When Mary arrives for her 8 am session, she is visibly upset.  She does not think she can go to work.  She has knots in her stomach, tightness in her chest, pain in her back, and the start of a migraine at the base of her skull. This started, she explains, “with a phone call from my ex-husband”.  “He is demanding, again, that I do something for the kids that I don’t think is right”.  She is thinking, “I don’t have to do that!”  However, she is also thinking, “He’ll be mad and it will be my fault; just like always. It’s my job to keep everybody happy”.  Then she remembers how respected and successful she is at work. This makes her angry that her ex-husband still does not respect her.  All these thoughts and emotions, she explains: “keep racing around in my head. This is what kept me awake last night. That’s probably why I’m hurting all over”.


As Mary’s therapist, I listen supportively, and then explain, “Each of these different thoughts and feelings (parts of your personality) is trying to help you, but in different or opposite ways.  So, of course you are confused and distressed.  These different parts all need you, as your real Self, to take charge inside, and get all of the parts to work together. “Focus inside on the different parts of your mind that are upsetting you the most”. 


Mary chooses to focus first on the part of her that can say no to others, can express her opinions confidently, and is admired by her employer and her friends. She likes and appreciates this part. We wonder together why she can’t act and feel this way toward her critical ex-husband. Mary then notices inside the part that says, “It’s my job to keep everybody happy," and, “I’m a terrible, awful person if I don’t."  


Therapist:  “Continue focusing on this part, as your compassionate and curious Self."


Mary:  I see another part inside, a fifteen year old, sitting in the kitchen where I grew up.  She’s pathetic, and sad”.  


Therapist:  “Can you let her know that you care about her? And that you would like to get to know her and help her feel better?”


Mary:  “Now I like her. She always worked so hard taking care of the family after mom’s illness. My father and grandmother knew how hard I worked.”


Therapist:  “Let that part know she is appreciated and valued. Then, just sit with her, get to know her, and find out how you can help her right now."


Mary: “The fifteen year old wants the demanding man who’s making me feel awful to go away." 


Therapist: “Go ahead; imagine making that happen."


Mary:  “I sent him to the basement – that feels better, I feel calm now."  


Therapist:  “Good, what else can you do to help her today?”


Mary:  “She wants me to talk to him."  She imagines bringing him up from the basement and says to him, emphatically, “You don’t own me."  He fades away.  She smiles. 


Therapist:  “Wow! How do you feel now?”  


Mary:  “I feel great; calm, and peaceful." 


Therapist:  “How does your body feel?"  


Mary:  “I feel good, relaxed; nothing hurts.  That’s amazing!”


At our next session, Mary reports the following:  “Now I can care about the part of me that I used to call pathetic. It’s a weight lifted off me. I was able to give her (the fifteen year old) 'sheer grace'.  I realize now, it was me that let my husband take advantage of my part that needed approval.  Now, as my Self, I give her that approval and appreciation. I know how hard she helps me work, better than anybody else does.  My ex-husband doesn’t have the power to make me feel guilty anymore."


The Self.  This conversation, between therapist, the client’s Self, and one part of her, is typical of a model of therapy called, “Internal Family Systems Therapy."  In this model, it is assumed that our mind or personality has a core Self, and that we all have our own unique system of many different parts.  And as our Self, it is quite possible to tune into our ever-present thoughts and feelings, and differentiate our many parts.  And, people can, with a little practice, find their distressed parts, often see them quite clearly, and start an illuminating and healing conversation between the Self and a part.  By doing this, we slow things down in our busy, sometimes frantic, minds and we can help our parts feel better and think different. 


As Mary described above (giving her part sheer grace), many clients describe their core Self as having the spiritual qualities of compassion, connectedness, love, and wisdom; as well as the leadership qualities of courage and clarity.


Our Parts.  Another core principle of the model is that all parts have a positive intent, even the ones we do not like and the ones that make us do problem behaviors. For example; an angry temper part can cause many problems; but is probably trying to help us cope with an intolerable hurt. A relentless self-critical part may be trying to help us avoid being criticized by others, or trying to help us be a better person.  However, in this model you do not have to guess why we feel or act a certain way.  You just tune into what is already inside, with non-judgmental curiosity and compassion; and you find out. The amazing thing that always happens, when extremely intense parts feel heard and understood, they automatically soften, and are open to cooperation, and even transformation. They can even be relieved of their pain and mistaken beliefs left over from childhood or adolescence; and take on new and more helpful roles in the internal system.


The “Internal Family Systems” model of psychotherapy (known as IFS) was developed by psychologist Richard C. Schwartz in Chicago in the late 1980’s.  He learned it, he says, by listening carefully to his clients.  I had the privilege of training with Dick Schwartz in a marriage and family therapy program at that time; and I heard first hand his excitement and awe about the insight and power for change that this approach generates. The genius of this model, Richard Schwartz found, is that the same interaction dynamics that occur between members of a family or couple, also occur inside each of us. Just as every family needs compassionate yet confident parent(s) so too do we each need compassionate, courageous, Self-leadership at the center of our lives.  

Mary is not their real name. This story is written and published with the
full permission of all the participants. I am grateful for their consent, their trust in me,
and the privilege of working with them.


The Self in the Storm

an IFS Story

Often, my clients come to my therapy office in crisis.  They can no longer weather the storm of stressors in their lives; and are overwhelmed by the whirlwind of thoughts and feelings racing around in their heads.  They can barely sleep, eat, parent, or work.  Lately, I am using a new type of therapy with these clients.  It is called “Internal Family Systems Therapy”. Let me show you how it works.





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© 2016 Alan Sumwalt       Designed by Kate Erickson.  Modified by Andrew Sumwalt