Internal Family Systems (IFS) involves getting to know, befriend and heal parts of ourselves. We might have a part of us that is a harsh inner critic that berates us when we miss a deadline or a romantic part that comes out when we are with our partner. We might also have a part that, without thinking, pours another glass of wine after work or that stays vigilant and anxious to spot threats or avoid failure. We might love these parts of us or hate them, battle them or ignore them, but without understanding why they come up, we just experience them taking over time and time again, frustrating our best efforts to change the ones that seem most problematic.
IFS is a therapy that uses a type of guided mindfulness to tune into these parts of us and dialogue with them. By really getting what these parts are trying to do, we can help them do it in a more effective way. They are frequently motivated by a subset of experiences that happened in the past, so finding the links between what is going on in your present and the negative experiences in your past can help us to target and heal this pain, freeing these parts of us to respond in more adaptive ways.
Neurobiologically, we can think of these parts as sub-networks of our nervous system’s neural network that include, among other things, memories and ways of protecting ourselves from the pain in those memories or of similar things happening again. When these sub-networks fire up, they drown out all of our more adaptive thoughts, feelings and behavior because of the importance of this protection. In a process known as “memory reconsolidation,” also involved in evidence-based trauma therapies like EMDR, the sub-network containing the trauma is activated safely long enough to allow it to integrate with the rest of our neural network. The pain from the memories lessen and our imperative to protect against it releases.