Why I chose IFS as a therapist
There are literally dozens and dozens of different approaches to counselling that a therapist can choose from. I decided on IFS or Internal Family Systems after considering several options.
IFS is one of the fastest growing approaches, especially in the realm of trauma therapy. The official trainings are hard to get into with most trainings running lotteries or waiting lists. I do not have up to date numbers, but not so long ago there were as many people waiting for training than are listed in the IFS institute directory.
I discovered IFS reading Bessell Van Der Kolk’s book “The Body Keeps the Score.” Van Der Kolk is one of the leading authorities on trauma and his was the first book I read when I started my counselling internship. As followed up with more books by IFS leaders, I introducing elements of the approach in my work with clients. Even though I was only dipping my toe in the approach, I was amazed at how much insight could be generated in one session. It was clear I could make more progress in much less time with IFS than the talk therapy approach I was trained in.
One of the difficult things I had to learn in my personal life is that no matter how hard I tried I could not talk or think my way out of trauma. I believe if I could have, I would have. Which is why I think so many people get stuck in their fears and pain.
I would discover later that there are several things that work together that cause distress and each needs to be attended to for healing to be deep and durable.
One of them is our thinking. Often we believe that there is something wrong with us, or that we are wanted or unlovable, but usually it is not all of us. IFS understands that there can be part of you that is completely reasonable and understands that you matter, that their people in your life that truly enjoy you, and that you have great qualities. Then there is another part of you that seems to believe the opposite and no matter what you might tell yourself it never seems to sink in. With IFS we connect with the parts that hold on to those negative beliefs and with compassion and curiosity we find the reasons why they have not been able to let them go.
Address our thinking is only one piece of the healing puzzle. Another key piece is self-compassion. For some of us, we have spent so much time trying to correct for our perceived failures that we have become our own worst critic. Sometimes we have absorbed so much of what we feel about ourselves from the mistreatment of others we see very little to care for. Despite this, everyone has the capacity for compassion, but it is often buried under layers of guilt, shame, fear and anger. Even early in the process of therapy, IFS helps people find that compassion and then offer it themselves.
Trauma and emotional wounds
The next big piece of the healing puzzle is attending to memories that hold trauma or emotional wounds. Using the analogy of a computer, a regular memory is like a file that is created on your desktop and then saved long term to the hard drive. You create the file and then store it away until you need it. A traumatic memory is a file that will not close and will not save properly. It is always open and always running. We can hide that window behind other things temporarily but it is still there, using resources and occasionally popping up and creating distress. In real life we might call this being triggered, or having a flashback or enduring difficult dreams. IFS has tools to finally close that program and save the file like the others. Imagine being able to put those difficult memories to rest for good. The memory still exists, but recalling it does not hurt or generate fear anymore.
Shame and connection
There are even more dimensions to healing and they are all connected. Another one is the experience of shame and a lack of connection with others. Shame touches our thinking and our feelings and results in a personal sense of unworthiness. Sometimes when we need to move forward, we need to forgive ourselves for the past. It can take courage to do this, because we often have reasons for holding things against ourselves, but with compassion and gentleness people can choose to forgive themselves and leave the shame behind. When people no longer feel the need to hide who they start to feel the love people have for them and soothe any sense of inner loneliness. I found the tools of IFS help us release the shame and help restore connection. Full healing also must point us to restored life-giving connection with others.
As I learned and grew in the model I had the opportunity to use it as I counseled other therapists and coaches. All have found it compelling and most plan to incorporate it into their work.
IFS Integrates well with other approaches
I chose IFS because it can integrate well with spiritual practice and the tools of other counselling approaches. For those that like to meditate, it adds a new dimension to meditation. I blend in tools from my Narrative Therapy training and my knowledge of attachment theory. Others integrate it with other trauma approaches like EMDR, ART or Somatic Experiencing.
Ultimately I chose it because I found that the progress my clients make is deeper and faster than any other approach I have tried.