IFS stands for ‘Internal Family Systems’. The IFS Institute describes IFS as “an evidence-based psychotherapy that helps people heal by accessing and loving protective and wounded inner parts.”
The family that IFS (‘Internal Family Systems’) focuses on, is you and the “family of many parts” inside you. IFS was developed by Dr Richard Schwartz who started out as a family therapist back in the 80’s. He noticed patterns in the way inner parts behaved and related to each other that reminded him of common family dynamics. The primary focus of IFS is on us as individuals, and the particular parts within each of us. It also has implications for how we relate to other people.
When he began his work, Dr Richard Schwartz was committed to proving how effective change can happen by working on the external environment of families and how they interacted. When those techniques didn’t appear to be working, he became curious. He applied a scientific approach and began to observe what was going on in the minds of his clients. They spoke of being influenced by different parts of themselves. He was worried at first that they had what is now called ‘DID’ formerly ‘multiple personality disorder’. Ongoing observation and dialog revealed that this was not the case with those clients, rather such inner multiplicity was in fact normal.
Dr Schwartz then observed the phenomenon of distinct ‘parts’ within himself, and then also in other human beings, and came to the conclusion that we all have parts. There is much more to us than a ‘mono-mind’.
Just as we have many parts that make up our physical bodies, so too we have many parts that make up our inner world. Unlike our physical parts, inner parts harder to see. However, as a saying goes, ‘seek and you shall find.’ While it can be more difficult for some people than others, it is possible to become aware that we have parts, and begin to become familiar with them. I invite you to try this now:
Are you currently facing a dilemma? Do you have a sense that you are ‘in two minds’ about it? It might be a decision about work, travel, or a relationship. Consider as an example, an invitation to a party. Say it’s the end of a tiring week, and while you usually like to go to parties, this time you become aware that ‘part of you’ wants to go to the party. But ‘part of you’ would rather stay home. Two parts: one is interested in the party, the other part doesn’t want to go to the party. Both parts will have valid reasons and motivations for how they feel. Picture yourself deciding one way, and notice how the part that didn’t get’s it’s way feels. Then notice the appearance of a 3rd part: The ‘inner critic.’ “Shame on you for not going to the party. Your friend was counting on you being there, and you let her down!’ Maybe another part then chimes in: ‘I’m not sure I even like that friend. Sometimes I feel like she’s just using me.’ This shows how one event or incident can help us notice several parts.
How did you feel about that inner critic? When we notice unpleasant thoughts or feelings, our common response is to resent them and try to resist them. IFS invites us to try something different. Instead of resenting and resisting, what if we simply became curious, and started talking to our inner critic, in this way: ‘I notice you aren’t happy with the decision I made. Would you be willing to help me understand why you feel this way?’ Genuine curiosity tends to soften things in our internal world, and once we open up a calm respectful conversation, we might learn surprising things.
Consider once again the inner critic. Notice that alongside the critic is usually another part. A part of us that resents it. Maybe hates it. So we notice that part too. We welcome both parts. This is important. Because each of our parts is, deep down, a good part, that is trying to help us in some way. Dr Schwartz goes as far as to say ‘There are no bad parts.’ Our parts may be responsible for bad choices and destructive behaviour, this is not minimised. But in IFS we find that it goes much better when we seek to befriend and understand our parts, instead of siding with parts that want to heap shame and judgment on them. We understand how difficult it can be for parts of us to accept and make room for other parts that have made things so much harder for us. We acknowledge this. But we proceed with a policy that ‘all parts are welcome’ because that’s the only way we can reduce tension and find a path of hope.
When Dr Schwartz first started to notice and work with parts of his clients, he was concerned about what one part of a client was doing to her, and tried to fight it, and shut it down. It didn’t work. When Richard gave up in despair, he received the unexpected response that the part didn’t want to beat him. It just wanted to help the client. This made Dr Schwartz curious and he was able to engage the part in a calm conversation. The story it told made a lot of sense, and the calm conversation helped them connect with compassion to a deeper issue that needed attention. That incident led directly to the development of IFS as an effective therapeutic model.
As Richard Schwartz learned from his clients what seemed to be going on inside them, he noticed that some parts acted as ‘Protectors’. They are parts with the job of protecting another type of part, called an ‘Exile’. the Exile is a part that is carrying a lot of pain, discomfort, shame or a belief about themselves that isn’t something the rest of our systems enjoys at all. So it gets pushed away, exiled to ‘the basement’. The Protector’s job is to make sure the pain or whatever is unacceptable about the exile, never gets out and disrupts our lives, or if it does get out, it has to quickly do something to get the situation back under control. Protectors that use preventative strategies are called ‘Managers’. Protectors that are reactive, are called ‘Fire fighters’. These parts can often be polarized: both are convinced that their own approach to minimising pain/shame/unpleasant thoughts and feelings is best.
Dr Schwartz discovered that deep within each of us, no matter how ‘damaged’ we appeared to be, is a Core Self that as far as he could determine, has not been damaged. From this Core Self emerges valuable qualities that express humanity at our best: Courage, confidence, compassion, curiosity, calm, creativity, connection and clarity. (He likes alliteration!). When we relate to our parts from this Core Self, our parts become easier to work with, and it’s possible to get to those vulnerable exiles and bring them the relief and help they need.
Dr Schwartz developed a courteous process of working with parts. This came about because he learned the hard way, that trying to be forceful and hasty with parts was counter-productive. He learned that by patiently getting to know parts, befriending them, and learning about their roles in our inner systems, it becomes possible to get access to deeper parts that carry ‘burdens’. He found that it is very important not to rush, and not to try to drive an agenda, even a seemingly good agenda of ‘wanting to help’ or ‘needing to rescue’ and want to quickly relieve parts of pain. Rushing and pushing things actually slows things down. A calm, kind, steady approach works best, where all the relevant parts are acknowledged. “It’s only when we slow down that we can go faster.”
IFS does not require either you or me to be an ‘all-knowing expert.’ It just asks us to consistently use the tool Dick Schwartz used as he developed the model: Curiosity.
My role is to support you as you begin to become aware of, and get to know, your parts. At first it can be difficult and confusing. In any new situation or process we have protector parts active who work hard to keep us safe. Protectors have an important job to do. I welcome your protectors. I have no desire to push past any of them, nor do I want you to. Instead, we take our time, and hear their concerns. Once they are satisfied, we move to the next stage and focus on a part of you that your own system knows needs attention. In our early sessions, I give step by step guidance and support. As you become more familiar with the process, I help you connect with your parts from your Core Self, because that’s where the wisdom and capacity for healing comes from.
IFS was developed as a secular process. There is room within the framework for those with no interest at all in any spiritual dimension or experience. And there is room for those who would like their spirituality to be part of it. I myself come from a Christian faith background, and find in IFS the same compassionate and gracious approach that the Gospels show Jesus had, (and has), towards all people. Be assured that I have no intention of forcing my, or any other belief system, on those who are my guests in conversation. You, and all your parts, whatever your beliefs and experiences, are most welcome, just as you are.
IFS is governed by the IFS Institute . There is an introduction and a lot of helpful information on their website. There are many other helpful sources of information about IFS: on YouTube IFS therapists’ sites. You can find recordings of whole IFS sessions (made with permission). These show the basic approach. I follow this, but customize each session for the individual person.
IFS is a way of working with ourselves that encourages curiosity and compassion. It can be helpful in areas of our lives where there are tensions that are hard to resolve, because it gives us a way of finding more about what’s going on, and why. When we get more clarity, by following a patient, courteous approach, we can explore ways to resolve tensions and support a friendlier and more inclusive inner and outer world.
How will you know if IFS informed counseling is something that can help you? the best way is to try take the step and just try it.
The next question is: who will you be comfortable working with? This could be me, or it could be someone else. If you need to learn more about me, please have a look at the ‘About Wayne’ page.