The Internal Family Systems model has grown in popularity over the past few decades as an effective and unique method of psychotherapy for treating various disorders, including eating disorders. The Internal Family Systems model’s “parts” approach takes a unique method toward healing. This model views symptoms and behaviors as “parts” and encourages clients to take on a self-compassion led perspective toward changing their disordered eating behaviors. This therapeutic model welcomes all “parts”, allowing space for clients to achieve holistic healing in their internal systems.
Eating Disorders and the Internal Family Systems Model
The complexity of recovering from an eating disorder comes as no surprise to those who have suffered from one. Research supports various therapeutic approaches for providing effective clinical care when working with clients who suffer from eating disorders. “Parts work“, which is founded by the Internal Family Systems (IFS) model, provides a unique approach for helping clients who suffer from eating disorders. The Internal Family Systems model was founded by Dr. Richard Schwartz, marriage & family therapist, in the 90’s. Dr. Schwartz arrived at the foundational concepts of this model while working with clients suffering from eating disorders. This model is effective when working with many mental disorders. The intention of this blog is to explain the model and describe the benefits of using the IFS “parts” approach when working with clients who suffer with eating disorders. [3, 4]
The IFS model believes it is the nature of the mind to be divided into sub-personalities or “parts”. IFS landed on the term “parts” when explaining the multiplicity Dr. Schwartz found in his clients due to it being the best fit for describing this new but relatable concept. This model believes, in addition to parts, all humans have a Self. As humans develop, their parts develop and form a complex internal system. The foundation of this model offers a beneficial framework for clinicians to approach clients’ eating disorder behavior from an internal relational perspective rather than as maladaptive behaviors. Using the IFS approach when working with clients who suffer from eating disorders has the same goal as other therapeutic models, which is to decrease maladaptive and life-threatening behaviors and restore self-regulation for long term recovery. However, the approach IFS takes towards doing so is unique in that it encourages clients to move toward their “parts“, befriend them, and ultimately help them release their maladaptive roles and burdens. [1-4]
Basic Assumptions of IFS
The term “Self” is considered to be at the center of the human core and parts carry out various roles that are developed based on humans’ individual experiences. All parts have good intentions, are present from birth, and in their natural state are beneficial. However, it is through various human experiences parts can take on different, and sometimes extreme, roles that they did not originally have. What other therapeutic models describe as symptoms and/or behaviors, this model considers “parts”. For example, a behavioral therapeutic model may classify eating disorder symptoms as self-destructive behaviors, however IFS conceptualizes clients as having parts in extreme roles and lacking awareness of their maladaptive impact. When using the IFS approach, parts are worked with, through a series of IFS therapeutic techniques, and relieved of the extreme roles they get into which reduces clients’ engagement in maladaptive behaviors. The language of the IFS model requires both clients and clinicians to view client behaviors through a curious and compassionate lens. The perspective that all “parts” have good intentions creates space for exploration with decreased self-blame and internal judgment. The concept of Self in the IFS model is the place where healing occurs. The Self can and should be the leader of each person’s internal system. [3, 4]
Goals of IFS and Eating Disorder Recovery
The goals of the IFS model are to liberate parts from their extreme roles, restore trust in Self within the internal system, and reharmonize the internal system. These goals are met through IFS techniques of taking clients on a journey to view and approach their behaviors in a different way, as “parts”, and get to know their parts rather than fight against them. It is through the process of taking this different approach clients can access Self, befriend their parts, relieve parts from extreme roles, and unburden the pain parts carry. IFS considers clients’ eating disorder behaviors to be their parts in extreme roles (e.g. purging, restricting, bingeing, self-harm, substance abuse, etc.) and focuses on aiding clients in how to help transform their parts out of the extreme roles. When clients who suffer from eating disorders can relieve their eating disorder parts from the burdens of their extreme roles, clients have less frequent engagement in eating disorder behavior. This therapeutic model aids clients in experiencing this relief in session and equips clients with between session parts work to continue the goal of helping parts stay out of extreme roles. [2, 3, 4]
Eating Disorder Recovery with IFS
When working with eating disorders, the exploration of symptoms as parts can be a softer, more gentle approach toward exploring behaviors. This approach encourages clients to view their maladaptive coping strategies from a lens of self-compassion for their parts who have taken on these roles to help. Clients with eating disorders often report polarization regarding recovery, behaviors, etc. Working with client polarizations through the IFS parts work approach increases clients’ ability for self-regulation. Through IFS, clients’ polarized parts can become aware of one another and their shared intentions, which reduces the polarization. When Self-led parts work occurs, increased harmony throughout the internal system is the result. [2, 3]
Helping clients learn how to understand and access Self as the place where internal healing occurs fosters increased self-efficacy and a sense of hope for healing and long-term recovery. The IFS concept of all parts having good intentions allows for clients to look at all their parts from a curious perspective to get to know the intention behind the roles their parts take on and ultimately transform those roles. Through the use of this model clients can live more Self-led when their parts increase trust in the Self which allows clients to have better ability to regulate their internal systems. [2, 3]
Brittney Williams, LPC/MHSP
Brittney earned a Bachelor of Science in Psychology at Mississippi State University and a Master of Arts in Clinical Mental Health Counseling (with a specialization in Marriage/Couples and Family Counseling) at the University of Alabama. She is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Mental Health Service Provider in the state of Tennessee. In addition to her state license, Brittney is a Nationally Certified Counselor, EMDR trained, and working on her CEDS and Internal Family Systems certifications.
While completing her Bachelor’s degree, Brittney trained in multiple Social Psychology research labs where she began studying the dynamics of trauma, social relating, and human behavior. While earning her Master’s degree, Brittney continued her education and trained experience further exploring the dynamics of trauma as a clinical intern. During this training, Brittney became increasingly aware of, and interested, in the connection between attachment trauma and eating disorders. Brittney has worked with the eating disorder population in various levels of care for the past 5+ years along with those suffering from trauma and other accompanying mental health related issues. Brittney’s passion is to continue this complex work by offering evidenced based, compassionate clinical care to the eating disorder population.
Holmes, T., Holmes, L., & Eckstein, S. (2007). Parts work: an illustrated guide to your inner life. Kalamazoo, MI: Winged Heart Press.
Lester, R. J. (2017). Self-governance, psychotherapy, and the subject of managed care: Internal Family Systems therapy and the multiple self in a US eating-disorders treatment center. American Ethnologist, 44(1) 23-35.
Schwartz, R.C. (2001). Introduction to the internal family systems model. Oak Park IL: Trailheads Publications, The Center for Self-Leadership.
The Internal Family Systems Model Outline. Retrieved from https://ifs-institute.com/resources/articles/internal-family-systems-model-outline