Self-help schemes come and go, but a new framework has attracted the attention of a number of Silicon Valley techies — especially computer scientists and programmers. Called Internal Family Systems (IFS), it's an integrated approach to individual psychotherapy that breaks conscious thoughts into individual, manageable parts that can be reprogrammed. And given its systematic methodology, it's no surprise that geeks have quickly latched on. But is there anything to this notion, or is it just another self-help fad?
To better understand how it works, and to get a sense as to why it's so appealing to such a niche group of thinkers, we spoke to Divia Eden, a practitioner and facilitator of the IFS system.
Developed by the psychologist Richard. C. Schwartz, the Internal Family Systems Model works by categorizing the competing voices in our head into relatively discrete subpersonalities — each with its own perspectives, tendencies, and quirks. Inspired by the Family Therapy model, which is used by psychotherapists to facilitate healthier inter-family relationships, IFS helps a person understand how his or her individual collection of subpersonalities are organized — and how they can better work together to create a well-adjusted, consistent self.
A fundamental understanding of IFS is that every subpersonality has a positive intent for the person — even if it might not seem that way. The system suggests that every single voice inside your head that's telling you to do or not do something is still looking out for your best interests. Your job, as the overarching self, is to get these voices harmonized — without internal conflict and hostility — so that you can live in peace and take the appropriate course of action.
"IFS works because it provides a systematic framework for looking inside your head with curiosity and compassion," Eden tells io9. "Looking at it from a meta perspective, it's simply the best set of questions I've found for diffusing internal tensions and conflict." It's one thing to ask a person to be kind or compassionate to his or her own self, she notes, but this approach helps to untangle and direct a person's thoughts in a powerful way.
Managers, exiles, and firefighters
Subpersonalities, also called parts, can have either "extreme roles" or healthy roles. IFS tends to focus on parts in extreme roles because they, like the needy and cantankerous members of a family, are in need of transformation through therapy. IFS divides these "loud" parts into three types: managers, exiles, and firefighters.
Managers are the voices that take preemptive roles to protect you. They're the parts of your inner dialogue that are working to prevent you from being hurt by people — and they also try to prevent traumatic feelings and experiences from creeping to the surface.
Your exiled thoughts are those parts of you that are in pain, shame, fear, or trauma. Managers and firefighters tend to exile these parts from working consciousness to prevent the pain from coming to the surface.
And firefighters are those parts that emerge when exiles break out and demand attention. They try to distract a person's attention from the hurt or shame experienced by the exile. It's your firefighter thoughts that are the ones that get you to engage in impulsive behaviors — like overeating, drinking too much alcohol, taking drugs, fighting, or having inappropriate sex. It can even manifest as overworking or over-medicating.
It's through therapy or active introspective that a person learns to recognize these inner thoughts and categorize them as such. The rest is facilitation, whether it be self-directed, or with a counsellor.
Debugging the brain
Like many other people who come into contact with IFS, Eden was skeptical at first. She thought it just sounded weird. It was recommended to her by a number of computer programmers, including physicist and computer scientist Steve Omohundro; and as someone with a computer background herself, she trusted their judgement. After looking into it a bit further, she started to find tremendous value in it.
"It definitely clicked with me right away," she says, "it seemed to be describing something that really resonated with how my mind worked that I had not heard before."
After reading Jay Earley's book, Self Therapy, she started to organize meet-ups, do facilitations with friends, and apply the approach to all facets of her life, including her relationships. "I would get really surprising answers from myself," she says, "it's provided me with insights worth paying attention to."
Like a software engineer debugging a troublesome program, Eden started to identify the patterns that were causing her the most problems. When she became emotionally triggered by something, she took pause and thought more carefully about the conflicting interests in her consciousness. She started to see the benefits of IFS and began to apply it to her relationship problems — and it worked. Eden, who is recently married, credits IFS for laying the foundation for a more honest and emotionally intimate relationship.
Her husband, Will, a recent convert to IFS, has also experienced positive results. One issue in particular that troubled him was his sense of shame around his tendency to stutter. Will says that IFS provided him with a enhanced visual sense of what was going on in his head — he could actually visualize and compartmentalize all the parts of his mind that were feeding into his feelings of shame. He subsequently dealt with it internally, and hasn't looked back.
Others who have engaged in IFS have had similar experiences. A colleague of Eden's, who was formally trained as a life coach under a different modality, decided to give IFS a shot. She started to get quicker results from her clients, so she's made the switch in her practice.
Eden also tells the story of her friend, Adam. He initially met IFS with extreme skepticism, but wanted to give it a try. He felt awful whenever he had to talk to strangers. By working with Eden, he was able to reframe his thoughts and trace them all the way back to kindergarten. He was able to access a particular part of his mind that wanted him to avoid taking social risks (i.e. a manager thought), and by virtue of that, was able to make an immediate change.
Effectiveness for geeks
When asked why so many computer scientists and programmers find value in IFS, Eden suggests that the framework appeals to those who are highly systemizing and analytical thinkers. "Part of its appeal," she says, "is that it's low on the woo-woo factor." There's no supernatural, New Age, or mystical aspect to it, claims Eden, and that's something this demographic finds particularly appealing and non-threatening.
But not everyone is convinced by the powers of IFS. Critics, like Clan Denari, complain that the system is too basic, that our "pushy" internal thoughts are more than just managers, exiles, and firefighters. The general complaint from some psychotherapists is that the system is too rigid. As Denari notes:
Such a cast is too simplistic to describe most real multiple systems, for a few reasons. First, many plurals have [parts] that do none of these things; in some cases, the Insider has almost no interaction with Outside issues at all. Second, the way [facilitators define] their behavior...is so arbitrary as to be meaningless. From a biological point of view, there's very little difference between an addiction to a substance, an obsession with an idea, and a compulsion to cut oneself; and clearly any of those can spark or be sparked by depression.
Clearly, not everyone's buying in. But Eden, like many other IFS converts, sticks with it because it works for them. "Other psychological frameworks seem to be trying to fit people into general categories rather than their thoughts," she says. "I like that this didn't seem to make any assumptions about how my mind works — it considers you as a person, along with your individuality and uniqueness."
Looking to the future, Eden hopes to continue to apply IFS to her own internal states, and as a way to keep her marriage going strong. "It has definitely become a lifestyle thing for us," she says.