When I first discovered the therapy technique Internal Family Systems, I was skeptical. It seemed too unusual. But the more I read, the more it started to make sense.
I played with combining the method with meditation and self-hypnosis techniques and experimented with how well-simplified versions could work alone.
The answer was very well, for me. More recently, I’ve developed it so it’s natural, easy, fun, and almost always helpful; sometimes, quite profoundly. The idea is mostly based on Internal Family Systems therapy with occasional optional simple hypnotherapy and breathing techniques, but more often than not, I close my eyes and get straight to it.
What’s Internal Family Systems?
Internal Family Systems (IFS) is based on the idea that the mind is made up of many separate subpersonalities, or parts, and they come together to form your mind. If they all agree, life seems easy. If they disagree, then things get more complicated. If they fight, you’re in for some internal turbulence, self-sabotage, and maybe mood issues. They all have wants and needs and ideas and their own little personalities. I told you it sounded unusual, right? Stick with it. It’s not like our brains aren’t a little strange anyway.
The ‘you’ that’s observing when you meditate is what IFS calls the self, and that self can interact with all the other parts and see what they need. Each part is trying to do what’s best for you — be it improve or protect you or whatever else it wants to do. None of them are bad. But not all of them really know what’s for the best, and it’s often the conversation with these parts that creates the results.
If you try this you’ll meet some of these parts sooner than you think, and then it’ll all make sense. Your goal is very simple, according to IFS: “To achieve balance and harmony within the internal system.” In other words, make sure all the parts of your mind get on well and work as a team.
How do you do this? In IFS, a therapist would guide you through it, speaking to some of these parts directly. But as a more casual meditation method, that’s your job. You simply have to be a mediator, negotiator, counselor, coach, cheerleader, and housekeeper all at once. A bit like being a parent, I guess. Except this is more like being a schoolteacher because there can be so many parts.
The image of working with children isn’t by accident. The parts often feel very young. It’s no surprise — the parts of us that are confused, scared, or frustrated likely formed when we were young, and we couldn’t look after ourselves and didn’t understand the world. A lot of this method seems to be dealing with parts of ourselves that never fully recovered from when we were young.
You’ll meet all sorts of parts. They’ll present themselves in different ways. I’ve had an angry ball of fur come out of nowhere with gnashing teeth, my own dad, and a warm feeling with no visual image at all. Every part is different. You’ll meet more and more as you get used to doing it, and each time you help one learn what’s best for it and you, your life will feel enriched.
Like anything useful, you can’t expect to be an expert and see results immediately. It takes a few goes to really get the hang of it — but not many. We’re all already experts in the key skills involved like simple conversation, listening, and using our imagination.
IFS is quite complicated, but for this meditation we are simplifying it down to its barest bones. We don’t want to be needing our technical heads on when we do this (that’s what a therapist can do for you if you want to take this further). It’s all very straightforward.
The first stage is to get relaxed. I used to use self-hypnotic inductions for this, which work, but now I have two places that I prefer. One is in bed just before sleep. It’s a lovely time to do it, though there’s the risk of drifting off and forgetting everything.
Now I do it in the bath once a week. The water is relaxing and makes me feel safe. Also, it makes our brains release a chemical called oxytocin, which helps us feel loving and compassionate. You might also get this effect by using a weighted blanket in bed.
Whatever you choose, just make sure you’re relaxed and won’t be disturbed. If you use music, keep it quiet and instrumental with no words.
You can also use breathing methods as simple as taking three deep breaths to help quickly relax. I’ll get to more advanced breathing later. The first time, just take a couple of deep breaths and let your breathing settle back down before you start.
Close your eyes or use an eye mask.
Your attention will be entirely inside for all of this. In your own huge world, meeting new parts of yourself every time, and maybe some recurring little personalities.
Your job, as your self, is simply to ask some questions and listen. Never argue. Never tell them they’re wrong. Listen and ask for what they need. Hopefully, they’ll tell you.
Have an attitude of gentle compassion like you would towards a beloved child. Be helpful and loving.
When your attention is fully inside, you can ask to see the parts of you who need some attention. Give them a moment to gather. Assuming you have nothing urgent to deal with, ask simply: “Does anyone need anything?” Then wait, watch and listen. See who steps forward. A part of you will.
Sometimes it feels to me like they’re putting up their hand as a child would. Sometimes it feels like they step forward. Once one angrily stormed at me. Feel and judge the feeling that they come with as they present themselves.
Sometimes they change, especially if you make progress. I had a cone of spikes once, but when it was reassured the spikey cone fell away and left an adorable baby chick. Sometimes they start with their defences up. Reassure them, and they’ll let them down.
Start the conversation
If more than one part steps forward, choose one, and assure the others you’ll be with them next. Then ask the part who now has your full attention what they need.
Sometimes, depending on how they present themselves, you’ll ask what’s wrong. Or how you can help. Or what they need from you. It’ll become easy. You already do this with other humans in need.
Then listen. Really listen. Then ask further questions.
Avoid asking “why?” This question can get defences up — as if you’re an angry parent or teacher. Stick to “what” or “how” and rephrase “why” questions. Rather than “Why are you so annoyed?” ask “What’s wrong and how can I help?”
You’ll get answers. Sometimes not immediately, like a child who is too shy to tell you. Gently persevere with warmth.
Ask more questions to see what you need to do. A useful question I normally ask as they present themselves is “How old are you?” I get answers as low as 4 and as high as 14 — rarely higher. Recently I got the answer in the image of a nappy (diaper, Americans). I guess that part was too young to count.
Another told me its age with the image of fish fingers: my favourite food when I was around 9 but haven’t eaten once since. Don’t always expect words, but you’ll get the message. It sounds weird, but if you listen, the messages are there.
Keep the conversation going until you have a concrete answer about what you have to do. Get a plan and double-check it’s acceptable to the part. Then ask if there are any parts who are against this plan. Hopefully, there won’t be. If there are, have the discussion.
Sometimes a part of you will have been sabotaging you in order to protect you. After the conversation and when you’ve agreed to do what is satisfactory for the part, and the part is happy and assured that you’re safe, then that part will no longer have a job. If you want, you can give the part a new job. See what it would like to do.
Keep this going as long as feels right. At first, there might be a long queue to get through. If you’ve done enough for the meditation session, assure the rest that you’ll be back another time.
Gently bring yourself back to the real world and open your eyes.
If you come across a part who really doesn’t want to be spoken to, or you feel will cause you some real upset by interfering, then don’t persist. Contact an IFS specialist if you think it’s something you’d like to deal with, but don’t continue that alone.
One time, I asked who needed some attention — and the part that stepped forward looked just like my dad, only much younger. The kind of age he must have been when I was young.
I asked what he needed, and he said he’s annoyed with me. We had a conversation, and it turned out that this part was the part responsible for me kicking myself for making mistakes. He was doing it for my own good: to stop me from messing up. Another part of me stepped forward. He was a young child who didn’t want to be in trouble all the time anymore. The parts were in conflict and giving me anxiety.
We discussed ways that would be better for us all and decided that now, instead of the negative self-talk after I messed up, the Dad part would speak up loud and early, before I mess up, and I would listen. He’d still be the guiding moral voice but now guide by alerting me before I messed up, not by telling me off after. Life has been much more pleasant since.
I was drinking 3–5 cups of coffee a day, with a strict limit of the last cup no later than 8 p.m.
As I lay in the bath and asked who needed anything, chatter came from all sides. “We’re tired.” “We just can’t stop.” “It’s the coffee.” I had visualisations of chatter flying around my head at thousands of miles an hour — and understood that I was tired and anxious because of the caffeine.
I offered to restrict myself to three a day. They said they wanted two, no later than 3 p.m.
For the next week, I stuck to this, and after a couple of days of withdrawal symptoms, felt much calmer and had much more energy.
The next time I did the meditation, I checked up on them and asked if the coffee situation was better. They had a little discussion and asked that the latest coffee be before 2 p.m. instead of 3. I feel so much better for it, calmer and with energy later into the evenings.
There are several breathing techniques that I hear about, though I haven’t tried them all. I have used Wim Hof’s method, and I hear good things about psychotropic breathwork.
While it’s much more nuanced than this, these generally involve mild hyperventilation that puts us in a different state of consciousness. Parallels have been drawn to psychedelic drugs.
I sometimes do this simply by taking some very fast deep breaths for a few seconds. I no longer do it for as long as Wim Hof’s method suggests; the benefits can seem to arrive after just a few fast deep breaths. If you’re asthmatic you may not want to do this, or at least have an inhaler handy. Also, don’t do it in the bath in case you overdo it and pass out.
This will push your mind to a slightly different state, towards the realms of a very mild psychedelic or dreamlike experience.
Being on the verge of sleep, where we’re awake but in a dreamy kind of way, is another state of consciousness where our imaginations can come to life, although we have to be careful not to fall asleep.
Once you’re well-practised at the method and can get to it easily, have useful conversations and finish with concrete plans and takeaways, you might want to try these things before you start. The experience feels deeper, and I’ve made some even bigger breakthroughs that way. The parts feel clearer and closer.
I did some deep fast breathing before this happened. I had no agenda or expectations. The visions started pretty quickly, and I was standing at the entrance to my first school where I was around eight years old.
I was being guided by a part of me who wanted to show me something.
I saw memories of that school I hadn’t thought about for 30 years. The desks. The horrible old towel dispensers that wouldn’t pass health and hygiene these days. The playground.
Then we got to the lunch hall, where all the kids were eating. I had to go and sit down and eat mine too. I felt all the old feelings. Would the children on that table want me to join them? Would they accept me? I was shy and self-conscious.
“Just sit down,” said the part, confident. “Of course they’ll accept you if you stop caring about it.” I sat down and everything was fine. It was another nail in the coffin of my old issues. People will accept me or not, it doesn’t matter. The only person who really cared was me. I don’t need to anymore. The remnants of my self-consciousness decreased that evening.
You’ll get some surprises doing this, but it can be great fun though. The parts are almost always very childlike and can provide some fun and laughter as such.
Just stay supportive and inquisitive and helpful, and you’ll be fine. If something gets brought up that you’re not ready to deal with, just be reassuring and say you’re not ready yet — but you will do it in time.
If you want, instead of asking for any part to step forward, you can guide them if something is urgent. “I’m feeling really stressed, and I don’t know why. Could the part of me who is making me stressed help me know what’s going on and how I can help?” Just try to avoid the word ‘why.’
I asked this recently and the answer was the ‘little screen.’ The part wanted me to keep the little screen — obviously my phone but the part didn’t have that vocabulary — away from me as I slept. I was seeing notifications through the night, and they were disturbing my sleep. Now I put my phone at the other end of the room, and the stress has gone.
Don’t expect this method to work perfectly every time. Human brains aren’t consistent things. Once I was ready in the bath, asked the question, and there was no one there. Not a single part. I guess nothing needed attention that day. Another time, one simply told me I was fat. It had a point.
Be on guard for your ego guiding things because it thinks it knows how things should be — or trying to force it into a cool story. You’re just there to listen.
Don’t think you have to stick to this rigidly. IFS is amazing therapy but no one knows the inside of your mind like you, and by doing this you’ll get to know it better and better. And then you’ll be able to make it work even better for you.
Just remember to be polite, warm, and caring. Never argue and check for objections from other parts when making a change. Go in with love, not demands for answers. They’re like children, and they’ll respond to affection. Hug them if you need to.
Then start to change your thinking and your life — one happy part at a time.