Parallel Process in IFS Supervision

Emma Redfern

16 February, 2024

What can Internal Family Systems bring to our understanding of the supervision phenomenon of parallel process? How might an IFS supervisor and her supervisee work with this in service of the client? Psychotherapist, IFS Supervisor and author Emma Redfern explains why detecting parts primes IFS clinicians to identify and work with activated parts in multiple systems – and shares some common parts dynamics that can show up via unconscious processes in supervision.

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Parallel process was first written about in 1955 by Harold F. Searles, a pioneer of psychiatric medicine, using the term ‘Reflective Process’. Since then, our profession’s understanding of parallel process has broadened. Where once it was considered a one-directional process (up from client to supervisor) it is now perceived as multi-directional and working at multiple levels.

Making use of parallel process has extended beyond the confines of psychodynamic or psychoanalytic supervision and is alive and well in the world of IFS supervision. Seeing Steve Page’s excellent exposition of parallel process through an IFS lens, I would offer the following definition:

Outside of their awareness, the IFS professional has a part (or parts) reacting to (through aligning, polarising, or identification) a part (or parts) in their client’s system that is energetically present but out of the client’s awareness. Then, in supervision, part(s) activation occurs in the supervisor’s system in parallel to what is occurring energetically between the IFS therapist/practitioner and their client.

IFS supervisors are well placed to notice and make use of parallel process dynamics. Detecting parts is the most essential intervention an IFS professional makes after accessing and extending the C qualities of Self-energy. If we have a sense of our own and the supervisee’s systems, we can notice when parts may be unusually active (and unusual parts active).

A common cluster of protectors in supervision

During my 20+ years of experience as a psychotherapist, I have noticed a common cluster of parts can become activated in therapy and then paralleled in supervision. Any one of us who has experienced ACEs (adverse childhood experiences) and been a child victim is likely, looking through an IFS lens, to have what I think of as one or more Drama Triangle (DT) protectors who can be categorised as: Victim, Rescuer, and Persecutor.

DT protectors seem to hide in plain sight, and their ‘realities’ can be very seductive; their activity signifies early and significant wounding (exiles) they aim to avoid for reasons of perceived safety – or lack thereof. I consider it part of my job as an IFS supervisor to parts detect in multiple systems including: myself, the professional in supervision, and the client.

I might notice (either sequentially or simultaneously almost) all the following parts activation (and more):

  • Feeling ‘badgered and beleaguered’ by the supervisee (Victim polarising with Perpetrator).
  • Siding with the client against the supervisee – which we might experience inside as something like, ‘I’d “Yes, but” you too, if you tried rescuing me like that!’) (Perpetrator polarising with Rescuer trying to ‘fix’ Victim).
  • The supervisee falling into helpless victim in need of a supervision rescue (Victim to Rescuer).

Parallel process awareness feeds back into the therapeutic relationship

Embracing the IFS stance of curiosity, and knowing that parallel process occurs naturally, and is not ‘a mistake’ if it happens, I would then share my awareness of the above and check out the relevance for the supervisee and the therapeutic relationship.

Potentially, the supervisee now has more information than previously about:

  • The client’s system, including likely problematic interactions with others in their lives, the depth of client wounding and the fear in the system of meeting this.
  • Their own system, including trailheads to follow to heal their own relevant exiles and release DT protectors from difficult roles.

In noticing this cluster of parts active in the supervisory dyad, the therapist/practitioner can return to the therapy dyad and welcome these important and extreme protectors. The healing intentions being to:

  • Have unblending occur so that Self can be present to and for these burdened managers and firefighters.
  • Seek permission for Self’s access to the exiles these protectors keep out of awareness, to offer relationship and healing.
Emma Redfern
Emma E. Redfern has been practising as a psychotherapist for 20 years and as a supervisor for over a dozen. A certified IFS therapist and approved IFS clinical consultant, she specialises in supporting those who are transitioning to becoming IFS therapists and practitioners and those who are integrating IFS into their supervision practice. Emma edited and wrote a chapter for Internal Family Systems Therapy: Supervision and Consultation and authored Transitioning to Internal Family Systems Therapy: A Companion for Therapists and Practitioners, both published by Routledge. Her latest book, co-edited with Helen Foot, Freeing Self: IFS Beyond the Therapy Room, was published in October 2023 by B. C Allen Publishing Group. She offers IFS workshops and co-hosts the podcast Purely IFS with a colleague in Ireland, Gayle Williamson. For details of these and her published articles, see Emma lives with her husband in Southwest England and works online.    

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