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  • Writer's pictureTania Suzuki Pichler Castilho

Counselling and the body II - How Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS) works

This is the second article of a series on EXPERIENTIAL THERAPIES. The first one on AEDP is here.

Experiential therapies are a set of theories and methods of therapy that engage beyond our thinking systems, seeking resources from other levels of the nervous system, that are actually operating all the time, working for us, but sometimes get hindered from helping us, due to an overactive thinking mind. As I illustrated in the first article of this series, our modern culture heavily persuades us to only rely on our thinking systems, which very commonly, get so overwhelmed and exhausted, that they either swirl in anxiety loops, or collapse in depressed states.

I've been avidly studying and training in another form of experiential therapy called Internal Family Systems, created by Dr. Richard Schwartz, PhD, over the past 40 years. The idea of an internal family comes from the understanding that each person's psychological system is made up of parts, that interact with one another inside of us, as the members of a family.

Thus, IFS describes our minds as multiple in nature, which we all kinda know when we say things like "part of me wants to eat another slice of cake, part of me is telling me to stop". Our parts may support one another, sometimes polarize with one another, and try to push the other parts away. Often in life our parts carry burdens from the difficult situations we may have faced. Some parts of us end up being exiled, to protect the systems from its pain and trauma. By the same token other parts start acting as protectors and get dedicated to the role of maintaining the exiled energy away from us - weather that is shame, grief, loss, fear, rage, loneliness. Managers are the parts that protect us preemptively and firefighters is the name Richard Schwartz gave to the parts that protect us reactively.

The greatest contribution of IFS is what Richard Schwartz called the Self. When our parts feel safe enough to un-blend from us what is left is the experience of Self - when we feel curious, courageous, connected, clear, creative, calm, confident, compassionate. Accessing Self and negotiating Self-leadership is what helps parts heal, by letting go of their burdens and feel that they have more choice. IFS is also fundamentally based on the idea that all parts are good in their intent to help us. The outcome of their actions may not seem so good, but when Self is in the driver's seat of our systems, parts can be recognized and feel welcomed by their benevolent intentions, therefore, no longer having to act out complicated behaviours. The video below shows more details about it. Even though the theory behind it seems to be a clear organized list of rational procedures, the therapy process is highly experiential, leading the client to feel more integrated with their body-mind-brain-heart-skin and breath.

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