Internal Family Systems (IFS), which is not to be confused with Family Systems, is all the rage these days. It’s not just a fad, though, and it’s popular for a good reason: it’s effective, and research is beginning to prove it. Not only is it one of the most effective ways to heal from suffering and overcome roadblocks, it’s a wonderful way to be in the world; it helps us communicate more effectively, move away from judgment of self and others, improve our relationships, increase our self-understanding, and help us attain a greater spiritual connection.
In fact, as Dick Schwartz, the founder of IFS claims, if we all learned the basics of IFS, the world would be a much more loving, compassionate, peaceful place. I know — big words, right? But the more I’ve learned and experienced IFS (as a client, then student, and now practitioner), the more I’ve come to believe him.
So what is IFS all about?
IFS practitioners recognize that we’re made up of different parts: protectors, exiles, and the Self.
There are parts of us that want to manage and control our behavior, such as people-pleasing parts, self-critical parts, responsible parts, and perfectionistic parts. And then there are parts that want to soothe us with what appear to be self-destructive behaviors, like drinking alcohol, acts of anger and/or rage, shopping, and over-eating. All these parts keep us afloat in difficult times and move us forward toward what we want to achieve. They can also keep us stuck in old patterns, preventing us from getting what we want out of life. Still, they always have the best of intentions, even if it might, at times, be hard to see this. It is important to treat them all with respect.
At our core is our true Self. It is compassionate, curious, courageous, confident, calm, connected, creative, and has clarity (the 8 C’s of Self). That self can never be damaged. It is through this part of us that we can heal, grow, and experience peace and joy. If we choose, we can also connect with our spiritual nature by accessing Self. However, when we’re young, the Self isn’t fully developed.
In childhood things happen that can be too much for the developing Self to manage on its own. Perhaps a parent or teacher shames us, we’re assaulted, we’re bullied, we’re told by our parents we shouldn’t cry or that we have no right to our feelings. There are an infinite number of scenarios that are simply too much for us to handle as children and typically, the people who hurt us were hurt themselves. In reaction, we form parts of ourselves that protect us from harm, pushing down the young part who was harmed – the “exile” – so that it cannot be harmed again. The protect parts that emerge push it down to ensure it stays hidden; its emotions feel too big for our system.
What Our Parts Do For Us
We might develop a people-pleasing part because we learn that if we don’t keep the people around us happy, we might get punished or abandoned; losing a parent or other attachment figure in that way is terrifying to a child. We might develop a vigilant part, always on the look-out for harm, so that we’re not shamed or victimized again. Self-critical parts can emerge to ensure we don’t make mistakes, which might alienate our critical caregivers.
Or perhaps we develop a drug or alcohol-using part that numbs the pain that inevitably emerges when we re-experience a situation that reminds us of the shame we felt when we were small. Some might develop an over-eating part to distract us from the scared, lonely exile that continues to try to get our attention. Still others might have a lying part that protects them from feeling the shame of not living in what might be considered the “right” neighborhood, not going to the “right” schools, or not making the greatest choices for ourselves.
We develop these, and other protectors when we’re young – often under the age of ten years – and their methods remain immature. When we encounter situations that activate our parts, our protectors continue to behave in the same, young ways they always have. Although they have our best interests at heart, they don’t recognize that we’re older and that the situation might be better handled with a more adaptive approach. This is why we repeat behaviors that don’t serve us well.
You Can Heal and Grow
The good news is everyone can heal. You are NOT broken! With some guidance, we can heal the young parts of ourselves, the different parts of us can choose to take on new, more adaptive roles in our system, and we can create harmony amongst our parts. This is what IFS work is all about. It is a respectful, non-judgmental, gentle, non-pathologizing approach to healing that goes at the pace best suited for each individual or couple. An IFS practitioner helps to create safety in your system, helps you identify your parts, and when your system is ready, helps you to grow.
I don’t know if IFS will actually save the world, but I know it’s made a major difference in my life and many others I know. It helps to make the world a safer, more joyful, more loving place…and who doesn’t want that?
Contact me if you’re curious about IFS and would like to know more.