I have been reflecting on a beautiful approach to counselling referred to as Internal Family Systems (IFS). First developed in the 1980s by Dr Richard Schwartz, the model posits that the individual person is made up of parts that make up the whole person. The model is building a growing evidence base for working with a range of complex issues and is endorsed by the Australian Psychological Society for its effectiveness. The model fits with a biblical view of the person being wonderfully complex and intricately designed so that it can overcome a myriad of difficulties (Ps.139). It also resembles the design of the Church in being a body made up of many parts but every one of them valuable and playing an essential role in the life of the family of God (1 Cor.12: 12-27).
Now this is where I need your creative part to listen for a moment...
Imagine for a moment that there is a wonderful family that lives inside of you, they were designed to work, play and eat together in wonderful unity alongside their loving Creator. However, as we know from the biblical story (Gen. 3), our inner and outer families carry intergenerational trauma stemming from a deep wound (Sin) causing the burden of fear, shame, pain and ultimately feelings of unworthiness. These parts of us in IFS are known as exiles and they get pushed down as a person's life undergoes difficulties and trials adding to the wounds.
Wounds hurt! God has designed humans so wonderfully that he created band aids within us to help soothe the pain. In IFS these band aids are referred to as Protectors, they are wonderful little people that are activated in the system when a traumatic event occurs, they help keep the person feeling in control and fend off dangerous situations. The first group are called managers, they feel a responsibility to help the exiles, they do this through controlling others, judging, planning, caretaking, people pleasing, analysing, basically keeping things running in order to prevent those wounds getting exposed again. They mostly do a good job, but they can get stuck in extreme roles and cause harm to a person's system causing them to burnout. They can start to lead a person and can often get into fights with another group of protectors called 'firefighters'.
Like managers, firefighters are also burdened with responsibility, albeit more frantic. These protective parts jump into action whenever vulnerable feelings, memories, beliefs, and experiences come to the surface and destabilize the inner system. Firefighters may present in extreme ways, such as with addictions, self-harm and dissociation. While these parts hold the responsibility to quench our emotional overwhelm, their frantic, reactive, impulsive, and destructive nature can ultimately backfire and make things even worse.
How are you feeling about this little family within you right now? Does it resonate just a little?
Now imagine, that within you is a house, the exiles are in their rooms and a little scared to come out, their managers are guarding the doors to their rooms and the firefighters, well they're a bit like security guards standing at the front door outside. The Son of the owner of the house has come home and is sitting at the head of the dining table in the house, he has set a beautiful meal and is waiting for his little family to come and join him, he is very patient, calm, compassionate, warm, loving and trustworthy and he longs for all these little ones to come and join him because he wants them to experience His grace and love, he wants to heal them from their painful feelings and wounds, he wants them to be able to play together and enjoy him forever.
In IFS language this is referred to as the Self, and everyone has one, we were all created in God's image and have a place within us (the dining table) where we can commune with our Creator. For a Christian this is where the Holy Spirt resides and leads a person towards Christ centred living where one can experience the fruit of the Spirit.
In IFS, all parts are welcome to come and join him and when they do, they are transformed into the roles that they were meant to be rather than the survival roles they have been stuck in.
How does that feel within you? Would you like to learn more about IFS? Please get in contact we'd love to support you as you get to know yourself better.