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Navigating Inner Conflict and Polarizations: A Comprehensive Guide to Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy

Updated: Apr 21

Within each of us lies a complex tapestry of thoughts, emotions, and experiences that shape our inner world. Sometimes, this internal landscape can become fraught with conflict and polarization, leaving us feeling fragmented and disconnected from ourselves. In such instances, Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy offers a holistic evidence-based approach to understanding, communicating, and befriending the various parts of ourselves.


This blog post will explore a step-by-step guide to working with inner conflict and polarizations using IFS therapy, enriched with evidence, research, practices, and resources for therapists to enhance their understanding and application of this approach.


The Internal World; IFS Therapy
Inner Tapestry of Thoughts, Emotions, & Sensations

Recognize and Acknowledge Polarizations:

The journey towards healing begins with acknowledging the presence of internal conflicts and polarizations within our psyche. These conflicting parts often emerge as protective mechanisms in response to past experiences or traumas. Research in trauma psychology, such as the work of Bessel van der Kolk and Peter Levine, highlights the significance of understanding how trauma impacts the fragmentation of the psyche and the development of protective parts. By recognizing their presence, we create space for understanding and healing, as supported by studies on the efficacy of trauma-informed therapies like IFS (e.g., Schwartz et al., 2017).


Cultivate Self-Leadership a Cornerstone to IFS Therapy:

Central to the IFS approach is the concept of the Self, a compassionate and grounded presence within each individual. Cultivating self-leadership involves connecting with this core aspect of ourselves, which serves as a guiding force in navigating internal conflicts with wisdom and clarity. Practices such as mindfulness meditation, which has been extensively researched for its effects on self-awareness and emotional regulation (Ringel, 2019; Tang et al., 2015), can support clients in developing self-leadership skills.


Externalize and Identify Parts:

Encourage clients to externalize their internal parts by giving them names and personifying them. For example, a protective part might be named "The Protector," while a vulnerable part could be named "The Inner Child." Research in neuroscience, particularly in the field of narrative psychology (e.g., McAdams, 2018), suggests that externalizing internal experiences through storytelling can facilitate understanding and integration. Explore the roles, emotions, beliefs, and motivations of each part through compassionate inquiry, drawing from narrative techniques and metaphorical exploration.


Facilitate Internal Dialogue:

Engage clients in an internal dialogue with their parts, whether through visualization, journaling, or verbal communication. Research in psychotherapy process and outcome (e.g., Greenberg et al., 2006) underscores the importance of fostering empathic dialogue between different aspects of the self to promote healing and integration. Foster curiosity and empathy in understanding the perspectives of each part, validating their experiences and emotions without judgment.


Foster Cooperation and Harmony:

Facilitate communication and negotiation among conflicting parts, helping them recognize their shared goal of protection and well-being. Drawing from principles of conflict resolution and interpersonal therapy (e.g., Gottman et al., 2015), encourage cooperation rather than dominance or suppression. Explore ways in which parts can work together towards mutual understanding and integration, utilizing techniques such as role-playing and guided imagery.


Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy
Foster Inner Collaboration

Unburdening Exiled Parts:

Identify and connect with exiled parts of the self that hold unresolved emotions or traumatic memories. These exiled parts often contribute to internal conflicts and polarizations. Drawing from trauma-focused approaches (e.g., Herman, 1992), create a safe space for these parts to express their emotions and experiences, offering validation, compassion, and reassurance. Utilize somatic experiencing techniques (Levine, 2010) to facilitate the release of trapped emotional energy held within the body.


Inner Conflict Resolution with IFS Therapy:

Guide clients in collaboration among conflicting parts and the Self, recognizing that all parts have valuable insights and contributions. Research has shown the effectiveness of IFS in treating trauma-related polarizations and dissociative symptoms (Hodgdon et al, 2022). Studies have demonstrated how IFS helps individuals integrate fragmented parts of the self, resolve inner conflicts, and develop a cohesive sense of self after experiencing trauma (Anderson & Sweezy, 2016). Encourage parts to relinquish extreme roles and polarized beliefs, fostering a sense of balance, flexibility, and harmony within the internal system.


Practice Self-Compassion and Self-Care:

Encourage clients to cultivate self-compassion and self-care practices as they navigate their inner conflicts and polarizations. Drawing from research in positive psychology and self-compassion interventions (Neff, 2003; 2023; DiGloria, 2019, 2010; Gilbert, 2010), acknowledge the courage and resilience required for this journey. Offer support and validation throughout the therapeutic process, promoting self-kindness, mindfulness, and connectedness.


Integrate Learning with IFS Therapy:

Continuously monitor clients' progress in building healthy communication, collaboration, and negotiation among conflicting parts to find Self-led resolutions for internal polarizations. Utilize outcome measures and feedback tools to assess therapeutic effectiveness and client satisfaction. Celebrate achievements and milestones along the journey towards inner harmony and self-integration, remaining flexible and adaptive in adjusting therapeutic interventions based on evolving needs and experiences.



Use IFS 'Unblending' for Inner Collaboration:

A specific Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy exercises that therapists often use to work with inner polarizations and conflicts is called "Unblending." In Unblending, the therapist helps the client identify and separate their different parts or polarizations that are in conflict. Here's a basic outline of how Unblending might be practiced in a therapy session:


  1. Identifying Polarizations: The therapist helps the client identify the conflicting parts within themselves. These parts might have opposing beliefs, emotions, or desires.

  2. Externalizing the Parts: The therapist encourages the client to give each part a name and to describe its characteristics. This helps the client to externalize their inner conflicts and view them as separate entities rather than as an integral part of themselves.

  3. Dialogue Between Parts: The therapist facilitates a dialogue between the conflicting parts. This can involve the client speaking from the perspective of each part and expressing its concerns, fears, or desires. The therapist helps to mediate the conversation, ensuring that each part feels heard and understood.

  4. Integration: Once the client has gained insight into the conflicting parts and their underlying motivations, the therapist helps them work towards integration and harmony. This might involve finding common ground between the parts, negotiating compromises, or developing strategies to manage conflicts constructively.

  5. Self-Leadership: Finally, the therapist supports the client in developing self-leadership skills, so they can better manage their internal conflicts in the future. This might involve practices such as mindfulness, self-reflection, and self-compassion.

Unblending is just one example of an IFS therapy exercise that can be used to work with inner polarizations and conflicts. There are many other techniques and interventions within the IFS framework that therapists can utilize depending on the needs and preferences of the client.


In conclusion, working with inner conflict and polarizations through IFS therapy requires patience, empathy, and a commitment to self-discovery and healing. By embracing the complexity of the psyche and honoring the wisdom of its parts, individuals can cultivate greater self-awareness, resilience, and well-being. Through this journey of integration, inner harmony and wholeness become achievable goals, supported by evidence-based practices and therapeutic interventions tailored to the unique needs of each client.


References:

  • Bessel van der Kolk (2014). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma.

  • Richard Schwartz et al. (2017). Efficacy of the Internal Family Systems Model in Trauma Recovery.

  • Dan McAdams (2018). The Strange Case of Donald J. Trump: A Psychological Reckoning.

  • Leslie S. Greenberg et al. (2006). Emotion-Focused Therapy: Coaching Clients to Work Through Their Feelings.

  • John Gottman et al. (2015). The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples.

  • Ringel, S. (2019). Mindfulness-Oriented Approaches to Trauma Treatment. In Trauma: Contemporary directions in trauma theory, research, and practice (pp. 141-166). Columbia University Press.

  • Hodgdon, H.B. et al. (2022). Internal family systems (IFS) therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among survivors of multiple childhood trauma: A pilot effectiveness study. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, 31(1).

  • DiGloria, J. (2019). Internal family systems therapy and mindful self-compassion: A pilot study of a treatment manual with same-sex couples (Doctoral dissertation, Alliant International University).

  • Anderson, F. G., Sweezy M. (2016). What IFS Offers to the Treatment of Trauma. In M. Sweezy & E.L. Ziskind (Eds.), Innovations and elaborations in internal family systems therapy (pp. 133-147). London, U.K.: Routledge. Judith Herman (1992). Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence - From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror.

  • Neff, K. (2023). Self-Compassion: Theory, Method, Research, and Intervention. Annual Review of Psychology, 74:193-218.

  • Kristin Neff (2003). Self-Compassion: An Alternative Conceptualization of a Healthy Attitude Toward Oneself.

  • Paul Gilbert (2010). Compassion Focused Therapy: Distinctive Features.

  • Peter Levine (2010). In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness.

  • Peter Levine (1997). Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma.

  • Daniel Stern (1985). The Interpersonal World of the Infant: A View from Psychoanalysis and Developmental Psychology.


With love, AGLOW


Stacy Ruse, LPC


AGLOW is a global hub for therapists and the world. Led by trauma expert Stacy Ruse, LPC, providing training, consultation, and counseling services. Specializing in an integrative approach using EMDR, IFS, Somatic & Transpersonal therapies to inspire therapists and individuals alike.

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Stacy Ruse, LPC, is an esteemed Evergreen EMDR consultant, IFS-Institute consultant, and founder of Aglow Counseling. Stacy teaches a therapeutic style that is characterized by the art of EMDR & IFS therapies with a transpersonal twist, transcending the conventional boundaries of traditional therapy. Her holistic approach acknowledges the interconnectedness of mind, body, and spirit allowing individuals to tap into their innate resilience and ignite their personal transformation journey. As a trauma expert, national and international trainer, and clinical consultant, Stacy's approach is deeply rooted in trauma-informed methodologies.




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