I recently completed the level 1 Internal Family Systems (IFS) training over two-week long blocks between October and December 2022 and wow, what an experience! As a clinical psychologist with over 10 years working with clients with depression, anxiety, chronic health issues, PTSD and complex trauma, and the last 2 years as the principal clinical psychologist at Freedom Clinical Psychology in inner city Adelaide, I’ve been on a long search to find an approach to therapy that helps my clients make the kinds of real and lasting changes in their lives that they are searching for. After the training I can confidently say that IFS is a form of therapy capable of achieving that. I say that with a lot of confidence because for two weeks of training we were essentially experiencing IFS as a client - 10 hours a day for 11 days!
In a nut shell, IFS is a way of understanding human nature that says we are all made up of many parts of self rather than just being the same single self all the time and that this is a totally normal, healthy thing. IFS takes this a step further, highlighting that beneath all of our parts is our deeper Self that is not a part and is naturally curious, compassionate and open to experience (amongst other good qualities). Once we become more aware of our parts and start to access more of our deeper Self, we can really start to change long held patterns of thoughts, feelings and behaviours that have led us to get stuck in various areas of our life. Take for example, a fictitious client we’ll creatively call Client 1.
Client 1 comes to therapy describing a pattern of constant striving for perfection at work where he logs long hours. He is doing well professionally, but he’s hardly at home with his wife and kids and he’s lost contact with many friends and activities that once brought balance and fun to his life. As such, when he’s not at work, he often feels lonely, anxious that his partner might leave him and he beats himself up with self-critical and self-blaming thoughts. As a way to cope, he finds his alcohol intake keeps creeping upward, he’s binge-eating junk foods, his health starts to decline and he feels increasingly insecure about his body image as his weight increases.
In IFS, we might gently explain to Client 1 that they appear to have a manager type part that strives for perfection at the cost of more vulnerable parts of him that feel lonely and fear losing close people in life. He appears to have another manager that acts as an inner critic when things aren’t going well at home, triggering another vulnerable part that feels shameful and unworthy. He has yet another type of part that we might call a fire fighter part that tries to put out the flames of the vulnerable part’s feelings and the critic’s harsh thoughts via soothing him with alcohol and binge eating. While that works in the short term, soon enough his inner-critic part arises again and he comes back into contact with the shameful and unworthy part. In essence, this is the definition of a vicious cycle.
What really separates IFS from most other therapies is how it compassionately helps clients to address the problematic patterns like those of Client 1 above. IFS uses what are called experiential techniques to help clients identify and befriend all of their parts – even the one’s we may not like initially. Experiential techniques are like guided meditations that help us connect to our parts and get to know them in a very direct and real way. Once we start to get to know our parts and understand their reasons for doing what they are doing, we simultaneously start accessing more of our deeper Self-qualities of curiosity and self-compassion and a positive feedback loop starts developing. We then start making more Self led decisions in our lives.
So, for Client 1, after some time in IFS therapy, he might start putting into place healthier boundaries at work such that he is home more often with his family, which works to calm the lonely parts and the one’s fearful of being abandoned. In addition, his critic part starts to quieten down as there is more balance in his life. He then starts feeling a little better about himself, so the firefighter part doesn’t need to misuse alcohol and binge eat to self soothe as often, which eventually has positive impacts on his health and his body image, leading to an uptick in feelings of positive self-worth. In essence, he has created a virtuous cycle as opposed the vicious cycle he was stuck in previously.
I’d been using IFS in therapy for about a year prior to the level 1 training, however, the depth of the experience I had over the two weeks of training has given me a far greater insight into how this therapy really helps people make significant, lasting positive changes in their lives. It is not the only form of therapy I use, but it’s certainly one I love utilising when my clients are interested and our initial work together suggests it is the right fit for their unique life circumstances.
For those of you who are interested in learning more about IFS therapy, check out the links below that I’ve found useful as I’ve developed as an IFS therapist.
No Bad Parts – by Richard Schwartz. Fantastic short read book on IFS by the founder of the intervention. https://ifs-institute.com/store/419
Richard Schwartz interviewed on the Tim Ferris long form podcast with an amazing live demonstration of a session between Richard and Tim. https://tim.blog/2021/01/14/richard-schwartz-internal-family-systems/
Youtube interview with Derek Scott, highly experienced IFS therapist and IFS trainer giving a strong overview of the IFS process. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SlRAOdGD__k
Bradley King - Freedom Clinical Psychology Adelaide