In my journey as a psychotherapist and yoga teacher, I am often bridging traditional psychotherapy models with somatic (relating to the body) and spiritual practices.
Recently, I've begun a journey into learning about Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy. I practice this type of therapy model with clients, as well as with my own therapist to tend to my healing journey.
Through my experience, I've come to believe that this model of therapy is deeply spiritual and connects me deeper to my Self.
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In this article I will briefly describe IFS, how it compares to other forms of self-inquiry or meditation, and I will discuss the idea of the Self as it's presented in IFS.
Read: A Guided Meditation on the Universal Self
What Is Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy?
One of the most profound impacts that my yoga practice had upon me was how it connected me to my inner process with enough space to no longer identify with it. By observing what is going on in my mind and body during my yoga and meditation practice, I could create enough space to become the observer or witness.
IFS connects the person with their inner witness or Self-energy, which is also what I feel that my yoga practice has also been able to do for me. Internal Family Systems takes it a step further where it allows you to use the Self to be the inquisitor of your inner family system.
According to the IFS Institute:
"IFS is a transformative, evidence-based psychotherapy that helps people heal by accessing and loving their protective and wounded inner parts. We believe the mind is naturally multiple and that is a good thing. Just like members of a family, inner parts are forced from their valuable states into extreme roles within us. We also all have a core Self."
"Self is in everyone. It can’t be damaged. It knows how to heal.
By helping people first access their Self and, from that core, come to understand and heal their parts, IFS creates inner and outer connectedness."
In this model of psychotherapy, there is an underlying belief that we are inherently good and that our minds are dynamic - there are layers (called "parts" in IFS) on top of our Self. Internal Family Systems therapy believes that many of those parts have a noble purpose in trying to protect us, no matter how seemingly maladaptive or even violent that the part may have become.
Often, parts are stuck in time, sometime in our childhoods, waiting to be "unburdened" and allowed to take on a new role. By exploring our parts with our Self, the hope is that we can heal, release, and transform the parts that no longer serve an adaptive function in our lives.
Read: Yoga as Somatic Therapy for Healing Trauma and PTSD
What Is the "Self"?
The creator of Internal Family Systems therapy, Dr. Richard Schwartz, talks about accidentally stumbling upon this idea of "Self" that we already see in so many other spiritual traditions.
Self is the underlying stillness - the calm underneath the ego. It is how we are able to be curious and compassionate to our other parts.
Internal Family Systems differs slightly from other traditions in that the Self can become an active part with certain qualities. Being "Self-led" in IFS refers to using that energy to run your day-to-day life and make important decisions.
There are eight qualities of being Self-led (having Self-leadership) identified in Internal Family Systems.
The 8 Qualities of Self-Leadership
Read: How to be Mindfully Aware of the Authentic Self
IFS Exploration Versus Meditation
Exploring your parts in IFS can feel very much like a guided meditation. Clients can undergo the process on their own, but is often more successful with a trained IFS therapist.
A person may close their eyes during the process in order to facilitate looking inward towards their internal process. The client reflects within to see what parts are currently active and explores to see what role each part is playing.
A major difference between IFS work and meditation is that thoughts, feelings, reactions, and sensations are often seen as "trailheads." This means they are opportunities for exploration, which differs greatly from a purely "observer and witness" model of self-inquiry.
During this process, you may notice a part that is having a particular reaction, and then notice where you feel it in or around your body.
With Internal Family Systems, you create space by coming into "Self" energy and asking that part of you questions to understand its purpose. From there, you may be able to identify how it is trying to protect you or help you.
Read: Dissolve the Ego With This Guided Meditation
Spiritual Based Self-Inquiry In Psychotherapy
Rather than interpreting the mental chatter as distractions, the mind is explored in depth using the 8 qualities of self-leadership. This creates opportunities for tremendous insights and healing. With IFS, you allow the answers to come.
Rather than seemingly endless psychoanalysis where the therapist is in the expert or listener role, as often is the case with traditional psychotherapy, in IFS the client is able to lead and explore their internal world with their "Self."
This model of therapy requires a deep trust from the therapist that the parts will reveal themselves at a safe pace, and the therapist accesses their own "Self" energy to guide the session without their own parts getting in the way.
Internal Family Systems therapy compliments an existing spiritual practice and could jump start a new one! I experienced a profound spiritual experience after a therapist lead me through something called "unburdening."
I highly recommend considering this revolutionary style of therapy to anyone who is trying to work on their behaviors, traumas, reactions, or overall mental health.
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