Exploring Internal Family Systems

Over the last couple of years, I’ve become interested in self-led therapeutic healing and emotional processing techniques.

Several people in the Monastic Academy community recently became interested in the Internal Family Systems (IFS) modality, and there has also been a growing interest in IFS in the world at large. Perhaps the most notable example of IFS’ rise to prominence is the recent Tim Ferriss podcast episode featuring Richard Schwartz, IFS’ creator. As I said on Twitter, if IFS had stock, it would be up.

When everyone at MAPLE became interested in IFS, I remembered that my therapist is formally trained in IFS, and I asked her to start doing IFS with me. As I started exploring IFS in my therapy sessions, I also realized that I had done some similar work in the past, in other contexts, without knowing that that was what I was doing.

In addition to my therapy sessions, I started learning more about IFS, reading books and listening to audiobooks and podcasts about IFS, and trying it on my own. At first, I found it hard to do on my own, but it got easier with practice and some helpful suggestions from friends familiar with the modality.

When I’ve shared with friends that I’ve been getting interested in IFS, there has been a lot of interest and curiosity. I thought I’d share a little bit about what IFS is, how to practice it, and some resources for learning more.

What is IFS?

IFS is a model of the mind and a therapeutic modality for healing.

The IFS model says that the mind is multiple, rather than one – that we have different “parts” of ourselves with different needs, desires, patterns, personalities, and gifts. We can learn to make contact with these parts, have conversations to learn about them and help them heal.

There are several different kinds of parts, including:

  • Exiles: hurt parts of ourselves that carry wounds and traumas from the past, and are isolated from our everyday internal life for their protection
  • Protectors / Managers: parts of us that are invested in isolating and protecting the exiles in different ways that have worked for us in the past, preventing the exiles from being activated or triggered
  • Firefighters: parts that protect us when the exiles are activated, usually by engaging in addictive or self-destructive patterns of different kinds

Image taken from the Introduction to the IFS Model Book

That may sound scary, but underneath each of these parts is something the IFS model calls Self, which is who we really are: the part of us that observes each of the parts, and if we let it, can lead the parts. When we establish a relationship between our Selves and our parts, we heal those parts and come into harmony with ourselves.

The Benefits

Regularly practicing and becoming skilled in IFS has helped me tremendously over the last couple of months. For starters, it has helped tremendously with my meditation practice – when I am able to resolve emotional issues and mental thought patterns, it’s a lot easier to concentrate! I had found this in the past with other therapeutic modalities, but IFS gave me another way to access a feeling of psychological safety and settledness.

On top of that, it’s also given me a lot of clarity about different issues in my personal life – why certain kinds of situations or decisions have been challenging for me, and what I need to do to resolve those issues. I’ve become more aware of different aspects of myself and more creative about how to meet many or all of the needs that these different parts have. Above all, I have the confidence that I can resolve emotionally challenging issues on my own now, without necessarily needing the help of my therapist to get perspective. While I still benefit from working with my therapist I’m grateful to be cultivating these skills so I can use them on my own.

Above all, while meditation is a wonderful skillset, novel psychological methods seem to be an important complement to more traditional contemplative practices, especially for modern Westerners and contemporary life. IFS has given me a new approach to augment my practice and overall well-being.

Getting Started With IFS

Getting started with IFS can be as simple as bringing up something you’re thinking or feeling a lot about, and asking what different parts of you think about it. For example, you might be in a difficult situation at work, and part of you feels frustrated with a colleague, while part of you feels sad and abandoned because it’s reminded of a similar situation in your childhood.

Faces in the Void by Silvia

Once you’ve identified different parts that are feeling things about the situation, you can choose one to work with and begin to have a conversation with it. What is that part of you thinking or feeling? Where did it come from? What does it need from you?

There is a lot more nuance to this method, but it can also be this simple: noticing that there are different parts of you, and having a dialogue with those parts. While it’s best to try with a therapist or someone who’s familiar with IFS, it’s also something you can try on your own.

Resources for Learning More

Here are some resources that will help you learn more about the IFS model and how to practice it. I’ve ordered these resources in an order that I might approach them in. The first few links will give you a sense of what IFS is; the later links will share more about how to practice it on your own or with a trusted therapist or friend.

I also recently made a thread of curated tweets about IFS that you might enjoy.

Thanks to Michael Curzi for introducing me to Parts Work back in 2018; to Emily Crotteau for helping me to do a lot of this work last year; to my therapist Sarah for practicing it with me, and RyΕ« for helping me fine tune some difficulties I was having with practicing IFS on my own.

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