It’s no secret that Internal Family Systems (IFS) sessions are an investment. If you’re going to invest time and money into your healing and growth, it’s a smart idea to focus on the topics that will help you most.
Recognizing the power of IFS
Have you ever seen someone who spends a lot on a powerful sports car—but only uses it to pick up groceries? While not technically wrong, keeping a powerful vehicle constrained to menial tasks prevents us from seeing its true power. IFS is the same way.
Internal Family Systems has found application in nearly every part of life: anxious insecurity (my work), depression, anxiety, addiction, trauma work, chronic pain, couples work, even psychedelics. This model can tackle virtually anything. But if you want to get the most for your time and effort, you need to identify how it can best serve you.
The Bottom Line Up Front
If you want the most out of your IFS sessions, focus on the biggest emotional pain that has consistently prevented you from living as yourself.
This can take many forms: believing you’re not deserving of love, feeling worthless, feeling invisible, believing you’re not “enough,” living in constant self-criticism, struggling in relationships, feeling like you have a black hole inside you, etc. These are deep, sticky issues that many spend lifetimes trying to fix. IFS offers a new way out. You can stop running in circles and heal these wounds once and for all.
Many struggle to take this step, and for good reason. While not an exhaustive list, I’ve routinely found three major roadblocks to this path: loss of hope, fear of intense feelings, and shame.
IFS Session Roadblock 1: “It’s hopeless; there’s nothing I can do”
This usually happens when someone is fighting an old wound that has been with them for years, often decades. Feeling like we’re never “enough,” having low self-trust, believing we’re not deserving of love, and more are common players here.
Clients with low hope often have a “one foot in, one foot out” approach to the work. While some of their parts might be excited about the work, most aren’t sold. From their point of view, there’s little reason to hope. “We’ve tried to deal with this for years,” they might say. “Why should we try something that’s probably going to fail? Why have hope?”
Feeling hopeless must be discussed with your IFS practitioner. Failure to do so is one of the most common reasons people quit before they have the chance to heal. Admitting you’re hesitant won’t be seen as insulting. These parts need time and attention too. After all, you feel hopeless for a reason. We want to know why.
Exploring feelings of hopelessness allows us to work with these struggling parts instead of against them. Hearing their concerns and modifying the work allows us to build confidence and trust. Hope often returns in small doses, bit by bit, which allows us to do more and dig deeper. Over time, we can eventually tackle those major issues that were previously blocked off.
IFS Session Roadblock 2: Fear of emotional overwhelm
Even if we logically believe we can create change, fear of our own feelings can hold us back. Some feel like there’s a dam inside them holding everything back. If a single drop of water gets out, everything will come crashing down.
The IFS model is built to prevent this. Taking things in a slow, step-by-step approach allows us to keep things contained and within acceptable levels of emotional tolerance. Once clients learn how to connect with their innate Self—the calm, confident, and grounded state of being that we all have access to—this fear of overwhelm vanishes. We no longer fear our feelings because they can’t hurt us. No matter what comes forward, we feel at peace within.
Being afraid of our own feelings keeps us trapped. Instead of living our lives as we see fit, we’re constantly trying to control every part of life so none of our wounds get triggered. Instead of indulging in this exhaustive work, IFS offers another path. By learning how to engage with pain from a healing place of strength instead of fear, we can free it—and allow ourselves to become who we were born to be.
IFS Session Roadblock 3: Shame and embarrassment
The hardest problem to work through is the one we least want to admit having. Yet, it’s precisely this work that usually offers us the greatest opportunity for change.
Shame usually involves two parts inside us. First, we have the “shamed” part, which carries the pain and embarrassment we feel. But there’s also a “shaming” part, an internal voice that tells us our that our pain is deserved and that we actually are worthless, broken, and/or “less than.” In IFS, we refer to these parts as “critics.”
Working with harsh critics is my specialty, mainly because I have worked with so many of them inside myself. Nothing has given me more healing in IFS than learning about my critics. None of my critics are my enemy—all of them were trying to help in their own way. They experienced harsh situations and did what they felt they needed to in order to keep me safe. If the world is externally harsh, they need to do the same towards me to keep me safe from external harm. Many of them hated this work, but felt it was necessary to keep them safe. Once we learned about them and gained permission to heal the wounds they protected, critics transformed. The harsh voice vanished. Instead, they became allies that tried to help instead of hurt.
The Path to Freedom
The first step in dealing with these roadblocks is letting the practitioner know exactly what you’re feeling.
Some are nervous about bringing these up with their practitioner. But there’s nothing wrong with saying, “There’s something I need to discuss, but I’m nervous to talk about it.” Anyone who has been through formal IFS training can easily start from this place.
Others struggle because they don’t want to see their own issues. That’s ok. Seeing our darkest parts can make us feel like our deepest fears are all true and there’s no hope for change. But these feelings can also be worked through. Saying something like, “There are things I probably need to bring up, but I’m afraid of seeing them myself” will let your practitioner know what’s going on. They can help navigate things from this space in a safe and slow manner.
I always tell clients they have exactly two jobs while working with me: 1) tell me whatever is happening inside you right now, and 2) tell me if any surprising shifts occur. That’s it. You don’t need to have the answers, you don’t need to worry about doing this “right” (there’s no wrong way to do it), nor do you need to worry about me. As long as you can tell me what’s going on inside and keep me notified of major changes, everything else is possible.
We’re Stronger Than We Think
Naming our fears is one of the most powerful things we can do. Even if we don’t know how to tackle these problems yet, just identifying them can cause them to transform from nebulous, overwhelming roadblocks into contained problems we can tackle one step at a time.
Tackling our biggest pains requires strength, courage, and determination. But if we’re willing to do this work in a slow and safe manner, powerful self-healing and transformation can take place. No longer constrained by our own insecurities, we’re free to be the people we were born to be.