I have often heard about Internal Family Systems (IFS), and I’ve also heard about “parts work”, but I have never really investigated either one. This new book by Richard Schwartz (the founder of IFS) is getting a lot of press, so I bought it. But subsequent to that purchase, another therapist said she liked “Self-Therapy” a lot better. So that gave me an idea to read both books and do a comparative review for those people, like me, who want to know more about IFS but have limited time to read.
Here’s the basic premise of IFS. If you know anything about family systems in general, you know that each family member is a component of the whole, and often one family member is the “identified patient”, being blamed for the failure of the entire system. Different units of the family might align with each other against the others, and so forth. The idea behind Internal Family Systems is quite similar. Basically, we are all made up of multiple facets or parts. These parts are not metaphors but actual beings inside of us that take on different roles (think Pixar’s Inside Out). The issues or problems that we have are often just parts that are trying to protect us from something or manage things for us. Therefore, this type of therapy is just like practicing Family Systems on our internal family of parts.
No Bad Parts
I chose to read “No Bad Parts” first, and it was a quick and engaging read. The book is fine for clinicians but is kind of geared towards people being able to do some of the concepts on their own. To this end, there are a couple of exercises in each chapter that help you “map” your parts, communicate with them and get to know them. One of the main concepts is that most of us “go to war” against our parts, which doesn’t work. If we understand that there are parts of us that might be maladaptive, but only because they are trying to protect us, then we can be more compassionate and curious about them. The idea is to reassure them that our Self is not a little kid any more, and that the Self can handle things and no longer needs to be protected in the same way.
I do like that this theory (or at least this book) brings in a spiritual aspect that when we can love all of our parts, we can love everyone, and that doing this parts work connects us to one another and into larger purposes. I also like the idea of befriending parts of us we might normally criticize and seeing them as trying to help and assist.
I do not completely like all of the verbiage. Even after reading the book, I find myself saying “what is an exile again? How is that different from a Protector, a Manager, or a Firefighter?” On the one hand, these are kind of self descriptive terms, but they all operate differently, and it seems like it’s important to know the distinction, but the distinctions are super confusing to me. Also, I’m totally on board with saying theres a “part of you” that does this or that – I’m not sure I can completely buy into the idea that these parts are independent beings that have their own lives and personalities. It’s just a stretch for me.
There are lots of exercises in the book, and several session transcripts so you can see what a sample session might be like. Again, I was a little uncomfortable with these transcripts; it felt a little to me like people might just be saying they were in touch with these “little people” inside to please the therapist? Or maybe that is just my failure to buy into these parts being separate personalities. I’m not sure. I found this book interesting, but I don’t see a client being able to fully find any kind of self relief from this particular book. And as a therapist, I wanted a clearer understanding of the concepts.
I did actually like this book much better than No Bad Parts, although I might have liked No Bad Parts better had I read it second, after this book, which is what I would recommend if you are just starting out in IFS. Earley also has a lot of exercises in each chapter, but he also provides “Help Sheets”, which is basically an explanation of the order of doing things if you are trying this on your own. He also gives you a complete road map of how to do IFS and when to do each step. His verbiage is much more clear as well – referring mainly just to exiles and protectors.
I think this book (of the two) is the far better book for both clinicians and clients who want to find out what IFS is about and perhaps try to do some of it on their own. It is easy to take it step by step throughout the book and experiment in a pretty safe way. There are also transcripts here, and Earley follows the same clients throughout the book, showing how they worked through each stage of the process.
I have to confess that I find myself uneasy about IFS as a whole; and I think it has to do with my experience with cults. I know that sounds harsh, but there is a lot of “thought stopping” present here, and at the very least, IFS is an unprovable hypothesis. For example, if I say “I’m not sure I really buy into parts being actual separate beings with their own personalities”, then IFS would say “that’s just your Skeptic Part, and what you really need to do is work with the skeptic to see what’s going on”. Or if I say “this is interesting but I don’t actually want to do the exercises”, IFS would say “that’s your Avoidant Part, and you need to work with your avoidant part because it’s getting in the way”. In this way, the answer to every legitimate concern or question circles back into the theory itself, so there is no plausible way to question it. As a scientist friend said “this is a faith based system; not a fact based system.” I’m not saying IFS is no good – if you like the ideas, I suggest you start with Self-Therapy and then read No Bad Parts if you want more. But it is worth noting that there is no possible way to disagree with these authors assumptions.
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