The Journey Inward: Another Option To Treating Addictions


December 7, 2017

If you are among the many Americans who suffer from addictions, you know recovery isn’t easy. Family members also experience anxiety about the unpredictability of their loved one’s recovery.

A traditional treatment approach is to try and manage the acting out of addictive behavior; in other words, control the symptoms whether there is substance abuse, disordered eating, pornography, gambling and others. Sobriety becomes a hallmark of symptom management. Undoubtedly, for example, many people have been aided through 12 steps programs.

There is a recent innovation, called Internal Family Systems, that offers an additional perspective and treatment option for those who seek help through therapy.

The founder of IFS, Richard C. Schwartz, was at first a family therapist who believed that members of a family played different roles and took on certain characteristics. For instance, a child becomes a caretaker in order to help parents while neglecting their own growth. All members assume roles and thus become part of a family “system.”

As he worked with individuals, Schwartz discovered that we have different parts or sub-personalities just like a family inside ourselves. These parts may live in harmony, as in a family, but most often are in conflict with each other.

If we can stay in what he calls our Self - our soulful witness - or what 12 step literature calls “our Higher Power” then we can observe these parts; when they blend with us or take over and run our lives; ideally the Self asks them to settle down and take a back seat.

Our parts developed originally in childhood and took on a life of their own as we grew older. Their primary purpose is to protect us from pain. Therefore, all of our inner parts are called “protectors.” In IFS therapy each part has a name. A client can name their parts but typically there is a “manager” whose job is to aim for stability, responsibility, order. Carried to an extreme under stress the positive features of a “manager” can become rigidly responsible, harshly self-critical and perfectionistic.

Another part may be called a “firefighter” or “detractor” whose job is to move away from responsibility toward rest, which may intensify into cravings for mood-altering substances, such as alcohol and drugs.

These two parts (there are others parts such as an angry part, etc.) are gallantly trying to protect us from childhood pain. Childhood pain had to be “exiled.” Sometimes the pain and intense emotions are too much to bear; consequently, the varying parts are trying to protect us from being overwhelmed.

Both “parts” are trying to bring balance to our internal landscape. However, if they become extreme and Self is not able to lovingly ask them to take a back seat then they take over.

Our “detractor” goes on a drinking binge, for example, only later to be shamed by our “manager”(i.e. “Don’t you know you have to go to work the next day”). Critical shaming is very crippling toward the part that wants to detract from pain by “drowning one’s sorrow.”

Let’s take me as an example. I like to go to the grocery store and buy protein bars, fruits and nuts, and other items that are not the usual food necessities. When I go up to the cash register to pay my bill, I usually intuitively hear my “manager critic” saying “you buy too much; my wife won’t be happy if I overspend the grocery budget.”

There you have it: a commonplace example between my perfectionistic manager and my go ahead and spend detractor. That event is particularly trying if my protectors are warding off feelings that had to go into “exile” (i.e. loneliness, sadness, anger, grief).

IFS treatment begins by initiating a strong connection with “managers” who need to be appreciated for their legitimate anxiety about the “detractor” whose addictive behavior often plays out as poor judgement and bad decisions.

No effort is made to excuse addictive behavior (i.e. family members are effected) but first a person needs to understand and appreciate the positive purpose of their conflicting parts.

Rather than telling the client he/she needs to control their problem behavior, a battle won and lost many times (relapses), an IFS therapist guides the person to begin relating to his/her problem part. If a spouse, parent, therapist or treatment center sides with the manager and attempts to control acting out behavior a conflict, called a polarity, between manager and detractor will intensify.

This struggle in persons with addiction will continue unless they can develop Self energy which allows a non-judgmental witnessing of what is going on inwardly and ask the competing parts to not take over so readily. Many people have to develop their sense of Self, which has long been dormant. Why? Because of the burdens they bear due to the endless struggle from within.

Although IFS is not primarily a spiritual program, many IFS practitioners see the Self as our soul spark, our connection to God. Qualities of the Self include compassion, curiosity, care, confidence and courage.

There is never harsh judgment.

With this in mind, portions of a scriptural passage helps us to recognize that God’s relating to us is available even when we are harshly managerial or moving away from our pain through addictions, rather: “But in our time something new has been added……The God-setting-things-right that we read about has become Jesus setting-things-right for us.….. God did this for us. Out of sheer generosity he put us in right standing with himself.”(From Romans 3:21-26, “The Message” translation)

Our centered Self is freed from harsh judgment by the sheer generosity of God and so we are connected to all our parts and able to relax the eternal struggle to protect ourselves. God is mediated through our Self experience. We are accepted as we are; this includes compassion for any struggle we are having.

In conclusion, IFS therapy is not the be all and end all of addiction treatment. This approach does not bring success over night. There are stops and starts in treatment.

My summary, too, has been brief and only an outline of IFS therapy. If you want more information about IFS, an article by Cece Sykes, entitled “An IFS Lens on Addiction” found in the book “Innovations and Elaborations in Internal Family Systems” is an excellent resource. Internal Family Systems website is

In any case, if you are interested in this approach to addictions it is helpful to remember a recovery program slogan: “take what you like and leave the rest.”

(Dr. John Campbell is a semi-retired resident of Brevard)


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