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What is Internal Family Systems (IFS), and why it's my favourite approach

Updated: Jun 9, 2022

Most people do not know what IFS is, despite it becoming one of the most profound therapeutic tools in the field of mental health today.

The "F" in IFS refers to the "family" of parts that make up your unique personality structure - your inner family! The "I" refers to the internal focus that we take when we connect to our parts. The S refers to "systems" which acknowledges that our parts form a system with an interconnected nature.

When we "do" IFS, the client and the counsellor both work from a calm, centred place of awareness (the same place we go when we meditate). From this place of "Self" (the IFS term for this state) clients start to see, learn from, and interact with their parts. Clients are bringing to their awareness what previously remained unconscious. This is good! Why is this good? Psychoanalysis tells us: whatever remains unconscious, rules us (see James Hollis).

If you often find yourself in anxious, depressed, self-harming, compulsive, indecisive, shameful, self-doubting, mistrustful, angry, or any stressful state (and you haven't quite figured out how to fix it despite much cognitive effort) this indicates that your parts that are trying to tell you something!

The IFS process allows you to be in a state of receptive listening so that you can learn what is happening for your parts and how to help your parts.

The goal in IFS is to have the clients discover their various parts, and build a positive relationship between their Self and their parts. Clients find, flesh, and befriend their parts in a deeply meaningful and compassionate way. This process is often a game-changer for clients who have never been with their parts in this way. It is also a game-changer for the parts who have never been heard and seen in this way.

Many clients once they experience this way of being with their parts, continue on in daily life in a totally different, Self-led state of mind.

IFS is an amazing approach for clients who are looking for spiritually-informed self-development, and healing.

IFS is also an evidence-backed, trauma therapy approach.

As human beings, situations can happen that are too overwhelming for our system, where our natural ability to process stress gets overrun. This is what we refer to as "trauma". Trauma can be anything from little t to big t traumas depending on how much the events have impacted our system. What a trauma occurs, one of our parts can develop a strategy to help us survive. In other words, a part will take on a job to protect us from the current threat and any potential threats.

Most people come to counselling because they have a strong protector part that is engaging in protective strategies that inadvertently cause unwanted disruption and stress in the client's life.

Using the IFS approach, clients connect with their protector parts and work to create a felt sense of safety so that the Self can engage in healing the underlying traumas that the protector parts are guarding, and so that ultimately the protector parts don't have to work so hard.
There is real neuroscience behind how IFS works. The experiential process of "doing" IFS actively rewires how we emotionally respond to memories and thoughts.

(I will absolutely be doing a separate post about the science of IFS). As with most mental health approaches, the qualitative evidence is way ahead of the (expensive and time-consuming) quantitative evidence. IFS currently has one randomized controlled trial (the gold standard in terms of clinical evidence) supporting its efficacy. In addition, the qualitative evidence is abundant. IFS has been shown to be powerful when working with addictions, eating disorders, depression, anxiety, personality disorders and mood disorders, and more.

Some final notes on IFS:

-The best way to understand IFS is to experience it yourself. The science and theory are important, but the real evidence comes from your direct experience of how IFS impacts you.

-All parts are welcome, and no parts are ever asked to leave (they just shift their purpose voluntarily).

-All people are able to be in a meditative "Self-energy" place - this is not a hard thing to do, and it is not something to practice. The counsellor easily guides you into this place.

Thanks for reading and I hope I have convinced you to try IFS! See you soon!

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