Healing with Internal Family Systems
Why do we come to therapy?
Sometimes, when we feel bad or when we notice how our anxiety or depression stops us from enjoying life. When we see the effects of our compulsive or destructive behaviours, and sometimes because we feel stuck.
From the point of view of Internal Family Systems (IFS), a research-backed model of therapeutic healing, the feelings and behaviours that bring us to therapy are all protecting us.
What are these feelings and behaviours protecting us from?
Sometimes they are protecting us from by being overwhelmed by powerful feelings from unprocessed wounds and trauma, and sometimes they are preventing us from being wounded again.
For example, some people experience depression as a blanket that covers up all other feelings and experiences. It dampens down emotions and takes the sharp edges off the world. Other people might describe it as a fog through which everything else appears, the fog softening and quietening everything.
This depressive blanket or fog thinks that it’s doing us a favour. We usually get to therapy when we begin to see the downside; as well as keeping the potentially wounding or overwhelming stuff at bay, the depression keeps all of the good stuff away as well.
How might IFS help?
In IFS these protective habits are described as parts of the person, not the whole person. Working with these parts we come to see that they almost have lives of their own. This can seem strange at first but soon makes sense as a way of describing how it is to be human. We do have competing impulses, desires and behaviours, and sometimes we do feel like these parts take over.
Supported by the therapist we come to understand ourselves that these parts are protecting us and have our best interests at heart, even as we see the negative consequences. “Good intentions, but not good effects.” is a common way of describing these parts, in Internal Family Systems.
As we get curious about the part, we usually find out that the part doesn’t know the whole story. For example, a common question for protective part might be, ‘How old do you think I am?’
Perhaps a part - the depressive blanket, say, responds with a young age. It’s likely that the blanket came into existence at that young time in this persons’ life, because they didn’t know any other way of staying safe, and weren’t supported to process or work through whatever was happening at that time.
The healing process
So this part has information about the wounding (information that we might not know consciously) but it doesn’t appreciate that this person is no longer a young child. Supported by the therapist, they can meet this part and let that part know that they are no longer a young child. This in itself can be healing, as the part realises the person is now resourced, capable and getting support in a way that wasn’t true of the young child. Knowing this, the protective part (the depressive blanket) doesn’t need to work so hard. The protector relaxes.
There is also a second opportunity for healing. When the person and all of their parts are ready, the therapist can support them to witness the original wounding, which the protector was formed in response to.
This can be a moving part of the therapy, as unfelt feelings can be safely felt, and the different parts of the client come to trust one another, as they are heard and understood.
In this stage of therapy, we can then provide understanding and support for the wounded, younger version of ourselves. As the wound is healed in this way, the protective parts no longer need to keep us safe in the way that they have been, and are freed up to play some supportive role in the client's life. The depressive blanket, for example, might become a part that can support the person to genuinely rest and relax when they need to.
Sometimes a client is in a place where all of their different parts are ready for this second kind of healing, and sometimes a lot of time is spent on the first kind of healing - just meeting and coming to understand all of the different parts of the person.
Working in this way not only provides these kinds of healing; it also gives us language and a model for making sense of ourselves, which can be incredibly important in its own right.
If this way of healing appeals to you, search for IFS or Internal Family Systems to find a therapist who works in this way.
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