Internal Family Systems model: Example of an session

Here is a transcription of a fragment of one of the sessions that I conducted according to guidelines of the Internal Family Systems model. Go through each question carefully and look at the answers that come after. My comments on parts of the session are in italics - I added to indicate the basics of IFS therapy.

Michael: Do you know what you would like to work on today? What would you like to explore?
Marysia: I would like to contact with the part that hates queuing and every time there is a line in a store or a traffic jam, it goes into panic, uncontrolled fury, piercing desire to flee.
Michael: Have you worked on this aspect of yourself in any way so far?

Marysia: I am aware of it and I’m not sure if this can be called work, but at the time when I know that the kind of panic associated with standing in a line is coming just, I try to meditate to stay present and face what is happening with me at the very moment. So this is what my work has looked like so far. Being aware of the fact that I go into panic in such situations I just give up taking action or leaving the house to avoid bumping into a traffic jam because I know it can just end up getting nervous. What is more, this part sometimes makes me act against the law, for example traffic regulations, because I don't like to stand in jams so much that I ‘d rather break a law. That is, of course, slated by my another part, the one that is concerned with my safety or the safety of other people.

Michael: As far as I understand, you would like to take a closer look at this part?
Marysia: Yes, I would like to take a look at this part.
Michael: Are you ready to meet her now?
Marysia: Yes.

Michael: Okay, close your eyes, sit down comfortably, calm down and take a deep breath. Give yourself a moment to feel your body ... its weight ... its temperature. Turn all your attention inside yourself. Give yourself as much time as you need to find that sensation that comes up when you are in a traffic jam or when you stand in a line. Try to remember that sensation and make contact with it. Let me know when you feel you are in touch with the feeling.
Marysia: Yes, I feel it in my body, in two places.
Michael: Where exactly?
Marysia: A kind of burning in my stomach and something else on my arms, here.
Michael: What is the feeling like? Could you say a little more about that?

In therapy lead in line with Internal Family Systems model, we place great emphasis on bodily sensations. It is worth spending some time at this stage, because it helps to get in touch with the part.

Marysia: For sure, when it comes to the stomach, I recognize the feeling, like if there was a burning ball inside my belly. That’s exactly how I see that part. And when it comes to the arms, it's some kind of armor, some kind of burden.
Michael: Do you experience these two feelings as parts of one feeling or do you feel them as two different things, two different feelings?
Marysia: At the moment I think these are two different feelings.
Michael: So what does your intuition tell you, which part would you like to look at first?
Marysia: A burning ball.

The IFS practitioner does not decide for the client which way the process will go. In Internal Family Systems model we accept that the client knows best what he or she needs at the moment.

Michael: Can you visualize that burning ball? What does it look like?
Marysia: It's brown. It is surrounded by such a blue and yellow and red flame and the flame goes up.
Michael: When you look at this part of yourself, is there a word that you associate with what you see?
Marysia: Impatience.
Michael: Do you feel how old this part of you can be?
Marysia: I heard the answer:15.
Michael: And now when you look at her, what is your attitude towards her? How do you feel about this part?
Marysia: Well, I am a bit afraid of her.
Michael: Turn your attention to this feeling of fear and acknowledge it. Ask this fear, can it step aside now? Can it give you a little more space so that you can get to know this impatience better?

In Internal Family Systems model this stage is called unblending. Thanks to the questions asked, the protective parts that are concerned about what we do, move aside and give us more space to meet the target part. However, this does not always happen right away.

Marysia: No.
Michael: Ask why.
Marysia: Because this fear is afraid that ... that I will say something that is not good enough, so that ... I will not feel good about sharing it with other people. With those who watch this recording.
Michael: Tell this part that you fully understand her and if she decides that this is not a good idea to continue then we will simply stop this session. Ask if she would be willing to try. If it turns out that something actually comes up during the session that you do not want to share, then she will be fully entitled to disallow the publication of this recording.
Marysia: OK, provided that if I say no, there will be no discussion, just no and that’s it.
Michael: Ask this part whether, under such conditions, would be willing to step aside now and give you more space?
Marysia: Yes.
Michael: Has she stepped aside? (Marysia nods) So now, returning to the burning ball, can you see it? (Marysia nods) When you see it, now what is your attitude towards it at the moment? How do you feel about it?
Marysia: I am open and curious.

Internal Family Systems model defines this state as Self-energy - it is a state in which we are ready to make contact with the part.

Michael: Does this burning ball see you? Is it aware of your presence there?
Marysia: No.
Michael: Could you get its attention in some subtle way?
Marysia: Yes, I called it.
Michael: Does it see you now?
Marysia: Yes, it came closer to me and looks bigger now.
Michael: How do you feel about it now when it is closer and bigger? How does it feel to be closer to it?
Marysia: I am curious and open.
Michael: Ask the ball what it would like to tell you? Is there anything it wants you to know about?

In Internal Family Systems therapy, we encourage our parts to say what they have to say.

Marysia: It says that it is important for me to make the most of my time effectively, that I don't like to waste time.
Michael: So it wants you to make the most of your time ... How do you feel about it when it says such a thing?
Marysia: So-so.
Michael: What do you mean?
Marysia: I feel sorry.
Michael: Why?
Marysia: I feel sorry that I got caught up in this rush, that I always have to do as much as possible in a day and only then I feel good.
Michael: Right. Ask the sorry part to step aside and give you more space so that you can get to know this impatient part better.

During therapy sessions in Internal Family Systems model, various parts become active at various stages of the process, and therefore the task of the IFS therapist is to notice these parts and ensure that the client is in Self energy.

Marysia: I am open and curious.
Michael: Ask this burning ball why it is so important for it to make the most of your time.
Marysia: So that I feel that I'm good enough and worthy.
Michael: How do you feel when you hear that?
Marysia: It was hard for a while.
Michael: How do you feel about this part now?
Marysia: I am curious and open.
Michael: Tell the part that you are curious and open ... and thank it for taking care of you in this way, acknowledge that it wants to help you use your time to the maximum. If you thank it, pay attention to how it reacts, let me know how it reacted.
Marysia: The ball was happy and made such a joyful jump. But I have a feeling that it wants to tell me something else.
Michael: Let it speak.
Marysia: That rush and haste in life is also a kind of escape, escape from thinking about tough things, about what is important to me. This is "keeping me busy".
Michael: Being busy all the time, right? OK, find out what else this part is afraid would happen if it stopped doing it, if it stopped keeping you busy all the time.

In IFS therapy, this question allows us to discover if there is any wounded part hidden under the protective part. In IFS, we call this part an exile.

Marysia: I would have to think really hard on what is important to me in life and make difficult decisions that I am afraid of making.
Michael: What could happen if you started making difficult decisions that you are afraid of?
Marysia: I might make bad decisions.
Michael: What could happen then?
Marysia: I could lose my life. I mean, I could lose the opportunity I got in life.
Michael: How do you feel about this part when you hear that?
Marysia: I feel gratitude and love, and ... despite the fact that it is hard to listen to that ... I am touched by what it says very deeply, but I am open and I feel that I can hear it out entirely.
Michael: OK, tell that part that you feel gratitude, that you appreciate what it’s done for you.

 

At a later stage, we began to touch on even deeper emotions and Marysia decided not to publish the rest of the recording, out of respect to the will of one of her parts, which was spoken out at the beginning of this session. Note that only twenty minutes have passed, and we already have information about this wounded part of personality, and we know what direction to take in the process. (I am referring to the part that carries the pain of missing the opportunity. It is very likely related to some event in the past.) Internal Family Systems model gives us clear guidelines on what to do in every situation, so at that moment I knew which way I will need to go later on. (Leaving a lot of space for the therapist's intuition and inventiveness.)

The information we obtained from the part which Marysia spoke with is really firsthand. Directly from the part of the psyche that is responsible for the negative mechanism.
In traditional therapy, this rational part of our personality is often active throughout the session and it answers all questions, trying to understand everything that happens. That is why, we rarely get as deep in such a short time as we do using the Internal Family Systems model.

Later in the session we met a part that carried fear and we were able to set it free from this burden. We also got back to conversation with the ball, which after releasing the exile was ready to change its approach. After the session ended, Marysia felt relief and said that could feel that her way of thinking changed. Of course, her day-to-day life will show what the long-term effects of this work will be.

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