One therapist’s take on working with Internal Family Systems.
The first time Internal Family Systems (IFS) really clicked for me, I was in a practice session at my first IFS training. As the “client,” I encountered a protector part that had been causing me to intellectualize everything rather than allowing me to feel my feelings. After working with this part, I was finally able to access another part of me that was burdened and distressed. When we unburdened this part, I immediately felt myself become grounded, dropping into my body for the first time in a very long time. I could access my emotions, and so quickly went from numbness and overthinking to feeling like a whole, embodied person. I was captivated. Since then, I’ve continued learning about IFS practices and have grown to love it even more, in both personal and professional capacities.
One thing I love about IFS is its non-pathologizing framework – a refreshing take on mental
wellness in a society that seeks a diagnosis for every symptom or behaviour. The IFS perspective teaches that symptoms such as “maladaptive” behaviours are caused by parts. Rather than illnesses or negative influences, these parts are viewed as protectors. They have our best interests at heart and are trying to help us, however misguided their methods may be. When we come to understand the perspective of these parts, we have a new appreciation for the work they are doing. As we gain the trust of our protectors, they allow us to meet the exiled parts of ourselves who hold our deepest wounds. We can then help these wounded parts heal, easing the burden on our system as a whole.
One of my favourite uses of the IFS framework is in the treatment of trauma. One reason for
this is because while many traditional treatment modalities may require clients to disclose or outwardly process their trauma, in IFS, the client chooses how much they want to say out loud. Up to 100% of the witnessing process can be done internally between the client’s Self and the part, with only the external guidance of the therapist. This can be incredibly empowering and healing for those experiencing trauma, giving them full agency over the process. A related benefit of IFS is the interpersonal nature of the relationships within the system. Those who are overwhelmed by trauma can ask parts who are holding the biggest feelings and most difficult burdens not to overwhelm the system, and most of the time, they actually respond. This allows us to address big, scary, overwhelming parts without being overtaken by them. These boundaries allow us to work with each part at our own pace, building unique and special relationships with them along the way to improve the health of the entire system.
Additionally, connecting with Self, an aspect that each person holds that is undamaged by the events of life and has the capacity to heal all our wounded parts, can be incredibly healing for folks struggling with issues of identity. Self energy is often identified by the 8 C’s of Self: calm, clarity, courage, compassion, creativity, curiosity, confidence, and connectedness. The more a person taps into Self energy, the more grounded they become in their sense of self.
In the spirit of being client-centred and client-directed, the IFS perspective becomes more and more accessible as a client becomes familiar with their inner landscape. Equipped with this framework, a client can quickly gain the language and skills to integrate IFS practices into their daily lives, and having conversations with one’s parts becomes commonplace. If a part gets activated outside the therapy room, you don’t have to wait until you’re in therapy next to go to be with it in whatever way is needed. Once you’ve built relationships with your parts, you can come back to them any time you want or need to.
If any of this resonates with you, please reach out. I’d love to hear from you.
Interested in learning more about IFS? I wrote more about IFS here!
Alexis is a Registered Social Worker and psychotherapist in Hamilton, Ontario. She works with experiences of disordered eating, trauma, anxiety and depression from an Internal Family Systems approach. She’s probably drinking an iced coffee, right now. More questions? Reach out here.