Discover more from The Journey
Partswork for Psychedelic Integration (and Beyond)
An introduction to Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy and its compatibility with psychedelic therapies
“If I were a girl, I’d just put my finger down my throat after eating. As a guy, I can’t do that, because I’d lose muscle mass. But that’s much less of an issue for girls.”
As my then-boyfriend blurted out these words to my insecure, teenage self, they were not, as one may suspect, met with appalment. There’d always been a part of me that believed that being thin was not only a guarantee but a prerequisite to being loved. Cultural messaging landed exceptionally well on a traumatized young girl with virtually no self-esteem. All it took to drive the message home was conditional love that confirmed those beliefs.
So, there was a part of me that welcomed my boyfriend’s words. He’d just taken away some of the shame, and part of me felt relieved. The part that felt relieved was the same part that had begun increasingly denying herself food. The same part that would eventually start throwing it up.
Nearly a decade later, long broken off from said boyfriend, the belief that I needed to be thin to be loved had become so self-evident, it became invisible. Underneath it, of course, was the conviction that I was not enough. I was left with no choice but to diet, fast, restrict, over-exercise, shame, and isolate myself for years. The more I tried to get healthy, the more I realized I wasn’t running the show. My parts were.
Things became even more delicate when a new part emerged in my mid-20s. After an involuntary sexual encounter with a co-worker, being thin and beautiful no longer felt safe. Another part was birthed: the one that ate to protect me. From the male gaze, from further abuse, from attention. A common phenomenon in abuse survivors.
For years, these parts fought an internal battle beneath the surface of my consciousness, putting me in an invisible cage that felt impossible to escape. No amount of talk therapy or mindfulness made a dent. Despite every effort, control was an illusion. Most interventions either didn’t help or made things worse.
It was only when I began working with plant medicine, in conjunction with a unique, emerging therapy model called “IFS” (Internal Family Systems) that I began to understand the complexity of my inner system — and found the tools to re-balance it.
Today, I’m sharing this modality with you in the hopes that it may also help shift your consciousness. IFS teaches that all parts within you act with pure intentions, no matter how destructive their behaviors — a drastically different model from almost anything else we see in psychiatry. It’s an empowering approach that’s worked better than anything else I’ve come across (and I’m by far not alone in feeling this way).
Human Nature Through the Lens of the Internal Family Systems (IFS) Model
IFS has taken the world of psychology by storm. The 6-month online training I’m currently enrolled in, created to meet the exploding demand, serves as a waiting room for the impossible-to-get into in-person training, which operates on a lottery system.
The reason I’m telling you this is to illustrate the hype around this therapy approach. And the reason that everyone is hyping it so much is because it works.
Not only does it work, it works a lot better than most therapies we have.
Prior to IFS, I’d been in talk therapy for my eating disorder for years. It never empowered me to move past the layers of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. IFS is different because it helps you access your subconscious. Unlike psychedelics, it’s a slow and cumbersome process, but it works (potentially equally well). It’s a similar journey you undergo when you work with medicines like Ayahuasca and Psilocybin. This is why it may be the most powerful tool for integration that I’m aware of.
The underlying premise of IFS is the multiplicity of the human mind.
According to IFS, your mind consists of an “internal family” of parts. These parts are not a product of trauma or mental illness, they’re the natural state of the mind. Which parts develop, of course, depends on life events.
We all have parts that bother us. We try to eliminate them through willpower. We have jails filled with criminals and rehabs filled with addicts. Willpower is not the answer to psychological problems. Control does not work. Every time we attempt to control and fail, we feel shame — whether from the inside or outside world. Shame, then, only further strengthens the parts of us we’re trying to get rid of.
Similarly, pathologizing behaviors by labeling dominant parts through psychiatric diagnoses is also not helpful. In the words of Dick Schwartz, the creator of IFS:
“You go to a therapist who gives you a diagnosis for your one, troubled mind. The diagnosis makes you feel defective, your self-esteem drops, and your feelings of shame lead you to attempt to hide any flaws and present a perfect image to the world.”
IFS is a radical new model that takes the opposite approach: befriending your parts and opening a dialogue between your parts internally, and between your parts and your therapist.
Thanks for reading The Journey! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Your Inner Landscape of Parts — All with Good Intentions
The IFS model differentiates between three different types of parts:
Protectors (managers, firefighters)
Exiles are the most vulnerable parts of you that have been forced into hiding. They carry the burden of what happened to you, often (but not exclusively) in childhood. These burdens are usually mistaken thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and energies that are the result of your attempt to make meaning of events. They are in the shadow of your inner child. For example, if a caretaker is abusive, a child may believe it’s faulty and deserving of abuse in an effort to protect the caretaker in its eyes. The child then represses this belief into a part within the subconscious that’s frozen in time.
Protectors are highly motivated parts that dominate your thoughts and behaviors. Their job is to keep you safe from being wounded again. They believe they know what to do to keep your system safe, and they let nothing get in the way.
There are two categories of protectors: managers and firefighters.
Managers are protective parts that are proactive and deeply dedicated to their jobs. They don’t necessarily like their roles but feel a duty to fulfill them because they’re worried about what would happen if they didn’t. Managers are the parts of you that attempt to control — in my case through dieting and overexercising, other typical manager roles are workaholism, excessive worry, caretaking, and criticism.
Firefighters, on the other hand, are reactive and troubleshoot when they feel that managers are unsuccessful. They’re the most loyal guardians of the system. They feel like they have no choice but to resort to extreme behaviors. These are the parts that develop addictions, trigger panic attacks or disassociate. Unlike managers, they care less about the consequences of their actions. Their only mission is to protect exiles from more pain at all costs. They’re the most misunderstood parts: they work the hardest but are filled with shame.
Finally, the Self is a part that all humans universally have. It’s the part of you that’s calm, curious, compassionate, and confident. This part is eternal and beyond your ego, you’re born with it. It’s always there and cannot be damaged by trauma. It’s present in all religions — whether denoted as buddha-nature, atman, or christ consciousness. The Self is defined by presence, an open heart, and conscious awareness. It holds all the wisdom to your healing and is the main force of transformation in IFS, which makes this framework so empowering.
To recap, some key perspectives from the IFS model:
There are no bad parts, every part has a function that’s based on good intentions. No behavior, no matter how harmful, is pathologized in IFS.
Sometimes, parts are pushed from preferred to more extreme roles in the process of trying to protect us. Even the most destructive parts have protective intentions.
Parts are often frozen in past traumas when their extreme roles were needed.
Parts never come in isolation — for example, managers always protect an exile.
You don’t choose how you respond, your parts siply react. Unless you operate purely from Self, of course.
What you call thinking is actually your parts talking to each other.
The Healing Process in IFS: A Journey Back to Wholeness
The core goal of IFS is to reharmonize the inner system.
This quote from author Liz Gilbert articules the objectives of this therapy approach perfectly — without even referencing IFS:
“The most peaceful people that I know, and the most wise people that I know, are the ones who have created enough internal space to be able to allow all the parts of themselves to coexist, despite the contradictions. They have room for their creativity, they also have room for their fear. They have room for their dignity, they also have room for their shame. They have room for the parts of themselves that are glorious, divine, and wonderful, and they have room for the parts of themselves that are petty, jealous, and ridiculous. They create this big, huge auditorium of a landscape inside of themselves. They don’t kick any parts out.”
In IFS, healing can be achieved through the following steps:
Un-blending: You map out your parts and learn to differentiate Self from the different parts. This is critical because Self is the force that drives healing. To connect with it, you need to gain awareness that it’s a distinct part, separate from your other inner voices, and cultivate your capacity to access it.
Retrieval: Next, you witness the entire story of the exile and including all of its beliefs and stories. To get to this place, there’s usually a lot of work involved in getting the manager’s trust and permission to access your exiles.
Unburdening: Once you’ve brought awareness and compassion to the exile’s narrative, you can release your parts from their extreme roles.
Integration: Exiles always remain in your system, but at this stage, they’re no longer exiled — Self now has a relationship with them. Hence, managing parts no longer need to take over. This rebalances your entire inner system.
Self-leadership: Once the system is rebalanced, you can cultivate your capacity to act from Self — not only towards your internal parts but towards the outer world.
IFS & Psychedelic Medicine: an Unmatched Match
In early trials investigating the efficacy of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD, researchers found that 70% of the subjects spontaneously began working with their parts in a loving way without any prompting from them. The IFS model has since become a core component of the “Inner-Directed Healing” model that MAPS, the organization spearheading MDMA therapy, is training thousands of therapists in.
So, what do psychedelics do that allows for this to happen?
(Side note, yes, MDMA is technically not a classical psychedelic but rather an empathogen, but the mechanism of action is very similar so we can lump it together in this case.)
Three main things happen to your inner system when you take psychedelics:
Psychedelics (as well as entactogens such as MDMA) help your protectors relax, which in turn allows you to access Self more easily.
Some medicines such as ayahuasca have a surgical approach that temporarily shuts down your protectors in order to go directly to the retrieval (and unburdening) of your exile(s).
At higher doses, some psychedelics trigger ego dissolution. This allows you to experience the essence of Self and have a first-hand, visceral experience of its eternal and transcendent nature.
Mary Cosimano, who coordinated Johns Hopkins’ psilocybin research for almost two decades and guided nearly four hundred sessions, writes:
“Psilocybin can offer a means to reconnect to our true nature—our authentic self—and thereby help find meaning in our lives…. I believe that the nature of our true self is love.”
The Internal Family Systems model is also helpful in explaining what happens after the psychedelic journey when you transition into the process of integration.
This process is often characterized by increased emotional awareness and depth. You become more embodied. When you heal your exiles tucked away safely in the shadow of your inner child, you don’t only experience less distress from protective parts acting out. You also experience more of the raw emotions you experienced so freely as a child.
As Dick Schwartz describes in No Bad Parts:
“Once you retrieve your exiles and liberate your protectors, you feel more. This is not just because you become more embodied, it’s also because you reexperience many of the emotions you felt in childhood but thought you’d left behind when you became an adult. That means you can feel more of your former exiles’ awe, joy, and empathy, but also their pain and fear.”
A balanced inner system, or in Gilbert’s words, “a huge auditorium of a landscape within ourselves”, is one that has the capacity to hold the full range of the human experience. Cultivating this capacity is, to my knowledge, the end all be all of the healing journeys.
It’s a beautiful, life-long process that can’t be rushed, but it can certainly be expedited by the gifts we’ve received from nature.
There’s so much more to say about IFS (and if you’re curious to learn more, please let me know), but I hope this was enough of an overview to help you make sense of yourself a little more.
As you observe your thoughts, perhaps you’ll start to notice some of the dominant voices of your protectors. This is always where we begin in IFS.
One of my favorite parts about IFS is that it’s a tool that stays with you forever and that you can always resort back to. Once you’ve undergone the process of healing and understood your inner family system, you no longer necessarily need a guide or therapist to do this work. You can do partswork on your own, led by Self.
If you want to learn more, Dick Schwartz’s book “No Bad Parts” is an excellent place to start. (It might be the most important book I’ve ever read.)
If you’re curious to dive deeper, I can also recommend the 6-month IFS online circle, a virtual introductory program designed for practitioners (but beneficial for all). You can put your name on the waitlist and will get notified once the next round opens up.