How does the IFS process work:
If I take a moment to “go inside”—as I would be invited to do at the beginning of an IFS session—what would I find?
I would find the same stream of thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, anxieties, desires, beliefs, and preoccupations that I would encounter in any type of mindfulness practice.
Within the IFS model, however, I approach the thought or feeling as a communication to me from some part of myself that is asking for my attention, not just as a momentary event that arises and passes away.
In other words, the thought or feeling may be coming from a part of me that has its own history, its own outlook and approach to things, its own idiosyncratic beliefs, its own characteristic moods and feelings, its own relationships with other parts, and most importantly, its own distinct role or function in my life. This is the assumption I am invited to explore.
Assagioli’s (1975) notion of “subpersonality” as a full-range inner per- sonality and Jung’s (1969) notion of “complexes” both capture something of this idea. A “part” in this view is not just a temporary emotional state or habitual thought pattern; it is a discrete and autonomous mental system that has an idiosyncratic range of emotion, style of expression, set of abilities, desires, and view of the world (Schwartz, 1995). This is the normal multiplicity of mind. We know this instinctively when we say, “A part of me wanted to do it, but another part of me didn’t.”
Now suppose I approach a part of myself that is self-critical, is stubbornly refusing to move forward, or is hurting, with an invitation to tell me or show me what it wants to communicate. The first thing I’ll discover is that this part of me, more than anything else, simply wants to be seen and heard. But the next thing I’ll discover is that, despite the urgent need to be seen and heard, like anyone else this part won’t reveal itself or engage with me if it feels me approaching it with preconceptions or judgments— if it feels that I want to fix it, change it, repress it, or get rid of it. On the other hand, if my approach is sincere, the part will often respond to my inquiry and show or tell me what it wants me to understand. This is not simply a “technique” or “exercise”—it is a real-life, real-time encounter in which I engage with parts of myself from the perspective of no-self.
The next thing I’ll discover is that this part of me needs acknowledgment, and more importantly, appreciation for its efforts. These steps are not simply passive, detached observations. I need to fully appreciate the problematic and unwanted parts of myself for them to come forth, as Rumi (1996) encourages us to do with “the dark thought, the shame, the malice” (p. 109) in his poem, “The Guest House.” Can I embrace those parts of myself that are in despair, mean, or selfish? That’s the challenge and possibility of no-self, where there is nothing to defend or promote.
What I will also discover is that each part has been playing a specific role in my life and has a specific function. Contrary to my everyday experience, no matter how bad the behavior of a part of me looks or feels, if I inquire sincerely, I will find it has always had my best interests at heart. Each part has been trying to protect me from further hurt or disappointment, or to help me manage some situation in my internal or external life. In this approach, “benign intent” is a crucial assumption that allows for sustained inquiry into the roles and functions of parts. Understanding the inherent good will of every part makes it possible to work with those elements of myself that other parts might find objectionable or intimidating.
Even with successful treatment, parts do not disappear. They remain part of me. The therapeutic goal of IFS, then, is not to fuse parts into a single personality, or to change, fix, or get rid of them, any more than it would be the intention of a conductor to throw individual instruments out of the orchestra when they aren’t playing well. Nor is the goal to “transcend’ unwanted or “unwholesome” parts—a mistaken notion in some spiritual traditions. No instruments, no orchestra. Instead, the goal is integration to help them learn to work together in finding a preferred role that contributes to the welfare of the system as a whole. Though parts may not disappear, they can find new roles for the skill sets they already have, providing I learn to unblend from them, approach them from a state of no-self, and provide leadership that is less conflicted and relatively free of judgment and agenda.
1Following some of the great spiritual traditions, IFS uses the term Self with a capital S for the unblended state. Schwartz (2001) makes this connection explicitly, though he says he discovered it after developing the core of his system. The overlap between psychological and spiritual terminology can be confusing. The term Self as used in IFS denotes the same reality as anatta or no-self in Buddhist thought: a state that is not motivated by, or organized around, a sense of a separate, inherently existing agentic self.
Self and No-Self in Psychotherapy
Jack Engler Paul R. Fulton