21 December 2023

Somewhere in the last 2 years I discovered Internal Family Systems, and it’s been one of the most impactful things I’ve learned.

IFS is one of several kinds of therapy/introspection practice where you talk to parts of your mind as if they are different people. Huh??

The core concept of IFS is that our minds are made up of parts, kinds of subpersonalities, which make us the incredibly complex and fascinating beings we are. Parts are why we sometimes act in ways “uncharacteristic” to us, why we may do things we don’t want to do (like with addictions, bad habits and arguing) or don’t do the things we want to do (like going to the gym or expressing our boundaries). Most parts have developed in our childhood, and may be mentally stuck there, viewing the world through the lens of a child. We can contact these parts, hear them out, comfort them and solve many issues that way. Healing a part may take time, but occasionally a life-long issue may be resolved in half an hour.

In IFS, it’s usually helpful to treat parts like real people, even if you think of them as just facets of your mind — real people who want to be seen, heard, understood, valued and loved. One of the core concepts of IFS is that all parts are welcome. Even if some parts make you feel like they’re sabotaging your life, they are just trying to help. A part may be stuck at age four, and four-year-olds generally aren’t so good at tackling adult problems. They may hold extreme beliefs like “If I’m not perfect, no one will love me” or “Nothing will ever get better”.
Maija Haavisto

In IFS, you literally sit down and sort of “talk” to yourself, internally. You aim to do this from a core, non-judgemental part called Self. The idea is that parts build stronger relationships with Self, and learn to relax into healthier roles.

It’s strange, but it’s also quite natural. We all know what it’s like holding conflicting beliefs or acting against our own wishes. I think parts work isn’t just a trick—it’s an empirical model of the mind which provides useful explanations.

For example, sometimes just acknowledging you are feeling a certain way makes it less intense. How does this make sense?? There’s no reason this should happen if we imagine feelings just as weird clouds of chemicals that arise because reasons. Parts model has an answer: the part was trying to get your attention, and now that Self has noticed it, it can relax a bit.

IFS gives you better insight. Because you explicitly treat parts as somewhat other to you, you can be a better listener. Where normally you might be too ashamed or confused to acknowledge a feeling, now you can focus on it fully. Sometimes they are bizarrely specific. I have a part which wants to disassociate whenever I’m making lunch. I have another one which wants to live as if I’m going to completely uproot my life, including changing my name, every other year. I’m pretty sure one part has taken another part’s desires and laundered them so they can slip past a third, judgemental part. (There’s full-on organised crime going on in here.)

How do I identify parts?

  • strong, pulling feelings
  • conflicting desires
  • confusing behaviour; “why did I do that??”

In general, the Self is the 4 C’s: calm, compassionate, curious, and connected (to other parts). Whenever you don’t feel these qualities, there’s probably another part involved.

How do I communicate with parts?

  • Recalling a specific scenario with strong emotions around it, visualising it going really badly, and seeing what “I” (the part) imagines will happen. Find as much detail as the part will allow.
  • Talking to it as a person. Closing my eyes, saying/thinking “hello”; asking it questions; using “you” and “we” pronouns. The response, if you can call it that, is usually nothing more than a vague feeling. I might ask “do you believe X?” and see if it feels right or wrong. Though sometimes I do actually get words back, which is a weird experience.
  • Random, vivid mental imagery. I realise I’m imagining scenarios where I get into an argument or break down in front of someone. I think these are parts showing me what they want.

The core idea of IFS is that all parts are trying to do something positive for you. One of the best ways of finding this is to ask a part one of IFS’ magic questions:

“What are you afraid would happen if you didn’t do your job?”

This can really dig up some surprising stuff. You can apply it iteratively: “thank you for answering; what are you afraid of about that? Why would that be bad?”

The parts model, if it clicks, will make you see the majority of other self-talk as misguided. You were always “just” about to do something. You’re procrastinating and just need to knuckle down and do it; you’re anxious and just need to drum up the courage. The communication is one-way and coercive. IFS gives you a specific method to start a two-way dialog. Parts work, for me, has been a path to seeing the mind as more than a dumb machine, as a system, alive, logical—if still often opaque.