Contributor: Brittney Williams, LPC/MHSP at Fairhaven Treatment Center
The Internal Family Systems Model (IFS) is a beneficial therapeutic model for clients, specifically those who suffer from eating disorders. For the purpose of this blog, the area of focus will be exploring the IFS concept of the “Self” in the internal system and how experiencing healing through this approach can be life-changing for those in recovery from eating disorders.
The concept of “Self” in IFS is unique in the sense that it encourages the healing of attachment wounds and other areas of burdened pain from within one’s internal system. Those who frequently struggle with eating disorders present with hopelessness regarding their ability to recover due to the complexity of the illness and the recovery process.
The intensity of struggling with an eating disorder, and its accompanying comorbidities, oftentimes depletes clients of hope for recovery and trust in their capacity for healing. The IFS model, specifically the experience of accessing “Self” through the use of this model, provides a shift in reconnecting to a sense of hope for recovery.
Dr. Schwartz, the founder of the IFS model, describes the concept of “Self” as the core of the human being. Dr. Schwartz identifies the “Self” can be found in all humans just beneath the surface of our “parts.” “Self” is found to have different qualities from the internal system’s “parts” in that “Self” has no agenda or strong emotions; it carries a different essence from how “parts” present.
Dr. Schwartz uses a term known as the “8 C’s of Self” to aid in describing the qualities one may experience when accessing “Self” or “Self-energy,” which are the following: Compassion, Calmness, Clarity, Connectedness, Courage, Creativity, Confidence, and Curiosity. Being in “Self” has also been described as having a light, present awareness.
The “Self” is often compared to a conductor in an orchestra when describing its role in the internal system. “Self” accepts all “parts” and provides a space for secure attachment to occur within the internal system. “Self” is known as the place where compassionate witnessing or active doing is available along with the wisdom to exactly know what is needed for healing internally.
A unique aspect of IFS’s “Self” is that it is not something people have to build or create. Rather, all humans possess a “Self” regardless of one’s external system and experiences. [1-3]
This concept of “Self” in IFS fosters a sense of hope for real recovery in clients. Often when clients arrive at eating disorder treatment, their internal systems have been led by their eating disorders, among other protector “parts,” for so long that they have trouble believing there is a “Self” to access.
Through the IFS therapeutic approach, clients are able to learn they have the capacity within to aid themselves in healing. Teaching clients how to access “Self” allows clients to have a life-changing experience not only for therapeutic work within psychotherapy sessions but also a new way of conceptualizing their internal experiences of emotions, thoughts, behaviors, etc.
When clients learn to regularly get into “Self,” also known as accessing “Self-energy,” they then can begin the healing work their internal systems deserve. Although clients are not taught to create a “Self” because it exists within everyone, they are taught how to access this essence, and that paves the way for the internal healing to begin. [1, 2]
One of the goals of the IFS model is to help the “Self” become the leader of the internal system. Dr. Schwartz reports in using the IFS model, he has found once clients are able to regularly access “Self,” the healing work of unburdening and reharmonizing the internal system flows with a natural ease allowing the client to experience healing from the inside out.
When clients are familiar with experiencing being in “Self,” they have less emotional reactivity because their internal parts are not having to work as hard to get their attention. Each time clients experience the healing qualities of the “Self,” their internal system experiences an increased sense of hope for continued healing because a sense of trust between their “parts” and their “Self” is fostered. 
For clients who struggle with eating disorders, IFS conceptualizes the illness as the clients having “parts” who engage in those behaviors with good intentions despite the negative impact of long-term eating disorder behaviors. Clients struggling with eating disorder recovery often experience polarization regarding recovery, self-criticism, and a lack of self-compassion, to name a few.
When these clients learn how to access “Self,” they access the ability to feel compassion, connectedness, curiosity, and all qualities of “Self” toward their eating disorder “parts” in a way that typically, when not in Self, is not available. When accessing “Self-energy,” clients are able to un-blend from and eventually unburden their “parts” in a way that produces a significant decrease in and elimination of eating disorder behaviors. [1-3]
The concept of the “Self” in IFS aids clients, in the beginning, to view their external behaviors through a different lens. Teaching clients how to experience “Self-energy” makes space for a compassion-led approach toward reducing the maladaptive behaviors that accompany eating disorders. When clients conceptualize their internal systems from the IFS perspective, they have an increased chance of restoring a sense of hope and making adaptive changes in their lives. [1-3]
1. Holmes, T., Holmes, L., & Eckstein, S. (2007). Parts work: an illustrated guide to your inner life. Kalamazoo, MI: Winged Heart Press.
2. Pastor M. & Gauvain J. (2020). Internal Family Systems Institute: Level 1 Training Manual. Oak Park, IL: Trailheads Publications.
3. Schwartz, R.C. (2001). Introduction to the internal family systems model. Oak Park, IL: Trailheads Publications, The Center for Self-Leadership.
About the Sponsor:
Fairhaven Treatment Center
Fairhaven Treatment Center is a Residential and Outpatient Treatment Center that offers an opportunity for full recovery from eating disorders and disordered eating in a structured, supportive, and tranquil therapeutic environment. We use proved evidence-based therapy for eating disorder symptoms and co-occurring problems such as trauma, anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and other challenges that contribute to and perpetuate the disorder.
About the Author:
Brittney Williams, LPC/MHSP, 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.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Published November 20, 2020, on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on November 20, 2020, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC