The field of psychology primarily uses the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) as a standard to diagnose the fallout effects of trauma. But for patients, a painful schism exists between diagnosis and treatment. The DSM works well as an objective starting point for mental health professionals’ perspective. Unfortunately, these diagnoses often carry a heavy stigma that open the floodgates in the life of the patient. The Internal Family Systems model aims to destigmatize emotional/mental health responses and treat patients through tools of empowerment and self-acceptance. This is an incredibly useful tool as a way of working through trauma effectively. So how does IFS achieve this, exactly?
Trauma Responses & Maladaptive Coping
Trauma in particular creates many varied responses in patients. Some develop PTSD or personality disorders, some turn to substance abuse, and many live with these types of coping behaviors for years by no real choice of their own. To be clear, recovery teaches that individuals absolutely maintain responsibility for their everyday choices. Picking up a drug or a drink is a choice, for example.
But the processes which control choice may vary. A brain overloaded by trauma responses will not have the same access to real choice as a brain unaffected by trauma. Same goes for other mental health issues. The main purpose of therapy is to teach individuals tools to manage these issues. This opens the door to real choice informed by the self.
Internal Family Systems Model of Therapy
Many models of therapy emerged over the past few decades in order to address some of the major diagnoses identified in the DSM-V. Trauma responses in particular get complicated as therapy identifies various ways the mind reacts to traumatic events. This often includes terms like “subpersonalities” and “multiples” which suggest that extra internal entities emerge. Psychology refers to this as multiplicity. Unfortunately, multiplicity has been pathologized in psychology (meaning it is considered abnormal). Even the suggestion of multiplicity can upset patients as they feel less in control of their own thoughts and feelings.
Internal Family Systems, on the other hand, does not distinguish or divide these various parts of trauma response. IFS suggests that trauma response works as an internal model of the family. The parts are not separate or “multiples”: they exist as natural components of the mind which have always existed, yet took on certain necessary burdens during crisis. The unwanted behaviors linger because those parts of the mind continue carrying burdens past their point of usefulness. But individuals can identify and adjust this dynamic through systems thinking therapy.
Systems Thinking & Burdened Roles
One of the main goals of Internal Family Systems therapy is to help patients understand that trauma responses are both normal and manageable once understood. Many individuals struggle for years, even decades, after experiencing traumatic events. This is often because their internal protector and exile roles are still operating under unprocessed trauma conditions. IFS describes how parts take on burdens on behalf of the self after trauma. The three roles include two protector roles, the firefighter and manager, which work in tandem to contain the exile role.
These three roles exist in everyone. The difference with trauma is that these roles take on extreme burdens that create dysfunction within the system. So how do these roles become burdened?
Reactive Protector Role: Firefighter
The reactive firefighter role handles crisis situations. These include moments where individuals must react to perceived threats to their safety. For example, children trying to escape toxic/dangerous behavior may hide or limit sensory intake to avoid yelling or physical abuse (covering ears, hiding in another room, et cetera). This serves as a useful reaction during crisis to protect the self from a devastating experience. Internal Family Systems designates the firefighter as a protector role. It is distinct from the manager because it typically responds rather than anticipates.
However, the firefighter role may continue seeking such solutions when the problem no longer warrants it. This is how many individuals find themselves struggling with substance use disorder. Substances become the new way to escape perceived threats. Instead of abusive parents, the new threat may be simply feeling sad or lonely. Or it is a reaction to normal life events like relationship conflicts. Unfortunately, the firefighter trying to address normal stressors often makes the situation worse rather than better.
Proactive Protector Role: Manager
Similar to the firefighter, the manager operates as a protector role. The proactive manager handles each individual’s daily interactions with the external world. This role aims to protect the self from the potentially devastating emotions of shame, hurt, and fear through a proactive rather than reactive approach. The manager goes to great lengths to keep things moving and help the self to behave in accordance with internal value systems. Unfortunately, this “help” often sidesteps less visible (but still important) dynamics. A few examples of how well-meaning manager directives may actually create bigger problems:
- People pleasing, i.e. refuses to or cannot say “no” to other people’s requests. In theory, this avoids disappointing others and uncomfortable confrontations. It also eliminates the need to set healthy boundaries. While this approach delivers some immediate relief and gratification, it creates uneven relationship dynamics. Healthy managers set healthy boundaries.
- Perfectionism. This gives individuals free rein to overwork themselves to exhaustion, or avoid trying altogether. Unrealistic expectations also set the stage for disappointment in oneself which can be further devastating. Healthy managers work closer to the self to navigate goals with a more realistic approach.
- Posturing, i.e. trying to project an image of success. Success elicits a lot of positive feedback and approval from others. Unfortunately, trying to maintain an image of success may interfere with the steps required to actually achieve success. In this case, the manager unintentionally puts the cart before the horse.
Managers operate from learned beliefs about how to protect the self from the exile. Thankfully, these beliefs can be adjusted and informed to better serve the self through therapy.
The Exile Role
The exile serves the self by carrying the burden of suffering. All individuals have an exile part regardless of how much (or little) trauma they have experienced. In a healthy internal family system, the exile and protector roles exist harmoniously as they are both seen and accepted by the self. When trauma disrupts the system, the exile will take on the raw emotions which become disconnected from the self. Some examples of emotions faithfully carried by the exile:
- Sense of worthlessness
These emotions wrought by trauma are very heavy. They can completely shock and incapacitate the self. No one deserves to experience trauma; hence, the exile works alongside protectors to preserve the self through such horrible experiences intact. The exile therefore serves a critical purpose to provide the self enough time and space to eventually explore and accept these raw emotions.
Working with Protectors, Exile, and the Self
The protector parts (firefighters and managers) recognize the pain carried by the exile. Normally, these protectors serve a useful role as they take cues from the existing environment to determine the best way to guide the self. But trauma often creates dysfunction within the system as protector parts work overtime off outdated information. Some good news for trauma survivors is that dysfunctional systems are not broken: they simply need some readjustment to become unburdened.
Internal Family Systems offers a framework to understand and work through the effects of trauma. The eventual goal is to empower the self enough to face, validate, and unburden the parts which help the self exist through compartmentalization. These parts (protectors & exile) are not disposed to suffering by nature. They become associated with pain due to their direct contact with it, but through trauma work these parts can be unburdened and restored to a more functional state. Internal family systems therapy helps to access unprocessed feelings in order to deconstruct unhelpful patterns of protective behavior.
Although stigma exists around trauma work, there is hope. Our counselors at Blue Coast Behavioral Health have years of experience working with trauma. If you or a loved one is seeking help for a substance abuse problem, our mental health counselors are available 24/7 by phone: 855-997-4702