What is Internal Family Systems, and why it matters for Psychedelic integration

Internal Family Systems, Psychedelics


What is Internal Family Systems

Internal Family Systems is a powerfully transformative, evidence-based model of psychotherapy.
We believe the mind is naturally multiple and that is a good thing.  Our inner parts contain valuable qualities and our core Self knows how to heal, allowing us to become integrated and whole. In IFS all parts are welcome.
IFS is a movement. A new, empowering paradigm for understanding and harmonizing the mind and, thereby, larger human systems. One that can help people heal and helps the world become a more compassionate place. - IFS Institute

IFS, a non-pathologizing form of psychotherapy, looks at the many subpersonalities, or parts, as natural facets of the psyche–aspects of ourselves which yearn to be known, understood, and healed.

I first met the Internal Family Systems Model (IFS for short) in my quest out of anxiety, when common, and way less common, healing modalities left me with lots of awareness and insights, but not a significant shift in how I felt.

It is, by far, the most effective therapeutical and healing modality I have ever experienced:

  • it allows to truly understand why we feel the way we do. To witness exactly how it came to be. And to feel, at a fundamental level, how it all makes sense. Sometimes, in order to accept things as they are, we first need to understand why they are, and give ourselves permission to feel the way we do.
  • it provides the simplest way to get to that understanding: by talking with yourself (more precisely Parts of yourself).
  • it prompts the most profound and shifting integrations of psychedelic experiences.

The latter being the main topic of this post.

Internal Family Systems and Psychedelics

There are several good reasons why IFS is an ideal model for Psychedelic experiences integration, and why these two tools combine in very powerful ways to bring joy, aliveness, and presence into our life.

Same experiential level

There are so many aspects of a psychedelic experience that cannot be put into words: powerfully detailed images, bodily sensations, hard-to-describe metaphors, words that carve our heart, and mind-blowing insights and awe.

Forcing all that into the inadequate and constrictive realm of descriptive words and cognitive thinking is not just hard, it is also ineffective. It’s like reframing a whole body and mind experience through the lens of just ONE of our many Parts: the thinking/analytical one. 

IFS allows to integrate all those mind-binding moments by reconnecting to them at the same experiential level. For example, with closed eyes and the simple guidance of an IFS trained professional, it’s possible to go back into one of those hard-to-describe metaphors. At the beginning it might feel like a remembering of it, but soon after you will find yourself completely immersed in it, as if the psychedelic journey is continuing where it left off.

Deeper understanding

When integrating content of the psychedelic experience we stay present: our thinking and analytical part is observing, taking note of everything that happens. Which means we are able to remember everything that happens, and reach a much deeper understanding of how it all comes together.

All the Parts that make us who we are

At the core of IFS is the understanding that we are made of many different Parts. Each Part has its own needs and wants. 

As unique individuals, we are the combination of our Parts and our Self (which can be called in many different ways: Core, Essence, Inner Wisdom, Soul, Knowining…).

Parts can have a healthy role in our life, or an extreme one. For example, a person might hold boundaries in healthy or extreme ways: a Part that assertively communicates boundaries in a firm yet respectful way versus a Part that becomes enraged when a boundary is violated. Or a Part that does not allow personal boundaries at all. In our system we also have vulnerable parts carrying burdens, wounds, or toxic beliefs (“life is hurt”, “whatever I do is never enough”). In IFS all Parts are welcome, in the knowing that they ALL have a good intention (even the harshest and terrifying parts).

Psychedelic experiences often allow such hidden parts to emerge from the subconscious and communicate their needs. 

We might meet the Part that cannot let go of control, because it’s scared we will get overwhelmed. The Part that is holding to so much sadness it has been repressed for a lifetime. The Part that has been carrying the heavy burden of “pleasing others so that we are accepted and loved”, a burden that has been passed down from previous generations. We might meet a Part holding the teachings from previous generations, or a Part that feels trapped and wants to be free.

Psychedelics allow for burdens to be released and wounds to be healed. And yet, sometimes the process is interrupted. 

IFS allows to get back to these parts, strengthen the relationship with them, and provide what they need. As mentioned above, it does so at the same experiential level.

Self and the Default Network

Psychedelics allow us to access Self, that expansive state of calm, connected presence with ourselves, life, and other people. Research shows that this happens when the Default Network in the brain - responsible for all those things working in "auto-pilot" - is turned off.
But as soon as the medicine's effect is over, the Default Network comes back online, with its automatic thinking, doing, and behaving. 

This leads to the feeling of "going back to baseline" after a few days of afterglow. 

IFS helps to tune down the Default Network during sessions and group meditations, and therefore helps to reconnect and bring that Self energy into daily life. It also teaches ways to tune the Default Network down when needed in our daily life, so that more Self energy can emerge, and bring with it a sense of calm confidence, clarity, connection, and inner knowing.

Methaphors, Images, and Sensations are deepened and expanded

IFS has the very unique characteristic of using the faintest bodily sensation, image, or fading memory to connect with the Part/s of our Psyche holding on to that feeling/emotion/sensation/memory.

From there, starts a revealing journey into what is hidden away in our subconscious, to gently and compassionately welcome it and bring it to the conscious mind.

Psychedelic experiences naturally map into IFS

IFS has been referred to as "a psychedelic experience without drugs" because of the vivid and transformational journeys that can occur in the span of a 1-hour session. 

Michael and Annie Mithoefer, pioneers of the MDMA-assisted psychotherapy protocol currently used by MAPS, are trained IFS therapists and integrated this method into their work.

When asked about working with IFS and MDMA, Mithoefer said, “I have learned how well the spontaneous observations and experiences of our participants map onto IFS, including both parts and the Self…".

IFS, just as Psychedelics, lead to profound shifts in the Belief System

There are plenty of great resources to know more in detail what Family Systems is and witness how it works. One of my favorites is the interview of the creator of the IFS model Dick Schqartz and Tim Ferris (IFS, Psychedelic Experiences without Drugs, and Finding Inner Peace for Our Many Parts).

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This is my version of a beautiful meditation in the Internal Family Systems Skills Manual. It allows to

Meditation – Explore and Feel your Heart

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