Sunday, July 5, 2015

Inside Out-An IFS primer

So many times I am called upon to explain the form of therapy I practice: IFS, which stands for "Internal Family Systems". IFS rests on the assumption that human beings are multi-dimensional, which has led some people to ask me, "Is this like multiple personalities?" Well, yes, and no. It isn't like Sybil (I'm dating myself here!). Dissociative identity disorder is an extreme situation.
 I believe that we are inherently multi-dimensional and multiple. We have to be to carry all the roles we pull off in modern life. Multiplicity is even part of our common vernacular. People will say, "well, part of me wants to stay, and part of me wants to go." Many people recognize an inner child, and you can easily find articles that tell you how to deal with your inner critic, or any voice in your head, really.
IFS brilliantly structures those voices in your head by asserting that there is a Self, the seat of your consciousness, your core, your center- that is always calm, curious, creative, centered, compassionate, clear, courageous, and confident (the 8 C's of IFS). If these qualities are not present, then you are operating from a part, and you can strengthen your Self in such a way that you can uncover and get to know your parts and their positive intent for your life. In IFS for example, the inner critic is a welcome part of the inner family system, as is any part that seems to be negative. The goal is to create a connection with your parts, to nurture a positive relationship, so that one can lead from Self.
We spend most of our lives leading from parts, and often this works well for us, as it is the way we have adapted to our lives. When parts assume extreme roles and beliefs, though, then trouble can happen.
Disney's Inside Out illustrates this perfectly. In the movie we are led through a journey of Riley's parts. I am told that the creator of the film did not know about IFS, but there are plenty of discussions among IFS practitioners about the film and how beautifully it relates to IFS.
Riley's "Joy" assumes an extreme part and manages the other feeling/parts as a Self-like part. As Riley faces a crisis, Joy becomes frantic and desperate to fix things by going to rescue Riley's "islands", the way she organizes her life experiences. Joy positions herself to be the keeper of core memories and works hard to prevent Sadness from touching them and therefore, altering them forever. Gradually, as everything Joy is trying to control crumbles around her, she realizes that Sadness played an important part in Riley's relationships and helped Riley find comfort and connection. Joy relinquishes her extreme role and makes way for Sadness to be expressed. Riley can no longer use Joy to placate her parents, and in allowing her Sadness to be fully expressed, she is able to be comforted by her parents.
In IFS, we do have a Self that is an important part of one's healing journey. In Inside Out, Riley didn't really have a Self. I attributed that to the fact that Riley was 11, and since she is still growing and developing, her Self may have been expressed in different things like the tower that held everything together, or perhaps it is the very infrastructure of her mind...the Islands, the core memories: the way she organized and made sense of those. As adults, we can call forth Self energy to help us navigate our inner and outer worlds. I believe Riley will need more experiences in order for her Self to fully emerge and mature.
In practicing IFS as an adult, I have found my parts will express and present themselves in some creative ways. I have an inner child, sometimes a baby, a part that I call Housewife who wears an apron and explores my identity as wife (now rejected wife) and mother, an inner critic who can be brutal with me, a "numb" part who is like a bright light, a teenage part who is smart as a whip and can argue and rail at the world's injustices, a caretaker who likes to fix things for everyone, and several adult and young adult parts that bring life wisdom or point out roles. I've encountered other parts too in my healing process, and I'm still a work in progress.
IFS was the first mode of therapy I'd encountered that helped give me a clear path: that of being in Self, with all its attending qualities. IFS sees client and therapist as equals, and helps the client gain trust in themselves this way, and has a very specific way of organizing and dealing with parts. It has changed my life and helped me manage my responses and understand the responses of others.
I was very excited to see Inside Out because of my experiences with IFS,and the fact that I've promoted it socially over so many conversations. I'm pretty passionate about it. Besides being very IFS-like, the movie is good in that it playfully and creatively creates an awareness of what goes on inside of us, and in the end, models an acceptance of feelings. I laughed so hard (it seems there were a lot of jokes therapists will love in the movie) and cried just as hard. What an inspiring movie!

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