What if your clients could not only get to the bottom of what’s troubling them, but also take the reins in their own recovery? According to Richard Schwartz, the originator of Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy, this is a real possibility, as evidenced by his more than 30 years of experience successfully treating traumatized, often shut-down clients.
The key to IFS, Schwartz explains, is helping clients become “compassionate witnesses” to the pain of their wounded inner parts, which he refers to as “exiles,” filling the empty role of a safe attachment figure that is often absent in the aftermath of trauma. “When this occurs,” Schwartz says, “the therapist’s role shifts profoundly, and the client feels empowered and less dependent on the therapist.”
In this video clip from Schwartz’s 2015 Networker Symposium keynote address, “The Inner Game of Psychotherapy: Bringing Forth the Core Self,” he explains how getting to know their inner parts can help clients “unload” the wounds of trauma.
“Our exiles are playful, sensitive, and creative,” Schwartz says. “But because they’re so sensitive, they’re often the ones that get hurt the most. They get stuck carrying our burdens, and they’re lost in the scenes of our past. We lock them up, not even knowing we’re abandoning our most valuable resources.”
If you work with clients who are hypervigilant, shut-down, or exceedingly cautious when it comes to forming intimate relationships, Internal Family Systems could jump-start your sessions and lead to positive outcomes in no time at all. “Most of all,” Schwartz says, “people need to learn how to access the essence in each of us that can’t be damaged and, once accessed, can allow inner qualities like curiosity, compassion, calm, and confidence that were there all along to finally emerge.”
Richard Schwartz, PhD, is co-author, with Michael Nichols, of Family Therapy: Concepts and Methods, the most widely used family therapy text in the United States. Dr. Schwartz developed Internal Family Systems in response to clients’ descriptions of experiencing various parts–many extreme–within themselves. He noticed that when these parts felt safe and had their concerns addressed, they were less disruptive and would accede to the wise leadership of what Dr. Schwartz came to call the “Self.” In developing IFS, he recognized that, as in systemic family theory, parts take on characteristic roles that help define the inner world of the clients. The coordinating Self, which embodies qualities of confidence, openness, and compassion, acts as a center around which the various parts constellate. Because IFS locates the source of healing within the client, the therapist is freed to focus on guiding the client’s access to his or her true Self and supporting the client in harnessing its wisdom. This approach makes IFS a non-pathologizing, hopeful framework within which to practice psychotherapy. It provides an alternative understanding of psychic functioning and healing that allows for innovative techniques in relieving clients symptoms and suffering.