By Christine Coyle | January 24, 2023
*This blog is not meant to be a replacement for therapy with a trained professional.*
I have been learning a lot about Internal Family Systems (IFS) recently. I participated in online trainings and read more books than I can count on one hand for the last eighteen months. And earlier this month, I officially began the process of obtaining my Level 1 certification through the IFS Institute.
I’ve been told that one of the best ways to learn how to utilize IFS is to experience it yourself, which as a therapist means you become the client. So, I have been exploring my own Parts’ work and during the training, there were more opportunities for exploration. For me, writing helps me conceptualize not only the model itself, but also how I am experiencing the work. So here goes nothing…
Authenticity is healing inner wounds and learning to love ourselves first. IFS refers to our “inner wounds” as “burdens”. And that burdens are “extreme beliefs and emotions” held by our Parts, “the term used in IFS for a person’s subpersonalities” not to be confused with multiple personalities or dissociative identities. Often, burdens are developed over time through experiences of trauma or an attachment injury.
Whether you experienced trauma or not, Big T trauma or little t trauma, we all have Parts. And, we all have Self, which according to the IFS Institute is defined as “the core of a person, which contains leadership qualities such as compassion, perspective, curiosity, and confidence. The Self is best equipped to lead the internal family.” Over time and with more experiences of trauma, Self can become so blended with Parts that it becomes difficult to speak from our Parts. Instead we begin to speak for them and we have a hard time differentiating between our Parts and Self.
With IFS therapy, we invite vulnerable Parts (Exiles) opportunities to unburden their long held negative, and often inaccurate, beliefs. But in order to do that, Protective Parts must feel safe enough to step aside from their jobs of either proactively protecting us from being vulnerable or reactively protecting us from having been seen as vulnerable. Inviting Protector Parts to voice their fears and concerns provides them with opportunities to explore reasons for their extreme roles.
For a long time, I identified as a perfectionist. In my own work, I discovered something about myself: I am not a perfectionist, there is a Part of me that is a perfectionist. When an Exiled Part (a younger, more vulnerable, naïve version of myself) perceives that something may not go exactly “right”, the perfectionistic Part of me that is afraid of judgment, vulnerability, and discomfort attempts to control everything to fix any and all possible perceived problems before they even happen. And if this first line of defense fails, or is in some way ineffective, another protective Part jumps into gear and works its a** off to put out the fire(s) before anyone discovers what happened. These Parts have been in extreme roles such as over functioning, over planning, and over preparing for so long in order to prevent me from being seen as or feeling vulnerable.
Protectors on the front line often forget they’re not actually in charge. They have been driving the bus for so long that they can follow the route with their eyes closed. They have been acting and reacting automatically time after time, and even though they may not admit it, they might be exhausted. One important thing about these Parts is that they have only good intentions. And they are usually unaware that they are blended with other Parts so much so that they have no idea that Self even exists. Working with our Parts invites us to find our Parts, figure out how, when and why they show up for us, and invite them to rest when they feel safe enough. When they can more clearly see that Self is present, that they are not being asked to disappear, and truly believe that our Exiled Parts will not overwhelm us, Self can take the lead guiding you with courage, compassion, and confidence. And, our most vulnerable Parts have the opportunity to come to the surface to be seen, heard, and witnessed. And most importantly, to heal.
Therapy is a process. It is a journey that takes time, effort, energy, and determination. It is not easy. It does not make you weak. And it certainly does not mean there is anything wrong with you. Entering therapy opens you up to exploring vulnerability. And vulnerability is the courage to be brave. Opening yourself up to exploring your most vulnerable Parts is scary and can also be so rewarding. Each discovery is an opportunity for growth.
The IFS Institute says the following about Internal Family Systems:
Internal Family Systems is a powerfully transformative, evidence-based model of psychotherapy. IFS is a movement. A new, empowering paradigm for understanding and harmonizing the mind and, thereby, larger human systems. One that can help people heal and help the world become a more compassionate place.
IFS Institute welcomes all people of any age, race, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, class, ability, language or cultural background into the Internal Family Systems community. You are welcome here, and all of your parts are welcome too.
The mission of IFS Institute is to bring more Self leadership to the world.
To learn more about IFS, please visit IFS Institute website at https://ifs-institute.com/.
An overview by Richard Schwartz can be found here: https://youtu.be/DdZZ7sTX840