An Introduction to Internal Family Systems: A Brief Review

Published in Books - 4 mins to read

I think there is something of a problem with reading books about therapy, or perhaps psychology more generally. There are many different modalities, innumerable competing theories, and just as many psychology experiments that haven’t replicated. As a layperson, it’s become natural to me to regard any kind of claim of replicable therapeutic benefit with a certain level of skepticism. Unfortunately, as the author of a book, you are not incentivised to pepper your writing with caveats, and instead to essentially treat your proclamations as gospel. This leaves you in conflict with me, the reader; I have the strong sense that I ought not to take what you say strictly at face value, but because you offer no commentary on your level of confidence in your own claims, I find it difficult to know how much I ought to update my own beliefs in light of what you are saying. This is the exact trap I found myself ensnared in while reading Richard Schwartz’s An Introduction to Internal Family Systems.

One thing I thought was a little odd about this book was the way in which the author stressed how elements of IFS were close to many spiritual traditions. I think it would’ve been absolutely appropriate for him to point out that IFS is a primarily introspective practice, and that it would arrive at the lot of the same conclusions as other introspective practices (such as those practiced by various spiritual communities), which ought to lend it a certain amount of legitimacy… but was it really necessary to mention it so frequently, to the point of citing multiple Bible verses? Similarly, one criticism I would have of Schwartz’s concept of the “Self” as somehow being different from the collection of “parts” - as far as I can tell, it is simply a part like the rest of them, but the one which is deemed more virtuous than the others. It struck me that after sufficient self-examination, one would be plausibly more likely to realise that there is in fact no self, and not that there is the One True Part that is who we really are. I’m also a little surprised the author himself didn’t entertain this notion, given his clear proclivity for Buddhism - he leans on many prototypically Buddhist ideas and phrases throughout the book, not least that of “spontaneous arising”.

With that being said, this book did persuade me that IFS is trendy right now for good reason. There is something intuitively appealing about its framing; where other paradigms seek to reduce the human psyche down to as simple a model as possible, IFS allows for boundless complexity, and with it, all the nuance commensurate with my experience of being a person. I could readily identify “parts” within my consciousness even while Schwartz was in the process of explaining them, and I expect that I will spend the next few weeks attempting to imagine what the “part” responsible for any given thought or feeling might look like. I thought all of the supposed transcripts from the book seemed somewhat contrived - each participant in Schwartz’s practice seemed to be phenomenally self-aware, able to immediately not only recognise their parts, but then to distinctly and cleanly separate them from their “Self” with relative ease. While I’m sure there was some creative license involved, I wish Schwartz had been a bit more transparent about that - even though I would consider myself to have better-than-average self-awareness, I expect this process will be arduous for me.

As with all things, I was hoping this book would provide data points, not answers, and in that way it delivered. The model of the mind as a family, and a dysfunctional one at that, is a fun one to play with, and I can see it yielding productive results. In combination with other the other tools I usually use (eg meditation, non-IFS therapy, various reading and writing), I would like to develop a better sense of my own parts, and to that end I have already begun trying to write them down; I am now debating whether to give them names, and how over-the-top I ought to make their personas. I am cautiously optimistic that this might lead to a deeper sense of inner harmony.

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