At its heart, addiction is a complex condition that involves a tangle of mental, emotional, and physical processes that each need to be unraveled and managed. Many mental processes and emotional challenges can trigger the compulsion to use substances, and an effective, long-term treatment plan will involve therapies aimed at discovering and healing our response to these challenges.
If you’re in the process of choosing the best alcohol drug addiction treatment program for yourself or your loved one, you are likely familiar with the range of therapeutic approaches that are intended to do exactly that. Hidden among Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), Dialectal Behavioral Therapy (DBT), Contingency Management (CM), Motivational Interviewing (MI), and Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) is another acronym: Internal Family Systems Therapy, or IFS.
What is IFS?
IFS is a transformative evidence-based model of psychotherapy developed in the 1990s by family therapist Dr. Richard Schwartz. Most people don’t hear how IFS can be used to treat addiction until they’re deep into comparing treatment approaches.
You have probably heard of your inner child, inner teenager, or inner parent. We often approach the impulses and drives that contend and coalesce in our personalities as independent parts of one working system or even parts of a family. Just like family members, these parts, following their individual well-meant intentions, can work together to produce either a functional or dysfunctional system.
In essence, IFS is a treatment modality that takes this perspective on the workings of people’s minds.
Addiction can be the result of an imbalance in this delicate internal family system. IFS parses apart these different components that make up the whole self to investigate where the problem is. The aim is to identify which part is acting out or is being suppressed, driving the person to abuse their drug of choice.
Subpersonalities in IFS
The different parts of the mind - also known as subpersonalities - have titles and roles within the IFS framework. The self is the conscious part of the mind that underlies everything, interprets information from the subpersonalities, and takes action.
It is supported by:
- Exiles - who carry with them the individual’s pain, guilt, and past traumas.
- Managers - who push the individual to avoid painful or triggering situations in the external world - keeping the exiles in isolation.
- Firefighters - who respond when the exiles break into the individual’s consciousness. They aim to distract and numb our pain, and when operating in an unhealthy way, they drive impulsive behaviors like violence, overeating, and of course, alcohol and substance abuse.
Addiction: An Unbalanced System
All of the above roles are necessary within the family system of the mind. When operating normally, they should be symbiotic and help each other. However, each subpersonality has the capacity to grow out of proportion and upset this delicate balance, which can cause challenging situations.
If the protective subpersonalities take over and start to dominate the picture, it can have seriously harmful consequences for our mental well-being. This is very uncomfortable, and many people find themselves reaching for substances to self-medicate.
What to Expect in IFS Therapy
An effective IFS therapist will first aim to disentangle these parts from one another. The subpersonalities need to be detached from each other in order to engage and build a dialogue with each one. Following this, you can approach the subpersonalities from an open, mindful state, looking to discover which traumatized exiles the firefighters are cracking down on with intensity. Eventually, the focus of treatment will be to unburden the exiles of their pain and begin to heal the way the managers and firefighters operate.
In practice, an IFS therapy session will take the form of talking therapy that integrates aspects of mindfulness. Your therapist will guide you through a session using the framework and principles of IFS to help you get in touch with, examine, and guide the component parts of your mind. A lot of IFS involve uncovering suppressed emotions, so you can expect some discussion around childhood interaction, family dynamics, and traumas.
SUD treatment needs to get to the emotional root of the problem to promote lasting recovery. IFS is a valuable part of a holistic care plan because it does just that. It also uses a clear framework which can be very helpful in understanding the workings of addictive behaviors and triggers in the mind. When we talk about addiction, self-knowledge is power, and IFS can be the perfect tool for reflecting and transforming in the way you need to stay sober.