What is Internal Family Systems Theory (IFS)?

It’s how we are made!

Have you ever been facing a dilemma, and heard opposing voices inside your head – one saying, “Go for it!” and the other telling you, “No way, get out of here!”, or one telling you, “Yes, you really should…” and the other saying, “No, you had better not…”? Or have you ever noticed how quickly you can be feeling content and happy, only to suddenly feel angry and defensive, perhaps with someone important to you who did something very subtle before your mood changed? How did your body feel? How was it for your mind with the oppositional conversation inside? Or do you hear an inner critic, telling you, “You are really a mess” or “You should be better at this by now”? Do you ever feel like tuning in lets you be aware of chaos inside, with so many emotions, thoughts, even physical sensations, going full speed ahead in all directions at once? If so, would you be interested in finding a way to call “Stop, time out!” and invite peace and balance, rather than the chaos and the conflict inside of you? Internal Family Systems (IFS) Theory is one way to do just that.

IFS Beginnings

IFS was founded by Richard “Dick” Schwartz several decades ago as he worked with clients struggling with eating disorders.  Dick says he began listening to his clients when his best family therapy therapeutic tools had not worked, and he noticed the clients saying things like, “the part of me who binges” and “the part of me who doesn’t want to cut anymore”.  Dick began being curious about those “parts” and IFS was born.  Did you ever see the fantastic Disney Pixar movie “Inside Out”?  Remember how Riley had her emotions at the control desk – Anger, Disgust, Fear, Sadness, and Joy – fighting to take over with their way of helping?  (See YouTube, “Dinner Table Scene”, link here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cjgdiy_SGjA )  The movie was helpful in thinking about the multiplicity inside our minds, and IFS says this healthy multiplicity is real in all of us.  Our personality is multidimensional, and IFS calls the different dimensions “parts”.  Parts can express feelings and emotions like in the Inside Out movie, and they also can show up as physical sensations, memories, images, and thoughts.  When we are doing well, we feel harmony and peace inside and express that in the different areas of our life.  But if one part of us takes over we lose that balance and harmony inside us and feel overwhelmed or consumed with that one dimension/part.  Think about a day when you feel really down or anxious, and just cannot seem to get past it.

IFS’s Therapeutic Process

To be a bit more specific about the IFS process, we find that there are different kinds of parts. Our protective “manager” parts like to keep us under control, getting the job done, focusing, staying polite, getting it just right, etc. But when manager parts are tired and stressed or provoked, sometimes our “exile” parts come out and reveal our vulnerable feelings like shame, powerlessness, fear, and grief. Frequently the exile parts hold the painful burdens of trauma, what your body and mind remembers. If our system feels the exile part is overwhelming or threatening us in some way by showing itself, we have a different kind of protector come in that we call “firefighter” parts. Our firefighters will come to the emotional rescue and immediately push the exiled part away again. This distraction or soothing can happen with comforts like a large bowl of ice cream, or tuning out on Facebook, numbing with addictions, or suicidal thoughts. This pattern of keeping it all under control, getting triggered, trying to feel better, and repeat, might feel familiar to you. What may be new to you is learning what to do about it!

What happens in an IFS session?

Doing IFS therapy, I will help you get to know and heal the parts inside you, extending curiosity and respect towards them like you would to another person or a child who you are just meeting. Sometimes an image will come, or a memory, or a phrase, or a physical sensation like a muscle tightness, or a bit of emotion like a welling up of tears. When you can draw on the spiritual strength present in your heart and soul, you can get to know your parts as they show up rather than pulling away. As I guide you through the IFS process of inviting unburdening, you can help your parts to release the burdens and pain you may have been holding deep inside under it all, allowing your protective parts to relax and get along better inside you. You may notice the presence of God, the divine, or even see loved ones or other spiritual guides who are familiar to you. We will stay really open to whatever your system brings you in whatever way it wants to do that, and the more surprising it feels to you the more you are doing this right!

IFS, Self, and Spirituality

IFS calls your spiritual strength or core your “Self” which holds positive qualities and inherent wisdom, and we all have one from the time we are born. IFS suggests that as we grow, our parts take on roles to defend and guard our Self from life’s difficult experiences and lack of safety. One goal of IFS therapy is to increase “Self-leadership” in each of us (rather than our parts leading) and in our world. Through IFS therapy you will become more aware of your Self energy and draw on it in our sessions and in your life. Were you ever taught the catechism or traditional Christian beliefs? Christian denominations sometimes talk about the Holy Spirit helping us to grow in our faith and spiritual identity through a process called “Sanctification”. You could say that through IFS the Holy Spirit is doing sanctification in us as our Self energy grows, like ancient Christians found through contemplative prayer and spiritual practices that increased their calm, faithful, spiritual energy and connection with God and Jesus. If you are not Christian, you might feel that IFS is aligned with practicing mindfulness self-compassion, or moving toward enlightenment, or helping you find and grow a recognizable strong center within yourself. IFS recognizes this spiritual center/Self as bringing you a calmness in your energy, curiosity towards whatever part comes up, confidence to meet the part and stay with it to help, extending compassion, finding clarity and an increased sense of inner connectedness, for confidence and creativity in both the healing process within and for your broader life.

IFS therapists are encouraged to intentionally work on our Self energy, so this is a process I know well from my own experience as well as my years of sharing IFS with clients. But please don’t just take my word for it, there are plenty of people talking about IFS these days!