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Internal Family Systems: A Psychotherapy Revolution 40 Years in the Making

Is IFS real, or is it a metaphor? Does it matter?

Click here to read this story on Medium.com

Um, would one of you like to say something? - created using Dalle 3

One night, a year ago, I was in a bar, staring at an empty cocktail glass and craving a second espresso martini. This in itself wasn’t unusual, but what happened next was. I didn’t order the drink.

I like to drink. I own a cocktail lounge. Let me tell you, when Sanjay wants a drink, Sanjay gets a drink. But I didn’t just stop drinking alcohol, I did something even harder— I cut down my drinking by 90% without stopping cold turkey.

You’re thinking… “Sanjay! You have amazing willpower!”, or maybe, “Sanjay! You’re a fucking liar!”, but no, I assure you it’s true. And I’m going to tell you how I did it, which is all about discovering Internal Family Systems.

Internal Family Systems (IFS) is a therapeutic approach based on the idea that there are a bunch of personalities inside every one of us, a sort of family inside your head, each member of which has its personality, desires, fears, and ways of doing things.

Do you feel like having a drink? It’s a member of your family that thinks drinking is good. Do you think the drink has too many calories? It’s a member of your family that is worried about your weight. It’s not that you lack willpower. It’s two distinct personalities inside your head, with different agendas.

IFS is a way of thinking about the mind that veers away from the traditional psychiatric canon in three dramatic ways.

  1. There isn’t a single mind, everybody has multiple minds or personalities. In IFS parlance, they’re called ‘parts’. This isn’t a disorder, although when some of the parts get too much control, it can impair your ability to function.

  2. Your behaviors and thoughts emanate from the various parts, but they are not you. You are not your thoughts.

  3. There aren’t good parts and bad parts, all parts are good and have your well-being as their primary goal.

IFS was developed over the past 40 years by Dr. Richard Schwartz in his clinical practice as a psychologist. It has always been effective, but in recent years both the number of therapists trained in the approach, as well as the number of patients benefiting from it, have exploded in growth.

I first heard about it while listening to the Tim Ferriss podcast (links at the end). In the episode, Dick does a live therapy session with Tim, causing Tim to meet a younger part of himself and have a conversation. As I was driving and listening, whenever Dick asked Tim a question, I would imagine myself in Tim’s place and I would answer.

Much to my surprise, I found a similar younger part of myself that seemed to want to have a conversation. I didn’t continue the exercise, just in case my 6-year-old self decided he wanted to drive the car. But I did listen to the rest of the podcast, and then I got the audiobook, No Bad Parts, where Dick describes the therapy in detail.

The element of IFS that surprised Dick when he recognized it and surprised me when I heard about it, is that all parts are good. Going back to the drinking example, the member of your internal family that wants to drink wants you to socialize, and the member of your family that wants you to lose weight wants you to be healthy. They have opposing methods and ways of measuring success, but they both want the best for you.

IFS was developed initially to treat eating disorders, with which I’m intimately familiar as my daughter was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa at age eight. Not once in 15 years of therapy did I hear that the eating disorder was her ‘friend’ and that it was looking out for her.

That’s the revolution that IFS brings to the field — recognizing an eating disorder for the benefit it brings or brought at some point in the past, to the life of the afflicted. That is the first step in weakening its hold and eventually encouraging a new behaviour more in tune with long-term flourishing.

As I listened to the No Bad Parts audiobook, I often found myself closing my eyes and doing the exercises in the book to visualize parts and have internal conversations. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. I found myself thinking of stereograms, a fad from decades ago, in which you can stare at an image, defocus your eyes, and see a 3D image instead of a flat picture.

Stereogram of a chessboard

Cross your eyes slightly and then refocus to see this in 3D — Image source: commons.wikimedia.org Chess Single Image Stereogram

Once I learned the technique, it became easy to see the 3D image. But that first time can be a little difficult.

In my case, psychedelics really helped. During an experience with 5MEO-DMT a couple of years ago, I became more aware of the storage of emotions in my body, and became able to identify where emotions resided in my body. Anger is a tight band across my chest. Restlessness is a heaviness in my hips. Alcohol craving is a pressure on my sternum.

Most people have some physical awareness of their emotions already. I was a tough case because I had shut down my emotional awareness due to specific trauma in my childhood. Psychedelics have opened me up again to emotion, but they’re certainly not a pre-requisite.

Over the past two years I’ve used IFS to connect with many younger parts of myself that all have behaviours they adopted to deal with circumstances of an earlier time in my life, usually some form of big-T or little-t trauma. I’ve found them and spoken with my parts both while meditating, and while in formal therapy sessions.

Each conversation involves asking the part how old they are, and introducing myself. I ask them how old they think I am, and they’re almost always shocked to find out I’m 58 and quite able to take care of myself. This allows them to relax their personalities and ease up on some of their more problematic behaviours — meant to protect the child me, but perhaps not so appropriate for me as an adult.

I initially thought that maybe I was just making these personalities up, because they appear to me often as cartoon characters in my mind’s eye. The very first one was a black and white image of a teenage kid, Fun Bobby, in a leather jacket — he controls my drinking. Another one was a muppet, Bizzy, in a dune buggy — he controls my anxiety about an imperfect world.

Fun Bobby — he’s my very first IFS part  — Midjourney

A red elmo muppet riding a dune buggy

Bizzy — he notices problems in my environment  —  MidJourney

Through the power of IFS I have addressed childhood issues around social exclusion, and to my surprise, around racism. I’ve cut back dramatically on alcohol, on sugar, and even on anxiety. I understand myself at a level I would have previously thought impossible. I’m far from being in full control, but I’m not sure that’s even an achievable goal.

As I’ve introduced many of my friends to IFS, there is a point where everyone, including myself, asks, “Is this real?” As in, is this real or is it just a metaphor? Am I pretending to talk part of me that craves alcohol and it works, or is there actually a little person in my head named Fun Bobby?

The answer I’m most comfortable with is, ‘It doesn’t matter.’

It works.

I happen to believe these personalities are real. That they are independent neurological entities existing in the same powerful emotional brain that also controls all of our subconscious body processes. I came to that belief because of the number of times I have found myself talking to a part and he or she has said something that surprises me.

When I asked Fun Bobby why he wanted me to drink alcohol, he said, “Because you’re boring.” You can read that whole story in the link at the end, but suffice to say, it wasn’t the answer I was expecting. Can a metaphor surprise you?

The insights have been so transformational that I’m left wondering if there is any such thing as a biological based mental disorder, or if every single one of them is actually situational and can be addressed through IFS by connecting with the right part.

There is much more to IFS than what I’ve described. The purpose of this post is to show you the power of IFS through my own story, and provide a small glimpse into how it works. I hope you find it intriguing and do more research to see if it’s right for you.

The therapy is in high demand, and it can be difficult to find a therapist, especially outside the USA. I had to email eight different psychologists in Canada before I found one three time zones away that was accepting new clients via zoom. Keep looking! Also, you can achieve a lot on your own through meditation after reading the book.

Like with any other medicine, treatment, or approach, it won’t work for everyone, but if it does work, it can be transformational, not just for you, but for an entire cast of characters that is lurking just outside your current awareness.

Find your internal family. They love you, and they can’t wait to meet you.

  1. A simple exercise to experience the power of IFS yourself.

  2. Tim Ferriss podcast interviewing Dr. Schwartz about IFS.

  3. Dr. Richard Schwartz’ book, ‘No Bad Parts.

  4. My story about how I stopped drinking using IFS in meditation.

Thanks for reading!

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