In my recent blog post on dealing with depression, I mentioned a therapy modality that I have found to be quite useful in my own healing journey: Internal Family Systems therapy, or IFS. If you haven’t heard of it before, read on! But even if you have, I’ll be sharing some specific examples from my own experience that you may find useful.
What is IFS?
Basically, IFS sees the inner psyche as being composed of the core self, as well as various parts that interact within an internal “family.” If you’ve ever seen the movie Inside Out, you may be somewhat familiar with this concept already.
The Self is the key part of this whole system. This is the true you – the best version of yourself, your highest self, however you want to think about it. The Self, which we ALL have at the core of our beings, is compassionate, curious, caring, and nonjudgmental. When the Self is sitting in the “seat of consciousness” (when it’s the one running the show), you’ll bring these qualities into the way you think, move, interact with others, and react to your parts.
For most of us, our highest Self isn’t sitting in the seat of consciousness very often. Through lifetimes of engrained habits, societal pressures, and self-protection, our parts are usually running the show. Different parts can be activated at different times depending on the circumstances.
One of the great things about IFS, though, is its insistence that there are no bad parts. Though there may be parts you are ashamed of, or parts that seem to bring you nothing but trouble, they aren’t trying to ruin your life. They are actually doing their very best to protect you from perceived harm. Learning to react to your parts with compassion is the work – and the magic – of IFS.
Parts tend to fall into one of two types: protectors or exiles.
These parts are doing their best to protect you. Often, they manifest as things like the critic, the jealous part, the procrastinator, etc. While our knee-jerk reaction is to think of these in a negative light, they actually play a very important protective role, and work extremely hard to do so (even if the ways they show up in our lives often make us miserable).
Quite often, a protector will be guarding a child part – an exile. These parts have experienced something traumatic (which is defined broadly as anything that exceeds one’s ability to cope) and remain stuck in place, locked in a sub-basement of your psyche, full of unexpressed pain. The protector’s job is to keep these exiles hidden, because they often don’t trust that you can handle encountering the exile – or they may be protecting you from feeling its pain.
A huge part of the process, then, is building a relationship between your Self and your protectors. In this way, you can begin to meet your exiles. This allows you to unburden or “re-parent” the exiles, so that the old wounds you carry can begin to heal, and you can give the protectors new jobs, since they don’t have to spend all their energy guarding you from making contact with their exiles.
Importantly, you cannot skip the step of building a relationship with the protectors before healing the exiles. It’s tempting to jump straight into unburdening the exile once you identify it. But if you bypass the protector, you will lose its trust, and your contentious relationship with it will persist, and may even get worse.
What’s an IFS session like?
Another thing I love about IFS is that it doesn’t necessarily require a professional therapist (in most cases). This is a form of self-inquiry that is accessible to anyone, anywhere. It’s a method for conceptualizing the psyche in a way that makes it easier to work with, and can lead to some really interesting insights. It can be done solo through a meditative process, or with a friend. There may, at times, be things that crop up that feel too painful to handle. That is a good indication to back off and seek help from a professional.
As part of my therapy, I’m working on building relationships with a few of my parts. I try to set aside time every so often to ground and center through focusing on my breath until I feel my compassionate Self settling in (which, for me, comes with a feeling of open-hearted curiosity). Then I will scan my body to see what I feel – because parts often manifest as sensations in the body. The rest is a process of gentle inquiry. I’ll ask the part what they’re called. See how they’re feeling today. Ask them what their role or job is, and how they believe they are helping me. Some parts are more receptive to this than others. Some will open right up to you, while others are hard to pin down. These are the ones you will need to spend more time and energy getting to know.
A few personal examples
As an example, the first part I met was very forthcoming (I’ll talk more about him in a minute). But some of them are hazier, like the Triplets. I visualize them as three little girls (creepy ones, like the twins in The Shining) in old-fashioned dresses, arms linked, standing in front of a locked door. That image itself wasn’t easy to pin down – they don’t seem to like being forced into human forms. Regardless, I know what each of them symbolizes: they are my inner critic, judgmental part, and doubting part. Together, they have worked hard to make me socially accepted… but in the process they have unleashed a whole lot of inner turmoil.
This all may sound slightly… bizarre. But I’ve found that tapping into my imagination and a sense of play when doing therapeutic self-work is very refreshing. Plus, everything (and I mean everything) makes a whole lot more sense when I view the world through this lens. This process, even if it sounds a lil crazy, is actually making me a whole lot saner.
Go on, try it! See what you find. There is literally no downside, and it doesn’t have to cost a thing. You may be surprised what comes up! Whatever does, just go with it. If there’s a little voice that tells you you’re doing it wrong, or that this is stupid and you’re just making it up anyway, that’s probably a doubting part you would do well to meet. I often turn off this doubting voice by acknowledging it, then reminding myself that the thoughts and images that arise during this process come from somewhere. For me, this whole experience has been an important lesson in learning how to trust my own inner wisdom.
IFS in action: Meet Dan
One morning, I woke up encompassed by a feeling of dread and nausea. Instead of stewing in it or letting the unpleasantness spiral further, I settled into my curious Self to see what I could find.
I focused first on the feeling of dread, wanting to get to know this anxious part and see if I could get a mental image of it. Strangely enough, the image that came to mind was of a portly construction worker eating chicken wings. I asked his name and he told me it was Dan. I wasn’t with him long before a new feeling sprung up and I felt like crying for no apparent reason, so I knew a different part was there too.
Once I examined that one, a clear image came to mind, and with it a memory: when I was a little kid, my mom had arranged for me to go to a Girl Scouts meeting after school. I had to get off the bus at a specific stop and walk to the church where the meeting would be held. I was given very clear instructions, but I messed it up and got lost. It just so happened that my mom was going to the grocery store that afternoon (we lived in a very small town at the time), and she saw me walking aimlessly down the sidewalk, crying. So it all worked out fine, and as I remember she dropped me off at the meeting after that.
That this particular memory came up was very interesting to me, because I hadn’t thought about it in ages, and besides, I’d never thought that experience had been traumatic in any way. I mean, it had a happy ending, after all. But apparently part of me is still stuck in that moment. The Lost Child is still wandering, feeling incompetent and vulnerable, looking for her family, and Dan is stuck watching over her even though he knows nothing about kids.
So what’s next?
I haven’t gotten to a point yet where I can unburden the Lost Child, but knowing Dan has helped me in some unexpected ways. When I feel that nauseated dread building in my belly and chest, I can recognize that Dan is there. I’ll talk to him inside my head. Hey, Dan, I see you. I feel you. Thank you for looking after the Lost Child. I know it’s hard for you, and I appreciate all that you do for me. Just that small acknowledgment will often make my nausea completely vanish. Which always feels pretty miraculous, to be honest.
But it works because, in the end, our parts only want the same thing we all want: to be respected, to be seen, and to be recognized for their hard work. Sometimes, just acknowledging that you see how hard they are working is enough to get them to give up the seat of consciousness, so that your Self can keep on driving.
This post barely scratches the surface of this rich and intriguing mode of therapy. There are some excellent resources out there. To get started, I highly recommend listening to this podcast (or reading through the transcript). There are also some good books on the topic, including the new one mentioned in the podcast, No Bad Parts: Healing Trauma and Restoring Wholeness with the Internal Family Systems Model. I have the older book Self Therapy, which has informed much of my understanding on the topic.
Honestly, even though I love the philosophy of IFS, I still find it REALLY hard to carve out the time and motivation to work on this. I know by now, though, that you can only get better at a thing by doing the thing. So even though the Triplets still taunt me with their elusiveness and Dan doesn’t quite trust me, I know deep within my Self that true acceptance and self-love will only come when I keep showing up for, and learning about, all the members of my internal family.