Internal Family Systems (IFS) argues that every part of us is ultimately trying to help us. As someone who has spent years working with individuals who feel like they’re chronically “not enough” and who place massive pressure on themselves, I’ve found this to be true. Even the most self-critical and self-sabotaging part is trying to help in its own way. IFS gives us a way to engage with these parts and learn what they’re specifically worried about and how they’re trying to help us. Once this occurs, the opportunity for healing and self-collaboration opens wide before us.
Years ago, I worked with “John,” a client who made tremendous progress in a brief period of time. In just two months, this previously insecure and nervous individual who felt like he was “never enough” started to find a deep sense of grounded confidence within himself. We were just talking about his progress during a session when everything changed.
John got angry and began to rip our work apart. He said it was nonsense, a waste of time, and seemed to regress back to where he started months ago. He insulted himself, insulted me, and said he needed to “wake up” and realize he was worthless and insufficient. As he continued to rant, I sat back and observed what was happening. There had to be a reason for this sudden change. I interrupted his verbal onslaught to ask a question: “Just out of curiosity, is there any way feeling insecure helps you?”
He was stunned. In all his years of going to therapists and psychiatrists before me, nobody ever asked him this question. There was never any curiosity around his self-conflict; it was always seen as a defect to be corrected. Yet nestled in my question was an alternative view: Maybe his fear, in its own way, was trying to help him. Was it possible that his brain was somehow convinced he had to stay insecure and self-critical in order to stay safe?
The Beliefs of Fear
Over the next 20 minutes, we identified three beliefs this client carried about himself and the world around him:
1) My worth as a person is based on how much I can achieve.
2) In order to validate myself as a person, I need to achieve A LOT.
3) The only way to maintain the energy and focus needed to achieve this much is through fear and insecurity.
His constant self-criticism itself wasn’t the problem; these beliefs were. As long as they remained, any attempts to calm down or relax would fail. As he began to explore and modify these beliefs, John experienced a deep and lasting shift. His confidence began to come back, unnecessary self-conflict lessened, and forward progress returned. Within a few weeks he felt better than he had in years.
IFS: How to turn an enemy into an ally
This session transformed everything about how I work with clients.
If we always try to overcome fear through brute force—a strategy often recommended by countless self-help gurus—we often experience short peaks of progress followed by long valleys of frustration. Our fear doesn’t go away; it just waits for the right opportunity to strike back. As soon as our energy is low or something happens that takes us off track, we often reverse back into the place we started from.
Approaching fear from a place of curiosity changes this. Years ago, I started helping clients learn how to communicate with the parts of them that were afraid. I started by using open-ended questions like, “If we could give your fear a microphone, what would it say?” As time went on, clients explored their fears through journaling, art, music, and other modalities. No matter who it was or what their background was, client fears often relaxed as soon as their worries and concerns were understood.
The recent addition of Internal Family Systems (IFS) to my professional toolkit has allowed this strategy to become even more powerful. Unlike other approaches where we are forced to think or guess at what we’re feeling and why, IFS gives us an evidence-based way to directly connect to these fears and feelings at their core. It allows us to learn exactly why our terrified parts are so afraid, understand how they’ve been trying to help us, and offer healing to any fear-based parts who need to release old emotional pain.
Helping our wounds heal is where the magic happens. One of the main tenants of Internal Family Systems is that parts are not their jobs or their feelings. In other words, the part of ourselves that acts in fear can transform. It’s common to see a client’s most critical parts turn into their greatest internal champions. These same individuals suddenly feel compelled to be bold, take risks, and share their truth with the world. These transformations prove that fear-based parents are not our enemies. Once they have experienced healing and know we’re strong enough to handle whatever comes our way, they can help us without resorting to fear.
Building a Better Self-Relationship with IFS
After almost a decade of working in this field, nothing has led to greater personal transformation than helping clients improve their relationship with themselves. This includes learning how to embrace and understand their fears. Once they find the ability to view themselves as an ally they want to help instead of an enemy they want to defeat, self-collaboration becomes far more important than self-conflict. This allows them to spend their energy moving toward their goals instead of wasting it on internal conflict.
How might your life change if you were better aligned with yourself? How would the lives change of those around you?