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Internal Family Systems (IFS) Steps: Accessing Parts



As part of our IFS blog series, we will be discussing how to access "parts". Parts are the different sub-personalities of the psyche that form over time as a result of early childhood environmental contexts. Parts develop as an intelligent adaptive response to a lack of safety.


This blog will cover:


Introduction


Internal Family Systems is a guided exploration journey of identifying, witnessing, meeting, conversing and building trust with each of your parts in a curious, compassionate, patient, genuine and reverent way. Your parts are perceptive and through IFS, you learn to take time to listen, build rapport, create trust and safety, acknowledge their efforts, and transform them.


Our internal family system can be nearly impossible to navigate without clear tools, guidance and a centered orientation to the Self. Imagine traveling in space without an orientation to the sun. Planets would continuously shift positions in orbit which would lead to a system of chaos and confusion without a central light source. Ideally, your inner mindscape would mirror the outer cosmic skyscape, harmoniously interacting with each other, with a central core like a star.


Jay Early in his book, Self-Therapy lays out the steps that support you to begin accessing, getting to know, and journeying through your internal family system with navigational tools. He has outlined 4 clear steps to accessing a part:

  1. Step 1: Accessing a Part

  2. Step 2: Unblending from a Part

  3. Step 3: Discovering a Part’s Role

  4. Step 4: Befriending


Step 1: Accessing a Part


Before you launch off into the space of your internal family system, you need to first be aware that you have an inner psyche that is constantly changing. Within this space are shifting parts, sub-personalities, and darting thoughts, beliefs, stories, and feelings. It’s kind of like when you travel by plane there is a range of shifting landscapes with various cloud formations that are always changing. As you traverse through the outer skyscape, your awareness that you are in the sky will allow you to notice when clouds or parts are present.


The quickest way to access a part, or to know you are in a cloud is through the experience of turbulence. You might notice when you are activated, triggered or experiencing some form of response that is familiar from your past experiences. You might recall a moment when you were last triggered, be experiencing activation currently or even witness a series of events that triggered many parts. In either case, once you are aware that there is a part, or at least know there is an inner disturbance then you can approach the part through many different directions.


You can begin by identifying these parts through the ways that they communicate, relate, behave, think, feel and sense. These become your access points to a part. It doesn’t mean that each of these directly equates to a part, but through these entry points you can begin to access your different parts:


  1. Sensations: Tracking the language of sensation can guide you into getting to know a part: tight jaw, tingly legs, heat around the chest and throat, clammy hands, constricted hips, constipation. Being curious about how the body is responding may indicate the presence of something - a part that might want your attention.

  2. Images: Another access point may be through an image that you receive. You might get an internal visual that represents this part. It could be a cartoon character, shapes, patterns, colors, or landscapes like caves, gardens, forests, or mythical figures, animals. The images can vary and noticing the details of the image can guide you into getting to know the part.

  3. Behaviors: These are the actions, responses, postures and roles that you take on as a part is present. Perhaps you notice yourself slouching, leaning back, clenching, or rapid movements like a leg shaking, or hands fidgeting, or you start cleaning, phone scrolling or talking rapidly. The range of responses through your behaviors can vary and paying attention to your behaviors can assist you in getting to know when a part might be activated.

  4. Feelings: This is when you feel the emotion, desire or attitude that characterizes the part, giving you a felt sense of it. (1) You might feel frustration, irritability, unease, anger, sadness or notice hunger, fullness, craving, and a seeking.

  5. Voice: Sometimes a part can come through in the way that it communicates to you or with others. Your inner dialogue may change, and you might hear the part speaking silently inside, or you might notice it speaking to you, someone in your life or to another part. (1). You might also speak out loud as the part, communicating what its thoughts, beliefs, and words want to say. This part might have a certain tone, phrases, and ways of communicating and relating that you can get to know. You can access a part by paying attention to the way it might converse and engage in dialogue.

  6. Knowing: Sometimes you might just know a part is present without any specific cues. Knowing can come through intuition, or some form of multi-sensory perception. Listen to your inner knowing and follow it to access a part.


You can attempt to get to know a part by accessing it through one of these passageways and other entry points may be available to you that are not named here, and sometimes it just isn’t clear. Parts might need time to reveal themselves fully, and by staying curious and open, you can get to know the part little by little as they build trust and safety.


When you are aware of being in the sky, you will eventually get to know all that is present within the sky. The hope is that you can learn to sense a part’s presence, assess it by checking inside and observing the feelings, body sensations, images, voices and behaviors that are being experienced as you are sensing a part. You can only access the clouds by being actively present to the sky, and as you build your curious awareness of them, your parts will begin to reveal themselves.



Step 2: Unblending


When you are traveling within the mindscape, there are many pilots that might want to hijack the seat of command, especially when danger, threat or a trigger is activated. All of sudden your entire system is now operating from that part, without your awareness. This is referred to as blending.


Before you get to know what it means to be blended and then how to unblend from a part, you need to understand something called the “Seat of Consciousness.” Seat of Consciousness is the place within you that determines what expression, embodiment, beliefs, thoughts, feelings, perceptions and behaviors will be chosen. The occupant of this very powerful seat will have a greater influence in determining how you feel, what your intentions are, how you relate and perceive others and what responses, choices and actions will be taken, and will impact your direction. Whoever is in the seat is in charge of your psyche at that moment. This is the pilot of your inner mindscape.


Ideally, this seat is occupied and reserved for the Self, which is its natural place of belonging. However sometimes parts take it over without you even realizing it. The one in the seat is centered, yet that doesn’t mean that they are aware of being in the seat. Becoming aware of who is in the seat while the part is occupying the seat is known as the witnesser or observer perspective - when the subject of experience is pointed back to the one who is creating the experience. You may not be aware of the one who is in the seat or question their position of authority; however, when you are able to see the one who is seeing, you can then get to know them. When a part has taken over the seat of consciousness without your awareness is when you are blended with the part. There are not two entities, there is one.


According to Jay Early in his Self-Therapy book, a part is blended with you when...

  • You are flooded with the part’s emotions to such a degree that you aren’t grounded. You are lost in their feelings.

  • You are caught up in the beliefs, attitudes and perceptions of the part so that you lose perspective over the situation. You see the world through the part’s eyes and point of view. In addition, you aren’t able to recognize that this is one of many perspectives - you simply see it as the truth.

  • You don’t feel enough of yourself. You don’t have enough access to a place in you that is separate from the part from which to witness it and understand it.


The first step in unblending is that the Self must reside in the seat of consciousness and there must be distance, or separation from the part so that the Self can shine the light of consciousness on it and develop a relationship with your parts. This is known as “dual consciousness” - being able to feel and be aware of the presence of the part while in the Self. If the part is blended with you, it has pushed the Self out of the pilot seat and into the passenger seat. Being able to notice that this part has taken command over the Self is a critical step.


Jay Early has identified various ways to unblend:

  1. Ask the parts to separate

  2. Invite and move into the Self

  3. Visualize the parts as separate (creating a boundary, spaciousness, distance)

  4. Finding an opposed part

  5. Self Meditation


You can ensure you are unblended with a part by asking yourself how you feel towards the part right now. This isn’t about evaluating the part or concerning yourself with how you feel when it is activated, but sensing how you feel towards it right now. How are you relating to it? What is your attitude towards it? Notice: are you afraid, curious, critical, accepting, closed, open, etc.


It can be tricky to discern between the part’s feelings and your own especially if the part has been causing hurt. It’s natural to feel frustrated, angry, judgmental or critical towards your parts. However, approaching your parts with understanding, curiosity, and listening to their point of view and what they are trying to do for you creates a greater opportunity for healing. It can sometimes be referred to as befriending your parts (see step 4). When a friend that you love is upset, frustrated or hurt, you listen, hold space, show understanding and compassion. You want to do the same for the parts in you. All parts are welcome and by approaching them with care, they are inherently more receptive and trusting. By being genuinely caring and compassionate, you can harmonize and reunite your parts in a way that serves your essential self and wellbeing.


Step 3: Discovering a Part's Role


All your parts have a role to play, and by exploring their emotions, beliefs, memories and concerns, you can get to know each of their roles. No matter what their roles are and how they might behave, each of your parts do carry a positive intent. Now that's not to say that the impact of the part’s presence is positive, but your parts do want to prevent further hurt and pain which is why they show up to protect you in the first place. Any situation, feeling, or dynamic that reminds a part of something that might have happened in your past that caused you hurt, will provoke the part and their roles.


The roles your parts play essentially come down to protecting your exiles (those traumatized young aspects of you) from further pain. They do this by protecting you and the exile from the world, or judging and pushing away the exiles because they think they are dangerous and they will flood you with pain. Jay Early describes these two forms of protection as external and internal.

  • “External Protection: Some protectors try to keep an exile from being harmed by other people. For example, an enraged protector might want to prevent the exile from being controlled. As a result, they might take whatever actions they think are necessary to keep people from harming those exiles through control.

  • Internal Protection: Some protectors try to protect you from feeling the emotion an exile carries. For example, an intellectualizer that keeps you in your head to numb emotional pain. These protectors close you down or distract you to block out the pain or trauma that the exile feels. Or they may try to provide you with the comfort or pleasure or self-esteem to override the exile’s suffering.”


When working with your protectors, you will continue to be reminded that your approach to getting to know them matters. You might view your protectors as “bad” and want to get rid of them, seek to fix them or get them to go away. This usually leaves you and the protector in a battle of tension and mistrust. When you can view your protectors with understanding and try to see that they are doing their best to prevent further harm and pain in the way that they know how, you can begin to create a harmonizing, trusting and healing relationship with them. Many of your protectors are misguided and don’t know any other way to protect you. Most of them developed their protective strategies when you were young and didn’t have the capacity to act in skillful and mature ways. So when a protector is faced with a situation that it perceives as threatening, it will act out in the only way it knows how, using tactics it learned in childhood, which are usually dysfunctional as an adult. However, little by little, you get to know their roles, fears and beliefs so that you can cultivate a relationship of understanding, compassion, and trust so that more of the Self can guide.


You can begin to explore your parts’ roles by asking them specific questions with an approach of curiosity:

  • What do you feel?

  • What are you concerned about?

  • What is your role?

  • How long have you been performing this role?

  • What do you hope to accomplish by playing this role?

  • What are you afraid might happen if you didn’t do this?

  • How do you feel about your role?”


As you engage with your parts, their answers may be revealed through various forms. They might show you an image; you might receive a bodily sensation, or an emotion, or phrases, symbols, words. You invite the part to share with you when it’s ready and then you listen, attune, and notice how it wants to express themselves to you.



Step 4: Befriending


This step is essentially all about developing a trusting relationship with a protector. Trust is an embodied sensation in relation to another place, person or experience that softens your muscles, allows you to feel ease and relaxed, and regulates your nervous system. Trust is earned and felt when we experience consistency, accountability, authenticity, transparency and safety. You might have a sense of trust or a friend that you can trust: someone who listens, reaches out, shows care and empathy, forgives, appreciates, is accountable, compassionate and so on. You might find that being a friend to another is easier than be-friending yourself.


In IFS, a part of healing your parts is being a trusting friend to them. (1, pg 134) When you can begin to offer the parts in you friendship, you can develop a trusting relationship with each of your parts so that they can begin to let go and lean on you (the Self) to lead. The protectors need care, understanding, and appreciation, so that they can relax, trust you and permit access for the Self to sit in the seat of consciousness. When you show appreciation for their efforts, their years of service in their attempts to prevent more hurt and pain even if their actions caused problems, they will begin to soften and relinquish their power over to you, back to you. They will trust your direction and sense of authority.


Jay Early has provided a list of example statements that you could say to your parts to develop a trusting friendship with them (1, pg 138):

  • I understand why you perform your role

  • It makes sense to me

  • I understand the responsibility you carry and have carried for me

  • I appreciate what you did for me as a child

  • I appreciate what you were trying to do for me

  • I see how you contribute to my life

  • I appreciate your efforts on my behalf


Your parts are sensitive and attuned to your attitude towards them and can sense if you are coming from a pure place. They are perceptive and will know if you have hidden agendas, are being inauthentic, pressuring them, or are still feeling subtle anger or judgment. These responses prevent trust in relationships and can cause your parts to recoil, or be unwilling to let go. There are numerous reasons to not trust, yet the most important way to establish trust is to listen, hear, understand, and assure them that you won’t continue to treat them in the ways that you have in the past. You might apologize, create spaciousness and just be patient. The more you tend to them from Self, the more that trust will build. Then your parts can relax and release.


The other step to developing a trusting relationship with your parts is ensuring that your parts are aware of you (Self). (1, pg 138) Parts have learned to just come in, perform their role and take charge when they sense danger. They are not aware that there is a Self because as a child the development of such a presence wasn’t available. Now it is, so you need to ask the part if it is aware of you and then observe how they might respond through imagery, sensations, feeling, etc. You are inviting awareness so that there is a dynamic between them and Self, a relationship, a friendship. The first time you acknowledge the relationship, it is normal to sense confusion. Other times your parts respond with comfort to know that you are there and sense relief.


Befriending your parts is tending to the relationship with new responses. You are invited to create new relational patterns within your internal family system that allow spaciousness, compassion, understanding, patience and care so that your inner family can begin to trust you as you change your approach and perspective towards them.



Conclusion


Your inner mindscape and navigating your psyche becomes easier when you have directions, guidelines of how to access your parts, unblend, get to know their roles and befriend your parts. When you can explore the terrain looking for entry points that indicate the presence of a part, observe who is occupying the pilot seat (seat of consciousness), maintain dual awareness of Self and the part and then get to know the parts and their roles, you can begin to establish an inner dialogue with each of your parts that creates trust. This is your internal family and the type of relationship you have with your parts impacts the entire system. When you approach your parts with care by listening, honoring, opening, and being with each of them, you build trust. When your parts trust the Self, you can dance together in unison, as one cohesive, synergistic, balanced system.


I want to end on this visual experience (known as a murmuration) that captures the essence of what it's like when all of your parts dance together as one integrated internal family system.



This blog is inspired by the work of Richard Swarts and Jay Early. Please check out their workshops, trainings, books, and downloadable exercises and guides to learn more about IFS or Parts Work:


References

  1. Self-Therapy : A step-by-step guide to creating wholeness and healing your inner child using IFS, A new cuttting-edge Psychotherapy, Jay Early, 2009


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