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What is Internal Family Systems (IFS)?

IFS therapy is based on the theory that we all have many parts / aspects of ourselves. Traditional IFS identifies and works with 3 categories of these parts - those which are in pain due to trauma and other difficult experiences (exiles), those which manage everyday life to avoid these exiles being touched / harmed (managing protectors) and those which react in more extreme ways in scenarios where either the exiles have been or are at risk of being exposed / activated / retraumatised (firefighting protectors).

These parts all respond from their own perspectives and this is limited by their experiences in the past, by the age and stage at which they first took on their roles and by the degree to which they behave in an autonomous - as opposed to integrated - way within the whole system.

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A basic example could be someone who works excessively (protective manager) in order to keep at bay feelings of inferiority which arose due to shaming within the family or school context (exiled part which is largely cut off from adult consciousness). An appraisal at work might threaten the equilibrium and a more extreme part (firefighter) might emerge whose role is to distract / numb the person using alcohol or food, or maybe the person has a panic attack and cannot go into work that day.

As well as the more traditional IFS trio of protectors, firefighters and exiles, I also invite you to engage with other “inner community” members.  For example, the roles you might take on in your family, profession or other setting.  We also “internalise” significant people, who become part of us – some who continue to nurture us and others who continue to harm us. Plus we have everyday parts like the ones whose job it is to get up and out of the house, schedule our diaries, establish boundaries.

 

For clarity here, I also want to note that true inherent identity is not "parts". This includes neurodivergence (autism, ADHD etc), gender and/or sexual identity. Identity is separate to the parts which form or are intensified in relation to how others perceive us, welcome and accept us or otherwise.

Why choose IFS?

For everyone there are some parts who / that are more “stuck”, carry more pain or seem to get us into more trouble. There may be ones who we might describe as being “out of control” or “triggered” by an apparently minor situation. Or perhaps there are some who behave in ways which we feel ashamed of. Some can literally shut us down, others can think “crazy” things (according to other parts!) And some can become terribly hurt and distressed yet never find relief. These may or may not be the ones who “bring” us to therapy and there may be other parts who need attention first before they will open space. This is all as it needs to be and is a vital part of the process.

What are IFS sessions like?

Firstly, everyone is unique and parts show up in such different ways for different people.  In traditional IFS training I was taught to invite people to “go inside” and sense a part “in or around their body”. I have worked with some people who sense their parts this way, and some of mine have shown up that way, however many others I have worked with have visualised their parts or just had a sense of what they might "say" or think.

When I use parts work myself I tend towards "externalisation", and this also has been the case for many people I see in my practice.  There are many resources to support this, for example drawing, sandtray or other creative processes.  Creative work is also possible online.

Many parts simply show up as a strong feeling or emotion, a thought or a belief.  In these situations it can feel impossible or unhelpful to separate / unblend.  It feels like "all there is" or "just me" / "who I am".  The IFS framework can still be helpful via more implicit and relational processes. 

Sometimes the way we sense a part seems to correlate with its "age” and / or with specific developmental stages.  These may also correlate with traumatic experiences and the ways in which the memories and resonances of these are stored in the body, brain and nervous system. ​​

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The purpose in IFS and all parts work is healing, updating and integration.  The process supports the parts to be released from wherever they may be stuck and liberated from their old roles, beliefs, and “stuckness”. This then leads to a free-r and more integrated internal system.

Here is an introductory video: 

Getting to Know (parts of) You - YouTube

For lots more information about IFS please also see Dr Tori Olds on YouTube.  She offers a whole series on IFS here:

What is IFS Therapy? | Intro to Internal Family Systems - YouTube

I have completed official training programmes via the Internal Family Systems Institute, currently the only organisation which can validate IFS courses.  The IFSI stipulates that qualified psychotherapists can use the designation "IFS Therapist" upon successful completion of a Level One programme.  It's called Level One but it's fairly comprehensive!  Level Two programmes cover more specialised areas and I have completed the Trauma and Neuroscience one.  I chose this as I have found that 90% of the people who come to see me have a trauma history. 

The fee for a 50 minute IFS process starts at £60 (for local in person sessions).   This does not include additional IFS processes such as mapping or compilation of parts records.  These additional services are available if appropriate and need to be planned for in advance.  Longer sessions for IFS are also common practice internationally and can be discussed and planned for if relevant for you.

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