what is internal family system (ifs) or parts therapy?
Below are a few questions that offer a user-friendly overview of 'parts work'. I am giving some of the very basic ideas of this model but there is much more to learn. For more information on this method of personal growth please visit the website connected to Dr. Schwartz at www.selfleadership.org or talk with one of our trained clinicians.
Q: Why is this model useful for clients?
A: There are a few things that I really like about this model: 1) It is user-friendly, meaning that clients can use it within sessions and outside of sessions. 2) It does not assume that a client’s concerns, symptoms or problems mean something is wrong with them. On the contrary, it helps people view their symptoms/problems as learned protective responses that at some point were necessary. Once we learn to listen to them in a more compassionate way, our problems can become our teachers.
Q: What does it mean to say that people have parts? Are you saying that all of us have several personalities?
A: Yes. I believe we all have many parts of our personalities and I believe that t is completely normal. For example, a client may have a part of them that really wants to exercise regularly and another part that really doesn’t feel like it. These parts are in conflict and that can cause tension.
Q: So, is the idea to get rid of all of our parts?
A: No. Actually, the idea is the more parts, the better. It is similar to getting to know a someone in a new relationship. At first, we are excited to get to know each and every aspect of their personality. However, we also need to get to know the parts of their personality that aren’t as easy for us. That is usually when we say things like, “Now, we are really getting to know the real you.” A relationship is much more solid once we know the parts we are attracted to and the parts that are more difficult. The same rules apply internally. By knowing our parts, we are building internal trust.
Q: Is there a general goal when working in this manner?
A: This model helps people become more mindful of the parts of their personality that are leading to problems/symptoms. Once a person is more mindful, they can learn to relate differently to these parts and eventually become their own wise self. Rather than reacting from our parts, we can listen to them and make choices from a clearer place. Our parts can actually become our teachers.
Q: Are there categories of Parts?
A: Yes. We all have the Self, Protectors, and our Vulnerable parts. Self is the place we are in when we are in our clearest place. Protectors are the parts of us that learned to defend or protect when something in our lives was too overwhelming or too painful to experience. They tend to be learned responses that at one time were necessary.
Some Protectors are proactive and future-oriented. Examples of proactive Protectors are the perfectionist, planner, analyzer, and inner critic. Some Protectors are more immediate. Immediate Protectors include various ways of self-soothing or distracting from something uncomfortable. Examples of immediate Protectors are overuse of food, alcohol, drugs, internet, shopping, or even shutting down. Our more Vulnerable parts are the ones that hold the feelings and sometimes memories in our bodies. One example of a Vulnerable part is being sensitive.
Q: Are these Protector parts trying to hurt us?
A: No. In a way, our Protector parts are like most parents, they are well-intended and trying to help.
Q: Are you saying that our Protectors have a positive intention?
A: Yes. All parts have a positive intention. That doesn't mean every part of us is being helpful at all times. Let's use an example of someone who shops excessively. You might say something to this person like, "Why do you spend money in such an irresponsible way, don't you know it is unhealthy?" They are not likely to respond with, "Oh my goodness, I never thought of that. Thank you. All this time I was spending my money mindlessly and I never considered the idea that it is not healthy. Now, I am so motivated to stop this habit that nothing will stop me". It is more likely that there is a 'part' of them that hates that they spend money this way and another part that is drawn to spending in this way. The part that is spending is likely trying to help them feel better in the moment. The part that is concerned is trying to help by getting things under control. It is helpful to try and find the positive intent of each part.
Q: Does that mean that our Protectors are always healthy?
A: Parts of us having positive intention does not necessarily mean that the part is good for us. For example, if you had a friend that intensely nags you about your bad habits, you may not want to be around them. If you have a friend who intensely needs to make you feel better or distract you from facing something difficult, we might refer to that friend as good-hearted, but not necessarily helpful.
Q: Can our Protectors be healthy?
A: Absolutely. When our Protectors are not extreme or when they feel like a conscious choice, they can be very healthy. A perfectionist can turn into someone who loves to learn. Someone who soothes with behavior or substances can learn to soothe with meditation, exercise, yoga, etc.
Q: I have heard of Mindfulness. Is this a Mindfulness-based therapy?
A: Dr. Schwartz has said that a nice way to think about IFS is Mindfulness-Plus. Once we are able to slow down and be mindful of our parts, we can actually take it one step further. We can interact with them. In IFS we call this Un-blending. Blending means we are acting as if we are the part of us who wants to over-indulge or we are the part that needs to be perfect. Un-blended means we can be separate and be mindful of these parts and learn what they are trying to do for us.
Q: When we interact with a Protector or Un-blend from it, how does it typically sound?
A: I will provide a basic example that demonstrates the process.
Example: if one was trying to un-blend from a nagging, critical part, it is much like un-blending from a nagging, critical parent. In this scenario, where you are feeling nagged, one’s natural instinct might be to be stressed or annoyed with the parent. An IFS or mindful approach would require more curiosity and compassion for the parent/part.
You: What are you afraid will happen if you don’t nag me in this way?Parent: I want to keep you from failing.You: If there was a way to know that I will be okay even if I have moments of not succeeding, would you trust me to handle it?Parent: Yes, but I am going to be watching to see that you can really do it.You: Great. Maybe we can even try to get it right and when we don’t, we can learn more for the future.
Q: I think some of my problems are deep in my unconscious. Does this approach help with problems that are related to old experiences that I may not even remember?
A: Yes. We all have parts of us that can think about our problems in a logical way without helping the situation at all. By slowing down in session with the help of the therapist, we can get to the emotional part of the brain where things can actually shift. Most of our emotional problems are not solved by a logical process. If we use the example of having trouble getting motivated to exercise, it is not a problem of logic. The person who struggles with this already understands logically that it is an unhealthy, bad habit. The part of them that procrastinates is most likely an emotional part of them that doesn't respond well to logic.
Q: What if I don’t feel safe to slow down or get to the deeper parts of my problems?
A: This is very important. IFS is a system that believes that clients protect themselves for very good reasons and the client and their Protectors always determine the pace of the work. When a client has a hard time slowing down to focus on their problems, it usually means there is a part that doesn’t feel safe to go there. Rather than push through this part, IFS therapists are trained to help the client work with this Protector until it feels absolutely safe to go deeper. Sometimes I think of the Protectors as bodyguards. If I try and sneak around a bodyguard, that guard is going to be mad at me or my client for letting me in. If I take time to get to know the bodyguard, then they can learn to trust me and the client.
Q: Can you give some examples of parts?
A: Each person can find and name their own parts. The following are examples of common parts that come up in me and many people I have known. Inner Critic: A part of us that is hard on us or self-critical Inner Optimist: A part of us that wants to see the good in everythingWorrier Part: An anxious part that spins in one's mind over and over in an attempt to make sure that nothing bad happensTask Master: A part of us that wants to get things doneAngry Part: A part that feels angry energy toward a part of someone else that it feels is mistreating usShut Down/Avoider: A part of us that shuts down when things are overwhelmingSoother/Indulger: A part of us that engages in a behavior in an attempt to feel better immediately. This part can lead to overeating, over-shopping, using alcohol or drugs, excessive use of screens, etc.Silly Part: A part that just wants to have fun
Q: Do I need an expert in this method to learn and grow? Is there a way I can work on my issues outside of the therapy session on my own?
A: Like most therapies, it can be much more helpful to work with someone trained in this way of working. However, there are several self-help resources that clients can access to continue the work outside of session. A couple of the websites that are great for self-help and personal growth purposes are www.selfleadership.org and https://personal-growth-programs.com. In addition, www.selfleadership.org has a number of wonderful resources, books, and ways to find an IFS therapist. If you have any questions about this approach or want to learn more about it, please feel free to contact me at 847-413-9700, ext. 314.
References Earley, Jay. (2009). Self Therapy: A Step-By-Step Guide to Creating Wholeness and Healing Your Inner Child Using IFS, A New, Cutting-Edge Psychotherapy. Second Edition. Larkspur, CA: Pattern System Books. - Mark Bakal, PsyD, Ext. 314