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What is "IFS" Therapy... and Why Do I Love it So Much?

In a therapy world of CBT, EFT, ERP, EMDR … we have yet another acronym.

What is IFS!?!?

IFS Therapy stands for Internal Family Systems. The premise of IFS therapy is that we are ALL complex humans with complex parts. So often, we, as humans, look at one another and ourselves as monoliths.

“I am anxious.”

"I am depressed."

“They are an alcoholic.”

"He is a cheater."

“She is a caretaker.”

This monolithic perception flattens us into one entity, and discards all of the intricacy that each and every one of us encompasses.

In reality, we all hold wide ranging, innumerable, sometimes contradicting "parts" of us. There is nuance. There is polarity. There is ambiguity. None of this is pathological (sometimes, people hear “parts” and they immediately think of different personalities in the sense of some sort of DSM diagnosis or pathology).

Each part of us develops from specific and compounding experiences that we endure inter-generationally, in-utero, and then throughout our lifetime. One of my favorite parts (no pun intended) of IFS is the notion that NONE of our parts are “bad” or “wrong.”

In fact, every single part of us (yes, even the drinking parts, the self-harming parts, the angry parts, the hateful parts, the anxious parts, the binging parts…) is working REALLY hard to protect you.

All of our parts have positive intentions.

This is revolutionary in our society that is full of pathology and stigma. IFS asserts that we ALL have the capacity to heal. This is our inner power, and no part, and no person can take that from us.

When we begin working with our parts, we begin developing a deeper understanding of the interactions that occur constantly within us. This promotes clarity, compassion, calmness within us. Oftentimes, it also supports our relationship to others and to the world around us.

IFS emphasizes that when we work with our parts and they soften back, we gain access to our “Self,” which is the most authentic, clear, compassionate core of who we are. This “Self” has the capacity to heal us and our parts.

There are three types of parts that we can categorize:

1. Managers

  • Our managers are PROACTIVE. They are often “on” in our system. Our managers work hard to protect us from pain (exiles).

  • Managers are often socially sanctioned (our society praises them, in fact!) (think: perfectionism, people pleasing, caretaking, overworking, etc.)

2. Firefighters

  • Our firefighters REACTIVELY jump to the rescue as soon as our exile is triggered. These are the parts of us that aim to inhibit, soothe, numb, dissociate us from the pain that we might be experiencing.

  • Firefighters are often NOT socially sanctioned (think: self harm, binge eating, drinking/drug use, over exercising, dissociating, etc.)

3. Exiles

  • Our exiles are our vulnerable parts. They are the parts of us that carry the burden of pain, trauma, sadness, fear, shame, etc.

  • Our system works hard to protect us from experiencing these exiled parts.

A few common examples:

  • Our anxious parts are “managers” in our system, oftentimes working REALLY hard to prevent us from failure, rejection, shame. These parts learned somewhere along the way that if they fear the future, maybe they can control it, and then there is less risk of danger.

  • Our drinking parts are “firefighters” in our system. When we experience pain/stress/discomfort/intolerable emotions, or an old wound is triggered, we pour up. Drinking is a really common way of numbing some of the heaviness we experience; it immediately takes us away from our exile. That is powerful.

  • So many of us experience shame – around specific events, relationships, or also… just for being who we are. Shame is an "exile" that our protectors will often work to shield us from feeling.

By moving to our parts with curiosity, our parts soften back and are open to sharing with us where they came from, when they took on the role they took on, what they are trying to protect us from.

After working with our protectors, we get permission (from the protectors) to work with the exiles, listen to their story, and witness their pain in a way that did not get witnessed when they experienced the painful event or relational wound.

IFS is DIFFERENT than many other therapies I have come across thus far. IFS views humans as humans who go through experiences (not humans who are "sick"). These humans have an innate sense of inner protection and adaptation. We develop parts to help us navigate the world around us, systemically and relationally. IFS focuses on healing wounded parts of us to restore our inner harmony.

As a therapist, here are some of the many things I love about IFS.

  • IFS is non-pathologizing. There are “No Bad Parts!”

    • As therapists, we are often trained to “go on high alert” when a client is engaging in “risky behavior.”

    • IFS looks at some of this risky behavior as a way to get one’s needs met. Our systems will engage in extreme behaviors to protect us. By approaching these behaviors with curiosity and compassion, we can work with them in a much more affirming and tender way that we would not get access to if we were working in a behavioral fashion.

  • IFS recognizes our individual capacity to heal.

    • We are not broken people. We are people with experiences that shape us. To heal these experiences and this pain, we must engage in relational work (internally which can extend outside of the internal).

  • IFS is psychospiritual.

    • IFS has psychospiritual aspects to it that are rooted in ancient wisdom. The more that I learn about different types of therapies, the more I recognize that much of this is not “new.” Rather, these are ancient practices that we have modernized. This feels very important to my work.

  • IFS focuses on the “root” of what happened, rather than the “symptom management.”

    • We are not trying to simply “stop” behaviors or just “shift our thoughts.” We go deeper. IFS allows for deep, relational healing in a way that other therapies just do not get to.

  • I have witnessed the powerful impacts of IFS, both personally and professionally.

If any of this seems interesting to you, reach out to Emily today!!!


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