What is Internal Family Systems (IFS)?
Have you ever found yourself thinking or feeling something like...
A part of me knows I should get up and exercise, but another part of me wants to pull the covers over my head and go back to sleep.
I love my kids, but sometimes a part of me just gets so angry at them.
A part of me wants to keep trying, but another part of me wants to give up.
In my work with clients, I often explain that we all have a Self and we all have parts.
"Self" refers to the core essence within each one of us. The Self is not a part.
In contrast, the concept of a "part" refers to our various feelings, reactions, or ways of responding to ourselves and others around us.
A teacher and mentor of mine, Colleen West, describes the Self in this way:
"You may visualize Self as the point of light at your core that was there the moment you were conceived, and will always be there—the light that has never been touched by the abuses you have suffered. It cannot be destroyed. But hurt, wounded, and powerful parts can eclipse it, and healing those parts can liberate it."
This way of thinking is called Internal Family Systems (IFS) and has become one of the most powerful tools in my therapeutic toolbelt. The goal of this evidence-based modality is to help us find healing by communicating with our inner parts with compassion and curiosity. In doing so, we can connect more deeply to ourselves and find healing.
When I'm introducing IFS to others, I often present it as a lens to look through to get a different perspective on the various things we are feeling and thinking, the things we are struggling with, the way we show up in the world, even how we interact with others.
Through the lens of IFS:
"I am angry” becomes “a part of me is angry.”
“I am depressed” becomes “A part of me is depressed.”
It's important to know that our parts always have a positive intent towards us. They exist to protect us and keep us safe. However, our parts’ positive intent doesn’t always have a positive impact in our lives or the lives of those around us.
Imagine for a moment an angry or rageful part jumping in to scream at someone who has humiliated or hurt you. The angry part is doing what it thinks will protect you and keep you safe. It doesn’t know that your screaming may have unintended consequences.
Or imagine a depressed part taking over your system. The depressed part does this to keep you numb and protect you from feeling other emotions it is concerned will be too much for you to bear, but it doesn’t understand that your numbness will also prevent you from accessing more positive, joyful emotions.
"There are no bad parts," says founder and creator of IFS, Dick Schwartz. The goal of IFS is not to make our parts go away. I need my parts to function in this world! When parts are not in their reactive or shut down roles, they can become incredible resources. They can become our allies and our consultants. In IFS we talk a lot about befriending our parts.
You can see how IFS offers such a different perspective on why these things are happening inside of us.
How reassuring it can be to find out that there’s nothing wrong with us. We’re not broken. We simply have parts! And when a part has taken over and is running the show, it’s doing this because it wants to protect us and keep us safe.
The work of IFS is to become aware of our parts and develop a trusting relationship with them. This allows us to become what IFS calls Self-led rather than part-led. Think of it as a conductor leading an orchestra: rather than let the cymbals or tuba take over the entire performance, I take my place as the one bringing all the instruments — all my parts — into harmony.
When we are able to access and strengthen our connection to Self, we can serve as a compassionate leader for our internal parts.
IFS can be applied to any topic: relationships, parenting, leadership, burnout, anxiety, depression, grief, even chronic pain.
One of the reasons I love the perspective of IFS is I get to teach others to understand and navigate their own internal landscape of emotions and reactions. You can become your own therapist or leader of your parts!
If you’re curious to learn more about IFS, let’s talk.
Sending compassion to you and all of your parts!