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All Parts Are Welcome: Achieving Optimal Well-Being Through Internal Family Systems

Contrary to what people may believe, all therapy does not look the same. There are a wide range of theories and techniques that therapists can utilize when working with clients. This can sometimes add another layer to the feeling of being overwhelmed that clients often feel when they are trying to choose a therapist. For some people, they prefer to choose a therapist that seems like they could be a good fit based off of what they’ve read about them online and are comfortable with beginning that process without knowing too much more about what that process will look like. I’m all about doing what works best for you and so if you are one of those people, awesome! For others though, they prefer to know more details about what the specific therapy process will look like. Since I tend to work with clients that struggle with anxiety, this latter category is more of the types of clients that reach out to me. Therefore, my hopes in writing this blog is to give potential clients, or even those who are just curious about therapy, an overview of the type of therapy I provide. A part of me feels… Have you ever used the phrase, “a part of me feels”? If you answered yes, which I would imagine most people did, you’re already familiar with the type of therapy I offer which is formally known as Internal Family Systems (IFS). The creator of this theory is Dr. Richard Schwartz. The basic tenant of IFS is that within each of us, we all have different parts of us that make-up the entirety of our being. Each part came to exist at some point in our lives to help us in some way or another. For example, if you were punished in some way for not receiving good grades, then you may have a perfectionistic part that tends to take over. From an IFS lens, the part of you that was punished is what would be referred to as an exile and the perfectionistic part is what would be referred to as a protector part. Or if you had some sort of childhood experience that led you to believe that others are not safe, you may have a part that tends to push others away. Again, the younger part of you that was hurt by others is the exile and the part that tends to push others away is the protector. One of the many beautiful things about this theory is that it encourages us to have more self-compassion by encouraging us to have a better understanding of why we behave in certain ways. Even if these behaviors are maladaptive in present times, they did serve us at one point or another and until we better understand that dynamic, those parts will continue to “hijack us”. The goal of IFS is not to get those parts to go away but instead to develop a better understanding of who they are, what younger parts of us are they specifically protecting (those exiles we talked about), and to allow them to build trust in what we call our Core Self to take care of them and those younger parts. By building this trust, we then can do a variety of things to heal those younger parts or memories which allows these parts to begin to relax and allow us to live in a more calm and present manner. What Part of You Is Driving The Bus? A metaphor that clients have found helpful in better understanding this idea of the different parts of us and how they operate is this: imagine a bus. There are a variety of passengers on the bus. They are all different ages and have different jobs. These parts all have the same destination in mind which is safety but they may not all agree on how to get there or who should be the driver of the bus for that matter. This can create a bus full of chaos. The different passengers may all start fighting to take over the driver’s seat or start to fight over which route is best to take. We can probably all agree that this is not the safest driving environment, especially when a young child may be driving a bus full of passengers! The good news is that there is a bus driver who can get everyone to their destination. This driver is an adult and possess eight qualities that you would hope for in a driver such as calmness, connection, compassion, creativity, clarity, curiosity, confidence, and courage. The presence of this driver may not initially quell the other passenger’s anxiety or desire to still take over. Maybe some of those passengers are only meeting this driver for the first time or maybe they don’t quite trust them just yet. However, through some basic conversations those other passengers will begin to not only trust the driver, but they will realize that they would prefer to be able to sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride. What To Expect In An IFS Session Now that you have a basic idea of what the tenants are of IFS, you might be curious about what exactly this looks like in a therapy session. Regardless of the type of theory a therapist uses, one of the most important things in therapy is to develop a healthy relationship between the therapist and the client. IFS is no different in that before we can dive into some of the deeper work that therapy entails, the therapist and the client must first get to know one another and foster a sense of safety and trust within that relationship. This is especially important from an IFS perspective as we want all parts of the client to be able to feel this way about the therapist. As this sense of safety and trust is built, the IFS therapist and client can begin to get to know the different parts of the client. This typically occurs first by the client reflecting on different aspects of their life that they are currently feeling unhappy about or unfulfilled in. Once the client has reflected on those things, the therapist may get curious about who this specific part of the client is that is often present during those times the client has reflected on. From an IFS perspective, these parts can show up as physical sensations, images, or thoughts so when the IFS therapist is getting curious about specific parts, they’ll often ask the client to close their eyes and either notice if any physical sensations arise within their body or any images or thoughts arise. If the client can access that part, then the therapist will typically prompt the client with some questions to develop a better understanding of this part. It is not uncommon for clients to feel self-conscious in the beginning or wonder if they are “making all of this up” since talking to ourselves can feel a bit odd if we’re not used to it! Over time though, once this becomes a regular practice, it will begin to feel more normal to do this type of work. Something that clients may find frustrating when starting out is that It is not uncommon for these parts of us to not fully trust us or feel safe in this work quite yet so they may quickly disappear or refuse to speak with the client. That’s okay! Overtime, those parts will begin to develop that trust and be willing to speak with the client and therapist. This trust is often built not just with time but also with those parts getting to know that Core Self that we talked about earlier (think of that bus driver). Once the parts are willing to stick around and be more vulnerable with the client and the therapist, then healing of the part and whoever the exile it is protecting can occur. This is what IFS calls “unburdening” and can be done through a variety of ways but often involves some sort of guided imagery exercise that the therapist will walk the client and their parts through. At that point, the therapist and client will continue to work with those parts as well as others that are typically discovered through further reflection on past or present experiences. How Long Does IFS Therapy Take? Typically, one of the most common questions clients have when starting therapy is, “how long is this going to take?” There really is no way to answer that question. It all depends on each individual person, their experiences throughout life, and many other factors. Additionally, therapy is meant to be utilized throughout a person’s lifetime. While it’s not expected that each client will be in therapy forever, it is expected that with the natural ups and downs of life that we may need more support at certain times over others. Going back to that original question of length of therapy sessions needed, while we may not have an exact timeframe, what we do know is the signs that we can be on the lookout for to ensure us that progress is occurring and that we are starting to reach the end of the therapy. Therapy is typically complete from an IFS perspective when: -the client’s parts are no longer “hijacking” the system aka the client is no longer experiencing whatever “problematic behaviors” brought them into therapy as frequently, if at all -the client has developed an understanding of their parts and healing has occurred for those parts -there is a sense of wholeness and integration that has occurred for the client -the Core Self is present most the time for the client or what is referred to as “being self-led.” We know we are being self-led when we possess those 8 characteristics that I mentioned earlier of an ideal bus driver (calmness, connection, compassion, creativity, clarity, curiosity, confidence, and courage) I hope that this has helped potential clients or even those who are curious about IFS develop a better understanding of the theory as well as what to expect if you decide to work with a IFS therapist. If you have more questions, please feel free to contact me!