when any of those mental health conditions may be rooted in trauma.
That’s because trauma is often what has injured our Exile parts and triggered our Manager and Firefighter parts into overdrive.
Accordingly, the goal of IFS therapy, as Richard describes it, is to help a client resolve the internal conflict created by traumatic experiences – or what Richard calls “unblending” parts.
In other words, when a client’s reactive parts have been at the forefront for so long, your client might start to identify with them.
But it’s important that we show clients that they’re not defined by the maladaptive actions of their parts. Rather, parts are just one aspect of who a person is – but they don’t tell the whole story.
So how do we help clients see past those protector parts that often cloud and distort their self-perception?
Here’s the step-by-step approach that Richard often uses to implement IFS:
- When parts flare up, welcome them – No matter how harsh a client’s parts may be, we always want to extend compassion and curiosity toward them. Criticizing, fighting, or ignoring them will often make them even more defensive.
- Focus attention inward – When a client’s protector parts come to the surface, encourage your client to turn their attention inward. You might ask them, “Where do you feel this part in your body?” or, “How do you feel toward this part?” At this stage, your client will likely still hold some resentment toward those parts. But this is normal at this point, and there are strategies to move past this . . .
- Encourage curiosity – To overcome the barriers that your client’s protector parts might put up, you can encourage your client to be curious about these parts, rather than critical. You might have them ask these parts, “What compels you to act this way?” or, “What are you afraid might happen if you didn’t do your job?” Often, these parts will slowly start revealing their fears. Your client might directly speak from the perspective of their protector parts and say, “I’m trying to make sure you never get hurt again, like you were in the past.” This can be such a pivotal moment for your client – because once they understand that a desire for safety drives their protector parts, then they can start to appreciate how these parts work to keep them safe.
- Negotiate permission – Once these protector parts start opening up, it may be tempting to dive right in and work on getting them to stop their maladaptive behaviors. But this often leads the client’s parts to resist further. Instead, you want to first establish a sense of safety to help a client’s protector parts relax a bit. You might do this by asking them to “step out of the room,” but let them know that they can come back in whenever they feel they need to. This last point is important, because protector parts often crave control. Otherwise, they’ll throw their defenses right back up.
- Connect with a client’s Exiles – Often, after getting some distance from their protector parts, you client can then turn toward the parts of them that feel they need protecting, or the Exiles. Without the pressure of the Manager and Firefighter parts, your client’s Exiles now have the space to voice their fears, desires, and the pain that they endured in the past. Here’s where you can do the deep work with your client and unpack the pain and trauma that fuels their mental distress.
- Introduce an alternative way of being – At this point, you can make your client’s Managers a deal: Let them know that it’s possible for them to exist without being on such high guard all the time. Now this inner critic might reflectively doubt this, but ask them to give you a chance to show them that it can in fact happen.
And here’s the point where you and your client can begin to tap into their higher “Self” . . .
How to Use IFS to Help Clients Access Their “Self”
Ultimately, the goal of IFS therapy is to help your client get in touch with what Richard calls the “Self.”
The “Self” is a wise, internal guide that is capable of helping a person engage in mature, healthy decisions and behaviors. When a client has access to this resource, they’re able to accept and nurture their parts instead of shaming them.
And according to Richard, just like everyone is born with various parts, we all also inherently possess this “Self.”
As you progress your client through IFS therapy, instead of just having access to the client’s parts, you’ll slowly begin to reveal their “Self”.
But spotting this “Self” can be tricky because it’s often buried beneath a number of protector parts. So as the clinician, how do you know whether you’ve truly accessed a client’s “Self”? How can you make sure that you’re not still talking to a protector part that’s masquerading as the client’s “Self”?
According to Richard, we can tell a person is acting from their Self when we observe what he calls the 8 Cs of Self-Leadership:
- Calmness – Your client can maintain a sense of serenity and react to triggers in less impulsive and extreme ways.
- Clarity – Your client can interpret situations accurately and objectively, without distortion from extreme beliefs or emotions. They’re also able to recognize their own biases and then look beyond them.
- Curiosity – Your client has a sense of wonder about the world and seeksto know more. They approach new ideas, situations, and people in less judgmental ways.
- Compassion – Your client appreciates others and themselves without feeling the need to fix, change, or judge.
- Confidence – Your client trusts that they can handle the ups and downs that come in life. They’re able to understand that making mistakes is a natural and inevitable part of being human.
- Courage – Your client shows resilience in the face of threat, challenge, or danger. Despite a goal seeming overwhelming, they still work toward that goal. They’re also able to take responsibility for their wrongdoings and make amends when necessary.
- Creativity – Your client engages in creative thinking and taps into their imagination to produce original ideas and generate solutions to problems.
- Connectedness – Your client feels part of a larger entity, like a team, community, or organization. They’re able to let their guard down around others and feel safe that they won’t be judged or hurt.
According to Richard, when we are acting from a place of Self-leadership, we’ll exhibit all these positive qualities. And this is when we’ll feel more empowered, secure, and capable to accept ourselves – and to form healthy, meaningful connections with others.
For More Information . . .
Learn more about Richard Schwartz’s approach to the treatment of trauma in one of these courses:
How to Work with the Patterns That Sustain Depression
3.75 CE/CME Credits Available
Expert Strategies for Working with Anxiety
4 CE/CME Credits Available
How to Work With Shame
4 CE/CME Credits Available
How to Work With Clients Who Are Stuck
4 CE/CME Credits Available
Working with the Pain of Abandonment
4.25 CE/CME Credits Available
Successful Strategies to Make Your First Sessions Great
3.5 CE/CME Credits Available
Find out more about how Richard Schwartz, PhD, uses Internal Family Systems Therapy here:
An IFS Approach to Fear and Anxiety During the COVID-19 Pandemic
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How to Help Clients Build Resilience after Trauma
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