IFS (Internal Family Systems) and the Solution to Resistance

Anyone working with me in the last year or so has likely noticed the shift in my language as I talk to them about their ‘parts of self’.  I’ve been increasingly using the IFS model in therapy, and from the feedback I’m getting, this is a shift that maybe all of us need to be making. Because people are healing.  People are changing in incredible ways.  And it is happening more easily, more profoundly, and more powerfully than with EMDR or mindfulness or cognitive inquiry alone. And honestly it has been astounding. I’m here to do whatever I possibly can to help people reduce their suffering; so I’m sold on this perspective and this model.

I came to IFS because I was getting increasingly frustrated with EMDR, which thus far has been a whole order of magnitude better than anything else I’ve ever heard of for healing trauma.  I was really trying to fine tune how to use it to treat complex and attachment-based trauma, which is really the tough stuff in therapy.  But in the world of EMDR, even though there are a lot of people talking about it, there is no clear and set way to do this.  I think I was doing good work with this, but very often, I would be trying to process memories and feelings with someone, and they would either a) not really heal even when the material seemed to change in session or, b) they would not be able to access or stay with the difficult material (memories, feelings, sensations) enough to process them – instead they would disconnect, dissociate, or otherwise unconsciously avoid or distract from the process.

I was, at some point, basically praying for a way to work with this.  How do we work with resistances (what I would generally call these inhibiting internal behaviours) in EMDR?  And why isn’t anyone really accurately figuring this out?  I figured that this was simply the cusp of therapy that we just hadn’t figured out yet. The closest I could find was Laurell Parnell’s work in attachment-based EMDR, but it still felt clumsy, slow, and inefficient.

I kept looking.  I was and am truly dedicated to helping my clients heal, and I don’t believe there is ever a dead end or impossible thing for the mind.  But clients kept disconnecting again and again, no matter how we looked at it.  I have been saying to people for years that resistance is the core of all suffering, and is the essence of every maladaptive idea and feeling.  I have created some very useful ways to work with resistance, and this is partly why I like the ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy) model so much – it is the best therapy that truly emphasizes non-resistance (acceptance) as a cornerstone of healing and wellness.  But no matter how much I would get some clients practicing ‘making room’ for feelings, and ‘creating willingness’ for things, it was simply clunky and taking too long for me. It seems that the human mind has an inherent aversion to acceptance, a resistance to non-resistance, that takes years of experiential practice with mindfulness to really comprehend.  Do we have no other option than to wait and practice?

How do we more effectively work with resistance in therapy?

I have been contemplating this for years.  Then, in the spring of 2021, I decided to do some IFS therapy for myself.  I was wrestling with an internal conflict, and a friend who had just finished an IFS training suggested that I might try ‘a couple sessions’ with one of the talented therapists who was a trainer in the course.  It was good timing; I was looking for a new therapist, and everything was on zoom so I was more open to working with someone based in BC.  I like to try things, so what the heck.  But after my first session, I remember thinking, “ok what the hell was that? That was different, AND AMAZING”.

I was both astounded and appalled.  So this is what it means to work with parts?  Who knew?  How dare this therapist launch into a first session with me and more adeptly help with me with an issue that had been bothering me for a very long time!  What the hell was she doing?  Is she just magical or what is with this very different approach?

So I booked another session.  And I asked her.  And at one point, something clicked in that incredible, almost revelatory way:  I realized that IFS had solved the problem of how to deal with resistance in therapy!

I can’t tell you how exciting this was (and is!) for me.  I was dubious for a while.  Like, did they really just simply, elegantly solve what is arguably the biggest problem in psychotherapy since the beginning of psychotherapy?  So I dove in. I started reading books on IFS, doing regular sessions for myself, and enrolled in the best course I could find (through the Adler Graduate School).

And in these last many months, as I have been learning and figuring out IFS with myself and my clients, I think I can say with confidence:  yep, this solves it.

Maybe not perfectly. I can’t say that for sure – yet.  But it might be.  Definitely, definitely a quantum leap, though, like from a horse to a car.  And can I tell you how I know this is true?  Well, what is the most severe form of internal resistance?  Likely, it is dissociation.  And though this happens on a spectrum, the more classical forms of dissociation are precisely what get in the way of pretty much every form of therapy, and is considered by many to be the hardest thing to treat.  And in IFS, it becomes as clear as day, it becomes workable, and it becomes the very thing that we now have a language and a method to talk about.


No Resistance, only Protectors

IFS broadly categorizes parts by their function in our system.  If you want more detail on that, please refer to my previous blog about IFS located here.  What is important to know is that many of our parts – in fact the most obvious and certainly our loudest ones – have protective functions in the system.  And the wonderful, wonderful thing that IFS has articulated, is that every resistance is actually a protective part.

Every resistance is a protective part.

And we can work with protective parts.

This is huge.  For without naming and articulating these parts as such, we are left almost inevitably meeting our resistances with greater resistance, and with clumsy understanding of them. We push and pull and manipulate and negotiate and work-around and try to change these parts in a largely futile dance that in most other forms of therapy just end up getting those patterns reinforced.

From a parts perspective though, when we encounter resistance or dissociation or avoidance, we don’t push on it. We recognize this as a part of self that has a function and role in the system, and we talk to it.  We know it is trying to help in some way, so we collaborate with it to find new, better ways of helping the entire system.  It’s totally beautiful.  It is the difference between slapping a child for screaming, and talking to it lovingly to find out what it needs.  And functionally, all those behaviours like anger, substance use, compulsions and toxic relational strategies – all of them are trying to help the system at large, all of them have something to say, and like us, all of them respond to care more than opposition.



When I take this back to the office, and start applying this with clients, it has been incredible.  And wonderfully, IFS can be seamlessly used with EMDR.  Like an answer to my clinician’s prayers!

The big problems with EMDR, as I mentioned briefly, (and this is pretty universal) is that when you target a memory or wound in a person, and you do the BLS (bi-lateral stimulation, which is traditionally the eye-movements, tapping, or use of hand buzzers) the amazing thing has been that you tend to bypass protective parts (Dick Schwartz said this, but I think this is an appropriate way to describe what happens) and can thereby process traumatic material that has been stored in the system.  That is an enormous gift.  However – I would see time and time again that clients (particularly those with heavier attachment-based trauma, which means therefore stronger protective parts) could only very briefly touch into the traumatic material for processing, and then their system would bump them out – via some kind of disconnection from the target we are working on.  Or, we would work on the targeted part again and again and we just couldn’t really move it.  Or, worse, that we would move some of the targeted material, and the client’s system would backlash and respond in hugely negative ways post-processing.

By using an IFS approach, we can now see that all these problems are being caused by protective parts that create what appears to be resistance in the system.  If we take a more careful approach to the material, and get the permission of the protective parts, almost miraculously – none of these problems tends to arise!  One of my clients recently said to me, after taking this integrated approach, that our processing via EMDR, after first approaching via IFS – was that the shifts taking place during therapy felt more like it was happening ‘in his bones, across all time and space in his life, instead of just one memory or feeling’.  And – worth noting – zero fallout the next days!  In fact, quite the opposite.


Attachment-based Trauma Processing

The next thing I want to note in my discussion of why IFS is so darn exciting, is it’s use in treating what we call complex trauma, which is usually code for ‘attachment-based’ trauma because it is not trauma from a single or even multiple difficult events, but rather it is more relational in nature.

It is historically a super difficult thing to treat in therapy, and is the reason why attachment-based trauma disorder (what is often called “complex trauma”, C-PTSD or BPD) is often considered the hardest thing to work with, and why many therapists (believe it or not) will not work with people with BPD (which I think is an utter cop-out for a therapist, frankly.  It’s like saying you’re a dentist, but you don’t know how to deal with cavities.)

There are many schools of thought in psychotherapy for how to approach attachment trauma.  Some people believe that the only way to work with it is by modelling a secure attachment via the therapeutic relationship, so that the client can in time start to mirror this internally.  Others believe that by targeting attachment trauma via EMDR or somatic techniques, we can process the roots of the trauma and untangle it from there.  I would say that both of these are legitimate ways to deal with attachment trauma, but both are vastly less efficient than an IFS approach.  The most important reason for this, which I am not going to focus on as much just yet, is that in IFS we can actually help the client find their own internal secure attachment source (which, in IFS language, is their own Self).


IFS helps you find your own internal secure attachment source!


Now, that’s likely the most important part of all IFS, so I’ll perhaps take more time to blog about this later.  But here I just want to note something more relevant to my talk of its integration with EMDR – and that is by targeting a part (an exile and its burden) – we are able to process an entire neural network, a whole conglomerate or system of the personality, literally a whole chain of events that in traditional EMDR we might have to pick away at in chunks.  In IFS, the exile and its burden are a system that represent a much ‘larger’ piece of a person’s maladaptive information – so what this means is that we get to process not just more, but in a more efficient manner.  This also can mean that it is quicker and more comprehensive.  I can only say that as I compare an integrated IFS approach to EMDR or CBT or ACT, this certainly seems to be the case.

And I’m not saying that this is the final word on therapy, either.  I think we were doing good and actual healing work with other approaches, and in one way, this is just so inspiring simply for the reminder that there may yet be even better ways of working with this that I can find and integrate in the future. I know that the mind is infinitely adaptive and flexible, that healing is always not just possible but what the human system wants, and I know that this healing can be facilitated and assisted and ignited in a context like therapy.

As I have said elsewhere, therapy is not just about healing mental illness.  I think it is safe to say that this is getting fairly out of date, culturally.  I am really seeing that the younger generation is starting to really understand that therapy is about growth, self-awareness, and a deepening of one’s enjoyment in life.  It is emphatically not separable from whatever concept of spirituality we might have, which is the same means and goals, with only a different historical language.  Whether we talk about healing trauma, improving our self, or awakening to our true nature – we are talking about the same process.  And the deeper we go with it, the more subtle the material, the easier it gets, and the lighter and brighter life effortlessly gets.

I have been known to say, “be good to yourself”. So, I’ll close this one by saying, “be good to your selves”!

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