This article covers the steps of the IFS-Approach (Internal Family Systems) to therapy. I also want to introduce an image to visualize these steps (and then geek out about that image a bit…)
What is IFS and what are these steps?
IFS or Internal Family Systems is both a model of our mind and psyche and an approach to therapy.
Both the model and approach work with the assumption that each person has many Parts (subpersonalities) and that these parts strongly influence (sometimes even determine) how one feels and acts in the world. In addition, IFS asserts that each person has a Self (an essential/spiritual core) that is not a Part and that is inherently compassionate, calm and open.
The IFS-Model gives a map for different parts, relationships between parts and interactions with the Self. The IFS-Approach gives practical tools on how to work with Parts and support the Self to be more present.
The ‘Steps of the IFS-Approach’ are the steps of the therapeutic process IFS uses to work with parts that are creating problems in a person’s life. In essence, these steps are about helping the Self and these parts to re-connect and empowering the person’s Self to help his or her own Parts.
These steps are used both by Therapists to support their Clients and people working with themselves to develop more compassion and empowerment to support themselves and their own Parts.
Introducing the Steps
The rest of this article is an overview of these Steps. For this I first want to introduce a diagram I developed (open for constructive feedback):
A few general points on these steps and this diagram:
- IFS distinguishes between the work with Protective Parts (Protectors) and child parts that are carrying pain from the past (Exiles). There are different steps for both: The 6 F’s in light grey for working with Protectors and the Unburdening Process when working with an Exile.
- The (!) Signs represent particularly important thresholds of the IFS-Steps where the orientation shifts and we need to pay particular attention to the presence of Self or Self-Energy.
- The whole process revolves around the connection between parts (both Protectors and Exiles) with Self — this is represented by the spiral that moves closer towards the Self-Flower and the last step (Integration) symbolising the re-integration of a certain Part into Self-Energy and thus Self-Leadership.
The 6 F’s in more detail
The 6 F’s are the IFS-Steps for working with Protectors (Parts that actively do — sometimes very distorted — things to try and protect a person from harm and keep them functioning in life).
The basic goals of the 6 F’s are
- to connect with a person’s Protectors as Parts (as in, these are activated subpersonalities and not Self),
- understand why they are acting a certain way
- and enable a connection between the Protector and the Self in which the Part is separated from the Self.
For this IFS has developed 6 steps:
FIND: Finding out with which topic and Parts we work AND then localising the part in or around the body.
FOCUS: Focusing the attention inwards on the Part. Learning a bit about it and its qualities.
FLESH OUT: Learning more about the Part in a way that supports the separation between Part and Self.
FEEL TOWARDS: Testing the Presence of Self, unblending from the Part if necessary to establish a strong connection between Self and Parts.
BEFRIEND: Learning more about the Part and establishing a good relationship between Self and Part.
FEARS: Asking about the deepest fears of the part that influence it to act the way it does. Usually, this points towards exiles and polarized parts.
You can find a video that explains these Steps in more detail here: https://youtu.be/agigQ-AmGjA
The Unburdening-Process in more detail:
The Unburdening-Process covers the steps that have emerged within IFS to help Exiles to let go of a Burden (old pain and unprocessed emotions) they are carrying — and often have carried for years or decades.
This process includes the Self being present with and holding the Exile in their pain, helping them have a new experience and supporting them in letting go of the old pain they have been carrying.
PLEASE BE AWARE: Being with Exiles is delicate work.
Exiles are simultaneously fragile and holding very intense emotions and experiences. So trying to “just unburden” an exile is both dangerous and ungracious. Going to these old places without appropriate skills or support by a person who can hold you and the Exile can lead to the system becoming more charged and activated.
So if an Exile keeps coming up in you: please get the help that is appropriate.
I still want to cover the Steps of the Unburdening-Process, so you can get a clear picture of the whole IFS-Process:
CONTACTING EXILE: Establishing a connection between the Self and Exile in which the Self can be present with the experience of the exile.
WITNESSING EXILE: Inviting the Exile to show anything it wants to show so it can be seen, felt and understood — in what happened and how that made it feel.
Additionally: Supporting the Exile in understanding that this happened in the past.
REPARENTING EXILE: Allowing the Exile to have a new experience. Either in the memory of the past OR in the present.
RETRIEVING EXILE: Freeing the Exile from the situation of the past and bringing it into a better situation in imagination or the present.
UNBURDENING EXILE: Holding a ritual in which the Exile can let go of the Burdens it has been holding.
INTEGRATING EXILE AND PROTECTOR: Finding a good place for both Exile and protector in the system and life.
Also: Integrating the qualities of Being that are arising in you.
You can find a video that explains these Steps in more detail here: https://youtu.be/GNouQZpFvQY
I hope this helps you to either get an idea of the IFS-Process or deepen your understanding and practice with these Steps.
If you have any questions or remarks, please feel free to get in touch.
To read more for yourself, I recommend the following books:
- Jay Earley — Self-Therapy: A Step-By-Step Guide to Creating Wholeness and Healing Your Inner Child Using IFS, A New, Cutting-Edge Psychotherapy (Recommended for individuals wanting to understand IFS and use it for their own growth)
- Richard Schwartz, Frank Anderson and Martha Sweezy — Internal Family Systems Skills Training Manual: Trauma-Informed Treatment for Anxiety, Depression, PTSD & Substance Abuse (Recommended for Therapists wanting to use IFS in their practice. The ‘6 F’s’ Framework is taken from that book, which seems to be the latest version of the Model)