Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS) was developed by Richard Schwartz, PhD.
Sandy wanted to take on a creative video project, but she couldn’t seem to get started. First she had to clean up her office, and that seemed to take forever. Then she found herself working out on the treadmill. Okay, she thought, now I’m ready to go. But instead of going to her office, she headed for the kitchen. A half hour later she was preparing a 3-course meal. After a few days like this, she acknowledged to herself that she was avoiding the project. This procrastination made her feel vaguely bad about herself, lethargic, and stuck. Sandy’s long-standing pattern of procrastination and depression was back.
If she picked up a self-help book, it would give her tips on mobilizing herself, rallying support, making decisions, and thinking positively. But these approaches ignore the crux of the problem. There is a part of Sandy that doesn’t want to work on her video project. That part is unconscious but nevertheless has the power to stop her. Actually the part has such power because it is unconscious. Since Sandy doesn’t know about it, she has no way to interact with it. A hidden part has extra influence because it can’t be addressed. It is like someone speaking ill of Sandy behind her back. Rumors would begin to fly, but Sandy wouldn’t know where they came from. She wouldn’t be able to confront the source.
If Sandy went into conventional therapy, she would probably uncover the avoidant part that keeps her busy with unrelated tasks. Then she might try to convert it or overcome it, seeing it as her enemy. However, this approach won’t work very well because it ignores the very real fears and motivations of this part. Sandy might explore where the avoidant part came from in her childhood, but this usually involves analytically understanding her history, and real change rarely comes from intellectual insight alone.
If we ask why the avoidant part operates the way it does, we see that several parts of Sandy are involved in her procrastination, and these parts have important relationships with each other. There is also a child part of Sandy who was criticized harshly by her father and made to feel incompetent. Whenever she attempts to accomplish something difficult, a task that she could fail at, that child part is triggered, like an echo from her past. The avoidant part is not really Sandy’s enemy at all. On the contrary, it is trying to protect this child; it is afraid she will be hurt again if Sandy tackles her video project.
There is also another force at work here. A third part of Sandy pushes her to work hard and criticizes her when she doesn’t. It is constantly on her case to get working and be productive. All this self-criticism is grinding Sandy down, making the child part feel hated and worthless. Therefore the avoidant part is rebelling against this pushy/critical part. It doesn’t want Sandy to be dominated by harsh judgment, so it distracts her with other activities. But she can’t enjoy them because the demanding part keeps yelling at her in the background.
These parts are all extreme and are in serious conflicts with each other. Sandy feels like a ship in a storm, buffeted here and there, without a center from which to understand herself and move forward. What she needs is a way to integrate those parts into a caring, cooperative whole so she can feel good about herself and function well.
Even if all three parts were uncovered in traditional therapy, the change would need to come through a developing relationship with her therapist, which can be expensive and time-consuming to establish. Many people want to feel better but don’t want to spend a decade on a therapist’s couch to do it. Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS) is an approach that helps you find your center, pinpoint the parts of you that are causing difficulties, heal them and unify them. Furthermore, IFS is not only a powerful form of therapy, it can be used for self-therapy. My IFS classes show you how to do that.
Using IFS, Sandy would learn how to access her true Self, a port in the storm, a place of strength and compassion which is the source of internal healing. Her Self would connect with each of Sandy’s three parts in a loving way that allowed them to trust her. Following the IFS procedure, she could help them release their fears and negative beliefs, allowing their natural strengths to flourish. They would learn to cooperate with each other and support the unfolding of her life. She could then move ahead with her video project passionately and without reservations.