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  • Writer's pictureSteve Elfrink

Structural Dissociation vs. Internal Family Systems: Navigating Trauma and PTSD


When it comes to addressing the profound impact of trauma and PTSD on the human psyche, understanding therapeutic models like Structural Dissociation and Internal Family Systems (IFS) can be invaluable. In this article, we explore the differences between these two approaches within the context of trauma and PTSD.


Structural Dissociation:

  1. Definition: Structural Dissociation, developed by Onno van der Hart, Ellert Nijenhuis, and Kathy Steele, is a model tailored to trauma's intricate effects. It views the mind as composed of various dissociative parts or "self-states" that evolve as adaptive responses to traumatic experiences.

  2. Parts: Structural Dissociation identifies two primary parts: "Emotional Parts," which harbor traumatic emotions and memories, and the "Apparently Normal Part of the Personality (ANP)," representing the functional aspect of the individual.

  3. Objective: Structural Dissociation therapy aims to integrate and reconcile these fragmented parts, fostering a more unified sense of self and reducing the distressing symptoms associated with trauma and PTSD.

Internal Family Systems (IFS):

  1. Definition: Internal Family Systems, developed by Richard C. Schwartz, offers a broader perspective that is highly relevant to trauma and PTSD but extends beyond these contexts. It posits that the mind comprises a family of "parts," each with distinct characteristics, needs, and roles within an inner system.

  2. Parts: IFS categorizes parts into a more elaborate system, including "Exiles" (parts holding painful emotions and memories), "Managers" (parts maintaining control and protection), and "Firefighters" (parts impulsively reacting to relieve emotional pain), among others.

  3. Goal: IFS therapy focuses on cultivating a compassionate relationship with each inner part, understanding their unique functions, and facilitating the emergence of the compassionate "Self" capable of leading and healing the internal system.

Key Differences in Trauma and PTSD Context:

  1. Origins: Structural Dissociation specializes in addressing the impact of trauma on the fragmentation of the self. In contrast, IFS has broader applications, serving not only trauma treatment but personal growth and self-discovery beyond traumatic experiences.

  2. Part Types: While Structural Dissociation distinguishes between Emotional Parts and ANP, IFS offers a more extensive categorization of parts, including Exiles, Managers, and Firefighters.

  3. Approach: IFS places a significant emphasis on understanding and fostering a compassionate relationship with each internal part. Conversely, Structural Dissociation emphasizes integration and harmonization without necessarily focusing on self-relationship.

  4. Overall Framework: Structural Dissociation provides a trauma-focused model elucidating how trauma leads to self-fragmentation. IFS offers a comprehensive framework adaptable to various internal parts, whether trauma-related or not.

In conclusion, Structural Dissociation and Internal Family Systems are invaluable tools for understanding and navigating the complex landscape of trauma and PTSD. While both models share some similarities in addressing self-fragmentation, they differ in their approaches, goals, and therapeutic techniques. The choice between the two depends on an individual's unique needs and objectives in trauma and PTSD recovery and healing.

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