Ever since I received my training in Internal Family Systems (IFS), virtually all my client work has shifted to using this modality. This is for good reason. IFS is the most powerful approach I’ve seen for helping clients release their deepest emotional pain.
As someone who specializes in working with people who feel like they’re chronically “not enough,” this tool has been a godsend. While I’ve previously done lots of work with self-compassion, mindfulness, and emotional skills training, Internal Family Systems is able to bring healing within in ways that nothing else can touch.
Part of this is due to the fact that IFS provides us with a unique way to see and engage with ourselves. It argues we’re all made up of varies parts of ourselves that have their own wants, opinions, and desires. One part of us may want us to be brave and share our truth with the world, while another may want to keep us silent and hidden. If we just try to force ourselves to be bold and speak our truth, our fearful parts will probably rise and become even stronger. Instead of generating self-conflict like many other modalities do, IFS lets us make progress by addressing the issue at its source—the fear that speaking our truth will bring us pain. If we can release that pain, everything else falls into place.
That’s not to say it’s a magic bullet. This isn’t a “quick fix” modality. Internal Family Systems is unique in its depth and requires us to approach this work in a way that respects this truth. If you’re considering Internal Family Systems for yourself—or if you know someone who is interested in it—the following tips may help ease you into this journey.
Tip 1: The slower you’re willing to go, the faster good things will happen.
Those who have served in the military or emergency response (like myself) have probably heard some version of the following: “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.” IFS is bound by this rule. In a great paradox, the clients who make the quickest progress are often those who have preemptively accepted that this process will take time.
The emotional depth of IFS requires this space. This can be compared to other “top-down” modalities where we try to create positive change by preemptively deciding who we should be and how we should act. Since we already have a prescription for change, there’s no need to take time and be present. While many of these approaches are good—self-compassion fits this mold, and I’m a big fan of it—these strategies often provide short-term progress while failing to provide the deep relief we’re really looking for. Since the root problems remain, we will only remain in a good mental and emotional space for as long as we can keep up the energy and habits needed to stay there. This isn’t always possible, especially if life throws us several surprises at once.
IFS avoids this problem by taking a different approach: starting from the “bottom-up” and addressing our pain at its source. Instead of just managing our issues, IFS lets us release internal pain from a place of compassion and safety. The slower we go, the easier it is for such healing to take place.
Tip 2: Tell the truth about whatever you’re feeling. In IFS, all parts are welcome.
The best way to do IFS is to be honest about what you’re feeling right now in this exact moment. Such information sharing is vital. It allows you to honor your truth while also giving your IFS practitioner the information they need to help you in the best way possible.
Many clients have parts that struggle with this, especially early on. This is normal and expected. I believe trust is earned, not freely given, and do whatever I can to build such trust as soon as possible. However, many have parts that are holding on to fears deeper than simple trust. There seem to be two major sources of fear here.
First, some parts are nervous about external judgment and are afraid of being shamed for how they feel, what they want, or what they went through. Such judgment could come from a client’s other parts, people around the client, or from myself as a practitioner. These are all normal and healthy fears; all can be worked through.
Second, some parts are nervous that the client can’t handle the truth or are afraid of losing control. For example, part of us may want us to stop living a miserable life and pursue our dream, while another part wants us to just stay safe. The latter will do everything in its power to suppress the prior part so its not noticed, and may tell the client to avoid talking about it during sessions. But if the client can say, “I know there’s something in me that wants to come out, but another part of me is holding it back,” that’s gold. We can work with both these parts and help meet their needs without generating unnecessary conflict.
Tip 3: Be physically comfortable
Internal Family Systems is all about going inside ourselves to explore the vast universe within us. This is hard to do if we’re constantly distracted by external things.
Everyone achieves this in their own way. Since I work with people remotely from all around the world, most are happy to stay exactly where they are and work out of the comfort of their own homes. Virtually everyone uses headsets during calls in order to maximize physical comfort as well. You can sit in a chair, lay down, or do whatever else you need to do to be comfortable.
Yet such immediate comfort isn’t always possible. Sometimes, some innovation is needed to make this happen. Many college students specifically time our sessions so we can meet while their roommates are gone and they have the place to themselves. Some get in their cars and drive to a secluded place where they feel safe and secure. Do whatever is necessary for you to be comfortable.
Tip 4: If you have the resources, start heavy. Do as much IFS as you can in as brief a time as possible.
While having sessions for an hour a week is what we’re culturally used to, I’m starting to think IFS is best served by a different approach: doing as much IFS as possible early for a few weeks or months before tapering off to a lighter schedule. While I’m still experimenting and collecting data from different schedules, early results seem to suggest that more is better early on. Those who have the resources will probably save money and time in the long run by going heavy at the start.
The benefits of multiple sessions a week have become apparent in my own life. Like most IFS practitioners, I work as a client with an IFS practitioner myself. Once we increased to twice a week with longer than normal sessions, we saw an immediate improvement in my ability to engage with my parts and deepest pains. If her schedule permitted, I’d do even more.
While I’m only starting to do multiple sessions a week with certain clients, the results are promising there as well. We’re staying more on track, going deeper, and finding it easier to access those deep emotional places that have remained hidden for so long.
Do you NEED to do longer sessions multiple times a week? Of course not. Virtually everyone starts out with an hour once a week and increases only if necessary. But if you know you want to do IFS and want to make progress as quickly as possible, going heavy early on could result in better returns.
Tip 5: Start now. The earlier you begin, the earlier you’ll receive the benefits.
Internal Family Systems may be effective, but it’s also slow and deep. As previously mentioned, this isn’t a “quick fix” modality; it’s focused on facilitating lifelong change. The earlier you start, the earlier these benefits kick in.
I firmly believe in testing things out before jumping in all the way. IFS is an investment, and all investments should be approached with a healthy mix of both excitement and skepticism. This is why I often invite individuals to just purchase a single IFS session to try it out and see if it’s a good fit. If it is, you’re already started and can keep going with the progress made in your sample session. If not, you’ll be able to move on and find something that works better.
Taking the Dive Within
While this list was primarily aimed at beginners, I may create a future post about how to get the most out of IFS sessions as an intermediate client who has already begun. While the strength of Internal Family Systems is found in its unique nature, these special qualities often require us to engage with it in a special way. This is not a “plug and chug” modality where we can mindlessly act. A bit of planning and effort goes a long way.
Are you curious about how IFS could be of service to you? I work remotely with people from across the world and would be happy to explore this with you. If you a) speak English, b) we can make the time zones work, and c) there are openings in my schedule, we can make it happen.