Introducing the IFS Model to Clients

By Mary DuParri, MA, LPC, “Finding Your Way” Topic Expert Contributor

A question frequently arises in trainings about how to introduce IFS to the client. In training triads, we just say: “Is there a part you would like to work with?” and almost instantly we are helping the client work with an identified part. No wonder it is confusing when we return to our offices and realize we have no words to help shift from “Hello, my name is Mary. Did you have any trouble finding the office?” to “Would you like to go inside and focus on a part?”

For the client who is truly curious about the IFS framework, we can give a brief overview. Here is a sample of what you might say to a client who wants help with her fears of intimacy:

Let me explain how this model of therapy works. It is based on the idea that we all have a core Self that embodies our essence and all of our finest qualities, like compassion, creativity, and wisdom. We are born with these qualities, this Self, this Spirit. And as we begin dealing with and relating to the world, we develop inner protectors—parts that want to keep us safe from harm or pain. Some parts do this in an outwardly positive way. For example, I have a part, developed in childhood, that feared appearing stupid. This part actually helped me to be a diligent student and a hard worker. However, the fears of this part sometimes kept me quite anxious and unable to trust my own ability. Other parts protect us in ways that have a more negative effect. For example, a part might learn to use alcohol to keep us from feeling fear or pain. This part has found an effective tool to manage our inner hurt despite the damage it causes to health, judgment, or relationships. In the IFS Model, we help parts heal not by pushing them away, but by getting to know them better and understanding the underlying hurts. When we heal those wounds, parts then do not need to lead or be so extreme because they begin to trust that we are now safe.

You mentioned that you have a part that always seems to sabotage your relationships. Would you like to get to know that part better to see if we can help it? Okay, how does that scared part show up? Do you notice it physically, in or around your body? (And now we’re in.)

Many clients, however, do not want or need this much explanation, so I usually do not lead with it. After I have done an intake and have a sense of the presenting issues, I usually say: “I would like to give you a taste of how I would begin to help you with this issue so you can see whether I am the therapist you would like to work with. Does that sound okay?” There is almost always a yes answer to that. Then I use the same language as above. “You mentioned you have a part that gets scared and sabotages your relationships…”

Sometimes our explanations of the Model happen in the course of the session because when we begin the IFS language, the client asks more questions.

Client: Parts? You think I have parts?

Therapist: Yes, I think we all have parts. We say it all the time. Part of me wants to do this. Part of me wants to do that. In this model, we do not just listen to those inner messages—we get into dialogue with them and begin to truly understand them.

Or, we introduce the idea that all parts have a positive intention:

Therapist: Can you ask this part how it is trying to help you?

Client: Help me? Are you kidding? You think this part is trying to help me?

Therapist: Yes, all our parts are trying to help us, even if we are not yet able to see how.

We even continue to teach the Model with a longer-term client. Here’s one who knows and works rather well with her parts. But this small exchange helps her understand her own system better.

Client: I hate this part that makes me eat all the time. And, I know, I know, I’m not supposed to hate my parts.

Therapist: It makes sense that a part of you hates the part that makes you eat. And it’s not that you are not supposed to hate your parts. The fact is that it is not you that hates the part; it is another part. Let’s see if it needs to say more or if it would be willing to step aside so that you can be with the part that eats.

These dialogues may offer ideas to use as you are creating the words that fit your style and your client’s comfort. I also send clients to the About IFS link on the Center for Self Leadership website or to the IFS Store to purchase Dick Schwartz’s book Introduction to the Internal Family Systems Model. Many of my clients easily find themselves in these pages and gain a greater understanding of the IFS path to healing.

2 Responses to “Introducing the IFS Model to Clients”

  1. Kate says:

    What if you have DID? It seems confusing to me because it would seem that my parts (in DID) have parts themselves (IFS parts). For example, I have 2 parts who are bulimic but are trying to stop, so then would they both have exiles and managers? Do I need to work with each alter and their parts? And how do we pick a self since there have been a few of us doing the outside life? Thanks

    • Mary DuParri says:

      For someone with Dissociative Identity Disorder, the internal system can seem especially confusing. IFS Level 2 training devotes an entire three-day module to the topic of working with trauma survivors. So I want to lead with the caveat that though this response will be kept entirely too short for the scope of what is being asked, it is not meant to imply clear-cut or simple answers to your questions. Ongoing work with an IFS therapist who has a history of working with DID clients will help guide the process of healing.

      It is accurate that parts can have parts. It is also true as you describe that there can be more than one part that uses the same behavior (bulimia) to manage the feelings of exiles. Is there a different exile that each bulimic part protects? Possibly. Could it be the same exile? Possibly. The gift of IFS is that each part can tell its story, so we don’t have to figure out the map. As the relationships with parts build, they will tell us why they do what they do, what part they are protecting and what their burdens are. As the parts are understood they will begin to trust Self more, the exiles can be unburdened, and the more extreme roles of the parts can diminish.

      Will you need to work with each alter? Probably so. In this model, all parts are welcome, and each part needs to know you understand it and the role it plays in keeping you safe. Most often this occurs through working directly with the part. The process can require time and patience, especially for someone who presents with DID, because the core Self can seem beyond reach, and the parts or alters they blend with can feel like the true self. “I am scared,” as opposed to, “There is a part of me that is scared.” In the therapy, then, the therapist talks directly to the scared part (as opposed to having the client talk to the part) in a process we call “direct access.” When the therapist relates to the part with compassion and curiosity, the person eventually begins to know that this is simply one part of them, and that it is a part that holds good intentions for them. In Internal Family Systems Therapy (1995), Dick Schwartz states: “As the parts begin to trust me, I suggest that they can also trust the Self and I increasingly shift responsibility to the Self, particularly for tasks between sessions” (p. 124). It may take significant time for a person who has lived through trauma to have more access to their compassionate and curious core Self in a meaningful and consistent way.

      Your question about how to pick a Self makes sense because in this system of multiplicity that we all have, it can seem confusing to figure out “Who is the real me?” Fortunately, we do not have to pick a Self because Self has always been present, and it emerges naturally as the burdens of the exiled parts are healed. As the trust between your parts and your core develops, you will begin to notice the C’s of Self-leadership: compassion, curiosity, courage, calm, confidence, clarity, creativity, and connection. The goal of therapy is not to be parts-free. In Self-leadership, we welcome all the parts to help us function, to lend their wisdom and energy, and to keep us safe.

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