Normalising IFS

A key skill in IFS is being able to normalise multiplicity and the practice of talking to parts. This is a guest post from psychotherapist Gayle Williamson who offers some tips and guidance. Enjoy!

'This is weird!'; 'Are you saying I'm schizophrenic?'; 'I just feel stupid doing it' - these responses will probably be familiar to many therapists when first introducing clients to working with their parts.

It often takes a lot of courage as the therapist to keep going - I frequently notice a part of me comes up saying 'oh no, she doesn't like this. Maybe I should just leave it'. But I ask that anxious part to relax and immediately my Self's confidence in the model returns. 

So to the parts of the client that's saying 'this is weird', I'll laugh and say 'I know, it is weird isn't it. Many people feel that to start with. I certainly did!' And then I go on to confidently say: 'But then I discovered how much it helps... not only helps, but heals.'

For by far the majority of clients, IFS makes immediate, intuitive sense and they have no problem about 'going inside'. But for others, it's a bit more of a delicate dance.

You might wonder how long you should wait before doing parts work. I have a part that frequently wants to jump right in to show whichever client it may be just how amazing IFS is! But I often have to rein that part in. It differs from client to client, of course, but generally you will likely need at least a couple of sessions to build a rapport with a client and help their protectors to relax enough to do some work with you. However, from the word go, I am using the language of parts at every opportunity: ''So I think I notice a part of you that's feeling very stuck… is that right?'' or "A part of you is feeling really hopeful about this but another part feels guilty", etc.

To explain or not to explain...

Typically when I begin parts work, I'll start by asking the client what their relationship with their Self is like. Many clients will ask ''What do you mean?'' I reply, ''Well, I wonder do you notice if you have a voice inside that's very critical of you, or maybe you have one that's encouraging and supportive?'' 

"Oh I definitely have a critical voice... it's relentless.''

 "And how does it make you feel?"

 ''Terrible, it's like nothing I do is good enough… often I just feel hopeless."

 ''Ah... so I guess I'm hearing that you have a part of you that's very critical and other parts that feel not good enough or even hopeless... How would you feel about us actually trying to talk to these parts?

"How do you mean?"

 "Well it's going to probably sound a bit strange until we actually do it, but I can help you focus on one of those parts and I'll get you to ask it some questions so you can get to know it and eventually help it. All you have to do is ask the question inside yourself and just listen for an answer, which may come in the form of words, images or sensations. What do you think... will we be brave and jump in?! Yes? Great… so go ahead and close your eyes if you feel comfortable..."

Afterwards I might explain a little more. But actually most clients don't need as much psychoeducation as you might think because it just makes sense to them. I do think it's beneficial, however, for clients to have at least a rudimentary understanding of the model - and I'll often recommend articles or a book if appropriate - but it's not a barrier if someone just can't quite get their head around the idea of exiles, managers, firefighters and the Self. A 68-year-old client of mine knew he had traumatised parts and a core Self and, along with a humbling trust in me, that was all he needed in order to unburden several of his exiles and transform his daily life. 

In my experience, the clients who often seem more resistant to parts work are those with very strong intellectual/academic/high-achieving parts - and their parts will probably insist you explain more! I've found they will tend to respond more openly if you bring in a little neuroscience. These clients frequently have parts holding a lot of shame, so their protectors are very sensitive to anything they think might potentially belittle or patronise or infantalise them. So I like to tell them that what they're actually doing when they talk to their parts is a little 'brain surgery'. I'll explain that during traumatic experiences, the part of our brain (the hippocampus) that records all the temporal detail associated with an event and which also regulates the amygdala (the emotional centre) goes offline so that the event is recorded in our implicit or unconscious memory, with all the associated feelings and sensations. And of course, implicit memory is where our parts live,  exerting powerful effects on us - so that when we're triggered, we don't have control and react as if what happened then is still happening now. And so you can tell clients that in IFS, we are moving these parts from our implicit memory system to our conscious memory - taking them out of the places they're stuck in in the past and retrieving them to the present, and in the process putting their core Self back in control.

Say it again …

When I first started using IFS in my practice, I used to struggle with some repetitive elements, for example, the key question 'how do you feel towards...?' - a part of me imagined clients saying in irritation 'but you just asked me that!' To get around my own discomfort, I began saying pre-emptively: 'You're going to hear me ask this question a lot when we're working with any part: How do you feel towards this part right now? It's how I check what the connection is like between you and the part.' And then it's out in the open.. and from time to time I might throw in ''So I'm going to ask you that question again… How do you feel…".

Then there are those times when you've just met one protector and it's agreed to step back, but then another comes up... and another... and another. And it all gets a bit repetitive again with all the 'step backs'; or in the event the protectors don't agree to relax, it's the repetition of the protocol questions. So I have ways of calming any anxious parts of me and normalising this for the client - it might go something like this:

'So he says it's fine to step back and let me talk to the girl. Great, so how do you feel towards her now?"

"Well I guess I'm still a bit wary."

"Ah so there's another part there that's a bit wary of talking to her. Let that part know it's understandable but it doesn't have to hang around... it can just go wait somewhere and let you handle this. Okay great, say thanks to it.. and then see how you feel now towards the girl?"

"I don't know.. I think there may be a part there that doubts I can help her."

"Great that you noticed that part... see if it will relax too and maybe go over and wait with the others while you handle this."

"Yeh it's fine... they're all sitting back on deckchairs!"

"Great! Taking a well-earned break... Now see if you can focus back on the girl again... how do you feel towards her now?"

"I want to know more about her."

If the client and I have to spend time getting to know more than one protector and negotiating for permission, I'll be sure to reassure the client that the work he or she does with their protectors is just as important as the work with more vulnerable parts. That it's not a waste of their time, as many often feel, but is in fact crucial, brain-reorganising work, and this helps calm the client's  impatient parts. 

Directing the work

Many of us have been trained to be non-directive and client-led so it might feel like it goes against the grain initially, but you will actually need to be the one initiating and encouraging parts work a lot of the time. And that's okay, because you're not going to be forcing anybody to do it, it's always going to be their choice. But it's a good idea to maintain some continuity in the work - something that's hard to do when many clients forget the previous week's session and also have parts who want to avoid going back inside. So I'll say something like 'I can hear how stressful work is at the moment, but I guess I'm just really mindful of that little boy we met last week... we promised him we'd return this week and help him.'' ''Oh that's right, I forgot. I actually don't remember much about that session."

Like any good therapist, I do read my notes ahead of meeting each client but typically as I focus on just being present with my client, the detail will temporarily go out of my head. And when I first started using IFS in my practice, I was daunted by having to keep track of the parts of up to 20 people. But one day I just took the plunge and decided I was going to refer to my notes during the session when necessary. So if my client has forgotten, I'll ask 'Would it be useful if I read out some of my notes from last session?' Most clients jump at this, and when they hear my account we are right back in the work and ready to go back inside again. 

More old-school therapists would likely view this as the client not taking sufficient responsibility for their therapy, and the therapist taking too much; but there is a different reality here: clients are deep in a different - unconscious - part of their brain while doing parts work and it takes some time for more of their work to become conscious. In addition, there are protector parts whose job it is to make clients forget. But as the work really gets going, I will encourage clients to keep track themselves of the different parts they meet and write their own notes after sessions.

And lastly …

Practising IFS is fairly technical but try to keep your interaction with clients relaxed, conversational and light (when appropriate!) - so if one of the parts says something funny, go ahead and laugh. Just this week, my client Tim and I were deep in his internal world when suddenly another voice said loudly 'Say that again?' Tim's eyes snapped open and we both looked at each other in wide surprise before Tim, and then me, collapsed in giggles when he realised Siri on his phone had suddenly sprung to life (a good reminder to turn off any potential listening devices!). "I thought for a second it was one of the parts!" he laughed. But after composing ourselves we were right back in, both probably a little refreshed by the laugh.

If I find myself stuck at any point or just confused about what may be happening  - and believe me, you will feel like this regularly, because it's impossible to be prepared to deal with every situation parts will present you with - I've learned not to wrestle with it myself and to trust that the client's Self will always rescue me. So I'd probably say something like: 'Hmmm, I wonder what would be useful to ask now… is there anything you are curious about?'' or ''I'm not quite sure what she means there, are you?" or "Do you have an idea of what needs to happen now?"

A last note - when clients come back into the room from their internal worlds, it's a good idea to be looking away from them for a few seconds to give them a moment to reorient themselves in private. It can be very jarring for clients to open their eyes and be back in immediate eye contact with you.


Gayle Williamson is a private-practice psychotherapist and supervisor based in Dublin, Ireland.

Write a comment