Matthew Harwood

Jungian Analysis, Psychotherapy, Internal Family Systems

Internal Family Systems (IFS)

Internal Family Systems (IFS) is a radical new way of doing psychotherapy which has been pioneered in the USA and is becoming more and more popular within the therapy world internationally. It is  a cutting-edge approach which specialises in working in the hinterland between psyche & soma (mind & body).  Prof Bessel van der Kolk, the world’s leading authority in working with trauma, has described it as: ‘the treatment method all clinicians should know.’ Gabor Mate MD has described it as: ‘One of the most innovative, intuitive, comprehensive, and transformational therapies to have emerged in the present century.’

IFS has an established legacy of effectiveness in treating depression, anxiety, and pretty much most of the  psychological & emotional issues which comes into the consulting room. It is a treatment par excellence for working with trauma.  It is recognised as being an ‘evidence-based therapy’ in the USA, and its approach is both gentle and respectful.  It has revolutionised my practice as a Jungian Analyst, and because the results are so beneficial, I am using it more and more in my work

The Underlying Assumption

Contrary to what many of us may think, IFS starts by recognising that no person is a single, integrated, unified human being.  The truth is that we all have many different ‘parts’, and they don’t all see eye-to-eye. Don’t worry, this doesn’t mean we suffer from the illness known as Multiple Personality Disorder!  Multiplicity of parts is in fact normal, healthy human experience. It gives us our richness. But it is also our curse. So many of our ‘parts’ are in internal conflict, and try to pull us in different directions. And that’s why we end up with problems and stucknesses which prevent us from living life to the full, and achieving our full potential.

This isn’t so strange as it sounds.  The truth is that we all know about ‘parts’ when we find ourselves in everyday speech saying things like:-

    • ‘One part of me wants to give up eating junk food.  But another part of me always sabotages my attempts to do so.’
    • ‘One part of me wants to do more exercise.  But another part of me always finds something else more important to do.’
    • ‘One part of me is strong and confident.  But another part of me attacks me internally and tells me I’m useless.’ 

    The last of these examples is what I call an ‘Inner Critic’ part. It specialises in trying to diminish us and put us down.


Finding & Meeting your ‘Parts’

The primary focus in IFS is on enabling the client to find and meet the ‘parts’ (or ‘sub-personalities’) which underlie their issues and bedevil their attempts to solve them by more conventional methods. The astonishing thing is that these ‘parts’ are like separate intelligences. They have their own personalities, their own convictions, and their own ways of looking at the world. Their ideas as to what’s good for us are often quite different from our own. Guided by the therapist, nearly everyone finds that they can access these parts with ease. It’s possible to do it on your own, once you are trained, but not so easy.  Some people experience the ‘parts’ as subtle felt-senses in or around the body, others get them as images.  And once the connection has been made the next step is for the client to begin to enter into relationship with them.  

Inner Critic parts. by the way, tend to manifest as internal voices. I’m not talking about hallucinations, more about an inner sensing.  They tend to say things like:  ‘You’re not good enough!’, ‘You always get things wrong!’, ‘You’re not lovable!’ etc.  We all have at least one of these internal voices, to a greater or lesser extent, and for some people, they ruin our lives.

All ‘Parts’ are Welcome!

One of IFS’s most important insights is that all of our ‘parts’, even those that are actually sabotaging or hindering our best intentions, genuinely believe that they are working for our beneficial good. The problem is that the individual parts don’t have the full picture and therefore misunderstand what is truly for our benefit and what isn’t. However knowing that they want to work for our good is what gives us the hope and opportunity to bring about change. And one of IFS’s most important principles is: ‘All parts are welcome!’ By this we recognise that you don’t get ‘parts’ to change by fighting them, only by getting to know them and understanding where they are coming from.

How it Works

In an IFS session, once the ‘parts’ which are causing us trouble have been identified and accessed, the aim is set up a dialogue with them in order to find out why it is that they do what do. Often it turns out that these ‘parts’ are usually guarding (or protecting) a wounded ‘inner-child’ part known as an ‘exile.’ ‘Exiles’ are invariably ‘parts’ that have been wounded at some time in the past, often in early childhood.  As the name implies, they are usually hidden deep within the psyche at the deepest level.  Once the  ‘exile’ lying underneath the problem has been detected and brought into consciousness the idea is to bring you into a new relationship with it.  If all goes well, we get to the point whereby the burdens of pain which the ‘exile’ is carrying can be released, and healing and transformation can occur.  And once the hidden ‘exile’ is healed then the final step is to go back to the ‘part’ carrying the original problem and seeing how that can now be resolved.

The Healing Power of ‘Self’

One important IFS insight which is of particular interest to Jungians is that in order for this work to be effective the client has to be helped to get into connection with ‘Self’. Once there is sufficient ‘Self-energy’ on the scene the natural self-healing tendency of the psyche takes over and spontanously knows what to do. IFS has a particular set of skills for helping clients to quickly get into ‘Self’ – even if they’ve never had such an experience before and maybe even no idea what the word means.

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In IFS we don’t try to destroy the part that is causing all the trouble, or even push it away.  Instead we learn how to obtain its trust and then befriend it, with gentleness and respect.  All parts believe they are helping us, even when they aren’t!