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What is IFS?

“The human mind isn’t a unitary thing that sometimes has irrational feelings. It is a complex system of interacting parts, each with a mind of its own. It’s like an internal family - with wounded children, impulsive teenagers, rigid adults, hypercritical parents, caring friends, nurturing relatives, etc. If you embrace all these wounded and protective parts inside of you as “real beings” who deserve compassion, understanding, and love, you can transform your psyche and create the joyful life you have always wanted.” - Jay Early


A silhouette of a figure stands facing the golden dawn as the sun crests over the horizon. The person is standing in a field of flowers.

Internal Family Systems, otherwise known as IFS, is a therapeutic healing modality that - through loving and compassionate dialogue - seeks to bring to the surface fragmented aspects within us that are often responsible for perpetuating certain patterns of thought and behavior that block us from reaching our full potential. This healing modality seeks to bring the different aspects of our inner world into harmony and balance.


This blog is PART 1 of an IFS series and will cover the following topics:



Introduction to Internal Family Systems (IFS)


Do you recall experiences of talking to yourself? Perhaps you’re someone who likes to talk to yourself out loud as you go about your day. Or maybe it’s more subtle than that. Something more like the experience of an inner dialogue taking place in your mind. Many of us can relate to the experience of having an entire conversation in our mind or even watching an inner battle take place as we go back and forth between different perspectives that evoke different feelings.


Take it a step further and you might even begin to notice that there isn’t just one voice, but many different voices all with their own thoughts, beliefs, feelings and personalities. These are known as parts, sub-personalities that dwell within your psyche. When you listen closely, you can get to know these parts as characters or entities that carry memories, stories, ways of relating, thinking and behaving. You might even notice and observe that these little characters are in relationship with each other; they fight with each other; they demand your attention; they react impulsively; they analyze, control, and ultimately do their very best to protect you in the only way they know how. All of them create what is known as your internal family system (IFS).


IFS comes from the work of Richard Swartz. It is an evidence-based, integrative model that sees the human psyche as divided into sub-personalities. [1] IFS is influenced by the concept of multiple intrapsychic entities, as well as systems thinking and family therapy theory.[2] It acknowledges that we develop these sub-personalities in response to transmitted and inherited traumas from our external family system and the greater cultural system during our formative developmental years. Ultimately, these parts form as an adaptive strategy to protect the wounded child from perpetual hurt and pain. In essence, these parts helped us to survive.



Trauma & "Parts" in IFS


Parts emerge during different stages of your development as adaptive strategies for survival, and continue to live at that stage of development, recalling all of the painful and traumatic moments during that time. As a child you are dependent, and like a sponge, are constantly absorbing, responding, mirroring, and taking in all of the subtleties surrounding you. Your body is sensing everything, but your psyche and sense of self are not yet quite formed. As a part of your inherent evolutionary ability to adapt through built-in survival mechanisms you begin to develop ways to cope in environments that may not have been supportive to your well-being. Some coping strategies you learned may have been destructive while others may have been constructive. This is how parts are formed.


As you develop and mature, your awareness of self grows. Although you might learn new strategies for caring for yourself and cultivating well-being, these parts don’t just go away simply because you’re no longer the child you once were. Remember these parts helped to shape who you are as a means of survival, and as such, they will continue to show up with their unique roles, concerns, stories, feelings, opinions and so on to keep protecting the child you once were.


A white, hetero couple (a stereotypical male and female) arguing (female displays stone face with arms crossed and looking away from the male who leans in looking for eye contact). A child in the foreground closes her ears and squeezes her eyes shut as if in pain.

IFS "Parts" Explained


Each part that shows up in you has a role to play in your life. Getting to know these parts can take time but you can learn to name and identify their role by tracking:

  1. The circumstances in which they show up, and

  2. What kind of exchange takes place when they do.

Often the most prevalent parts we come to know are protectors who develop as an adaptation to certain environments where you didn't feel safe. For example, an avoidant part in you might begin to withdraw from conflict to prevent you from feeling discomfort (or pain). A people-pleaser part might "fawn" or attempt to placate the needs of others at the expense of your own because you learned to dismiss your own feelings and needs.


What is most important about each of your parts no matter how they may behave or the way that they perform their roles is that all parts do have a positive intent. Their impact may result in more disharmony and imbalance which can make it challenging for you, but all parts are responding with the intent to protect you even if those strategies are maladaptive. Oftentimes, we might feel frustrated, impatient, critical, or want these parts to go away. However, when we can see them, listen, express an interest in getting to know them, appreciate their efforts, and build trust, we can heal and create an internal family system that generates harmony and cohesion.


IFS works to create an inner dialogue with these parts that invites curiosity and compassionate understanding for the role that they have played. [3] In this way, we explore whether the current role of these protectors are still needed, or if they might be ready to transmute their role into something else that facilitates greater balance and wholeness. You can make contact with them, get to know them, negotiate with them, encourage them to trust you, help them communicate with each other and give them what they need to heal. [4]



IFS Approach


IFS is a guided exploration journey of identifying, witnessing, meeting, and conversing with each of your parts in a curious, compassionate, patient, genuine and reverent way. Our parts are perceptive and are only willing to transform if we take them seriously, create time to listen, build rapport with them, create trust and safety, and acknowledge their efforts.


IFS engages with parts visually, somatically, emotionally, and through behavior. In a session, we begin by accessing a part with the intention to un-blend from it so that we can get to know it as distinct from "Self." Through this process we discover the part's role and if and what it is trying to protect. We then work to develop a trusting relationship with each part. This process takes time and multiple sessions.


A little girl holds a magnifying glass above a shiny green grasshopper.



IFS Assumptions


The IFS model is rooted in 5 basic assumptions [5]:


1. The human mind is subdivided into an unknown number of parts.


2. Each person has a Self, and the Self should be the chief agent in coordinating the inner family.


3. Parts engaging in harmonizing behavior are beneficial to the individual. There is no such thing as a “bad part.” Therapy aims to help parts discover their supportive roles.


4. Personal growth and development leads to the development of the internal family. Interactions between parts become more complex, allowing for systems theory to be applied to the internal system. Reorganization of the internal system may lead to rapid changes in the roles of parts.


5. Adjustments made to the internal system will result in changes to the external system and vice versa. Therefore, both the internal and external systems need to be adequately assessed.



IFS Components

Their are 3 main components to IFS:


1. Self


2. Wounded Child


3. Protectors



Goals of IFS


1. Cultivate Self


2. We welcome all parts with curiosity and compassion. We seek to understand each one and appreciate its efforts to help us, without losing sight of the ways it is causing problems. We develop a relationship of caring and trust with each part, and then take steps to heal it so it can function in a healthy way.


3. Un-blend and differentiate parts from Self


4. Befriend, build trust and heal parts


5. Create a cohesive, harmonizing internal system



Conclusion


IFS in essence is a healing modality that serves to understand, listen, and be curious about the internal fragments within us so that we may return to inner balance, accord and unity. So next time you notice yourself talking to yourself, pay attention to see if it might be a part. Inquire who might be doing the talking, whose beliefs are they, what are their thoughts and sensations, what do they look like, how do they behave and what’s their role? All our parts want a compassionate ear, a caring tone, and a curious demeanor to share themselves with. Our internal family system can play a symphony of melodies, harmonies and tunes that activate joy, love, trust, and ease and relaxedness. This is your inner home, your place of belonging, and IFS aims to transform the inner family back home.


A brown and white dog  with soft pointy, flopped ears stares into the camera with sweet brown puppy dog eyes.


References


1. Self-Therapy : A step-by-step guide to creating wholeness and healing your inner child using IFS, A new cutting-edge Psychotherapy, Jay Early, 2009, pg. 19


3. Self-Therapy : A step-by-step guide to creating wholeness and healing your inner child using IFS, A new cutting-edge Psychotherapy, Jay Early, 2009, pg. 12

4. Self-Therapy : A step-by-step guide to creating wholeness and healing your inner child using IFS, A new cutting-edge Psychotherapy, Jay Early, 2009, pg. 20

5. Self-Therapy : A step-by-step guide to creating wholeness and healing your inner child using IFS, A new cutting-edge Psychotherapy, Jay Early, 2009, pg. 12


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