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A Beginner's Guide to Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS)

Have you ever felt like there were little voices inside your head, pulling you in different directions? For example, when you really want to do something, but another part of you seems to want to do the complete opposite? Confusing right?

A girl unravelling string inside her own mind, representing getting to understand her subconscious through Internal Family Systems Therapy

Well, we can understand ourselves better when we recognise that we all have lots of different ‘parts’ inside of us. Learning about these parts through Internal Family Systems (IFS) has transformed the way I work as a therapist, and the way I live my life; it is a truly incredible tool for personal growth, self-awareness, and healing.

So, let's dive into the wonderful world of parts work and IFS!

What exactly are Parts?

Imagine that inside of your psyche there exists a team of various characters, each with their own unique personalities, thoughts, and emotions. For instance, you might have an adventurous part that loves spontaneity, but there's also a cautious part of you that really worries about the consequences of not thinking things through carefully.

I like to think of it a little bit like the film Inside Out. It’s as if we have this control panel inside of our minds, with various characters being triggered at different points throughout the day, and rushing to try and take control of the system.

A room full of mirrors with different characters, representing different parts of a person they may discover using IFS therapy

While there are just five different characters in Inside Out, in reality it’s much more complex. We can have a huge number of different parts inside. You might recognise parts of yourself in labels such as: the inner critic, the people pleaser, the inner child, the joker, or the perfectionist. There may be parts of yourself that you like, and feel comfortable with, and others you want to push away, feel ashamed of, or wish were different.

Through an IFS lens, we can automatically become more self-compassionate and accepting. Instead of saying things like ‘I’m a people pleaser’, you realise instead that: ‘there’s a part of me that has learnt to people please as a way to protect myself’. Just that subtle shift in language helps you remember that it’s just a part of you, not the whole of you. It doesn’t define who you are.

There Are No ‘Bad’ Parts

This can be a really tricky concept to accept at first, and I completely understand. You might think, how on earth is the part of me that shouts at my loved ones, or gets road rage, or overeats, or binge drinks, not bad? It certainly feels bad. But IFS teaches that all parts of us are doing their best, and they usually have a positive, or protective intention for us, even if that doesn’t seem very clear at first.

The inner critic concept from IFS, seen as a shadow, full of critical words, criticising themselves

For instance, let’s take the inner critic, the one who says horrible things about you. How could that possibly be helpful or protective? Well, if you were able to get to know this part from a calm, curious, compassionate place, you might learn that it is trying to make sure you work hard to avoid criticism from others, or perhaps it says the worst possible thing, with the hope that if someone else says it later, it won’t hurt quite so much.

By becoming more aware of our parts and why they do what they do, we can learn to treat all parts of ourselves with more kindness and understanding, and find ways to manage things in a more constructive, balanced way.

How Does IFS Therapy Work?

IFS therapy brings compassion, patience, respect, and understanding to every aspect of the therapy process. When I meet someone who is struggling with anxiety for example, I don’t look at the anxiety as a ‘thing’, a diagnosis, or a problem to be solved. Instead, I can wonder, “Who inside of this person is feeling so scared? What part inside is convinced that the world is unsafe, and what led them to believe that? What does this anxious part need?”

A person meeting a hurt, burdened, or exiled part of themselves with compassion through IFS therapy

Every single part of you, even the one you struggle with the most, needs someone to find it, get to know it without judgment, and offer it kindness and compassion before it can change. It needs to be seen, heard, and understood first. Only then can we begin to guide and support it to release its extreme role, heal the hurt it carries and help it move towards healing and balance.

This is what happens in IFS therapy.

Want to know more?

If you're interested in learning more about parts work and IFS, here are some resources to further your understanding:

"Self-Therapy: A Step-By-Step Guide to Creating Inner Wholeness Using IFS" by Jay Earley: This book offers a comprehensive guide to practicing IFS techniques on your own.

This video gives a wonderful introduction to the neuroscience behind IFS: What is IFS Therapy? | Intro to Internal Family Systems - YouTube Through IFS, we discover that there are no "bad" parts within us, just parts that have developed their own unique strategies to try to protect us and keep us safe. By getting to know these parts, we can gain a deeper understanding of ourselves and find true self-compassion. IFS therapy can provide a safe and gentle space to get to know our parts, before gently guiding them towards healing and balance. If you're intrigued by the world of parts work and IFS therapy, and would like to know more, please do get in touch.

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