Unlocking Your Potential with Internal Family Systems Therapy

Chelsea Matson LCMHC is a staff therapist at Matone Counseling that works with adults ages 18 and up. She is Level 1 trained in IFS

The priority at the heart of my therapy work is to help clients live more effective and peaceful lives on their own terms. There are many different methods in which you and a therapist can pursue this. The path I most often take with clients is with the Internal Family Systems (IFS) model. With IFS therapy, I am repeatedly shown how capable my clients are of understanding themselves at ever deeper levels and using their insights to create real change in their lives. It’s incredible! The work inspires me to be my best self and to continue believing in the inherent goodness that exists within every single one of us. IFS is a framework for therapy and life that continuously blows me away.

IFS: A Brief Overview
There are several basic assumptions underpinning the IFS model. One of these is the view that it is natural for a person’s mind to be comprised of several subpersonalities, referred to as “parts” in IFS. These parts are distinct aspects of ourselves that carry their own behaviors and perspectives, and they can be communicated with like real people. Although this stance is countercultural to the Western view of a unitary mind, it creates space for human complexity and contradictions with which we are all familiar. It explains why we experience internal conflicts, or why we can possess two beliefs so different that you wouldn’t think they could coexist in one person.

Parts of us can range from healthy to unhealthy, and from balanced to extreme rigidity in their qualities. Virtually all symptoms that could be addressed in therapy can be viewed as stemming from different parts of us that carry the troubling behavior or belief. A few examples include a part that makes us procrastinate on responsibilities, one that makes us feel anxious in social situations, or a part that voices heavy criticism when we make mistakes.

Also foundational to IFS is the belief that in addition to parts, each of us possesses inner wisdom and healing qualities that allow us to live balanced and fulfilled lives when we have access to them. IFS refers to this inner state as the Self, and therapy is all about using the client’s Self to re-establish inner balance, allowing them to thrive in the long term. This is incredibly empowering!

Defining Characteristics of IFS

Strengths-Based Orientation
Adopting the philosophy of IFS can feel reassuring in the sense that any troubling aspect of your thoughts, feelings, or behaviors belong to a part of you that is stuck for some reason- meaning it is not all of who you are. And the belief that we are all good and resourceful at the core affirms that we do indeed have the tools needed to get any part of ourselves unstuck.

“Self” is the IFS term used to define who we are at the center of our consciousness. Our Self is who we experience ourselves to be when all the parts of us have “stepped aside” or quieted down in our minds. In the same way that clouds can part ways in the sky to allow the sun to emerge, we can gain enough psychological separateness from our parts to access a spacious, stable presence.

This inner state is sometimes attained with meditation and mindfulness practice. Mindfulness is all about getting in touch with our present-moment experience and observing it without judgment. IFS takes this non-judgmental awareness a step further by facilitating a way for us to relate to our inner experiences (parts), rather than simply being aware of them. When we relate to different parts of us from the perspective of our Self, qualities commonly exhibited include curiosity, compassion, and clarity. These qualities, among others, are incredibly valuable resources from which many of us have spent our lives feeling disconnected. I view the IFS model as transformative because of its primary focus on reuniting parts of ourselves with our inner wisdom.

An Experiential Approach
IFS is considered an experiential therapy model: rather than merely talking about symptoms and life experiences, IFS therapy is focused on actually working with the parts of you that act out these symptoms. Imagine the difference between discussing car troubles with a mechanic and letting the mechanic work under the hood to determine what’s wrong and why. Talking about the problems may be effective to a point, but working with the machinery directly is essential for ultimately resolving the problem. The same is true when it comes to most issues for which clients attend therapy.

Addressing the Root Cause
IFS therapy focuses on addressing the root causes of suffering so that you no longer need to rely on treating symptoms and avoiding triggers. We’ve all experienced reactions to life that leave us feeling baffled and frustrated. It’s such an upsetting experience to move through life in ways that don’t benefit us or make sense. Understandably, you may be skeptical that clarity can be gained on issues you’ve struggled with for most of your life. Luckily, IFS provides a framework for skillfully exploring why different parts of us do what they do. It is truly amazing how much can be learned when you believe answers can be found.

In clarifying the deeper reasons for a part’s behaviors, we usually find that the coping method or belief is outdated and no longer effective in our lives. IFS helps us make use of this insight by updating parts on new beliefs that fit our current context more accurately. In turn, this gives us greater access to behaviors that will meet our needs and thrive in the present.

Imagine that a client is able to learn that a perfectionist part operates under the belief that anything less than perfect makes them a failure. This belief is likely rooted in real experiences from the client’s past, where they may have truly felt like a failure due to some perceived shortcoming. Perfectionism is a common strategy aimed at never feeling that way again. The only problem is that it’s an impossible goal, not to mention exhausting. Now imagine updating this Perfectionist part on new possibilities: A life where they can make mistakes and be a flawed human without feeling worthless. Or the likelihood that they can be even more productive and driven when no longer constrained by the pressure to avoid any wrong move. The possibilities are vast when we liberate parts of us from the limiting, extreme roles in which they got stuck.

What Now?
I’m glad you took the time to learn a bit about this awesome therapy model! If any of the concepts described here are going over your head, that’s honestly to be expected. After all, IFS is an experiential model, meaning it is most impactful when experienced firsthand. In practice, IFS often makes intuitive sense. The single most important hope to instill in the therapy process is the belief that change is possible. The great news that has been continuously demonstrated to me through IFS is that, although parts of us will, ironically, always be part of who we are, we can help them transform. If you are interested in further exploring this approach, finding an IFS therapist could be well worth the investment!

Chelsea Matson, LCMHC

Chelsea Matson LCMHC is a staff therapist at Matone Counseling that works with adults ages 18 and up. She is Level 1 trained in IFS