IFS: The Revolutionary Treatment That Could Change Psychotherapy Forever


From Elemental: “Schwartz likes to joke in talks that he is planning to rewrite the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), psychiatry‚Äôs bible, to explain the basis of each disorder in non-pathologizing terms of protectors and exiles, thereby challenging the dominant ‘chemical imbalance’ view.¬†But for all the humor, his real ambitions are even greater than that. Experts in conflict resolution, anti-racist education, high school guidance counseling, mediation, 12-step addiction recovery, and a growing list of other fields have begun adopting Internal Family Systems (IFS)¬†techniques and developing pilot programs based around its principles.¬†Just as important, Schwartz wants IFS to transform the way we connect to each other one-to-one.

‘This is a radically different paradigm for understanding human beings than the ones that dominate our culture,’ he says. ‘If it is true that these things we think of as our inner enemies are really heroes stuck in time, that by itself allows people to relate inside with a lot more compassion and love, which translates to how they see outside enemies and relate to them.’

In an era in which Congress, the internet, and the U.S. population at large can seem just as polarized into mutually attacking parts as the ‘internal families’ of Schwartz‚Äôs most profoundly unwell patients, that‚Äôs a tantalizing message. Is it really possible that even those who most infuriate us have compassionate, relatable Selves at their core, hidden behind a screen of protectors who would gladly give up their hurtful behavior if the pain they were defending were seen and healed? As Schwartz himself often says when speaking to new crowds, it would certainly be wonderful if it were true.”

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  1. There is a lot of common sense in the article, except for the use of words such as “mental health”, “treatment” and “patients”. And above all, “training”.
    Of course there are “parts” to a personality. I fear that schwartz made a huge mistake by “training” others. If an artist “trains” someone, will they then produce the same quality of art? Will the artwork evoke something within the observer?
    If you are a natural helping type of person, and you actually “help” people, it can never be replicated in others by “training” them. Being authentic in your own unique manner with people cannot be something transferred to “trainees”. They can only ever understand “training” as something/ideas that make sense to them, yet within their own scope of understanding.

    As soon as you become the healer, think of yourself as a healer, think of it as “treatment”, it is no longer valid.

    Glad to see Robert Whitaker’s book mentioned.

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    • I have to agree with you. I don’t think anyone can be “trained” to be a counselor/advisor/mnetor in more than the most rudimentary way. There is a presence that a person can adopt with me that is healing, and that presence has mostly to do with being willing to be there and accept who I am and genuinely respond to me as one person to another without putting me in the position of having to edit or explain or justify my own thoughts and feelings. There is no “technique” involved, no “method” that one could emulate, no “treatment plan” involved – it is simply the proper mindset and attitude of being present and caring and being willing to experience whatever is coming up and in fact NOT knowing or deciding what all of it means or what the helping person should DO with it. I think this has to be experienced directly, and some people are not really able to do it for whatever reason, no matter what training they receive, and others seem to come by it naturally without any training at all. I’m not saying it can’t be learned, but it’s not something you can teach someone else, like how to repair a car or make a recipie. It’s not some kind of “program” you can put in a manual – it requires genuine outreach of one human to another and a willingness to be vulnerable and to NOT know ahead of time “what to do.” We need to ditch the idea that getting a PhD or whatever makes anyone any better than anyone else in the realm of caring!

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      • Steve, see my longer note below, but just to add: I totally hear you on what you would be looking for in a counselor or therapist, and trust absolutely what you have to say about that. But what if someone else is looking for something different? What if I come to this question and feel just as sure that there are some particular concepts and tools that I want my therapist to know how to use and so to have training in? Or maybe to ask it differently, do you see all training as invalid, or just invalid for your own purposes? (Note especially that to be certified in IFS you don’t need a PhD, or even a masters.)

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        • I am saying that training in and of itself is neither necessary nor sufficient to make someone a competent counselor, if that’s the term we want to use. Naturally, a person who has the gifts/understandings necessary to connect with someone else can benefit from some wisdom and experience that others have gleaned from their own efforts. But no amount of training can teach a person how to connect emotionally and safely with another person. Someone can use all the “I” statements in the world, and to do “active listening” and to follow all the precepts of DBT or CBT or whatever and still be incompetent or totally destructive as a counselor. You can actually use the skills taught in your training to give someone the idea you CAN be trusted, and after they share with you their deep secrets, you find your own issues get engaged and you get annoyed or bossy with them or turn cold or send them off for antidepressants and you have SCREWED them over. A person would be MUCH better off seeing right up front that a person doesn’t really care about them than to have the person learn “skills” that make it seem like they care more than they do.

          So sure, one can train in skills. But it doesn’t make you a counselor/helper, and it can make you more dangerous. And a person who has zero training and excellent empathy can actually CREATE skills and approaches or help the CLIENT create such skills and strategies him/herself! Becuase they start with UNDERSANDING the person in front of them rather than seeing the client through some clinical “lens” or applying some “evidence-based practice” in a mechanical or robotic fashion without being able to observe the needs of the client or the effect of the intervention on him/her.

          Setting up a patient/client relationship sets up a power imbalance automatically from the word go. The number of people who can operate in such a situation without taking advantage of their power is, in my experience, pretty small compared to the number of people selling “clinical services.” I recall a study telling us that a person is just as likely to experience relief/improvement talking to a good friend than to a counselor. I find this very easy to believe, because the degree and training confer no assurance that the person is competent or caring, and a caring friend is a far better resource, however untrained they may be, than a supercilious or insensitive “counselor.”

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  2. I have to respectfully disagree with Sam and Steve, above. And I say that as someone who’s tried to do IFS work with a therapist not really “trained” in it and also is considering “training” in it myself. Maybe part of the difficulty here has to do with what we mean by “training.” It’s used very loosely in our society these days. Sometimes it’s used wrongly to refer to education. Sometimes, as I think IFS people use it, to refer to learning how to work with a particular framework or theory and set of conceptual tools, but to do it using your own talents and intelligence. And sometimes to refer to something much more limited, like training to perform a set task.

    I definitely don’t think the way IFS sees parts and the idea of multiplicity of mind is simply common sense, as Sam suggests–it’s a particular view of the mind and how it works, and in my experience really quite different and even at odds with more unitary theories of the mind or consciousness. It’s of course not entirely new, but there’s a real paradigm shift from many other views, and most traditional views in the therapy world. I also have not found IFS people or the framework to be about “healing” or even more so about “fixing” others in the way Sam suggests. One of the things I like most about it is that it’s profoundly non-pathologizing and affirming of the client’s experience and inner wisdom and really quite adamant (if that’s the right word) that it’s about facilitating clients’ own ability to set their own direction, find their own inner resources, and heal themselves. It’s quite specifically at odds with attachment theory and as a result insists that even the most troubled clients do NOT need to develop deep attachment to their therapists to fill some void from a traumatic childhood, but rather only need to learn to look inward to get in touch with their own Self or inner wisdom, which it insists is…enough. These just are not ideas that most therapists, or even most thoughtful people in our particular, current cultural mllieu would come to in a common-sensical way, because they are contrary to so much that we’ve been taught.

    This was all certainly reflected in my experience with a therapist who thought she understood IFS but didn’t–she had not at all grasped that it is not very compatible with, or even at all compatible with, other forms like narrative therapy or CBT. It was frustrating to have to explain the framework to someone who had said she knew how to use it. I wish she had had some training!

    Anyway, them’s my two cents. I’m as appalled by much of what passes for training in the world of psychiatry and psychology as anyone, and actually have concerns about the insularity and lack of critical reflection in the IFS world, but it nonetheless seems different to me, and awfully promising. But I’m new to it. If I’ve missed something, of course I’ll be happy to hear how or why.

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    • It very much sounds like the right idea (see my other post). However, you already have seen at least one person who can not process whaet you’re talking about. I don’t think it’s likely because they lack training. I think it’s likely because they lack the perspective and strength of character, or have not done sufficient work on their own issues, or come from a strongly authoritarian viewpoint, such that the idea of the client finding his/her own path seems impossible to imagine. I could be wrong, of course – maybe a round of training in IFS would open her eyes. But I would bet you a whole bunch of money that if you took 100 psychiatrists and put them through intensive IFS training, at least 95 of them would be completely unmoved in their views on what the human mind is capable of. Fixed ideas don’t yield to training very easily, and people’s vulnerability is generally their first and most important concern. Given the ability to use one’s power to protect oneself vs. opening up one’s mind and being vulnerable to feeling confused and wrong and hurt, etc., the vast majority of folks will choose protecting themselves every time. I think this is particularly true for the field of psychiatry, which pre-selects people who already see their roles as “fixing” other people’s brains. Maybe if you could get to them when they’re still undergrads, you’d catch a few more, but most of the psychiatrists I’ve known over the years would die on the hilltop of “drugs are the answer” before yielding to any counseling concept, let alone one which emphasizes empowering the patient to make his/her own choices.

      That’s my experience, anyway. It sounds like IFS might be a wonderful thing to learn and develop from, but it would be profoundly threatening to the psychiatric establishment, and would be rejected out of hand by a large percentage of those in control of the industry.

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        • ** Mea culpa, I jumped the gun on what I wrote, below, and now realize we’re a lot closer than I thought. Just don’t have time to redo this now, but I thought I’d still post it as I think you’ll see the underlying thinking even though…we’re closer in our views than I thought.

          You make a good point, Steve, and I do think there’s some of what you describe at play in the experience I mentioned, but of course we’d have to take a closer look to sort out the two (or more) things involved–i.e. lack of basic capacity or inclination vs. lack of training. (Well, there may also be an excess of prior training involved! Which would somewhat support your point, and in fact I really do share your concern about how training can narrow one’s perspective in unhealthy ways.) But what I can say for sure is that, having a fair amount of confidence in my own capacity and openness to really hear what what people need and to respond helpfully and adapt to that (of course I could be wrong…), I definitely feel that I would need “training” (there’s that tricky word again!), which includes practice, to better know how to apply the framework. And actually, my sense is that for me it may be necessary–although, as you say, definitely not sufficient, and I sure hope no one would go to such a training expecting it to make them into a good counselor. (And I say all that having some discomfort with the IFS crowd, they sometimes seem rather insular and narrow.)

          Is not our ability to work with people always to a considerable degree socially constructed and environmentally mediated? i.e., not simply a matter of innate disposition or talent? (In which case I believe it would be genetic.) In light of that, where do we draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable forms of learning? Should one be born with the ability? Should it come only from how we grew up and our general/informal life experience? Is it okay if the disposition or talent is cultivated and blossoms during a well-rounded, liberal arts education (i.e., no training, only education)? Are there any sorts of “training” that are acceptable? To take a very different example, what about people who have “training” in and years of practice with compassion meditation, many of whom find they are much more empathic and open to other people’s distress?

          Alternatively, instead of making these generalizations from afar (which, honestly, is my understanding of how psychiatrists do things, so it makes me uncomfortable), might it be helpful to stay open not just to our clients variable needs, but also to the variable nature of (the vast realm of) education and training that’s available and judge each according to it’s specific merits?

          As for your bet on psychiatrists and IFS training…you might just be right on that one! It may be worth funding, even. Just think, we could make a science of it! There could be re-education camps! ūüôā

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        • The fact that you are able to say, “Of course I could be wrong…” puts you miles ahead of many others. I think that humility is the core of being a good helper, because it’s the only antidote to the power imbalance. We have to each realize the potential damage we can do and how possible or even likely it is that we will misapprehend things, so that we are constantly checking and re-checking things to make sure we’re on the right track and continuing to be helpful.

          I am certainly not in any place to say someone is “born with” the ability to connect or if it is learned over time or more likely “unlearned” (I like your point about too MUCH training – people can get very invested in their group’s agreement as to what is going on). There are also financial incentives involved for a lot of people in the “mental health” industry that make the idea of the client having his/her own ideas about what is the right thing to do rather threatening. And there is also internal pressure from those who have such conflicts of interests upon clinicians to maintain the status quo. General education in life can be a big counter to our inappropriate concepts and training, but I have no idea how to specifically train someone to be compassionate.

          A good example would be “cultural competency training.” There ARE people who benefit from such training, but these are generally people who are already oriented toward wanting to create that kind of environment. Those who are committed to NOT being culturally competent, for whatever reasons, tend to avoid such trainings like the plague. And if they are forced to go, they go under protest and generally make fun of the process. There may be one or two here or there whose eyes are opened by the process, in which case, I’d say it’s well worth it, but the bulk of people attending are going to trend they way they’ve always trended, because they’re not motivated to do differently.

          Can you “train” a person with deeply-held racist views not to be racist? Most of the time, no. Can you train a person who sees “the mentally ill” as someone beneath them on the scale of life, who doesn’t understand what he needs and requires the pateralistic wisdom of his/her counselor/psychiatyrist, to see that person as a person instead of “a schizphrenic” or “having ADHD?” I’d say usually not.

          So training for sure has value, but only if some preconditions are met. And if those preconditions are NOT met, training people on techniques or skills or whatever is going to have a limited effect. I wish there were a way to train people to be more sensitive. Perhaps the only real answer on that line is for the person to do his/her own healing to the point where s/he can recognize when his/her own issues are getting in the way, and can differentiate between the counselor’s needs and those of the client. But the person would have to recognize that need before such healing could even begin.

          Or another way to say it: disempowered counselors are not going to be able to empower their clients. As long as we have to subordinate ourselves to some control system, whether external or internal, that tells us how we have to do or think about things, we won’t be able to be flexible and sensitive enough to know what will be helpful to the client.

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      • Can you please say more about “those in control of the industry”? Can the words “disempowered counselors” be heard differently? dis-EMPOWERED co-UNSELORS? And what is an unselor you ask? But parts of what are heard and seen, as they mesh across the boundary conditions of the family? (Within the Mind?)

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        • I’d suggest that the American Psychiatric Association and their “opinion leaders” are the ones who are trying to control the narrative, along with their friends in the pharmaecutical industry. That’s an oversimplification, but what it comes down to is that there are people whose salary depends on promoting the label-and-drug model in the biggest possible way, and such people are not the least interested in learning anything about the actual needs of individuals, and in fact will argue in the most intense and irrational ways about how “wrong” anyone is who questions their paradigm. The recent Phil Hickey article critiquing Ron Pies and his associate gives a little meat to that comment.

          I don’t quite get what you mean by “Unselor” still.

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          • At times, my typing can miss-pell and I will pause and then google the word. The technology becomes an extension of being ready to fill out the thought, while not hearing my words. An hour earlier, I was checking on counselor or conselor.

            What i am trying to convey, and then I realized using the tablet, the laptop and so forth, has become an extension of failing to hear through our fingers for the beauty of spoken as well as a written language.

            This is different from dealing with emergent thoughts, wondering how or why did that expression come from.

            I am not quite sure if I understood “unselor” either, though the hint at hearing what was typed, as being “insulated” as if the coating on the wire (my neurons with a myelin sheath) keeps a thought from being understood.
            So, how are new words created and used. Think about the term “fake” or “fake news” along with the layers of cognitive dissonance just waiting for an insightful reporter(s) to raise the question or a good therapist? In a group setting? Or can even a psychiatrist play the role without medicating?

            One can also hear the term “thought leaders” in some organizational cultures, which going from the individual posts here, to that of a real presence, not being recorded as in a TV prone culture, suggests the the gap between pen, paper and a tablet poses some opportunities for cracking that which is all damned up.

            The Floods have yet happened, if the truths around restorative justice are to be realized. Thanks for helping to clarify, um-h, the chaos? The angst? the LOL abbreviated from the, the…. “Just say it out Loud, ….(the words that fill in the cloud in comics?)

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    • Daniel, you seem to possess that within you, that is indeed not there because someone “trained” you. You have perhaps an innate understanding.

      I think of how horses or dogs are used “in therapy”, and one wonders who is the therapist, the horse or the human introducing the horse.

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  3. I see a great comment made by you Steve, it shows up in my inbox, yet I click on it and it won’t show.

    “Or another way to say it: disempowered counselors are not going to be able to empower their clients. As long as we have to subordinate ourselves to some control system, whether external or internal, that tells us how we have to do or think about things, we won’t be able to be flexible and sensitive enough to know what will be helpful to the client.”

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