Many of us wonder at times why we can feel so clear about what we want in our lives, and yet we are not living in a way that fulfills that vision. We find ourselves saying things like, “I know what to do, why don’t I do it?” or “I didn’t want to, but I couldn’t help myself.” Have you ever wondered why you sometimes manage to create exactly what you were trying to avoid, or why you do things that undermine your goals or seem to sabotage your best laid plans? Whether it is an inability to resist overeating or using substances, blowing up at our child or partner, or being drawn to relationships that we know are bad for us, the tendency is to struggle with the ‘negative’ impulse and then berate ourselves when we fall victim to it again. Another approach is to envision the preferred reaction and to try to meet that more positive goal, but people tend to get stuck in dealing with the parts of us that get in our way and block us from accomplishing this.
The Internal Family Systems model (IFS) was developed with questions like these in mind. Founder Dick Schwartz saw that there is a fundamental multiplicity to how our minds work – meaning we are not just one unitary personality. We act and respond differently depending on our mood, the people we are with, the situations in which we find ourselves, and myriad other factors. IFS was developed as a way of removing the internal tendencies that allow us to be hijacked by emotions and impulses instead of engaging in life the way we’d like to. It is a way of working that will help you turn down the volume of the voices in your head, and to find and live from your most calm, clear, and centered sense of Self.
The IFS model accomplishes this with a method called “going inside.” If you want to change a part of yourself, it may be tempting and even somewhat helpful to focus on the solutions and goals, but it actually really helps to first make an effort to understand the pattern of feelings or thoughts that you are trying to change. Once you have a better sense of the its purpose, the fears that drive it and its intended goals, you have a better shot at addressing the issues that are keeping this pattern in place. It also helps to take a curious and compassionate approach towards yourself and your issues rather than a critical point of view. Think about how you feel if someone is getting to know you and you sense their judgment versus feeling their genuine curiosity. Your internal patterns react in the same way. They are harder to see and understand if you are just trying to get rid of them.
For a variety of reasons, we may suspect or fear that there are feelings, memories, or impulses inside of us that are so dangerous that they could overwhelm us or hurt other people. This is especially true if you have been though grief, loss or other traumatic experiences, or experiences that made you feel less valuable than others, or even worthless. So, we tend to compensate by making sure that we function well, appear to have our act together, and prove we are valuable. Often we may opt to distract ourselves, stay busy, and/or focus on changing other people. However, when we stop and turn our attention instead toward our inner experience, something changes drastically. What IFS provides is a safe and evidence-based method for taking care of our own feelings, thoughts, impulses, and the voices in our heads that keep us dissatisfied.
IFS therapists have learned a variety of ways of helping you to work with even the most intense or emotional issues in a way that is safe and not overwhelming. Respecting your sense of direction, need for safety, and your pace is fundamental to the work, so there is no pressure to do it “right” or even to reveal or talk about difficult content if you do not wish to. It is a true process of self-exploration with a method that creates safety and an improved relationship between your true self and the various parts of you that have previously run amok or been out of balance.
Here is a little bit of what to expect:
Working with an IFS therapist is a collaborative process in which you will set the pace and make the decisions about which parts of yourself you want to work with first. The therapist may make suggestions because, with much experience doing this work, we have found that certain parts of us are more vulnerable and in need of protection and other parts of us have a tendency to block access to them. We have found that when clients choose to focus on an internal state of mind, feeling, voice, part or aspects of themselves that is vulnerable or painful or particularly sensitive, sometimes another voice jumps in and warns against it. You will work with your therapist to determine where to focus first so that you proceed without activating common fears that these internal protectors often have. IFS therapists are trained to help you discover whether or when your protective patterns are ready to let you do some work with a more vulnerable part. This is the point at which many people begin to say that it sounds like they have multiple personalities or that they are talking to themselves and, actually, that isn’t far from the truth — but it isn’t a bad thing.
IFS therapy is based on the concept of multiplicity of mind. We are not just one coherent personality all the time. If that were the case, we would never do anything that we regret. At first it may feel strange to begin to relate to your different states of mind as sub-personalities, but it isn’t long before people begin to get to know these inner “parts.” Once you get to know the various parts of you and why they act the way they do, and you develop a deep understanding of them, they begin to change. Even destructive aspects of ourselves, when listened to with curiosity instead of frustration or judgement, can transform and evolve into valuable aspects of the self. In that way, IFS therapy proceeds through the many subgroups of protective and vulnerable parts with the goal of healing or unburdening the vulnerable parts until you find that you are living with more clarity and confidence and free of the blockades that have been limiting you and the strong emotions that may have hijacked your well-being and best interests. By differentiating, getting to know, and developing balance between and among the various aspects of yourself, you become more able to be fully present and powerful in the choices you make so that you can live the most fulfilled and meaningful life possible.