Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy

Internal Family Systems therapy is a gentle therapy process that teaches you to deeply listen to your thoughts and emotions. It helps people understand the many different aspects of them (and of others) with clarity. It also provides people with the opportunity for self-acceptance, and paradoxically, real hope for change and transformation.

If you are still reading, IFS probably sounds appealing to you. And you may be wondering what it will feel like? While the best way for you to determine this is to experience it in therapy, let me offer you a few questions that may help you understand. You can choose to read the following bullet-points to walk yourself through it, or, even better, you can ask another person to read these steps to you. Ask them to read slowly and pause after questions. There is no wrong or right way to follow along.

  • First, sit in a comfortable position and just allow yourself to take this moment for you. You can close your eyes if it feels comfortable to do that, or leave them open and rest your eyes on a focal object.
  • In your minds eye, think of a person who triggers you or causes you stresses in some way. And when you have that person in mind, use your imagination to place that person in a room that has a window and a door.
  • When you have placed this person inside the room, place yourself on the outside of the room, and look in through the window. Watch this person and know that it is completely safe to do so. This person has no idea that you are there watching them.
  • Next, have this person do the thing they do that bothers you so much.
  • And as they are doing that thing, see if you can notice your reaction to this person. Notice any feelings, thoughts, or sensations that begin to arise in you. See if you can be aware of what comes up within you as you watch this person's triggering behavior.
  • And now, if you are aware of feelings and thoughts that arise in you, please ask those parts of you to separate from you for a moment. Just enough for you to get to know them better. And see if you can pick the one reaction or sensation in you that is the strongest.
  • And if that part is willing to separate from you just a little bit, just enough for you to get to know it better, that's great.
  • Now, see if you can extend some curiosity towards it. The type of curiosity that you would extend to a person who you want to get to know.
  • See what you hear inside when you ask these questions: Why does this part of you feel the need to react in this way? Where does that reaction come from? What is this part of you concerned would happen if it did not react in this way when this person does that thing?
  • And if there are any other curiosities you have, just ask. See if this part of you is willing to share with you.
  • And after this part finishes sharing with you, go ahead and express some gratitude to it for telling you more about itself.
  • And see if this part would take a step back for a moment, and allow your to walk in to the room and interact with the person. This part of you can wait safely outside.
  • If it feels safe for you to do that, go ahead and interact with the person, and then check and see how it is for this part of you to witness you interacting with this person.

So, there we have it. There is a small example of what the process of "listening inside" can look like. (this exercise is adapted from an exercise offered at an IFS training).

Read on if you are curious...

IFS helps us understand our parts by separating them into categories. Take a look:

Imagine that your inner critic, the part of your that judges other people, and/or your inner perfectionist become less extreme. They become parts of you that help you competently discern right action. They help you maintain integrity and accept life's daily responsibilities in a way that doesn't feel controlling, rigid, or burdensome.

Imagine that your addictive processes (as a for instance: your binge-eating or restricting, your over-functioning or under-functioning, your tendency to "freak out" or "flip out") feel less burdensome. Imagine that they become less extreme. Imagine that these parts of you no longer feel the need to take you over. Imagine that they are transformed into healthy risk-takers. Imagine that these extreme processes transform into parts of you that signal your need to feel adventure, escape, or to self-sooth in some way.

Imagine that feelings of fear, shame, loneliness, loss, and dependency no longer flood your emotional world. Imagine that you can be sensitive to life in a way that doesn't feel like too much. Imagine that you release the emotional burdens that prevent you from feeling trusting, creative, curious, and a sense of tenderness towards your world.

Such transformation is possible when we feel supported and safe enough to listen deeply to the parts of us that we might otherwise avoid.