Finding Your "Self"
In Part 1 of my blog on Internal Family Systems (IFS), I used Disney’s movie Inside Out to help explain the concept of sub-personalities and internal roles within our mental system. I introduced the map of the soul, which explains the multiplicity of the mind in IFS language: Self, exiles, managers and firefighters. In preparation to explore the goals of IFS therapy, and what can be expected in an IFS session, it is important to be mindful that there are no bad parts. Each sub-personality, or part, has played a distinct role in achieving Self-preservation for the individual. The objective is to understand our parts in a non-judgemental way and appreciate their efforts to help, without losing sight of the ways they can cause problems.
As an individual experiences overwhelming stress, trauma, or deficits in their development needs, parts can become burdened and take on extreme roles attempting to protect the system. The goal of therapy is to unburden these parts to restore internal harmony and allow the core Self to be an effective leader.
Goals of IFS Therapy
The overarching goal of IFS therapy is centered around helping the client access their core Self so that they can heal their wounded parts, bringing their mind (internal system) into balance (1). When a person is Self-led, their system is harmonious. Life Model author, Jim Wilder, might describe this concept as living from your heart not your hurts (4). Self is the unblemished essence of who we are created to be, our truest identity. As a reminder, the Self demonstrates many wonderful qualities such as compassion, creativity, curiosity, confidence, courage, calm, connectedness, clarity, presence, persistence, perspective, playfulness, and patience. Accessing Self is foundational in healing the system.
Befriending managers and firefighters, as well as unburdening exiles, are other goals of Internal Family Systems. As noted in the map of the soul, these burdened parts may take the form of anxiety, control, people pleasing, addiction, numbing, dissociation, self-harm etc. Exiles exhibit fragile yet extreme emotions such as rejection, shame, abandonment, and insecurity just to name a few. When a part feels threatened, it might act out to protect the system. The process of being compassionate and curious toward burdened parts, and befriending them, is the key to healing exiles and other wounded parts. As protective parts feel seen and understood by the Self, the natural outflow is unburdening and healing. IFS founder, Richard Schwartz, teaches that while our parts can become harmful and disruptive, allowing them to become unburdened can return them to their essential goodness (3). In a practical sense, this unburdening may look like decreased anxiety, increased flexibility, less codependency, and an overall sense of freedom.
Steps of an IFS Therapy Session
A therapy session which incorporates IFS may take the overall form of traditional talk therapy. The therapist will explain the map of the soul and basic concepts of IFS. Once a therapeutic rapport is established and goals are identified, the therapist might turn the focus toward the client’s internal environment, noticing the presenting parts of Self and any surfacing burdened parts that need attention. There are six F’s which provide a road map for discovering and attending to protective parts in a curious and compassionate manner for the purpose of differentiating from the Self (1):
Find: In this first stage, the client will be guided to take time to sit quietly and notice what rises to the surface. Parts might be observed through emotions, images, or sensations. A part will often be experienced as a bodily sensation such as a tightness in the chest. The clinician will ask the client to notice this part in a non-judgmental manner by giving it permission to be there.
Focus: The client will be allowed time to continue attending to this part, allowing the part to reveal itself in whatever way it wants to.
Flesh it Out: The client is directed to see what else they might notice about the part such as image, color, sound, age range, proximity (how close the client is to the part), and any emotions connected to the part.
How Do You Feel Toward the Part: In this stage, the therapist will ask the client to notice how he/she feels toward the part as awareness of the part increases. The client might be asked if he/she feels patient toward the part, allowing the part to be as it is, or if there is an intolerance or impatience toward that particular part.
BeFriend: The client is encouraged to continue being curious about this part. Inner dialogue with the part is prompted in this stage. The client is encouraged to ask the part how it got its job, if the part is aware of the client, if the part is willing to connect with the client, etc. This process facilitates compassion between the Self and the part which is the catalyst for internal and external healing and change.
Fear: In this final step, the client is prompted to ask the part about its fears. For example, does the part have fears about what will happen if it stops being an extreme protector? This phase becomes a segway in connecting with and healing whatever exile the part has been trying to protect.
Benefits of IFS Therapy
With this basic understanding of the goals and expectations of IFS therapy, let’s conclude with the benefits and effectiveness of this model of therapy. Issues treated with IFS include trauma, anxiety, depression, compulsive behaviors, substance dependency, body image issues, depression, suicidal ideation, and phobias (2). Benefits may include increased self-awareness, increased resilience, reduction in anxiety and stress, and enhanced relationship skills.
Please join me for the next installment of this three-part blog series. We will wrap up the series by diving into attachment theory through the lens of IFS, exploring the internal and external world of attachment. Spoiler alert: creating secure attachment between Self and parts can overflow into secure attachment in external relationships. This is really amazing news!
Anderson, F.G., Sweezy, M., Schwartz, R.C. (2017). Internal family systems skills training manual: Trauma-informed treatment for anxiety, depression, PTSD, and substance abuse. PESI Publishing and Media.
IFS, an Evidence-Based Practice. (2015, November 23). Retrieved from http://foundationifs.org/news-articles/79-ifs-an-evidence-based-practice
Schwartz, R., Sweezy, M. (2020) Internal family systems therapy. 2nd ed. Guildford Press.
Wilder, J. (2017). https://lifemodelworks.org/living-heart-rather-hurts/