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Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy for addiction

Reviewed by Robert Bogenberger, PhD

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From alcohol and drug misuse to compulsive gaming and shopping, addiction can trap people from all walks of life in cycles of compulsion and craving. While there’s no single cause behind it, addiction is more common among people who are trying to cope with emotional pain or trauma.

Traditional forms of treatment for addiction include 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, inpatient rehabilitation programs, and outpatient counseling—all of which can be effective. One emerging option is Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy, a type of psychotherapy that helps people explore and heal the parts of themselves that play a role in their addiction.

Addiction, the self, and its parts

In IFS therapy, the concept of the “self” represents a person’s true essence, which is naturally curious, compassionate, and authentic. Connecting with the self is a key part of healing.

“Parts” are aspects of someone’s personality that carry specific emotions, beliefs, memories, behaviors, and coping strategies. When past traumas or unresolved emotional wounds are triggered, these parts can become more active and take over a person’s thoughts, behaviors, and choices. In the context of addiction, various parts often work against each other in their efforts to cope with distress, causing inner conflict.

For example, a person’s conflicting parts might include an addict, a caretaker, a pleaser, and an inner critic. Each part has its own perspective, feelings, and motivations:

  • The addict may seek out substances or engage in addictive behaviors to numb emotional pain or fill a void.
  • The caretaker may try to control or manage the addict part’s behavior out of fear or a sense of responsibility.
  • The pleaser may engage in people-pleasing behaviors to avoid conflict or rejection.
  • The inner critic may berate and judge the person for their addictive behaviors.

The goal of IFS therapy is to help people access their self and discover, understand, and heal the parts that drive their addictive behaviors. The self can then take a more active role in compassionately managing these parts.

The polarity of addiction

Addiction involves a tug-of-war between parts of a person’s psyche. In IFS therapy, the self has wounded parts (known as “exiles”) and protective parts (“firefighters” and “managers”). Exiles are the parts of the self that carry emotional pain and trauma. When they’re activated, they can cause deep distress. Firefighters are reactive, acting quickly in the moment to put out the emotional fires fueled by exiles, often without concern for consequences. Meanwhile managers plan for the future, trying to control situations proactively and keep exiles under wraps.

When someone is stuck in a cycle of addiction and an exile part is activated, firefighter parts may use impulsive or addictive behaviors to soothe, distract, or dissociate. This triggers manager parts that can be harsh and critical. The back-and-forth struggle between the firefighters and managers as they try to deal with exiles helps keep the addiction cycle going.

How IFS therapists approach addiction

IFS takes a compassionate and collaborative approach to addiction treatment. Instead of viewing addiction as a problem that needs to be removed, IFS focuses on understanding and working with the different parts involved.

Assessing the addiction process

During an initial IFS therapy session, the therapist’s main goal is to establish a safe and supportive environment so the client feels at ease discovering and learning about their parts. Rather than dive straight into investigation and analysis, the therapist will ask plenty of open-ended questions. They’ll continue to ask questions in future sessions as an ongoing process of assessment, rather than a one-time event.

Cece Sykes, LCSW, ACSW, Martha Sweezy, PhD, and Richard C. Schwartz, PhD, are the coauthors of “Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS) for Addictions.” Sykes describes IFS therapists as embodying “five P’s”: patience, perseverance, perspective, presence, and playfulness. “We notice the client’s parts as they operate in the three categories of manager, firefighter, and exile,” the authors write. “We offer to reframe their struggles by eliciting and validating the positive intentions of polarized protective teams. And, above all, we offer hope.”

Unblending blended parts

“Blended” parts are common in people with addiction. This happens when a person’s self identifies so closely with a specific part that it becomes hard to tell them apart. In this situation, it’s nearly impossible for a person to make choices that align with their true self.

Consider someone who starts drinking heavily after a divorce to numb feelings of sadness, grief, and loneliness. Over time, they may begin to see themself not just as someone who drinks, but as someone who depends on drinking. Their alcohol use has become so entwined with their self-perception that it’s hard for them to imagine themself without it.

In their day-to-day life, this might manifest in various ways. They might feel a strong urge to drink whenever they’re confronted with difficult emotions or stressful situations. They might also find it difficult to enjoy social events without alcohol, as the alcohol-dependent part of them has come to associate drinking with relaxation and fun.

Through IFS therapy, this person can learn to “unblend” from this part—to recognize it as a separate entity that’s not inherently who they are—and start to recover.

Recovering with IFS therapy

Recovering from addiction through IFS therapy is a multistep process that varies from person to person. The following steps are often involved:

Identify and build a relationship with your parts. A person with addiction may need to work on becoming more aware of their firefighter parts and befriending them. These firefighters are trying to protect the self by reacting to the pain of an exiled part. Manager parts—such as perfectionism or self-criticism—may be working in overdrive, which the firefighters are also trying to protect the self from.

Unburden exiled parts. People with addiction often have exiled parts in the form of suppressed emotions connected to abuse, neglect, betrayal, abandonment, or other past traumas. In IFS therapy, the therapist carefully helps the client acknowledge, explore, and process these exiled parts in safe, healthy ways.

Negotiate with firefighting parts to find healthier ways to meet their needs. Someone who has an addiction to pornography, for instance, may have a firefighting part that seeks out explicit content to cope with feelings of loneliness or low self-esteem. Healthier coping strategies, such as connecting with others or doing creative activities, may be explored as alternatives.

Transform manager parts into more supportive and nurturing ones. In the example of a person who has a food-related addiction, their manager parts might berate and shame their eating habits or their beliefs about body image and self-worth. This person’s therapist can help them cultivate self-acceptance and self-compassion, which can open the door to healthier relationships with food and their body.

Integrate all parts and foster self-leadership. Integration happens when all the parts begin to trust and rely on the self as the leader. The self takes on the role of a wise guide, making decisions that align with the person’s values and goals.

Tools used by IFS therapists

Several tools may be used in IFS sessions or homework assignments, including:

  • Mapping, visualization, and imagery exercises, which can help you connect with your parts in a more visual way and understand the parts’ relationships to each other
  • Conversing with parts through dialogue,which can lead to a better understanding of your parts’ perspectives, needs, and intentions
  • Journaling and reflective writing, which can help you express thoughts, emotions, and experiences related to your addiction
  • Mindfulness practices, such as deep breathing and body awareness exercises, which can help you develop a greater sense of presence, self-compassion, and acceptance
  • Guided meditation, which promotes self-awareness and can help you connect with your parts on a deeper level

How effective is IFS therapy for addiction?

IFS therapy has shown promise in treating some types of addiction, such as internet addiction.1  It may not offer a full solution for everyone with addiction, especially those with high-risk, self-harming behaviors.

Even so, IFS therapy is still a powerful tool that can help address root causes of addictive behaviors. It can also be used in conjunction with other forms of treatment, including support groups, couples therapy, family therapy, and medication. IFS may offer a fresh perspective and new strategies for healing, even if you’ve completed recovery programs in the past.

To learn more about IFS therapy, visit our directory to find a licensed provider near you.

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