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Frequently Asked Questions about IFS

What is IFS?

Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS) is sometimes called Self-Leadership. Self-leadership is a good description of what you will get from doing IFS therapy, since the goal is for you (your “self”) to be more in charge of your “parts” (thoughts/feelings/beliefs), rather than your parts being in charge of you. You may want to read this wikipedia article about IFS or view my Internal Family Systems article and podcast.

What is IFS used to treat?

IFS is a talking cure for many kinds of mental health issues. It provides a way to regulate your emotions and improve your problem solving skills, which has implications in every area of your life from relationships to job and career performance. It was developed originally to treat severe mental health issues of trauma and abuse and is effective to address these and other mental health issues such as addictions, compulsive behaviors, body image disorders, mood disorders (depression and bipolar disorder), phobias and anxiety.

Some people use IFS to address a specific, current issue like making a decision about a career or relationship. Others use IFS to help them with recurrent patterns that affect many areas of life.

Is IFS therapy going to focus on my family?

Your family is not the primary focus of Internal Family Systems therapy. The focus of this model is actually on the first word, internal. By doing therapy with me, you’ll develop tools that will allow you to effectively lead all of your inner parts (thoughts/feelings/beliefs) which are responsible for behavior.

You will also gain a new level of competency and understanding of how your real external family works and how to navigate conflicts between family members because of your work in IFS therapy. The same principles you will learn experientially in IFS therapy are applicable to other social systems in which you are embedded, like your church, your school, or your work setting. External systems are not usually the main focus of IFS therapy but people who have done IFS therapy frequently report this effect.

What does internal family systems have to do with my symptoms or distress?

When we start to look at our inner parts (thoughts/feelings/beliefs) more closely we find they are not simply two-dimensional aspects of our personality existing in abstract form. Our parts tend to act more like relatively autonomous and dynamic people inside of us. Put together, these parts act like a real family: Each individual part has a job or role that serves some purpose for the whole. Some parts work together well while others don’t get along at all. All of them affect each other so that change in one creates change in all. Using this view, a lot of “automatic” thoughts or behavior can be observed as following a previously inaccessible form of logic and sense. You can then predictably integrate this knowledge into your life to make real, lasting changes.

What is Self-Leadership?

Self-leadership is another way people refer to the Internal Family Systems Model of therapy. Self-leadership can be seen as the product of IFS work. You (your “self”) will be more in charge of your feelings instead of your feelings being more in charge of you!

Individual parts in your inner family “system” become more relaxed, resourceful, and responsive to your efforts to lead and regulate them when there is a clear, consistent, caring, and confident leader available to them. In IFS therapy you will learn how to become this kind of leader of your parts. If you already know a lot about your personality traits or your feelings, IFS will give you a new way to regulate emotions and create change in yourself that could literally change and expand your personality. On the other hand, if you feel unsure about how much “emotional intelligence” you have, IFS therapy is a way for you to develop this powerful form of aptitude.

What other kinds of therapy are similar to Internal Family Systems Therapy?

IFS is a very distinct model of psychotherapy but it has some aspects in common with Cognitive-Behavioral therapy, Family Systems Therapy, Gestalt Therapy, Hypnotherapy, and voice dialogue.

How will IFS help my relationship?

New research has shown that the common factor involved with all couples who report improvement after couples therapy is the ability of one or both partners to self-regulate his/her own emotions. IFS will show you effective ways that you can each create the change you want in your relationship–without depending on your partner to make the changes first-through better regulation of your emotions.

What if I’m not comfortable talking about myself or what I’m feeling inside?

The IFS model works to systematically lower a person’s shame and self-criticism from the moment we start. If needed, we spend time appreciating and getting to know your “protectors” that might keep you from talking about something that could be embarrassing or shameful, without an agenda to push them out of the way. These protectors might normally cause you to “shut down,” “blank out,” or “not know what to say next.”

It may seem counterproductive at first to pay attention to parts of you that don’t want to talk or be in therapy, but these are just as important as the parts of you that you want to “fix.” In fact, these protectors are often the most neglected piece of the puzzle in most solution-oriented or analytical (subconscious-focused) therapies, and if not accounted for, will cause a predictable swing in your motivation to address the issue of focus. For this reason, many people have told me that they have experienced my use of the IFS model to be “easier” than other therapy formats that might encourage you-directly or indirectly-to reveal the most you can about yourself even if you aren’t comfortable.

What would we talk about if I feel uncomfortable or awkward with the idea of therapy or talking to a stranger about my problems?

It is natural and expected to feel uncomfortable or even have a strong desire to avoid therapy altogether. I regularly practice the discipline of sitting with another therapist who facilitates my own personal work and even I frequently encounter parts of me like this!

When we stop trying to push away these feelings and thoughts, which are natural protectors, an interesting thing happens. Rather than seeing these feelings as obstacles to the “real goal” of therapy, we instead treat them as a valuable part of therapy-and a valuable part of you. What happens? These feelings-often corresponding to a tension or anxiety felt in the body–tend to relax…and you relax. However, this usually only happens when these protectors are given permission to intervene again whenever something is happening that triggers them. Then they are willing to allow you to proceed to talk about something that might usually be very difficult. The protector doesn’t go away, but its role is transformed from guard to advisor. It no longer acts in an “all or nothing” way and instead of you experiencing it as a tense kind of pressure or anxiety, it feels more like one fluid thought that you may choose to act upon if needed. The result is that you find the right way to talk so that you balance all of your needs at the same time.

How will Self-Leadership help me become a better leader and perform as a manager of people?

A common “side-effect” of IFS therapy is that it helps people in leadership and management positions become more efficient leaders and managers. Learning how to detect and balance your inner conflicts using IFS will equip you with more confidence, clarity, and creativity when it comes to performing leadership tasks or managing your staff or business.

How long does IFS therapy take?

Like all forms of psychotherapy, there is a period becoming acclimated and developing trust toward me and my ability to help you. Sometimes this is easy to forget, so I recommend that you work with me for 1-2 months before you try to assess if therapy is “working.” I like to be involved in that conversation as much as possible, but it is always your choice. As a professional, I know that at some point you will stop therapy with me. I also know it’s normal for some people to feel more comfortable with other therapists or other models of therapy. It’s always okay with me for you to discuss your concerns about continuing to work with me or your need to stop. [Insert line about anonymous survey].

Some people can click with IFS right away and will experience noticeable, measurable changes in how they relate to the issue of their concern during our first session. On average, it may take 3-4 sessions, sometimes longer, to start to understand the flow of the work. If you’ve done therapy before, this initial period tends to be shorter. Your honesty and feedback about your experience during our time together helps me calibrate the intensity of our work to suit your specific needs; I believe that this may be the most important factor that affects a person’s sense of how effective your therapy is for you.

You may want to read Introduction to IFS Therapy , by Dr. Richard Schwartz. It is in no way essential to read this before starting therapy, but some people find this to be a helpful learning aid as you experience IFS therapy. You do not have to “learn the IFS model” to see excellent results from IFS therapy; I will guide you with everything you need to know as we progress. If you are a person that likes to know how your car works before you can drive it, then you may want to read the book.

Which of Your Counselors Use IFS Therapy?

Keith Miller, Tessa Suppes, and Marjorie Strachman Miller are all trained and experienced in IFS Therapy.

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