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Why the Internal Family Systems Model is Valuable Despite the Need for and Difficulties it Poses for Research

March 24th, 2012 by Howard Ditkoff

Last year, in response to a podcast in which a call-in show host, Stefan Molyneux of Freedomain Radio, attempted to employ the Internal Family Systems (IFS) approach to help a caller, I made a post in which I clarified many of the details of the IFS model that I felt this host may have misunderstood or failed to fully incorporate. A few weeks ago, I was notified of a comment made by a psychologist in training in response to that post. I thought the commenter posed an excellent question and, as I typed up my response to it, I increasingly realized that it merited not just a comment on that original post, but a post of its own.

Here is the question that was submitted as a comment to the previously mentioned post:

I have recently come across a therapist using this IFS model. Because I had never heard of it before, I decided to do some research on it. However, when I looked for peer-reviewed studies on it, there is very little. There are, in fact, no randomized controlled trials or any other type of research comparing IFS to other therapies (or even a waitlist control group). There are simply anecdotal case reports, which are not very useful for identifying whether or not a treatment is effective. Take the placebo effect, for example - many people will say that a pill they believe to be a novel, active medication, has helped them when in fact it is a sugar pill.

Given this information, what has made you decide that the IFS model is so worthwhile?

And here is my response:

This is a great and very valid question.

My first response is that you should contact the Center for Self Leadership, the home base for Internal Family Systems Therapy and its creator, Dr. Richard C. Schwartz, directly and ask them this question. They would be best suited to address it.

However, I will give you my own view.

I am a big fan of empirical data. So I do value peer-reviewed, controlled studies for the reasons that you raise here. And it is true that I have not seen those studies yet as they relate to IFS. This does not mean they aren’t out there. Perhaps they are and I just don’t know of them. And, if so, then hopefully the Center for Self Leadership could direct you to them (and you could direct me).

But, here I will answer your question to explain, why, in light of the fact that I have not seen such studies, I nonetheless think the Internal Family Systems model is valuable.

IFS is not just a method. It is a perspective and a theory on the very anatomy of the psyche. IFS is described by Richard Schwartz in Internal Family Systems Therapy as the application of systems thinking to the concept of multiplicity of mind. I believe both of these foundations of IFS are sound.

Obviously, you can tell from my site that I’m a big fan of systems thinking and the systems approach is well established.

The multiplicity of mind refers to the fact that people experience their psyche as consisting of more than one voice or state. I don’t think any of us has ever met a person that doesn’t relate to that view. Even if they haven’t consciously thought about it before, nobody is the least bit confused when we say things like “Part of me wants X, but another part fights it.” We all, on a very basic level, recognize that we experience multiplicity and certain types of interactions between the multiple parts. Now, to be clear, this is not to say that there objectively are multiple beings of any kind in there. Perhaps neuroscience will find some biological analog for this experience of multiplicity and perhaps not. But right now, this is simply about the fact that we experience things this way and that this almost universal sense of experience can be drawn upon to help us understand many situations and harnessed to help resolve them optimally.

Now, the idea that applying systems thinking to the multiplicity of mind is powerful and useful is as much a truism to me as saying that applying our knowledge of physics to various materials is useful. That doesn’t mean that any particular application is going to successfully bring about the desired outcome. If a person doesn’t understand physics well or lacks the technical skill to carry out the application, they will not generate what is desired. Similarly, a person can attempt to apply systems thinking to the multiplicity of mind with someone and fail miserably if they don’t really understand systems thinking well or if they aren’t technically skilled at doing so. But, in neither case does the failure in that instance negate the fundamental value of the approach.

I agree that we should do a great deal more study of how to best apply systems thinking to multiplicity of mind to achieve various outcomes. However, it must be noted that there are at least two important issues here that make it, in my view, very challenging to do quantitative objective studies of IFS. And, not coincidentally, the difficulties stem from some of the very things about IFS that I believe make it superior to many other approaches.

First, it is important to recognize that Internal Family Systems is really a misnomer in many ways. Schwartz began as a family therapist dealing with family systems. He then realized many of the same principles seemed to apply with individuals and developed this school of thought on how to deal with the “internal family system.” And he named the field after that latter aspect. However, he never intended this to replace the focus on the external family system. In fact, quite to the contrary, he goes on in his book to point out the importance of many levels of human systems, including government and global systems, all acting interdependently. So really the field should be simply called human systems therapy if you ask me. And Schwartz has admitted himself that the name of the field often misleads people and results in them mistakenly thinking that focusing just on an individual’s parts is sufficient. He makes very clear in his book that this is not the case.

Thus, IFS recognizes that an individual’s problem cannot necessarily be solved by working just with their internal parts. Schwartz explains that human problems must be dealt with at the level at which we have leverage, which can differ in different cases. This is simply right out of systems thinking, in which we recognize that particular problems arise from particular patterns that can involve multiple layers of influence, and that, in order to bring about results we want, we have to find the leverage point or points at which we can act efficiently and beneficially and that these leverage points may reside in any combination of those multiple layers. It is precisely because it recognizes this - unlike many reductionistic approaches that try to address individual problems without adequate regard for the many other influential systems in which the person is embedded - that I think IFS is superior.

Yet at the very same time, this makes highly formal objective studies difficult. IFS - again, unlike many other approaches - teaches us that a person’s symptoms may be primarily caused by their family or their workplace or their government. So just because we do the best that we can in addressing that person’s internal parts does not necessarily mean we will succeed in optimizing the system if the relevant constraints originate elsewhere - especially if they originate at a level we do not currently have the power to sufficiently change. So, in looking at a study involving IFS, we may not be able to interpret a failure of the individual to significantly improve as a failure of the approach itself. In fact, systems thinking may be the most useful tool we have to explain just why such therapy did not work. And it may well be because larger systems, which we are currently unable to substantially impact, are the main sources of dysfunction influencing the client.

The second challenge in doing quantitative objective research on IFS therapy is that it is tremendously - and very consciously - dependent on the state of the therapist. One of the things that makes IFS so brilliant is that - in another example of its remarkable insight into dynamics inadequately addressed by many other approaches - it recognizes that the very principles that apply in determining the health of the client apply at the very same time to the therapist and that any dysfunctions in the therapist are themselves factors that can confound the therapeutic process. However, these states are very difficult, if not impossible, to quantify. We can certainly try to quantify certain traits exhibited by the therapist during therapy, such as “equanimity,” that would seem to indicate that the therapist is in Self. But it seems almost impossible to objectively measure if the therapist is in Self. Now, the fact that we can’t measure this does not mean it does not exist (nor does it mean it does exist). So, in short, one of the absolute most important factors in determining the course of IFS therapy - the state of the therapist in regards to Self - seems to me nearly impossible to accurately measure.

So in summary, I fully agree that more research would be helpful. However, there are some aspects of IFS - in fact, some of the very aspects that I think show how truly wise it is - that make it difficult to do objective research on. Still, I think we should do the best we can to put it to the test.

But the bottom line is that, while there are infinite ways that someone can apply IFS badly, just as someone can apply physics poorly and end up with an undesirable outcome, the foundation of IFS - systems thinking applied to the multiplicity of mind - is, to me, like the foundation of physics – though perhaps not to quite as great an extent - very solid. Now how we use and build upon that foundation is another story.

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    5 Responses to “Why the Internal Family Systems Model is Valuable Despite the Need for and Difficulties it Poses for Research”

    1. PsychologistInTraining Says:

      Thank you very much for your thoughtful reply. I fully agree that if IFS is something you find helpful for your own life, then by all means use it. After learning about it from the therapist where I work, I have also found it helpful for myself.

      I just would like more research before investing large sums of money in getting thoroughly trained in the approach and using it with other clients.

    2. SystemsThinker Says:

      PsychologistInTraining,

      Thanks for your question and your comments both here and on the other related post. We are in agreement that more research would be helpful. I hope some others in the IFS community will chime in on this.

    3. Rich Says:

      I would LOVE to come up with a way to use the EEG equipment used in Neurofeedback to record brainstates of clients during IFS therapy.

      If the premise that exiles can only be healed from Self is true, then presumably you’d see some consistent EEG pattern occuring during Self-Exile relationships and during successful unburdening. I’m guessing it would relate somewhat to the “Alpha-Theta” state that is the famouse trauma-healing protocol in Neurofeedback that has great results with alcoholics and addicts.

      I think reverse engineering these powerful healing states is a huge frontier for neuroscience and the “brain therapy” disciplines. And once we’ve defined and described the salient features of these states, figuring out ways to distribute a methodology/device that helps people “get there” safely, reliably, cheaply and effectively.

    4. SystemsThinker Says:

      Rich,

      Great comment. I’ve also wondered a lot how EEG, PET scans and other more objective measurements would correlate with the subjective experiences people have when working with methods like IFS or inner child therapy. I’m not sure what we’d find, but I definitely support more research in that direction.

    5. roslyn strohl lmft Says:

      A similar construct I find useful in clinical practice is Narrative Therapy’s concept of the reflecting team. Applied to the internal process this expands the available reflective and creative internal dialog in remarkable ways….both literally noted in the change of affect of the client in session….and in strengthening the likelihood of preferred behavior change. The experience of a positive fluidity of reflective consciousness seems itself to be a good thing and a repeatable alternative (neural pathway) allowing the client to report successes internally engendered and supported rather than in response to therapist homework.


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