by Jay Earley, PhD
Internal Family Systems TherapySM (IFS), developed by Richard Schwartz, is based on the understanding that our psyches are made up of different parts or subpersonalities, and it provides a powerful methodology for working with and healing our parts. One aspect of this is how we explore our parts.
In most forms of therapy, when we want to work with a psychological issue or reaction, we either analyze it intellectually or dive into it emotionally. Let’s look at each of these in turn: In some forms of therapy, you figure out each reaction or feeling using what you know about your psychological makeup and what you can sense or guess about the part. For example, if you have a part that feels hurt and upset whenever you get judged by people, you might remember that you were judged a lot by your father and figure that this part’s sensitivities come from that history. Or you might know that you carry a deep belief that you aren’t worth anything and guess that this part’s reactions happen when that belief is triggered.
This intellectual approach is a good first step, but it is too much based on guesswork and theory and so it can’t give us a full, nuanced understanding of a part. And even if our guesses are right, we aren’t in direct contact with the part or its feelings, so it is difficult to really heal it.
Other forms of therapy take the opposite approach. You become the part and attempt to fully embody it and feel all of its feelings fully. In the above example, you would inhabit that part experientially, feeling it in your body and delving into the depth of the pain it feels for being judged. This approach recognizes that you can learn most about the part by allowing your insights to flow from your experience.
This can work as long as you don’t avoid the part’s feelings. However, many of us have parts that are holding a lot of pain, and we tend to defend against feeling this pain. This makes it quite difficult, in some cases, to fully inhabit the part. Before I discovered IFS, I was unconsciously avoiding dealing with many of my parts that were in pain, though I didn’t realize this at the time. I just directed my work into other areas that kept me away from my childhood pain. I had already done quite a bit of work on the pain from my childhood and thought that I had already worked through most of these issues. I subtly used this as an excuse to avoid them. IFS changed all this, as I explain below.
In addition to the problem of avoiding pain, some parts have pain that is overwhelming or traumatic. It wouldn’t be a good idea to dive into these feelings even it you could. You could be flooded by pain in a way that is harmful. You could be re-exposed to trauma rather than healed. You need to remain centered and in touch with your inner resources while you are approaching pain like this. IFS Provides of method for achieving this.
In IFS, we inhabit our true Self, which is a place of groundedness, curiosity, and compassion. From this place we get to know each of our parts by asking it questions and listening to its responses. These may be in words, or in images, body sensations, emotions, or direct knowing. We aren’t just using intellectual ideas about the part; we are truly listening to what it has to tell us. But we also aren’t just diving into its feelings. We are learning about the feelings experientially, but from the safe vantage point of the Self. If the part starts to overwhelm you with intense feelings, IFS recognizes that you are no longer in Self but have become blended with the part. It provides a variety of techniques for returning you to Self so the situation remains safe, while still keeping you open to the part’s feelings. This way you won’t be harmed or retraumatized.
In addition, by approaching your parts from Self, you are much less likely to be frightened about getting to know parts that are in pain. Therefore you are much less likely to avoid those parts. Once I learned IFS, I no longer had much fear of my painful parts because I knew that I wouldn’t have to endure any more pain than I could tolerate. Whenever the pain becomes too great or too threatening, I simply return to Self. This has allowed me to feel safe in approaching my painful parts. So I have stopped avoiding them, and this has allowed me to engage in some powerful healing.
IFS walks a middle ground between analyzing our parts intellectually and immersing ourselves in their pain. This allows us to explore out parts experientially without the problems of avoidance or retraumatization.