What a therapy session actually looks like

How many times has this happened to you? A part of you wants to enjoy another scoop of ice cream, but another part is worried about your health. Or a part of you can’t stop checking your work email before bed, but another part is exhausted. Or a part of you is angry at your kids for not putting away their toys, but another part wants a healthier relationship with them.

Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy, explained

Internal Family Systems therapy, or “IFS”—the type of therapy I use—embraces the idea that we have different “parts” of ourselves rather than one permanent, unchanging personality. These parts are like inner voices. They hold our different—and often contradictory—feelings, beliefs, memories, and thoughts. They make us the complicated, vibrant, and ever-changing human beings we are.

But these parts can get in the way of living the life we want when they become too extreme in their feelings and beliefs. The part of you that wants a drink might make you consume more alcohol than you really want to. The part of you that can’t stop checking your work email might be burning you out. The part of you that’s angry at your kids might hold you back from being the parent you really want to be.

When we’re unaware of our parts and their extreme views, our emotions and relationships can get out of balance, causing stress, anxiety, depression, and other issues.

Internal Family Systems therapy is a powerful, evidence-based tool for learning about our parts and the roles they play in our life. As we get to know them and how they show up as thoughts and bodily sensations, our parts can let go of their extreme feelings and beliefs.

Here’s an example of what a session might look like with a therapist using Internal Family Systems:

An example Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy session

Let’s say you come to therapy wanting help with stress about work. You’ve been having trouble sleeping, controlling your temper, and being present with your partner. You’ve noticed an urge to look at your work email in the morning and before bed. Sometimes you wake up in the middle of the night worrying about what your boss might think. You want to learn how to control your thoughts, so you can stop feeling stressed and tired all of the time.

Your therapist might begin by asking you to imagine yourself feeling the urge to check your work email. They ask you to notice what it’s like to experience the urge. They suggest that it might appear as a bodily sensation, image, or thought.

Connecting your parts with bodily sensations

You close your eyes, slow down your breath, and focus inward. You notice tension in your neck and shoulders. You’ve felt this tension before but figured it had to do with sitting in an office chair all day. You’ve never connected it with the urge to check your work email. But now you sense that it’s related. You remember feeling it the night before when you were in bed looking at your phone.

our therapist asks you to slow down and focus your attention on the tension. Then they ask you if any images come to mind when you put your attention on this part of you. Nothing comes at first. Your therapist reminds you to slow down and see where your mind takes you. An image of yourself as a third grader starts to appear in your imagination. You remember one time when your teacher criticized you in front of the class for not doing your homework. You remember feeling worried in that moment, like you did something wrong and you need to do something to fix it. The tension in your neck and shoulders gets a little stronger.

Noticing how you feel toward your parts

Your therapist then asks you how you feel toward the third grader. You notice that you want the third grader part to stop worrying. You think the whole situation wasn’t that big of a deal, and that the part should just get over it.

Your therapist suggests that this is another part of you. This part is a little judgmental of the worrying part of you. They ask you to see if this part will step back a little bit and keep its opinions to itself so you can really get to know the worrying part. That feels okay to you, so you focus on the tension again.

You start to feel bad for the little third grader part, because it must’ve felt so nervous and embarrassed in that moment. Your therapist helps you see that what you’re feeling is compassion and asks you to make sure the third grader part knows you feel bad for it. The tension in your neck and shoulders calms down a little.

Learning what your parts are afraid of

 Your therapist suggests that you ask the third grader part what it’s afraid would happen if it stopped worrying. You ask and listen inside. “I would be sent away from the classroom,” the part says. “I wouldn’t belong. I would feel completely abandoned.” You feel even more compassion. You understand that the part is working so hard to get you to check your work email because it’s afraid that if it doesn’t, you’ll feel criticized, embarrassed, and, even, abandoned—which would be emotionally painful.

Your therapist asks you to let the part know that what it’s saying is making sense. You do that and then let it know that you’ll come back to it again in your next therapy session. The session ends, and you feel calmer and lighter.

During dinner later that night, you notice the tension in your shoulders and an urge to grab your phone. But you remember the third grader and realize that this part of you is nervous about missing an email from your boss, because it’s so afraid of being criticized and embarrassed. You’re filled with compassion again. Your nervous system calms down and the tension fades. You remember that your boss told you when you first started that she doesn’t expect you to answer emails after work. You feel less worried and conflicted. You put the phone down and start an undistracted conversation with your partner.

The goal of Internal Family Systems therapy

This is just one example of how a session with a therapist using Internal Family Systems therapy might go. There are a number of different paths such a session could take, depending on your inner world of parts and their beliefs and feelings. But the goal of Internal Family Systems therapy is always the same: to help us understand and heal our protective and wounded parts, which can improve relationships with others and increase feelings of calm, confidence, compassion, connectedness, and other enriching qualities of the human experience. And research backs this up. Internal Family Systems therapy has been shown to be effective at reducing symptoms of anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), physical pain, and much more.

With Internal Family Systems therapy, the next time you feel conflicted about enjoying another scoop of ice cream or getting angry at your kids won’t be as stressful. You’ll have the tools to notice and relate to your different parts in new ways. You’ll have the clarity to decide how to move forward in a way that best serves you and your goals.

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