Keeping Track of Your Thread in an IFS Session

Do you know how to keep track of your thread in an IFS Session?

The human psyche is a complicated weave of many colored threads of material. It is easy to get pushed and pulled from one thread to another as they are activated. For example, suppose your lover threatens to leave you, and you have a strong reaction of insecurity. You begin to explore your reaction, and you discover a defensive part that wants to prove to your lover that it’s not your fault that he wants to leave. You switch to that part, but before you have gotten very far in getting to know it, you become aware of a feeling of terror coming from a different part. You begin to explore this terrified part and discover that it is frightened about being alone if your lover leaves.

Before long, a loud inner voice starts telling you that it is all your fault that this is happening. This is a self-judging part that insists on being heard, so you switch your attention to it and begin to listen to what it has to say. It starts telling you all the things you have done wrong in the relationship, so no wonder your partner is fed up with you. You get curious about why the self-judging part feels a need to berate you so strongly. In the middle of this exploration, you notice an intense feeling of shame coming from a part that is being impacted by this self-judgment. The self-criticism is making this part feel worthless and unlovable.

Through all this, your attention is constantly being pulled to the part that has the strongest feeling at any moment. You haven’t been able to stick with any one part long enough to understand it or connect with it.  Your attention is a soccer ball on a field being booted around by a team of players. And by the time all these parts have come up, it is easy to forget the part you originally wanted to work with.

It can be useful to access all parts as they arise, because this gives them a chance to be heard, but in the scenario I outlined above, the parts jumped in on each other so fast that none of them really got much attention. And you couldn’t progress toward healing because you kept getting derailed. IFS provides a way to follow one thread at a time through the tapestry of your psyche until you have unraveled it and healed the part it represents. Plan to stay with the target part you have chosen unless you have a good reason to switch to a different target part. Ask the other parts to step aside. Let them know that they will have a turn to be heard, and ask them to let you proceed with the one you picked. You might want to take notes so you can keep track of all the parts that have come up.

For example, suppose you decide to focus on the defensive part and then the self-judging part comes up. Let the self-judging part know that you will take time to listen to it later, but you need to get to know the defensive part now. Ask the self-judging part to wait. If it can’t wait, encourage it to tell you about its judgments, and take some time to hear what it has to say with curiosity and compassion. Once the self-judging part feels heard, ask it to allow you to proceed with the defensive part. It is likely to do that now, which allows you to stay on track.

If any other parts jump in while you are listening to the self-judging part, ask them to step aside, too. And let them know that you will get to know them in the future. Keep track of all the parts that come up and need to be heard so you can keep your promise to listen to them later. This procedure allows you to stay on track with your work without ignoring or dismissing any parts. If they feel dismissed, they might resent you and resist you later.

Self-Therapy A Step-by-StepThis is an excerpt from my book Self-Therapy.


  1. Wow! This is really good!! I am dealing with this kind of thing on a daily basis, I have been following
    The IFS model for almost 5 years and it was best things to happen to me.

    I do have a question though, when dealing with sexual abouse and trauma how do you get Parts
    To understand that your not being unloving or saying that they are not wanted when you need them
    To step aside so another Part can be dealt with and when your done you will get back to them. And…
    How can you tell the Parts from another. I’ve been doing some deep work (soul retrieval) the last few
    Months and when the integration period begins there many Parts come to the surfus at once.

    My therapist is not IFS trained so I am working solo with my Parts, up until now, things were going really well.
    I think because of the nature of the subject line and the Parts that are being retrieved, there is some
    Unchartered territory for me.

    Any thoughts on what or how to proceed? I so wish there was an IFS therapist in my area…really I do!

    Thanks, Julie

    • Jay Earley says:

      Before you ask a part to step aside, if you give it a chance to express itself and then let it know that you understand it, it is much more likely to be willing to step aside.

      If many parts come up at once, take each feeling/experience one at a time and notice and acknowledge it as a part.

      There are many IFS therapists who work by Skype, incluidng me. I can refer you to someone and there is a list of them on the Center for Self-Leadership website.