The Evolution of Somatic IFS

By Susan McConnell, MA, CHT, “The Internal Family Embodied” Topic Expert Contributor

In Chicago in the early ’80s, one rarely heard the words body and mind in the same sentence. Now those words are a common tagline for selling products from cosmetics to vacation homes. When paradigm shifts show up in advertising, we can be confident that the 500-year tradition of hierarchical fragmentation and specialization that has affected all our Western social institutions is being uprooted. Having had one foot in each of these worlds, I am grateful that the field of psychotherapy is participating in the emergence of this shift.

But institutions shift with glacial speed, and despite recent findings in the field of neuroscience, the brain and the head are still exclusively thought of as the territory of psychotherapy. Patients with mental illness are said to need their “heads shrinked.” Even the term mental illness is reductionist. I will use the term bodymind to point toward the fundamental integrity of these aspects of human experience, and somatic to refer to our subjective experience of our bodies.

As a trainer for the Center for Self Leadership, I have been teaching the Internal Family Systems Model of psychotherapy in the United States and in Europe. Developed by Dick Schwartz, IFS is a mind/body psychotherapy that normalizes multiplicity of the mind and views each person as having a Self that the therapist helps to uncover so it can fully lead the system of parts.

When I initially began to teach the IFS Model with Dick in 1997, it was important to me as a body-centered therapist to know I could include the body fully at every step of the process. Dick assured me that he welcomed my contribution. With his encouragement, I grew an arm off the solid trunk of IFS—Somatic IFS. Somatic IFS is a synthesis of 40 years of study, teaching, and clinical practice defined by attempts to integrate what Descartes and other philosophers tried to keep in separate realms.

In a typical IFS therapy session, the body is included. The client may hear or see the part, or experience the emotions of a part, and is asked where the part resides in the body. Also, during the unburdening process, the client is directed to find where the burden is held in or around the body. Somatic IFS includes the body more comprehensively, in every step of the process.

My experience is that transcending the dualism of mind and body with my IFS clients has enhanced and deepened the effectiveness of this model. Years of exploring IFS and the body with my clients and students has revealed the body to be an invaluable resource for grounding in Self energy, for accessing and witnessing parts, and for observing and anchoring numerous somatic shifts with each transformation. My shifting relationship with my own body, mining the wisdom in the depths of my tissues and cells, has been a vital, ongoing part of the development of Somatic IFS. My personal experience with healing my own mind/body splits and embodying my internal family has shown me that a deep exploration of the relationship of mind and body leads us to the spiritual realms.

As Somatic IFS has evolved over the last five years, it has grown beyond simply including the body in the steps of the process. Attending to the inherent intelligence of the body has a powerful affect, and the body has taught us a great deal about ourselves, others, and our relationships to each other and to the Whole that informs the process of psychotherapy. It is clear that when engaging in the process of psychotherapy, we are delving into a somatic state of relatedness as physiological as breathing, birthing, and dying. A psychotherapy that doesn’t fully include the somatic aspects of the person limits the fullest potential for transformation.

The unity of body and mind becomes more than a concept—it is a lived experience. This lived experience is transformative for us as individuals and for the culture as a whole. As products of Western thought, having been shaped by these institutions, we have parts whose core beliefs reflect these views. We have inherited the legacies of passive and oppressive relationships to our bodies. We have parts that view our bodies as commodities, as objects, and as a means to an end. Our bodies have been exiled, numbed, and manipulated. We cannot have full access to our Self energy if it is not embodied.

Somatic IFS presents five tools that lead to Embodied Self Energy. The foundational tool is Somatic Awareness. Resting on that pyramid base is Conscious Breathing. On top of that is Resonance, which I sometimes refer to as Cellular Resonance, Limbic Resonance, or Somatic Resonance. With this tool we move more fully into the relational realm. Mindful Movement rests on Resonance, and Attuned Touch is at the apex. I will go more in depth on each of these tools in future blogposts.


9 Responses to “The Evolution of Somatic IFS”

  1. Peggy Stephens says:

    I had the pleasure of doing my Level 1 with Susan and know of her commitment to the importance of the body in the healing process. The body can’t be separated from the system. It communicates constantly and carries answers we need. It would be like leaving the spark plugs out of a car. (Do they still have those?) It just won’t function right without all the parts operating properly.

    The body is a huge source of information. It can get our attention when all the other parts couldn’t. It’s interesting to think about how our critical parts can shame the body for how it looks, when it is the protectors that are feeding it. Like it’s the bodys fault? Ha ha. Let’s not blame the body. The body does everything it can to accept and metabolize whatever it gets. And it heals itself! If an injury occurs, no matter how slight or serious, it immediately begins moving stuff around to put you back like you were. And many times it can!

    And talk about communication — when my ears are hot, I’m afraid, no two ways about it. And I might not have caught that afraid part without the body heating up those ears and telling on it. So many times my clients’ headaches are anger needing a voice. Once the voice is given, the headache subsides. I’ve seen it many times over the years. Too many for it to be coincidence. I fear that disease (dis-ease) is at the root of many illnesses. Dis-ease emotionally. Creating stress on the body, which the body then creates chemicals and squeezing reactions which affect its weakest link.

    I marvel at the fact that The Body doesn’t run on gasoline or electricity. It runs on whatever you put in its mouth. You are its source of energy. Luckily, we don’t have to plug in every night. Just eat. And that’s oh so pleasurable. The body is incredible and an important part of the system. At least while we are here.

    Thanks, Susan, for being the one who keeps us aware and enlightened about the wonderful part of us called The Body. I am anxious to hear all about the pyramid — the five tools of Somatic IFS that lead to Embodied Self.

  2. Katie Dine Young says:

    Susan, I want to thank you for your commitment to developing Somatic IFS. I am Level 1 trained and combine IFS with Sensorimotor Psychotherapy. I would love to hear more about how you have integrated Ron Kurtz’s ideas and how you think Somatic IFS departs and joins the other somatic theories out there, like Ogden’s Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, Levin’s Somatic Experiencing, psychomotor, psychosynthesis, etc. I really can’t imagine doing good IFS work — especially with trauma — without including the body!!!!! Looking forward to reading more.

  3. Susan McConnell says:

    Thanks for your invitation to differentiate Somatic IFS from these other modalities, which have influenced me as well. I will try to cover some of this in future blogposts.

  4. Chris Kramer says:

    I am working with a client who has auditory hallucinations and is on Geodon, but lowering the dosage. I am slowly working to understand what the client hears and how it may relate to a part, but first using CBT to augment stability before approaching the potential part that may be “invading” the client’s space.

    Has anyone worked directly with someone who has had auditory hallucinations using the IFS model? If so, how and what was the outcome?

    • Monique Vazire says:

      Hi Chris, I don’t have a direct answer to your invitation, but I recently read a book “The Center Cannot Hold” by Elyn Saks, who has been diagnosed as schizophrenic. She beautifully explains and describes what it’s like to have delusions of thoughts and hearing voices. Even though she never had the chance to experience IFS, it’s very clear from her description that various parts of her function at various levels of competency, and she offers a remarkable clarity into her own system.

  5. J. Sutherland says:

    I am quite interested in learning more about IFS but honestly, I find the whole training process quite costly, especially as I have to factor signiifcant travel costs into my budget. It is unfortunate that such training is so cost prohibitive. The process feels more like a money-making endeavour than an effort to spread exciting ideas and make the world a bit better place through equipping therapists. Too bad there can’t be a better middle ground. It makes me disappointed in my profession.
    J. Sutherland, MFT.

    • administrator says:

      Dear J. Sutherland,

      I understand that the cost for a Level 1 training is significant, but relative to costs of trainings of other models we’re extremely competitive–inexpensive even–when comparing training hours. Furthermore, we offer up to 50% scholarships based soley on financial need, and we award group rates and discounts as well, so we work hard to make it possible for people to attend Level 1 trainings even if they have limited means.

      We also created the “Retreat Style” Level 1 in order to better serve people like you who have to travel to access a training, as two trips are much easier to afford than six.

      As you can imagine, the depth of training and experience to learn and become proficient in IFS practice is a journey that requires time and commitment, so shortening the Level 1 training isn’t an option for us, and our training cost has remained exactly the same for six years now–in light of how bad the economy has been.

      I genuinely appreciate your willingness and openness to post your note and share your perceptions, and I appreciate your honest feedback. You probably won’t be surprised to hear that I disagree w/your assessment that we’re a “money-making endeavor” and that we should be more invested in making the world a better place. Not only that, but it distresses me to think that there’s something about what we’re doing that leaves you and anyone else w/that impression. As such, if you’d like to share your thoughts further, please let me know and we can discuss. You can reach me at if you’d like.


      Jon Schwartz, M. Ed.
      Executive Director
      The Center for Self Leadership

  6. Tylas Raine says:

    This is a very helpful blog. I just began going to someone that uses IFS and am about halfway through the book. Thanks for making this info public!

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