There is a problem with therapy as it is commonly practiced today. The problem? It can be useless in the long run.
Conventional talk therapy can go on for years and never actually help the client. This is because long-lasting psychological change rarely happens at the level of the intellect, which is what the most popular cognitive forms of therapy target (identifying negative thoughts, modifying beliefs etc.). This focus on managing the symptoms comes at the cost of understanding and treating the root cause, which is why so many people relapse after their therapy has ended.
To truly heal, we must be able to viscerally access the pain stored in the body and subconscious parts of the psyche and let it go. In this post, I describe the therapeutic modality of Internal Family Systems (IFS). Internal family in this context refers to our family of inner parts, although it can feel like an entire tribe the more we explore our psyche.
IFS was invented by the therapist Richard Schwartz in the 1980s to help his clients deal with eating disorders. It is an evidence-based model that has since been shown to successfully deal with a range of issues including anxiety, depression and PTSD.
I discovered IFS myself a few years ago and took to it like a duck to water. I appreciate its non-pathologizing and flexible nature – it can be used for something as simple as increasing basic self-awareness to dealing with general life stressors like relationship issues, to an issue as complex as dealing with severe trauma.
This post is a brief guide towards working with your inner parts. Real-life sessions tend to be more complex, deeper and nuanced than what can be described here, but this is enough to give you a basic idea of what happens.
- IFS is not appropriate for people who have hallucinations, paranoid delusions, schizophrenia or any mental illness involving psychosis. As such people already have too much access to their unconscious worlds, their therapeutic need is to remain grounded in the here and now of the physical world.
- If you do have any history of severe trauma or have any indication that your psyche may be too volatile for this kind of work– don’t attempt it yourself. Please work with a professional instead.
Getting to Know Your Protective Parts
Be in a relatively calm frame of mind. Do whatever activity/ritual you find relaxing in order to get to this state. The key is to get into “observer mode”. IFS also refers to “observer mode” as being in the “Self” or having Self-energy.
Think of a situation where you last felt a strong emotion. It can help if you allow the emotion to re-surface to a slight degree – not enough to take over, just enough to connect with it.
Identify the emotion – anger, fear/anxiety, shame etc.
If you are relatively attuned to your body, try to identify where in your body you most feel this emotion. Is it in your stomach, your forehead, your lower back, your shoulders etc?
Try to visualize this emotion. If this emotion looked like a person, animal or thing, what would it look like? (I have received the most wondrous answers to this question from others– everything from meerkats to satan to vibrating screwdrivers. Also, don’t be surprised if it’s the opposite gender as you – our psyches have both male and female qualities/aspects.)
Note – if you get the answer “this part just looks like me”- this could be a part that is acting like the Self, but is probably not the Self. You may accept that answer for the time being, but ask the part to modify some part of its clothing/appearance so you can learn to detach yourself/your identity from it. It is also normal for parts to change their appearance completely the more you get to know them.
Typically, this part that has materialized is a defense mechanism. It is protecting you from feeling something deeper. For example, I have an intellectual part of me that makes me focus on the theoretical nature of things to avoid the underlying emotion. Other defenses could be a part of you that is critical (the inner critic), a part that deadens you from feeling anything at all, a part of you that causes you to feel confused or sleepy at crucial points in time, a part that projects your worst failings and fears onto others, a part that rationalizes and makes constant excuses for yourself etc.
While centered in Observer/Self energy, befriend this part. Ask it questions about itself. Does it want to be given a name? What does it do? How does it do it? What makes its role necessary?
Generally, our protective parts want our appreciation for all that they do for us, which we rarely do since we’re too busy cursing them for ruining our lives. It’s important to realize that these protective parts have an important positive role to play in our psyche. It’s only when they are protecting us from pain that they become rigid in their behaviour and cause us harm. For example, that intellectual part of me gives me the innate curiosity and desire to learn new things, which is great, but it’s not so great when it causes me to detach from actually living life and has me replacing experience and emotion with dry abstract knowledge.
Unblending From Your Parts
When centered as the Observer/Self, you will be curious and compassionate about every part of yourself. The moment you start to get judgey or mean about any part, it means that you are no longer the observer – another part has taken over your psyche. For example, during IFS many people start to describe how much they hate their inner critic. This means that there’s actually another part that is judging and criticizing their inner critic. The challenge is to get back into observer mode and ask this new part to separate itself from you and reveal itself.
It’s important to explain what it means for a part to separate itself. We are not asking for the part to go away, to hide or deny its emotions and beliefs. We are simply asking for it to take a step back so that we can get to see it and know it as an entity in itself. Our parts usually understand what we mean by this request. Think of a car metaphor: when we are blended with a part, it is sitting with us in the driver’s seat of our consciousness. Things are way too crowded and uncomfortable. When we ask it to separate, we are asking for it to move to the passenger-side seat so that we can have a proper conversation with it.
You can get to know and unblend from many different parts of your psyche this way. Typically, for any problem that’s causing significant dysfunction in your life, there are multiple protective parts involved. Getting to know all of these parts can take many different sessions.
After a part has consistently received curiosity, presence and compassion from you and has learned that it can indeed trust you, it will soften in its approach and reveal to you what it’s protecting. Until then, it will be afraid that whatever unconscious pain its guarding will overwhelm you. Never ever try to force any protective part to show you this concealed pain. You must only move forward when the protective part/defense has consented.
Wounded Younger Parts
Your hidden pain will typically come from some time in your past when you were too young (or as an adult too overwhelmed) to know how to manage your emotions properly. Since you couldn’t properly regulate the emotion, this repressed part of you remained frozen in time.
If you try visualizing this part, it might take on the form of a child or baby. The pain it carries could have come from one single incident (like an experience of abuse, violence, abandonment or rejection), or from a series of smaller events that accumulated over time (i.e. death by a thousand small cuts).
Note – there is a lot of talk about the “wounded inner child” on social media. I want to clarify that there could be multiple wounded parts of you corresponding to different painful points in your past, not just one. There could be a fearful baby, a humiliated child, an angry teenager etc.
Ask this younger part of you if it has anything to share with you or any memory it wants to show you. The risk here is this younger part blending itself with you while sharing its pain, causing you to re-experience the original wound again. At this time, it is crucial to remain grounded in observer mode (or “Self”). If you catch yourself blending with it, ask the part to separate itself from you so that you can keep getting to know it while it shares its story.
Ask this younger part what it would have liked to have happened instead. For example, if it shared with you an incident where it felt deeply lonely or rejected, then it might wish to be comforted. It might want a hug, someone to play with, an adult to rescue it – whatever it is, see if you can provide it to this younger you. As the observer, you can now be the wise parent your younger self desperately needed back then.
Ask if it’s aware that you’re there for it now, and that it feels like you fully understand the pain it’s been carrying around all this time. It will need to feel confident that you truly understand its experience for it to feel ready to let go of the pain. This process of releasing the pain is called an unburdening.
To proceed with an unburdening, we take advantage of the psyche’s seeming appreciation for the power of rituals, symbolism and the elements of nature. Ask this younger part if it could put its pain into some kind of object – e.g. it might want to get rid of its current clothes, or vomit out its guts, or stuff its emotions into a bag. Then ask it to sacrifice this physical pain-filled object to an element of nature permanently – washed away by water, burnt by fire, buried in the earth, or swept away by the wind. (Your younger self gets to pick according to whatever resonates most with it).
That’s it. Unburdening complete. You might take several sessions before your protectors and your younger selves allow you to get this far.
Now that your younger self is not hiding away in pain, your protectors can relax as they have nothing to guard. They will not be as rigid anymore and cause significantly less dysfunction in your life. You will be emotionally triggered much less since there is no longer an unhealed wound in your psyche.
Does this series on emotional triggers end here? No, there’s one more part left. As I’ve found out for myself, healing our old wounds does make a world of difference, but unfortunately doesn’t automatically make us zen masters impervious to being triggered. There is still one central fear left to tackle – the “big bad” underlying it all.
If you are interested in learning more about IFS and practicing on yourself, I recommend:
Self-Therapy: A Step-By-Step Guide to Creating Wholeness by Jay Earley.
Also in this series: