Retraining in Internal Family Systems: No IFS, Ands or Buts
What are the ‘non-negotiables’ of a particular therapeutic modality, and what challenges might these pose for a qualified therapist looking to retrain? With increasing numbers of practitioners showing an interest in transitioning to Internal Family Systems, psychotherapist, Certified IFS Therapist and author Emma Redfern highlights common stumbling blocks when moving from a ‘counteractive’ to a ‘transformative’ therapy style – and explains why she holds a firm line on following the IFS model.
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I have had the pleasure and privilege of working with many trainee and novice IFS therapists as they transition to using Internal Family Systems. An Internal Family Systems Institute Approved Clinical Consultant, I have been offering IFS supervision since 2017. Here are two of the things I have learned along the way:
- Learning something new, involves a deconstruction and reconstruction process; aspects of the new modality are taken in, or onboard, and ways of working previously learned and valued (including beliefs, practices, expectations) are jettisoned or let go.
- Being true to the model as taught is important. I hold a firm line: no ifs, ands, or buts – if you are offering IFS professionally, then certain things are non-negotiable, such as the primacy of Self.
It is one thing to learn IFS on a Level 1 training, the 6 F’s, the Steps of Healing and so on. It is very different then to take that learning into professional life when existing or current ways of working are playing almost on autopilot in the background.
For example, a therapist two-thirds of the way through her Level 1 training has been using IFS since before she started the training; she is confident in many aspects of the work. She brings to supervision a client who has reached a young, wounded part (what IFS calls an exile) of five. When asked the 4th F “How do you feel towards the part?” a protective part of the client answers with criticism, saying the five-year-old’s thinking is too simplistic and irrational.
The supervisee has yet to do much work with her own therapist parts, who remain aligned with a more counteractive therapy style. They jump into action to defend the five year old, get the critical part to change its mind, and treat the exile better.
No ifs, ands, or buts, this is not IFS therapy as taught:
- IFS is transformative not counteractive.
- Only parts try and change other parts. Self welcomes parts as they are (parts can and will change role or become less extreme if the system transforms to allow this).
- While the therapist’s part argues with the protector, the exile has been abandoned.
- The therapist’s part has lost perspective on the task in hand which is to create a relationship between the client’s Self and the client’s exile.
A couple of non-negotiables that can take a while for those therapists new to IFS training to grasp are:
- Protective parts have positive intentions for their system; and
- A protector will usually get the opposite of what it hopes for and intends (i.e., it’s behaviour and beliefs are self-defeating).
Here is another example: a client has turned towards their inner world and is getting to know a new part; it is going well, if slowly. Another part (perhaps with the positive intention of preventing another disappointment) steps in to interfere with the Self-to-part relationship with a version of “This isn’t going to work, it’s useless, you’ve been here before, nothing ever changes.” Naturally, if this part continues to block the other inner relationship, then their words will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Instead of counteracting the part, an IFS professional negotiates, saying to the client:
“Let the part that’s interrupted know, if it sticks around that’s true, nothing will change. The part can make that happen. If it relaxes and lets you get to know this other part things will change, I promise. But it’s got to let you do the work on the inside with this other part… See how the part responds.”
Often, protectors respond well to such a no ifs, ands, or buts approach.