Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Tao of Psychology Part 4: Internal Family Systems Therapy

In part 3, I left off by saying that I had found Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy to be the answer, or at least half of the answer to the question of unifying NLP and making sense of Erickson's work and near-death experiences. Superficially, IFS is similar to the work of Virginia Satir, one of the founders of Family Therapy. Satir had what was later known as "Satir Categories", a characterization of different "parts" or personality types which people typically presented in therapy and daily life. Her work focused on recognizing and comforting these inner 'parts' to alleviate the rigid behavior they produced. She was known for having "parts parties" often involving the whole family to that end.

IFS: The Beginnings

Back in the 1980s, Dr. Richard Schwartz began working on his first major psychological study, involving bulemia. At the time he was well aware of NLP and Erickson's work, however he didn't practice either. He was also aware of Virginia Satir's work, although he considered it too "lovey dovey".

As he worked with clients in the study, he found that many of them described having inner "parts" which were like autonomous personalities. By working with these parts he found that when they released control, the client usually knew what to do in order to heal the parts with little or no help from him. Over time he noticed that not only did inner parts tend to take on similar roles between different people, but ultimately they all turned out to be 'inner children'.

Protectors and Exiles

Dr. Schwartz noted that parts typically took on common roles, which tend to interact in clusters. At the center of each cluster is what he calls an 'exile', a part which carries a burden of rejection, abandonment or loss which the person cannot (or could not as a child) handle. Exiles often want recognition, but other parts do their best to prevent the exiles from emerging due to their tendency to cause problems and overwhelm.

The protectors spend most of their effort either trying to prevent exiles from emerging (managers) or trying to quiet them down and get them to go away after they emerge (firefighters). Managers can be angry, or cause the person to work obsessively, or be judgmental or pessimistic. Firefighters tend to manifest more in terms of self-destructive behaviors like binge eating or drug abuse, by which they attempt to fill the 'hole' of the exiles' trauma to suppress them before they do any serious damage.

All of the parts ultimately have good intentions; the exiles usually just want to be understood, while the protectors try to protect the person against the harmful tendencies and overwhelm of the exiles. They may occasionally superficially show a desire to hurt the person in extreme cases, but even then it's always for a protective reason (ie: "I want her to die".. "because the pain is unbearable").

The Self

When parts are active, they tend to 'take over' the person's consciousness; the person believes they are the part, often even building an identity around the part which they consider important to who they are. However, in working with parts, Dr. Schwartz found he could get them to 'step back' and give up control, naturally by asking politely. When this happens, assuming there are no other parts in the way, he noticed that people's attitudes changed dramatically. They became calm, confident, and compassionate towards parts which they might have hated just moments before. His clients described it as 'not like a part', and 'just being myself', connected with the experience of clarity, confidence and lightness.

Dr. Schwartz began calling this the 'true self', or just 'the self', to differentiate it from the parts. He found that in therapy, it was the client's self which ultimately did the therapy and healed the parts. He also found that for therapy to be successful, the therapist also had to be able to stay in their self, as only through the self can the therapist provide support, compassion, and clarity to help the client work through their traumas.

As he worked more with IFS, and so too with his clients, he found that the parts would block, or be opaque to, the self. The self is vulnerable, and if a person experiences a trauma before their self is fully developed that remains unresolved, then the self is unable to cope and splits into 'parts' in order to try to protect the self from further trauma. When the self is fully developed, as in a psychologically 'adult' person, then the vulnerability is not an issue since it is supported by the strength and other aspects of the self. As parts are healed, they become more transparent to the self, which then becomes more dominant in the personality.

The self is described as a sense of boundlessness, deep connection with the universe and a loss of identity as a separate being. People who are 'self-led' show a distinct passion for life and contributing to the world, they need no moral or legal codes to do the 'right thing'. Dr. Schwartz seems to recognize this as being a spiritual state, although I think there was some resistance to accepting that, and still is amongst certain practitioners.

Healing Parts

The general process for healing parts is fairly straightforward, although there are minor variations and the various forms the process may take are multitude.

Getting parts to 'step back'

The first and most vital step in dealing with parts is to identify them and get them to unmerge from the self. This generally requires recognizing their protective intentions, and reassuring them that they are in a safe environment. Once the self has been uncovered, it's often helpful to let them 'take a break' and 'get some space' from the parts for a minute.


Once the self has been uncovered and given a chance to settle, work turns to the exile at hand. First time is spent simply paying attention to the parts and noticing how the person feels toward them. Usually the self knows what to do already, and will manifest curiosity, compassion, love, courage or whatever else is required. During this interaction, the part usually reveals what experiences, emotions etc it has been holding, which relieves the part from the burdens which made it extreme. It is through this process that the part becomes understood.

Retrieving the part from the past

Dr. Schwartz noticed that even after parts had been unburdened, they often retained their extreme behaviors and persisted. Many of the parts seemed to be 'stuck in the past'; ie within some old memory from which they originated. He theorized that if he had them bring the parts out of the 'past' and into the present, then the parts would be able to 'grow up' (since they're inner children). Often the exiles are placed in the care of other parts after retrieval.

Reassigning Protectors

After an exile has been healed, the protectors which previously protected it are either allowed to go on 'vacation', or else they are asked if there's more useful work that they would like to do.

Polarized Parts

Often times protector parts will have opposing goals or openly dislike each other. This creates inner conflicts which create emotional turmoil above and beyond the original traumas. In instances where this occurs, the inner conflict must be mediated before the exiles those protectors are protecting can be dealt with.


While IFS is definitely a powerful framework, there are some shortcomings to the theory and practice, some major and some minor. I think it's worthwhile to mention that IFS is extremely flexible, and IFS practitioners are encouraged to allow their clients to determine how therapy is done. There are many different opinions by different people on the theory, and likewise there will be differences between the styles used by different practitioners, even between different clients. Here I'll be mainly focusing on Jay Earley's interpretation, since his books are probably the most well known which deal directly with the practice itself. Not everything I mention is exclusive to Jay's work, though, and is more general to IFS as a field.

Poorly defined Self

The self, its nature, and its characteristics are one of the most poorly studied areas of IFS. Some practitioners consider it to be just another part, others see it as being distinct and having spiritual significance. I think the spiritual view has become more dominant overall in recent times, however. Either way, the self is viewed as having a central and important role in therapy and health, but their understanding of the self is not proportionate to its importance.

Imagining parts adds extraneous content

In Dr. Earley's account, which I think is typical, clients are encouraged to visualize their parts. In further interactions, the clients then interact imaginatively with them, hugging, coddling, holding hands with and similar with the parts. There are a few problems I've found with this, first and foremost that parts often are not clearly separable. Adding representations to something tends to solidify it that way, whether it was an accurate representation or not. It also distracts the client from paying attention to their emotions and how they actually feel in any given moment (what buddhists would call 'developing awareness'). Lastly, it encourages the client to become attached to the part as they know it, which discourages them from questioning further and discovering the true nature of their parts. This inevitably leads to becoming an 'internal babysitter'.

Retrieving parts doesn't work

In one of Dr. Earley's books, he relates a story about a client who had worked with a certain part, unburdened it, brought it into the present, and then he later talks about how the part came back and manifested its usual behaviors even after that complete process. That case stuck out like a sore thumb to me. I think the rest of the process before that point is basically spot on, and IFS definitely achieves some solid improvements, but bringing parts out of the past was a blind guess from the beginning. I see a distinct danger in that without completely resolving the parts, instead of 'growing up', the Self ends up becoming something like a babysitter for them (that thought scares me anyway). This was also what led me to look for answers as to what does work in order to complete the process.

I found out through studying modern hypnosis that negative emotions are not only connected to one event, but often to others as well. The Initial Sensitizing Event (ISE) is the first instance where a negative emotion/negative beliefs occur, with additional Subsequent Sensitizing Events reinforcing them afterwards. To get a part to 'grow up' and become integrated, not only do you need to release the negative emotions from all of those memories, but you also need to replace them with deep personal truths. Without using hypnosis, IFS is very limited in this capacity.

Asking the person what parts they would like to work with is counterproductive

Dr. Earley suggests in one of his books that the client should pay attention to whatever parts turn up during the week, try to identify them, and then work on them when they go in to therapy. I see this as an unintended hypnotic suggestion that go something like this:
Hey part, what other parts have been pissing you off this week?
 Which already sends the session into a parts-led fiasco from the start. It's also impossible to work on a part that isn't immediately manifesting during the therapy session. Sometimes it's possible to elicit a part through recall, but often it isn't. My opinion is that most people are manifesting parts most of the time anyway, and if the therapist is manifesting Self, then even if the client isn't manifesting parts when they walk in, interacting with the therapist will more than likely elicit some parts with no trouble. It is much better to start by asking where you are right now rather than where you were or where you may want to be.

Alternatively, you can ask the unconscious to produce a relevant feeling or part in trance, which is very reliable.

Reassignment of parts is unnecessary

Milton Erickson achieved legendary results and only used reassignment in a minority of cases, and even then his usage was distinctly different (in his case reassignment would be the main intervention). In NLP they use reassignment in the "Six Step Reframing Process", but it isn't very effective. In the next article, you can see that the Diamond Approach does not employ reassignment. My thinking is that if the original exile is really completely healed, then no reassignment should be necessary since the other parts will literally have nothing to do if the exile is 'gone'.

Closing Thoughts

Overall I thought IFS brought some important techniques and distinctions to the table in a way that is clearer and more straightforward than most other approaches. I should like to point out that IFS bears a structural resemblance to object relations therapy, Virginia Satir's method, Eckhart Tolle's description of "pain bodies", the Diamond Approach (which draws heavily on object relations), self therapy, ego states therapy, voice dialogue, inner child work and probably numerous other "parts therapies".  I don't believe it is any coincidence that so many different unrelated people from different and sometimes unrelated backgrounds (Eckhart Tolle has no background in psychology at all) have come to such similar conclusions.

After reading through the IFS books, I was left with more questions than answers, and I wasn't certain that I would be able to find answers to those questions at all. None of the other schools of psychology that I knew of was even as advanced as what they were doing with IFS, but some of the things I had read in "Conversations with God" hinted that perhaps somewhere in the myriad of books on spirituality I might find the missing pieces I was looking for. Someone had suggested a book about some guy claiming to be enlightened (and his dog), but the reviews on amazon had been less than spectacular and I passed it over figuring it would just be more woo-woo positive thinking nonsense. I decided from that to dig by reviews and see if anything stood out. I checked out Deepak Chopra, who I'd vaguely heard of before, but the reviews didn't inspire me to investigate him any further (I've since been informed that my decision was correct).

I stumbled across one review, however, that made mention that someone by the name "AH Almaas" had a much clearer theory of spirituality, so I decided to check that out and see if it was really worth looking into. I saw by skimming that he talked a lot about 'synthesizing psychology and spirituality' which sounded exactly like what I was looking for, and the reviews were solid on top of that so I decided to shell out and see for myself what he was on about. What I did not expect is that he would answer all the questions I had about IFS...

The Center for Self Leadership (IFS headquarters website, lots of free articles and stuff, also therapist and trainer directories)


  1. Many thanks for your insights and critiques of IFS. At the end you write that AH Almaas answered the questions you had about IFS and I would so much like to know what you discovered. I'll do a search to see if you wrote about it elsewhere. If you read this, I'm wondering if you'd consider providing a link to writing you've done about it. I'd also love to know how your understanding has developed since you wrote this.

  2. I am a NLP Trainer. In 1977-79 I attended the NLP Practitioner. Master Practitioner, NLP Trainer programs and a number of weekend workshops with Virginia Satire as well as several programs at the Quest Center for Personal Growth where the of work Dr. Roberto Assagioli was the topic of study. Satire discussed the internal system metaphorically as players on a stage. NLP created a treatment plan based on their work known as the "Six Step Content Re-framing" model. When I teach, I always list the people who are the originators of the methods I present. I am aware ,more often than not, many "innovators" do not give credit where credit is due.

  3. In order to comprehend IFS better you need to try it not just read about it, go to a therapist who has expertise in it, better yet get involved in the movement and meet Schwartz. IFS indeed holds the key to trauma healing and integration of the whole 'Self' (this is not referring to ego - transcending or shedding ego is a concept abandoned in IFS) and the existence of parts has been explored in many related psychotherapy approaches but IFS opens it right up. The huge advance in IFS is acceptance of our parts rather than inner struggle - even acceptance of previously thought of negative parts such as an inner critic. This aligns with other evidence based psychotherapy/psychology such as ACT Therapy a new approach to CBT. Evidence is the touch stone. Before trying to blend psychology and spirituality, I would suggest listening to or reading "Spiritual Bypassing: When Spirituality Disconnects Us from What Really Matters" Book by Robert Augustus Masters. It's available on audible read by the author. He used to run a spiritual commune and has matured through a spiritual process to accept the value of psychology. Intuitively choosing is a personal thing but if you want to stick to the evidence and build a spiritual framework that doesn't contradict that, it requires a bit more critical thinking and investigation.

    1. You know it was actually the practitioners that chased me away from IFS. I stumbled across some podcast by a bunch of big names from IFS, and what struck me was that they were a bunch of weak, pandering new age woo-woo hippies who couldn't possibly deal with real trauma or the sort of anger that induces. Also ACT and CBT are trash. Not even worth talking about. I don't really care for anything someone who joined a 'commune' of any type has to say, either. Communes are all about evading personal responsibility for anything, which is why communism is about as successful as drinking bleach to improve your health.

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