Welcome back to the Therapy Spot, everyone! In today’s podcast, I spoke with Chicago based IFS practitioner Melissa Sandfort. In addition to her work in person, Melissa also works with clients all over the world via Skype. Her love for the Internal Family Systems model began in 2002 and has only grown since then. Her fifteen year commitment to the process has included:
- Over 2000 hours of training
- More than 30 workshops with Richard Schwartz, founder of IFS
- 3000 hours of individual IFS sessions
In her own words, “This is my path in life, and I have never looked back. […] I live, eat, sleep, and breathe IFS!” Her passion is deep and infectious — which will be crystal clear when you listen to her speak. With her every word, Melissa embodies the joyfulness and playfulness that make IFS so rewarding.
So join us today, and listen along as Melissa and I discuss the process, the benefits, and the just plain fun of IFS!
The Cookie, the Salad, and the Self
A small warning for my listeners out there: this podcast might make you hungry. (Go ahead and grab yourself a snack to enjoy while you listen) That’s because Melissa often explains IFS to first-timers in a very familiar way.
“Say you’re hungry, and you have an inner conflict about what you want to eat. Maybe part of you wants to eat cookies, but another part of you pushes back. That part tells you that you should have a salad instead. What IFS does, is help you become a mediator between the fighting factions of your mind. Our culture valorizes the salad eating part, and a lot of us think that is our true self. The part that always tries to do the right thing, eat the right thing, say the right thing. But there’s a third presence in the conversation. The third member of the conversation, who can mediate between the two — that’s who you really are. That’s Self. Self doesn’t turn the world into good and bad, into right and wrong, black and white. Sometimes we need to eat the cookies!”
Change Your Language, Change Your Brain
One of the first steps in IFS involves a relatively small shift in language. Say you find yourself feeling anger towards your partner. Without IFS, you might either get taken over by the anger, or try to deny, dismiss, or diminish. That’s partly because of the language we use to express our emotions: “I am angry.” You become the anger, which is scary — and that’s why you try to avoid it. With IFS, however, you make a tiny, critical shift in your words: “A part of me is upset.”
“When you do that, you maintain the connection with your loved one while still speaking for the part of you that’s upset. That shift doesn’t mean you can’t be angry. Trying to force yourself not to be angry doesn’t really work! This way, you can speak for the angry part, but not be taken over by it.”
If that sounds a little too easy, well, you’re not wrong. “[IFS is] a practice. You have to learn how to get out of what’s habitual. And it’s simple, but it’s not easy.” Melissa compares the practice of IFS to working out at the gym. We don’t go to the gym once and expect to go home looking like bodybuilders, because we know muscles don’t work that way. Through IFS, you build the muscle, over time, that gives you space to speak from the part, not for the part.
“These are emotional, physiological, physical patterns. Change proceeds at the pace of biology.”
Building Trust With Your Parts
Has this ever happened to you? You decide to sit and listen to a sad part, or an anxious part, or a bored part. As soon as you pay attention to it, however, a bunch of other parts jump up and say, “Me too! Me too!” That’s what we call a party of parts. It’s very common when your parts have been attention starved.
“When it comes to parts, where there’s one there’s two, and where there’s two, there’s ten! It can be like going into a room of kids. Once one of them gets attention, the others begin to clamor for attention too. Your parts need to trust that they will get their time to speak and be heard.”
In order to build that trust, you might need some organization at the beginning. Melissa recommends a few different approaches:
Each part has their own personality, which is why it’s so important to really get to know them. After all, in Melissa’s own words, IFS is “a path of pure compassion […] as far as the eye can see.” The goal is to represent your parts in a way that works for you.
“That’s why I use finger puppets for my parts. For me, it calms down the overwhelm. I can see the part, it’s small, it’s discrete. Parts often feel bigger than they are! But when they’re small and cute, they’re easier to relate to.”
Melissa Wants to Know: What’s Cooking?
At the end of our interview, Melissa walked me through a short IFS exercise to get to know my parts. The goal of the exercise was to practice including different parts in small, every day decisions — in this case, what to have for dinner. To my surprise and delight, this small question brought up quite a few of my parts! One of them, a playful part, took the lead over the days following the interview. I went out mushroom hunting and spent the weekend in the kitchen, creating exciting new dishes with my beautiful black trumpet mushrooms.
Getting to know your parts, paying attention to them, and making them feel included are all incredibly important. I encourage you all to try this exercise in your own daily lives. You can also download the conference table technique on Melissa’s website, or my meeting place guided meditation download. Or, if you’re feeling playful, maybe you want to get some finger puppets of your own!
Whatever way you choose to go about it, always remember to approach your parts with compassion and curiosity. Thank you so much to Melissa for joining me, and to all of you for listening.
All images via Melissa Sandfort