A family is a system composed of people whose members inevitably become at odds with each other. Sometimes, this is resolved without intervention. Other times, however, it requires a professional, such as a family therapist, to help them explore why they continue to clash and how to resolve it.
One such approach that therapists use is the Internal Family Systems model. This was developed in 1995 by Dr Richard C. Schwartz. At its core, it helps individuals uncover their honest emotions, such as their hopes, desires, and anxieties, by uncovering the concept of the Self. Dr Schwartz believed that every person contains a healing and healthy Self that has been dominated by inner voices/subpersonalities that he called “parts.”
These parts represent different emotions, whose level of destruction and influence are acquired through external experiences (ex. trauma), family values, and interactions (conflicts).
To put it simply, family conflict, more often than not, comes from each other’s ‘parts’ triggering one another.
How does this translate into therapy itself?
In this approach, the therapist will explain to each family member that their family conflict is more often than not a consequence of their inner conflict (concept of ‘parts’). They are then reassured that these ‘parts’ that dominate are merely ‘parts’ of themselves. Once they understand what circumstances may have triggered these parts, will they be able to work towards uncovering the Self that responds to conflict in a healthier, more functional manner.
More often than not, families are comforted by the fact that they are not only reduced to the roles they play. That there are labels that explain why they feel that way, and, through the process of labelling and personifying that part, it becomes less daunting and easier to confront.
The Internal Family Systems Model in Action
Here is an example that illustrates the clearest picture possible on how this approach works to help families:
An adolescent girl has recently been acting out at home, much to the frustration of her parents. Her mother tries to discipline her by reducing the number of hours she can use the Internet. She is also banned from watching her favourite shows until she apologises. Her father thinks this is too harsh, and still allows her access to the family streaming account. The mother feels frustrated and disrespected; this leads to a series of arguments between her and her husband. Meanwhile, their daughter is still acting out.
In the example above, you can visualise the different parts they play: a protective father, an angry mother, and a defiant daughter.
The family therapist using the internal family systems approach will personify their emotional reactions as “parts”, and guide them into discovering what triggered these parts to dominate and why.
For example, the daughter may be acting out because she is at that stage of adolescence where she is exploring her independence, and feels stifled by her parents’ rules. She does not know how to express this properly. Growing up, she was not allowed an avenue to communicate her feelings, simply because they did not do such things in their family.
The mother, seen as a tyrant, explores why she expresses her anger that way and discovers that this anger is rooted from fear. Fear that her daughter’s defiance will lead her to trouble. She also then understands that her husband’s ‘protective’ part is set off by her ‘angry’ part.
By dramatising the elements of their inner conflicts and ambivalence, internal family systems therapy helps family members sort out their feelings and reconnect with each other in less polarised ways. In this example, now that the family is aware of the root causes, the family therapist can now work on subduing these ‘parts’ to help bring out the healthy Self that lies at the core of every personality.
The Internal Family Systems model, as the name suggests, works on the family conflict from the inside. It relates to internal individual conflict to overall family dynamics. It also brings into awareness why each family member has decided to step into those parts, and that there are other ‘parts’ of their personality that are able to respond in a healthier manner. In sum, this model helps the individual first in order to restore harmony to the family as a whole.