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  • Writer's pictureZuzana Kučerová

My views on/critique of Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy


I suspect that my critique of IFS will be met with some resistance because all views that go against something that people like to cling to are met with resistance. And I sense that these days many people like to cling to IFS. But I believe that every theory becomes more interesting when it is examined and its usefulness is questioned. I would like to invite people to think more carefully about the model before blindly adopting it and seeing it as the Holy Grail of psychotherapy, and as something that will deepen their understanding of the transpersonal. First, I would like to give a short overview of the model, then share my opinions, and explain what elements of the IFS modality I regard as unhelpful, and which ones I still use in my therapy practice.

 

Unlike any other modality in the field of psychotherapy, IFS is thought of as a psycho-spiritual (as opposed to just a psychological) model. Humans are seen as spiritual-human beings comprised of the Core (in IFS called the ‘Self’) and a collection of parts. These parts can be thought of as sub-personalities that form our personality. Our personality is thus seen as multiple, but this should not be mistaken for multiple personality disorder. Parts are often polarised, and one of the aims of IFS is to depolarise the parts and bring harmony to the internal system.

 

Before I explain the model further, I would like to point out that the idea that the mind is multiple and that there are a lot of polarised ideas, beliefs, and feelings that create internal battles, is not exclusive to IFS. It is present across many therapeutic modalities, which use terms like schemas, subtypes, subpersonalities, ego states, or self-states with various pseudo identities (also named ‘personas’ by Carl Jung, i.e., social masks that we present to the world, that we use to navigate the world, and sometimes manipulate the environment to get our needs met). Freud mentioned the word parts too, but he did not suggest that they were living entities in our psyche (like Richard Schwartz - the founder of IFS - has).

 

I would also like to point out that the IFS model initially appealed to me because of its spiritual component. I have had an interest in spirituality and various spiritual traditions for many years, so I thought that the model might serve as a useful bridge between psychotherapy and spirituality. Thus, I thought that it might help us understand not only the nature of our mind but also the fundamental nature of our existence. However, I have not found that to be the case. On the contrary, I now think that it can move people away from realising and experiencing their fundamental nature, and that spiritual traditions do a much better job at helping people realise their true Self. Like many people, I initially thought that the IFS model of the mind and the spiritual component called the ‘Self’ made sense, but the more I read about it, listened to podcasts, watched IFS videos, and used it with my clients, the less convinced I became.

 

To further explain the IFS model, it posits that apart from the core, i.e., the Self, we have parts that are intact and still in their natural state, and parts that were forced out of their natural state as a result of traumatic experiences (such as neglect, abuse, non-optimal parenting, violence, attachment injuries, injuries, etc.). These latter parts are divided into wounded parts (termed ‘exiles’), and protective parts (termed ‘protectors’) that formed as a form of self-preservation and defence against the outside world.

 

For example, if someone was born with great creative skills and was brought up by parents who were supportive of the child’s skills, those creative parts of the child would remain intact (i.e., in their natural state), and they would be freely available to the child to use. If, however, the child was brought up by a highly critical, dismissive, perfectionistic, or belittling parent/s, those parts would be suppressed and no longer available. Such a child would stop believing in their abilities, their self-esteem and confidence would be compromised, and instead of cultivating their natural skills, the child would downplay or dismiss their abilities, and go into hiding. So, based on the parents’ reactions and feedback, the child would make some inferences about themselves, and behave in the best possible way not to upset or please the parents.

 

I believe that children are intuitively smart in that they adopt beliefs and behaviours that ensure that their number one need - to stay attached to their caregivers - is met. Without attachment, a child cannot survive without physical/emotional/mental scars, and certainly cannot thrive (this has been well observed and documented in children in orphanages in Romania, in numerous research studies investigating attachment theory, and in animal studies). Therefore, children will do anything to keep the attachment/emotional bond going - they will become submissive, quiet, shy, non-expressive, extremely obedient, caretaking, etc. On top of adapting to their environment, they observe their parents and often adopt the same behaviours that their parents exhibit and coping strategies that they use (such as being angry, shutting down, storming off, people pleasing, being judgemental and self-critical, over-exercising, over-eating, drinking, and so on).

 

So, the younger parts, which we hold in our memories, hold some beliefs and feelings, as well as some coping strategies that they formed at a particular time. While the IFS model portrays the coping strategies as ‘protectors’ that are separate from the wounded parts (i.e., ‘exiles’), I don’t see the usefulness in separating the two. In my view, the pain and the coping strategy to overcome the pain are held by the same part. I also do not see it useful to think of protectors, i.e., defence mechanisms, as separate beings with their own thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. At the beginning of my IFS journey, I did follow the IFS model, but I soon realised that assigning person/creature-like qualities to defence mechanisms can evoke uncomfortable feelings. Clients who are visual would see them as bodyguards, walls, blocks, black blobs, cloaks, giants, robots, or some other creatures, and some clients would start fearing them and feeling overwhelmed by their presence. Although we were able to work with the protectors in the sessions, reached some understanding and compassion, and did some useful negotiations and unburdening, the clients still felt uncomfortable with them outside the sessions.


Therefore, I decided to move away from the idea that protectors are beings, and I have settled on the idea that parts are mental representations that we hold in our minds, no matter how real they feel. To me, they only feel real because they are held in our memories and memories feel real because they carry an emotional charge. However, Richard Schwartz postulates in Sounds True that parts are much more than just unidimensional internal states and that they actually are little inner beings. They are entities with their own thoughts, beliefs, emotions, feelings and behaviours - entities with personal characteristics with whom we can communicate in the same way that we communicate with another human being. I find this notion to be problematic, although it is possible that Schwartz has experienced something that I have not. But I suspect that it is also possible that through the repetition of his ideas, he started to believe something that does not exist. And that other people started to believe it too. But I suppose, it takes a leap of belief to believe in something in the same way that it takes a leap of belief not to believe in something. Neither can be proven and it is up to us to choose which beliefs resonate with us, which feel most comfortable, and which are most useful.


I have decided to believe that it is more empowering to treat protectors as old programmes in our mind, which we can reprogram through memory reconsolidation, instead of treating them as beings or little monsters who get activated with the slightest trigger. Speaking from my experience, it is much quicker to do some reprogramming than to be constantly showing compassion and understanding to some protective beings, negotiating with them and hoping that one day they will stop being monsters and will turn into friendly little puppies.


What I also see as unhelpful about the IFS model is that it labels everything as a part. There are supposedly parts behind everything, including pain, ADHD, cancer, etc. While I believe that the mind largely influences the function of the body, I don’t believe that seeing the action of parts behind everything is wise and healthy. Biological abnormalities exist and the body can be adversely affected by toxins, carcinogens, pathogens, bad diet, bad lifestyle, etc. Not everything has a deep meaning. As Freud once said: ‘Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.’

 

Schwartz also suggested that the ‘parts’ language is very natural to us, and that we use it on a daily basis when we say, for example, ‘one part of me wanted to go there and another part didn’t’. This could give one a sense that since the ‘parts’ language is natural, parts must be present in our internal system. However, while the ‘parts’ language might feel natural in the English language, it is not the case across all languages. For example, in my native language (Czech), we would never use the word ‘part’ to express polarised views, wishes, or intentions. It would be very unnatural to use the word ‘part’. We say something like ‘On the one hand, I wanted to go there, but on the other, I didn’t’. And since we do not use the word 'part', we do not think of our internal workings as the world of parts. So, the ‘parts’ language and the concept of parts are definitely not universal.

 

Initially, I liked the 'parts' language and I still hold the view that saying ‘a part of me is angry with you’ as opposed to ‘I am angry with you’, sounds more gentle and less attacking. It implies that the person is not angry in their totality and that there are other emotions that the person holds aside from anger (although, at that moment, anger seems to be at the forefront). However, later on, I realised that the 'parts' language cannot be used with all emotions and in all situations. During my IFS training, one trainee unintentionally triggered another trainee who was unable to navigate her emotions and who really struggled for the rest of the day. One of the roles of the Program Assistant (PA) is to guide trainees during the practice and to make sure that nobody is emotionally disturbed beyond their capacity to deal with their emotions. When we discussed the situation the following day, the PA admitted that she had made a mistake by not stepping in when it was needed. However, instead of saying ‘I am truly sorry’ and wholeheartedly apologising, she used the 'parts' language and said ‘Parts of me want to apologise’. At that point, I realised that the 'parts' language is problematic when used in every situation, like when we express love, sorrow, gratitude, grief, etc. I immediately thought: ‘Would someone say to a person they love ‘Parts of me love you.’ instead of saying ‘I love you.’? Or, ‘Parts of me are happy for you.’? Or, ‘Parts of me are grateful to you.’? Or, can you imagine a therapist saying to a client: ‘Parts of me are sorry that you had to experience this.’? Wouldn’t you immediately think: ‘What about any other parts of you? What do they think or feel?’

 

At one point, I also witnessed some people I know, who started using the 'parts' language, to say ‘Oh, you cannot take it so seriously… It was just a part of her that got angry.’ At this point, I realised that the IFS language can be used as a form of gaslighting and manipulation. Also, when one believes that they are ‘in the Self’ (which I have heard several therapists in the training sessions, IFS podcasts, or videos say), this belief ‘I am in the Self’ can be bordering on an inflated sense of purity, an inflated sense of being in a pure state of mind, being ‘sorted’, unblended from parts, and ‘clearly seeing’ how the other person is blended with their parts. The 'parts' language can also be used as an excuse for someone's actions, as an opportunity to shed one's responsibility, and shift blame to a part that ‘couldn’t help itself’.

 

In the same way that I see this language as problematic, I think that people who were (or still are) terribly abused might find Schwartz’s conviction that there are ‘no bad parts’ problematic. In theory, it sounds optimistic that we don’t have any bad parts (only protectors that are doing their best) and that we are fundamentally good. However, the brain structures of some people, like psychopaths, or those who were very traumatised during their formative years, are often altered, and their mental and emotional capacities are compromised. This can result in their inability to mentalise, to be empathic, to feel guilt and remorse, and in them causing harm to others (whether intentionally or unintentionally). In theory, one should be able to find understanding and compassion for such individuals. But I know that no matter how much empathy or compassion I could muster, if someone killed, raped, or caused other serious harm to one of my children, I would find it hard to be empathic and understanding. And if I were to seek peace in that, I doubt that I would find consolation in the idea that the perpetrator had no bad parts.


But let’s leave parts and the parts language behind for now, and move onto the topic of ‘the Self’.

 

One of the frequent questions that my clients used to ask me when I was working in the IFS way was ‘How do I get into the Self?’. Some clients were in despair because they read or heard somewhere that one of the premises of the IFS model is that real healing happens only during the interaction between the parts and the Self. If any other ‘Self-like’ parts (i.e., parts that have similar qualities to the Self) step in and try to do the healing on behalf of the Self, true healing cannot occur. Can you see how complicated the healing process can get? And if the Self is the only real healing agent, what chance do other therapeutic modalities and spiritual practices have in terms of alleviating human suffering?

 

What I also find puzzling is how the Self is portrayed in IFS. Among the many books on IFS that I have read, there is a book titled ‘Many Minds, One Self’. This book tries to persuade the reader that the ‘Self’ is the same as the Self that many spiritual traditions have been talking about for thousands of years. The idea is that the IFS ‘Self’ is synonymous with the Hindu terms like ‘Brahman’ and ‘Atman’, the Buddhist term ‘Buddha Nature’, the Christian term ‘the Holy Spirit’, or the New Agey terms like the Higher Self, the True Self, or the Transcendental Self. The spiritual traditions have been trying to explain what the Self is and admitted that it is a phenomenon that cannot be described using words but can only be experienced. Interestingly, Schwartz very quickly ‘understood’ what the Self is. He said that he ‘stumbled upon the Self’ by chance when one of his clients said: ‘That is not a part, that’s me’. From that, he concluded that the me is the ‘Self’. My initial reaction to that was that what the client could have been referring to was the observer part of the mind - the witnessing, present moment self, which is able to feel separate from everything that has happened in the past. Those who practise meditation know that one of the objectives of meditation is to learn to be the observer of our mental processes and feelings, and to practise the ability to be the detached observer in our daily life. Is it, therefore, possible that when the client said ‘That is not a part, that’s me’, she was the observer of her mental activities and/or feelings? I do not believe that the mere separation from the protective and other aspects of our personality is an indication of being in the ‘Self’, even when we are able to be understanding and compassionate at that moment.

 

While the spiritual traditions have had a hard time conceptualising the Self, Dick Schwartz came up with the idea that the Self has eight specific C qualities like Confidence, Calmness, Creativity, Clarity, Curiosity, Courage, Compassion, and Connectedness. Later on, he added five Ps – Presence, Patience, Perspective, Persistence, and Playfulness. To me, it is just a very simplified explanation of an indescribable phenomenon. What is more, Schwartz in one of his videos (Dick Schwartz: Trauma and Couples) claims that the spiritual traditions got it wrong thinking that the Self is passive. In his belief, it is not passive but active, i.e., it actively engages with our parts. In the same video, he also questions the accuracy of the attachment theory (which, by the way, has been supported by an enormous amount of research studies). He thinks that the best way of healing attachment wounds is not inter-personally but intra-personally, i.e., by going into the Self and healing our wounded parts. I will say more on that topic a bit later.


Now, I would like to share a few passages from one of my favourite books that illuminates the concept of the Self - a book titled ‘Be As You Are. The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi’. Sri Ramana Maharshi was a significant, Indian spiritual teacher during the first half of the twentieth century. You can come to your own conclusions about how much Sri Ramana Maharshi’s words match the IFS model.

 

Excerpts from chapters 1 and 2:

 

… the Self is pure being, a subjective awareness… There are no subjects or objects in the Self, there is only an awareness of being. …a state of being-consciousness-bliss (sat-chit-ananda).

 

…Hindu philosophy postulates three alternating levels of relative consciousness – waking, dream and deep sleep. The Self is the underlying reality which supports the appearance of the other three temporary states.

 

Sri Ramana also uses the word ‘silence’ to indicate that the Self is a silent thought-free state of undisturbed peace and total stillness.

 

He said: ‘There is no need to attain or cultivate it. All that you have to do is to give up being aware of other things, that is of the not-Self. If one gives up being aware of them, then pure awareness alone remains, and that is the Self.’

 

In other places, Sri Ramana Maharshi makes it clear that the Self is ever present, always there. He makes a difference between the mind (which consists of the ego, memories and intellect) and the Self. He uses the analogy of a cinema, where the Self is like the screen that is always there, and the mind is like the pictures projected onto the screen that constantly appear and disappear. He further postulates ‘…the mind does not exist apart from the Self, it has no independent existence. The Self exists without the mind, never the mind without the Self.’

 

I came across a different analogy expressed by Swami Sarvapriyananda (in a talk titled ‘Vedantic Self and Buddhist Non-Self’), who said that the Self is like the gold that all pieces of jewellery are made of. If you melt all the bracelets, necklaces and rings, the gold will remain gold. It is unchangeable, it is that which underlies everything and is within everything.

 

Sri Ramana also makes a difference between the ‘I’-thought and the real ‘I’. The former is an ‘I’ who is doing something (like ‘I think’, ‘I remember’, ‘I am acting’), and the latter is the real ‘I’ or the Self. ‘The Self or the real ‘I’ never imagines that it is doing or thinking anything; the ‘I’ that imagines all, this is a mental fiction and so it is called a mental modification of the Self.’

 

To sum up the teachings in a few words – the Self is pure consciousness that underlies everything. It is the undifferentiated consciousness of pure being. The mind (i.e., the ego, intellect, and memories) and the body are transitory but the Self is permanent. The Self is different from the mind, but it underlies the mind.

 

So, upon reflecting on these and other spiritual teachings, as well as on my thoughts about the IFS concepts, I have concluded that 1) parts are not entities/beings but mental representations of our mind, always linked to our memories, as well as beliefs and inferences we had made about ourselves, others and the world; 2) the IFS Self is not the same as the Self that spiritual traditions talk about; 3) it is not the Self but the observer (i.e., the ‘I’ that is part of the mind) that works with the younger selves/parts in our memories, beliefs & values systems; 4) being constantly aware of our fundamental nature leads to us being peaceful, loving, compassionate, joyful, and able to see life from a higher perspective. One does not have to think they have to be in the IFS Self (and access the 8 Cs and 5 Ps) to be loving and peaceful.


When one fully realises the true Self (the pure consciousness), one also realises that there is nothing to heal. But I am aware that for some people, it may take a while to fully grasp and embody this spiritual truth. So, one way of getting to a more peaceful and loving place is by working with the contents of the mind, by understanding our programming - why we think, feel and behave the way we do, by working with the younger selves in our mental world, as well as all the other characters in the movie of our life, and by understanding and eliminating our defence mechanisms and unhepful beliefs.  

 

There is another IFS idea that I have found really hard to comprehend. It is the idea that the Self leaves during trauma and that parts get upset with the Self. As illustrated above, according to the spiritual traditions, the Self is pure consciousness that underlies everything, is permanent and always there. So, how could it leave during trauma? And how could parts be upset with it for leaving? Are children even aware of the existence of the Self? To use the analogy of the screen & the movie, children seem to be totally immersed in the movie. They don’t think about being the screen and life being projected onto the screen. So, how could they, when they become adults and learn about parts through IFS therapy, start to think that the parts are or were upset with the Self? To me, it does not make any sense. But according to Schwartz’s words, ‘The Self leaves during trauma and thus isn’t there to lead the system. This results in parts being resentful that the Self neglected them, or, even worse, let the abuse happen and did not interfere. Parts thus don’t trust the Self anymore, and it takes time and a lot of checking in with the parts, befriending them and negotiating with them before the Self earns their trust.’  

 

Michael Pasterski on his website uses the following words: ‘During traumatic events, the Self becomes dissociated and separated from experiencing the trauma, as other parts try to protect it at all costs. When parts have to resort to more or less extreme strategies to protect the Self, they lose confidence in the Self and cease to trust in its ability to be the leader of the whole system. In consequence, an individual no longer feels safe and stable in his or her state of mind. One of the goals of the IFS therapy is to help the client in differentiating the Self, so that other parts can trust it again.’

 

Another online source that illustrates this (in my view, bizarre) belief puts it this way: ‘When trauma occurs, the Self is not damaged but is also not able to protect, and Dick Schwartz argues that it can disappear to avoid damage. Hence why the Self is obscured and we try to resurface in therapy, it is often in conflict with protector parts who feel that the Self hasn’t been there when the shit has gone down and why should they trust it now?’


To me, these ideas are incomprehensible.


Another IFS concept that I would like to address is ‘self-healing’.

 

I can understand why IFS can initially be so appealing to so many. When we (especially us folks from a society that promotes individualism and independence) hear that there is the ‘Self’ within us that can do the healing, this invokes a sense of relief that we do not have to rely on anybody to help us with our pain. Or that we no longer have to long for someone to come to the rescue. And since longing equals suffering, letting go of the longing should, in theory, lessen our suffering. Except that it doesn’t! It doesn’t because the longing comes back and pretty quickly after the initial sense of relief that ‘I can do it all by myself’. We are relational beings, and the wish that another human would be there to support us on our journey is very natural. Schwartz even claims that the premise of the attachment theory that we heal mostly within the context of meaningful relationships is wrong. He argues that we are the main attachment figure to ourselves that does the healing best. While I agree with Schwartz that we have the capacity to heal ourselves and that we can relate to ourselves and our past with compassion, love, and understanding, I disagree that good healing does not happen interpersonally. In my view, we need both – the inter-personal and the intra-personal. And I would add the transpersonal - i.e., going beyond the personal.

 

I suppose we people differ in our need to heal alone versus with other people, depending on our personality, and where we fall on the attachment continuum - whether we are more anxiously or avoidantly attached. There are independent individuals who believe that they are self-sufficient in every way, and the idea of self-healing can be very appealing. However, they are also those who feel so deprived of genuine connection and help from others that the thought of ‘I can do it all by myself’ not only does not provide any relief but evokes the thought of ‘Oh my god, do I really have to do it all by myself again? I have been doing that all my life – always alone, self-reliant, very rarely supported!’

 

I am quite an independent person who likes and appreciates time alone, but I can see the value in having another person support me when I am going through difficulties. I also believe that being listened to without judgement by a therapist, friend or partner can bring a lot of comfort. When I started to explore IFS therapy, I had several sessions with an IFS therapist who was a lovely person, but I sensed that the nature of the therapy lacked a conversational style, it lacked the opportunity to offload and to be listened to. Instead, it was about going to the parts and seeing what they had to say. The sense of interconnectedness, being listened to, validated, or offered a different perspective wasn’t really there. I got the same sense when I watched demonstrations of IFS therapy sessions.

 

I know that we can tune into a lot of information and answers that lie deep within our psyche. All it takes is to be silent and listen to what our mind-body-spirit has to say. And although I agree that we can find the answers we are looking for, I still believe that the relational aspect of therapy and the therapist's guidance is what helps people find the answers and heal. Numerous research studies clearly show that the No. 1 factor that influences therapy outcomes is the therapeutic relationship. I suppose, more research into the effectiveness of IFS versus other therapies is needed. IFS is portrayed as evidence-based, but there are only a handful of studies (six, to be exact, according to the IFS website, and these are either pilot or very small-scale studies). And so, a clearer understanding of what the healing factors are (which is very difficult to establish due to the plethora of variables that influence the therapy process) is needed. Until more research brings more understanding, or until I change my mind for some other reason, I will hold onto my view that attachment/interpersonal injuries are best healed through loving relationships – both inter-personal, intra-personal, and transpersonal.  

 

The last IFS topic, which I would like to mention, pertains to the so-called Unattached Burdens (UBs). This is a topic that is not widely discussed, but I suspect that due to the recent arrival of a book called ‘The Others Within Us: Internal Family Systems, Porous Mind, and Spirit Possession’, written by Robert Falconer, it will no longer be a taboo topic. As the title indicates, it is about the influence of spirits – both good and bad (good in the form of guides and bad in the form of demonic forces). The book offers an interesting account of how the phenomenon of spirit possession is conceptualised in various spiritual/religious, philosophical, and cultural traditions. The author also shares his clinical experience and case studies that illustrate how he removes UBs using the IFS model. In other words, how he performs what is widely known as exorcisms. Although I do not totally discard the idea that spirits exist and that they could, under some circumstances, play tricks with our mind, I would not be so ready to claim that it happens more often than we realise (as Falconer suggests). Initially, I bought into the idea and did a short IFS course about UBs. I even worked with a couple of people who were convinced that they were influenced by UBs. Although we thought that we removed the forces, I was not convinced whether what we did was the ‘real deal’ or just the work of our imagination. After that, I decided not to play God and I left the topic alone. I concluded that although the thought ‘I am possessed’ could in some cases explain one’s unexplainable behaviour and bring some peace, it could also evoke a scary thought & feeling that ‘there is a parasite or parasites occupying and influencing my body-mind’. On top of that, not knowing what to do about it and not knowing if the ‘parasites’ come back even if they get removed, could just add more fuel to the fire of anxiety. It has been suggested that these negative forces can enter one's system during trauma, especially when one is dissociating, or even during medical operations. I worry that if trauma victims start playing with the idea that they might be possessed, they might struggle even more. I know that the IFS protocol emphasises the importance of distinguishing between protectors and UBs, but I am not sure whether IFS practitioners (who might not even be trauma-informed) have enough knowledge, experience and skills to be able to work with this phenomenon. I have always found it disconcerting that IFS training is widely available to anyone in the helping profession, including coaches, who are not trained to work with complex trauma. Imagining that any IFS practitioner would start working with UBs is equally disconcerting.


The views of the Catholic Church on exorcisms have changed since the understanding of mental disorders (especially schizophrenia) and the topic is not taken lightly. The person who is believed to be possessed has to undergo a medical examination to find out if the symptoms can be attributed to a physical or mental disorder or illness. The priest may seek an additional opinion by consulting a Church-approved expert on the paranormal. If the priest is then convinced of the validity of the possession, he will report back to his supervisor (in most cases, the diocesan bishop). The Church may then decide to appoint an exorcist to the case. I doubt that IFS practitioners would undergo such an extensive examination before embarking on removing UBs.   

 

Now, I have finally come to the point of sharing what elements of IFS therapy I like and which I use in my practice. What IFS has taught me and what I am grateful for, is the relational aspect of it. Creating a deep connection with our younger selves that we hold in our memories, whether the memories are autobiographical or just sensory, has been a game changer for me. Before learning about IFS therapy, I could not fully grasp the concept of ‘inner child work’ that we learned about in my psychotherapy training. I felt that the concept was too big, that the child was holding too much and I did not know where to start. The IFS model of parts made the inner work much easier. Instead of healing the inner child, I started to help myself and my clients heal the inner children. Furthermore, the IFS model of parts made it easier for me to understand the coping strategies/defence mechanisms that our younger selves/parts had to come up with as a result of some unpleasant experiences. Working out which parts adopted which strategies and why, and working with those parts in an embodied and compassionate way, makes the inner work much easier. But I do not separate the parts that hold some wounds from the parts that hold some coping strategies. To me, one part holds both – the pain and the ways of dealing with the pain. Having said that, I do watch out for any resistance that my clients hold and we work with the resistance first. It is important to do that so that the inner work is not forced. So, in a sense, I, like IFS practitioners, work with protectors first, but I don’t see them as separate beings/entities. To me, defence mechanisms cannot look like creatures or objects. The fact that people come up with visual images of their protectors only indicates that they are the creations of the mind.

 

As for the concept of the Self, as I stated above, I don’t believe that we have to be in the Self in order to heal/change what needs to be healed/changed. We can think of ourselves as loving parents to our inner children/younger selves, or as loving guides to our adult parts. Holding the parts in their distress, listening to them, validating their experience, providing them with a corrective emotional experience, and helping them change their perspective and beliefs, can be done without thinking that we are (or have to be) in the Self. When my clients hold some memories, we work with the clients’ parts/younger selves and other characters in their memories, and we do memory reconsolidation in various ways, whatever seems appropriate at the time. When they cannot bring any memories to mind, we still work with sensory memories and feelings associated with beliefs that the clients formed about themselves, others, and the world. These beliefs always have a link to someone or a situation. When they understand why they had/have to protect themselves and when they bring the guards down, compassion, love, and acceptance follow. But it does not mean that they are in the Self - they are just not defensive but pleasant, compassionate, understanding, and non-judgemental human beings. As I have already expressed, it is my view, based on my experience, that spiritual traditions do a much better job of helping us remember the fundamental nature of our existence. When we realise what pure consciousness is through reading or listening to spiritual teachings, it feels much deeper and richer than when we do some IFS work, put a few defence mechanisms on the side, and fool ourselves that we are in the Self.

 

I will conclude by expressing my gratitude for being introduced to IFS and for learning to work with parts in our memories (as well as the unhelpful beliefs and coping strategies that the parts hold). I really like some aspects of IFS, but I also believe that too much introspection and constantly sorting out the dynamics between our parts can be time and energy-consuming. It can put us in danger of getting lost in the never-ending maze of inner relationships, while life is happening without our awareness. Life is there to be lived, not constantly thought about.

 


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