What is Internal Family Systems (IFS)?

We all talk to ourselves.  It’s normal!  However, have you ever wondered about what is being said in your mind?  Often we hear ourselves criticizing us, maybe shaming us, even arguing with ourselves.  What is going on?   Each of these thoughts of ours is a distinct part of us expressing itself.  Imagine if you were to stop and get to know just one of those thoughts or voices, you would find that the part speaking to you has its own wants, needs, beliefs, fears, and even nervous system states.

Imagine fictional client Jim with a part of him who people pleases.  Jim is a great guy and presents to the world as the kind of guy who is always ready to help and give of himself to others.  However behind the public face, Jim feels a lot of anxiety.   If Jim were to take a moment and focus on that People Pleaser Part, he might learn that the People Pleaser Part is actually trying to protect him.  This part is totally unaware that Jim is now 45, married, and has strengths and abilities he didn’t have as a child. 

When Jim gets to know this People Pleaser Part, introduces himself to it, shares his strengths and that he can protect himself now, the People Pleaser Part leads him to a memory of himself as a little boy.  This memory is showing Little Jimmy alone in his room as a child holding onto extreme feelings of fear and shame.  Little Jimmy has no idea that Jim is now an adult and what his current age is or what the current year is.  This specific memory of Little Jimmy has been locked away in his unconscious.

Jim’s People Pleaser Part helps keep him from feeling those negative feelings by catering to people’s needs above his own; “You can’t be mad at me if I’m trying to please you”.  When adult Jim sits and spends time with Little Jimmy, he would hear what this little guy has to share with him.  He hears Little Jimmy’s heartache and struggles.  Adult Jim is able to provide the nurturing and comfort that Little Jimmy needed in that memory, and takes away all of the negative messages he received from his dad (for example, he’s bad, he’s a failure, etc).  Once Little Jimmy said all that he needs to say and releases all that he has been holding onto, adult Jim might finally experience some relief in his symptoms of fear and shame when triggered and also reduces the People Pleasing.

What helped Jim experience more wholeness was the act of simply being with a part of him that was locked away.   The young part was pushed away (because extreme feelings don’t feel good), and the People Pleaser kept guard.  Sometimes, It’s safer to cater to the world than to feel.

What IFS illustrates over and over is that all of these parts of us inside ourselves often do not always know who we are, our current age, or the current year.  They are truly operating from a different timeframe, and from a different context, that no longer exists.  The extreme emotions we experience in adulthood often have direct childhood links that are often totally unknown to us.  When triggered, we react and respond to the current trigger but with “juice” from our childhoods.  Kind of like driving a newer car but the gas that’s powering it is from 1975 (or whenever that part was wounded).  When someone gets so triggered and goes off and says extremely hurtful things and later says, “I don’t know what got over me”, “it was like it wasn’t me”.  That’s because it wasn’t you, at least the current you, it was a trapped and wounded child part of you still holding onto the stuff of the past, speaking through your current self.  Not because it wanted to, but because it felt it had no other choice.

You can heal those extreme parts of you too!

Most of our unhealthy or dysfunctional behaviors are our psyche’s way of protecting us from extreme, unpleasant feelings that have been locked away in our unconscious.   IFS is a vehicle that allows us to connect to those locked away feelings that took on negativity.

Do you experience any of these?

  • Do you have an Inner Critic that criticizes or shames you all the time?
  • Do you find that you argue with yourself?
  • When you have big decisions to make, do you have polarized parts that can’t agree?

These are just a few examples of how we all manage parts of ourselves.  It’s normal!  Our psyche has been proven to be multiple, not quite like multiple personalities in a pathological way, but not far off with different parts of us that come online around different people or situations.

IFS is a therapeutic model that allows us to meet those parts, heal them, and build relationship with them so that they don’t run your life in an extreme or dysfunctional way.

It sounds hokey, but it works and it is evidenced-based.  (Research Summary link here).

The videos linked below describe IFS in better detail.  I’m happy to answer any questions!

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