What is Parts Work?

By popular request, I am taking some time to discuss the model of Internal Family Systems (IFS) or what I like to call Parts Work. I hope this article helps bring some more clarity to this life changing work. 

IFS has actually been one of the most useful, practical, down to earth, and approachable techniques I have used for myself and with clients. It takes spiritual truths and practices that often can seem intangible and out of reach, and grounds them, right here in your own body and mind. Many of you know I am continuously inspired by the text of A Course in Miracles (ACIM). I have found that the principles of ACIM have often remained out of reach or even invalidating to the emotional experiences in my life until the approach of IFS came along. When I use them together, (along with other things like yoga and the 12 steps) spiritual truths become something that is tangible and real, something I can experience and take action on in my lives. 

Internal Family Systems is a mode of therapy that was developed by Richard Schwartz intuitively as he discovered that his clients were experiencing and talking about different parts (or voices) that would adopt different roles in the person's life. The client would be able to step back and say, "a part of me felt this" and "another part of me felt that". For example, you may have a part of you that is very interested in reading more about this article, and another part of you that is more concerned with all of the things that it thinks you need to do next. Or, you may have a part of you that knows you always feel better after going to the gym, but another part that throws a tantrum and says, No! I don't want to go! Or even more deeply, you may have a tendency to feel hopeless about certain areas of your life, or feel like you are always anxious and worried. These feel like permanent states or conditions, but they are actually just "parts of you" that can be communicated with. 

Schwartz found that he could assist his clients in directly talking to these parts or that he could talk to the parts directly and have conversations. Through this compassionate conversation, healing occurs. I once heard Schwartz say in a commentary on mindfulness practice, if a suffering being was sitting in front of you in real life, you wouldn't just sit there and stare at him like it often seems like we may be doing with our thoughts in a more traditional zen meditation. In real life,  you may decide to talk to the person. You may do something for him.

This doesn't mean we are activating the "doing" mode that I often talk about in contrast to the "being" mode. This conversation is done from a place of being, or in other words, an open heart and a place of compassion. IFS helps us get to that place of open heartedness as well: if you're wondering "how do I support a part of myself with an open heart when I don't feel open enough in the first place." In my experience, traditional mindfulness and IFS meditation techniques go hand in hand. I am able to access my truest centeredness by incorporating BOTH. 

I found a quote on my yogi tea last night that I think describes all spiritual practice as well as IFS perfectly, "Life is to Communicate". When we think of the word communication, we readily think of communication with another person. However, the communication we have with ourselves and the higher power or higher Self within us is the bedrock of this communication.  They are one in the same. The way we communicate with the parts of ourselves is the same way we communicate with others. Some of the components of this communication are honesty, willingness, vulnerability, compassion, and acceptance. Therefore, as my longtime teacher/therapist Judy says, "It's all an inside job". 

Like any model, IFS is a way of organizing and understanding knowledge that truly goes beyond words, however, I find that this model is one that actually assists you in going beyond the model. To me, that means it is a spiritual psychotherapy. It is a therapeutic style that does not keep you limited at one level of your own awareness. It helps you expand that awareness, deepening your healing and growth over time by solving problems from a different level than the original one that created them. This is also a model that can be used in a therapeutic setting and also in a non-therapeutic setting. Many people use IFS in a coaching setting or in business consultation. It is a powerful and compassionate model that is life changing no matter how it is used! 

Stay tuned for part two where I will describe more about Internal Family Systems and how you can apply it in your life. I will share some pictures to help visualize the model as well as explain how an IFS meditation goes. 

Let me know if you have any questions or comments about this too so I can put these answers into my next blog posts.