My experience with IFS therapy
In June 2021, I started going to therapy. I consider this one of the best decisions I've ever made.
It brought a lot of peace and acceptance to my life. It made me more honest and confident, and more compassionate. It also helped me to understand myself in ways I couldn't have imagined.
I do IFS therapy, which is different from the usual CBT method. It has worked very well for me, and I think it's a fascinating model.
I wrote this post to share my experience and my thoughts. Hopefully it would be helpful for others struggling with similar problems.
How and why I decided to start therapy
I've always had a bit too much anxiety.
Most of the time, it fit into the social norm.
But on some days it grew out of control. It totally overwhelmed me, I felt hijacked by it. On such days, I couldn't do much but cry. I was taken over by anxiety, fear, guilt, sadness, emptiness.
It happened whenever I felt rejected or abandoned.
Sometimes, there was a tangible reason (eg. relationship problems), Other times this feeling seemed to come out of nowhere.
I just assumed that this is "how I am" - that I am "sensitive" and "emotional".
I kept trying to suppress these overwhelming emotions. But I was never able to. They just kept coming back. Anxiety, fear, guilt, sadness.
It was affecting my life. I made many bad decisions out of fear. I stayed in unhappy relationships to avoid rejection and loneliness. I doubted myself and missed a lot of opportunities. I smoked cigarettes as an illusion of "stress relief".
In 2019, I was finally able to see that this isn't healthy. There had to be a better way to manage my emotions.
So, I started looking into improving my mental health.
I read a lot of books and watched a lot of videos. It helped me understand the problem. But it didn't "fix" it. The problem was still there.
In 2021, I decided it's best to get professional help, and started therapy.
One of the best decisions I've ever made :)
Finding a therapist + why I chose IFS therapy
It was not easy to find a therapist.
I looked at the profiles of various therapists, but none of them felt like a good match for me.
Also, it wasn't cheap. I didn't want to make the investment unless I felt good about it.
In the meantime, while looking for more self-help, I found this page. The following paragraph stuck with me:
If we reframe “preoccupation” as the ongoing abandonment feelings of an inner child, we begin to differentiate from the part feeling the pain. This is important for the present-day adult who feels hijacked by emotions. It is also vitally important for the hurting child (or the old neural network that takes over) to have a compassionate internal witness.
This made a lot of sense. The mention of neural networks appealed to me as a techie and science-oriented person.
On that same webpage, there was a link to the Internal Family Systems page. So I followed it, and read about IFS.
The more I read about IFS, the more it made sense to me.
I bought this IFS self-help book and did some of the exercises. It was a good start and convinced me that getting an IFS therapist would be the best path for me.
I started googling for English-speaking IFS therapists. English is not my native language, but it's the one I feel most comfortable in.
I was looking for online sessions. It's just more convenient to do it from home. Also, I travel a lot, and wanted to be able to "take" my therapist with me.
I sent out a few emails to therapists that fit my criteria.
In the next couple of days, the person I was currently dating broke up with me. I could feel the overwhelming emotions coming again.
Luckily, one of the therapists had availability and was ready to start working with me immediately!
It worked out very well - I am still doing weekly sessions with her 10 months later!
What is IFS?
IFS stands for Internal Family Systems. It's based on the idea that the human mind is made of multiple parts. A simple example is when people say "Part of me is angry", "Part of me feels guilty", etc.
Different emotions and behaviours come from different parts.
The IFS model proposes two kinds of parts: Protectors and Exiles.
The exiles are parts that are stuck in a state of pain and trauma, usually from childhood. They are "exiled" from regular consciousness. For example: fear of abandonment is usually an exile. If you are in a romantic relationship, and you often feel afraid that your partner will leave you, that's the exile part coming to the surface of your consciousness.
The protectors are the parts that keep the unwanted emotions / situations / experiences etc. from happening. (Sometimes Protectors are further divided into Managers and Firefighters.) In the above example - fear of abandonment - the protectors might stop you from having relationships, as a way to protect you from being abandoned (and the exile coming up). Or, the protectors might make you stay in an unhappy relationship, to avoid feeling abandoned when the relationship ends.
This is a very basic explanation of IFS.
If you want to learn more, here are a couple of links that you can start with.
Internal Family Systems from GoodTherapy
Building up to an Internal Family Systems model from LessWrong
Exploring your own System from Derek Scott
My thoughts on IFS
IFS has been working very well for me over the past 10 months.
One critique I have is that I find the IFS model a bit narrow. I don't agree that parts are ONLY Exiles or Protectors. Or that every protective part has an exile below it. I think things are a lot more fluid than that.
However, the idea of multiplicity of the mind makes a lot of sense to me.
Also, I love that IFS is based on compassion versus coercion. I find coercion damaging and absolutely unnecessary in my life. Unfortunately I've experienced it a lot, both externally and internally.
Coercion - the practice of persuading someone to do something by using force or threats.
IFS therapy teaches me to stop forcing myself to do things, and instead approach with compassion. Instead of telling myself "Stop crying over this small thing! It's not worth it! It's not healthy! Be positive! Be strong! etc..." I now tell myself "I'm sorry that this hurt you. I understand why it's painful. It's ok to be hurt. I'll be here while it's hurting. And eventually it will stop."
And finally, I love that IFS is based on emotions. Unlike CBT, where you "talk out" your problems, in IFS you "feel out" your problems.
Let's say the child in you feels scared about something.
In other therapy methods, you would talk about what is scaring you, to show that there's no reason to be afraid of it. (this approach doesn't work for me.)
In IFS, you "hold" the inner child until it calms down and it's not afraid anymore.
When I first started therapy, I was trying to categorise and explain my experiences.
Having done a lot of self-help, I also made many self-diagnoses, and tried to "fit" myself into categories.
For example, I read about "fear of abandonment" and "anxious attachment " - I related to this - so I used it as an explanation for all of my experiences.
I relate to "these symptoms" - so I must have "this condition" - so I should be "doing this" or "feeling that". I looked for specific things in myself. I put together stories to tell my therapist, so she can confirm it.
Luckily, my therapist gently dismissed this, and guided me to just watch my inner world, rather than try to "explain it" or "figure it out".
Note: The next sections are about working with parts and might sound like nonsense to someone unfamiliar with IFS :) Feel free to skip to "Progress".
We worked with parts from the very beginning.
I tried to make a list of my parts, and describe them. Document them. I tried to write a complete documentation of my system - as the programmer that I am!
However, that didn't work. Every session, my therapist seemed to point out a new unexpected part. That was confusing.
How many parts are there? Is it a very large number? Or is it a small number of "multifaceted" parts that just seem different every time? Or maybe parts are fluid, and can melt together and split apart as needed - so they can't really be counted?
Then I tried to map parts to generic emotions and actions. I had Jealous part, Overthinking part, Insecure part, Blaming part, Distracting part, Attachment part, etc etc.
That also didn't work - I just ended up with a long list of every emotion that I felt.
During the first few months, my sessions looked like this:
Visual and sensory descriptions. This feeling is "in my stomach". It feels "hot" and "heavy". It looks "like a square block". And this other feeling looks "like a person" and feels "outside of my body but near me".
Labelling things. This part is an "exile". And this one is a "protector". This one is "young", "scared", "hiding". And this one is "adult", "anxious", "working".
In short - Lots of noise, not so much substance.
This initial period felt random, unproductive and kind of "cringe" - but it was necessary in order to learn to observe and listen.
My mind wasn't able to relax and observe. Instead of observing, it was narrating... Explaining things... Organising, categorising, predicting, etc etc.
After every session, I got some relief from the anxiety/fear/stress - but it was short lived. Sometimes it lasted a day or two, sometimes only a few hours. Sometimes I didn't get relief at all.
The relief was temporary, only on the surface. The underlying tension was still there.
To summarise, the first few months were slow and not very productive. But I got temporary relief from my overwhelming emotions.
Also, every session I was learning new things about my inner world.
So I decided to invest in myself, and stick with it.
Over time, I learned to relax and observe.
I learned to be patient. When my therapist asked me a question, instead of blurting out the first thing that showed up in my mind, I waited and "listened" for the answer.
Eventually, I learned a lot about my own emotions - where they come from, what is their purpose. I realised that if I ignore the source of the emotion, it just grows bigger and bigger, until it overwhelms me.
I learned to meet my emotions with compassion and to make space for them, so that they don't overwhelm me.
The purpose of the sessions changed from getting support - to learning about myself, my emotions, where they come from, and what is their purpose.
Here is an example of something I uncovered.
Imagine me as a kid, happily minding my own business. Suddenly an adult tells me off in a scary voice: "Don't do that! You should feel guilty! You should be ashamed of yourself!"
What did I do wrong? Maybe I wasn't paying attention in class. Or maybe I repeated something I heard on TV, and the adults found it offensive. Or many other examples.
All I remember was "being shouted at for not feeling ashamed". So, the right thing was to Feel Ashamed. So, later in life, I made sure to feel a lot of shame and guilt, to avoid getting shouted at.
It gets more complicated. In this example, as an adult, I could try to stop myself from feeling the shame/guilt. I could tell myself "This is a leftover from childhood! It's not needed anymore!" or "It's causing a lot of suffering, and using up a lot of energy that can be used for something better!" or simply "Stop feeling all that unnecessary guilt!" but none of these would work.
Instead, I had to meet the guilt-feeling part with compassion. Understand that it's only there to protect me. Acknowledge it, how hard it's working to make sure I won't get shouted at for not feeling guilty.
Then this part starts to relax. Starts to feel supported. Starts to trust that it doesn't need to feel all the guilt all the time. It's tiring. It's been doing it for so long. Finally, someone is paying attention. It's not alone. It's safe.
Here are some of the things that happened as a result of going to therapy.
😌 I feel a lot more peace in my day-to-day life.
If I notice myself getting overwhelmed by emotions, I can calm myself down.
Many tasks feel easier now, because they don't come with anxiety or guilt attached to them.
I have a lot less negative interactions with people around me. I can notice such interactions, acknowledge them, and stop them without feeling guilt, anxiety, etc.
✋ I set a lot of boundaries with others and myself around my physical health (sleep, diet, exercise) and peace of mind (stressful media, overthinking).
💬 I became very honest with myself and others, and my confidence increased. I am no longer "embarrassed" of my thoughts and emotions. I don't try to suppress them, hide them, or convince myself that I'm not feeling them. I'm not afraid that they make me "too sensitive" or "annoying" or push people away. I know that my emotions are there for a reason, I acknowledge them and give them the space they need. I can express them freely, without having to lie or pretend.
💜 I have more compassion for myself and others.
This is all still a Work In Progress, and I'm hoping to expand this post in the future.
I love IFS therapy. It has been so helpful for me. Apart from that, I think it's a pretty groundbreaking approach to psychology and the mind.
I hope this is helpful for anyone that's thinking about starting therapy, or just taking better care of their mental health.