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  • Fairlie Winship

Internal Family Systems - a gift for everyone

Internal Family Systems is a game changer. Gaining momentum year after year, IFS is taking the therapy world by storm. I first learned it as a client, before training in the technique. Wow! A completely new way of looking at things, IFS facilitated me to reach places inside and process feelings that had been holding me back for decades. It touched blind spots that I wasn’t even aware of, and it softened painful patterns that I had thought were ‘just me’, ‘something I just have to put up with’. These major insights inspired me to learn the model and find a way to bring it to others … and the results spoke for themselves. My passion for IFS grew as I attended more training and reached more people. I was consistently bowled over by the changes that people were reporting; it felt dramatic, profound and life changing.

This is not family therapy as the name may imply, rather, Internal Family Systems focuses almost exclusively on your inner world, which is viewed as a ‘family’ of parts, or multiplicity. If this idea seems unnerving, I invite your judgement to pause for a moment so you can see how it makes sense: imagine a cold and grey day. A part doesn’t want to go outside, but there may also be a part that knows it’d be good for you and its never so bad once you get out there. Or another example could be Christmas. Perhaps a part of you loves the excitement of Christmas, and another part that dreads it. Familiar? These parts are all you, but they’re not ALL of you.

When in harmony, our parts work well together and cooperate to form a functional and content whole - that’s a happy you! But when something difficult or traumatic happens, a part can become forced into an extreme and protective role, shutting off the more tender or vulnerable parts in an attempt to prevent further hurt. A few examples of this might be:

someone who drinks to forget (the drinking part shutting off the part who remembers)

someone who keeps busy all the time to avoid thinking about things (the busy part working overtime to stop thinking and the perceived dangers it may bring)

someone who appeases to prevent conflict (the people pleaser)

the agoraphobic who doesn’t go out to avoid other people (the avoider)

Protective parts can manifest in any number of ways, overtaking a person in order to shut off the possibility of getting hurt in that way again. For example, a woman with a people pleasing part always agreeing to requests for her help even if she doesn’t want to. Underneath her people pleasing part, there may be another part who has been hurt in the past when saying ’no’. To her, saying no is too risky, so the people pleasing part takes charge and says yes to prevent more hurt being added to the hurt that is already there.

By giving these protective parts understanding and validation, they begin to show themselves more and more clearly, softening and relaxing like a scared child who has had some soothing and sympathy from an adult. Thoughts like ‘no wonder that part of me doesn’t want to go out when the world feels so dangerous’ may spontaneously arise, and with this a growing understanding and self-compassion can begin to emerge. Paying attention to a protective part and understanding their concerns (ie getting to know why they are there protecting) will help them to become less extreme in their methods. Like a small child trying to get Mummy’s attention, the part feels listened to, can relax a little and even let go. With this, you feel a softening and your whole system becomes more harmonious. The result? Life becomes easier, more bearable and even enjoyable!

So what does an IFS session actually involve?

It may begin as any other - a gentle exploration of what is happening in your life, what is troubling you and your hopes for the therapy. As you express your thoughts and feelings, we can focus on what is uppermost, gently validating and encouraging the activated part to share more about their experience. By holding space for the part with curiosity and compassion, we build inner trust - in a similar way to an adult encouraging and reassuring a hurt child so they express what is upsetting them. Then when that part is ready, we can help it to let go of past hurts or experiences.

IFS is a paradigm shift in the world of therapy. For some, it makes immediate sense whilst others may find it a little harder to comprehend. Often an experience of it first-hand will quell any doubts but if you’d like to understand it more, I would thoroughly recommend founder Dr Richard Schwartz’s book, ‘No Bad Parts’ or one of his many talks on YouTube.

Whatever thoughts have come up whilst reading this, notice them, acknowledge them and if you can, hold them in compassionate acceptance. Each thought is a valid part of you, and most parts work hard trying to keep you safe in the world. Listening to our parts, we get to know, understand and love ourselves.

If you are interested in trying out IFS for yourself, I would be happy to hear from you and we can book a session. And of course, any questions at all about this are most welcome. Call me on 07827 095 826 or email and I’ll get right back to you.

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