Mindfulness Meets Internal Family Systems: Richard Schwartz on Helping Clients Move from Acceptance to Transformation

A perennial quandary in psychotherapy, as well as spirituality, is whether the goal is to help people come to accept the inevitable pain of the human condition with more equanimity or to actually transform and heal the pain, shame, or terror, so that it’s no longer a problem. Are we seeking acceptance or transformation, passive observation or engaged action, a stronger connection to the here-and-now or an understanding of the past?

As therapists increasingly incorporate mindfulness into their work, they’re discovering what Buddhists have known for centuries: everyone (even those with severe inner turmoil) can access a state of spacious well-being by beginning to notice their more turbulent thoughts and feelings, rather than becoming swallowed up by them. As people relate to their disturbing inner experiences from this calm, mindful place, not only are they less overwhelmed, but they can become more accepting of the aspects of themselves with which they’ve been struggling. Still the question remains of how best to incorporate mindfulness into psychotherapy.

A perennial quandary in psychotherapy, as well as spirituality, is whether the goal is to help people come to accept the inevitable pain of the human condition with more equanimity or to actually transform and heal the pain, shame, or terror, so that it’s no longer a problem. Are we seeking acceptance or transformation, passive observation or engaged action, a stronger connection to the here-and-now or an understanding of the past?

Many therapeutic attempts to integrate mindfulness have adopted what I’ll call the passive-observer form of mindfulness—a client is helped to notice thoughts and emotions from a place of separation and extend acceptance toward them. The emphasis isn’t on trying to change or replace irrational cognitions, but on noticing them and then acting in ways that the observing self considers more adaptive or functional. As an illustration, let’s consider how more traditional therapeutic approaches contrast with more mindfulness-based methods in helping a client dealing with the mundane challenge of feeling nervous about going to a party. A Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) intervention might begin by identifying the self-statements that are generating anxiety—a part of the person that says, in effect, “Don’t go because no one likes you and you’ll be rejected.” The client might then be instructed to dispute these thoughts by saying, “It’s not true that no one likes me” and naming some people who do. A clinician trained in a mindfulness-based approach like Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) might have the client notice the extreme thoughts about rejection without trying to change them, and then go to the party anyway, despite the continued presence of the irrational beliefs. As this example shows, mindfulness allows you to no longer be fused or blended with the irrational beliefs, releasing your observing self, who has the perspective and courage to act in positive ways. But what if it were possible to transform this inner drama, rather than just keep it at arm’s length by taking mindfulness one step further?

The Second Step

As a therapist, I’ve worked with clients who’ve come to me after having seen therapists who’d helped them to be more mindful of their impulses to cut themselves, binge on food or drugs, or commit suicide. While those impulses remained in their lives, these clients were no longer losing their battles with them, nor were they ashamed or afraid of them any longer. The clients’ functioning had improved remarkably. The goal of the therapeutic approach that I use, Internal Family Systems (IFS), was to build on this important first step of separating from and accepting these impulses, and then take a second step of helping clients transform them.

For example, Molly had been in and out of hospital treatment centers until, through her DBT treatment, she was able to separate from and be accepting of the part of her that had repeatedly directed her to try to kill herself. As a result of that successful treatment, she’d stayed out of the hospital for more than two years, was holding down a job, and was connected to people in her support group. From my clinical viewpoint, she was now ready for the next step in her therapeutic growth. My goal was to help her get to know her suicidality—not just as an impulse to be accepted, but as a “part” of her that was trying to help her in some way.

In an early session, after determining she was ready to take this step, I asked her to focus on that suicidal impulse and how she felt toward it. She said she no longer feared it and had come to feel sorry for it, because she sensed that it was scared. Like many clients, she also began to spontaneously see an inner image, in her case a tattered, homeless woman who rejected her compassion. I invited her to ask this woman what she was afraid would happen if Molly continued to live. The woman replied that Molly would continue to suffer excruciating emotional pain. With some help in that session, Molly was able to embrace the woman, show her appreciation for trying to protect her from extreme suffering, and learn about the hurting part of her that the woman protected her from. In subsequent sessions, Molly, in her mind’s eye, entered the original abuse scene, took the little girl she saw there out of it to a safe place, and released the terror and shame she’d carried throughout her life. Once the old woman could see that the girl was safe, she began to support Molly’s steps into a fuller life and stopped encouraging her to try to escape the prospect of lifelong suffering through suicide. In this way, the “enemy” became an ally.

The Paradox of Acceptance

Years ago, Carl Rogers observed, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” In other words, carefully observing and accepting our emotions and beliefs, rather than fighting or fearing them, is a precursor for using that same mindful state to help them transform. Once people come to compassionately engage with troubling elements of their psyches, they’re often able to release difficult emotions and outmoded beliefs they’ve carried for years. For me, this process of compassionately engaging with the elements of our psyches is a natural second step of mindfulness. If you feel compassion for something, why just observe it? Why not engage with it and try to help it?

Once a client, in a mindful state, enters such an inner dialogue, she’ll typically learn from her parts that they’re suffering and/or are trying to protect her. As she does this, she’s shifting from the passive-observer state to an increasingly engaged and relational form of mindfulness that naturally exists within: what I call her “Self.” Having helped clients access this engaged, mindful Self for more than 30 years now, I’ve consistently observed that it’s a state that isn’t just accepting of their parts, but also has an innate wisdom about how to relate to them in an attuned, loving way. I’ve observed over and over clients’ enormous inborn capacity for self-healing, a capacity that most of us aren’t even aware of.

We normally think of the attachment process as happening between caretakers and young children, but the more you explore how the inner world functions, the more you find that it parallels external relationships, and that we have an inner capacity to extend mindful caretaking to aspects of ourselves that are frozen in time and excluded from our normal consciousness. This Self state has the ability to open a pathway to the parts of us that we locked away because they were hurt when we were younger and we didn’t want to feel that pain again. As clients approach these inner parts—what I call “exiles”—they often experience them as inner children who fit one of the three categories of troubled attachment: insecure, avoidant, or disorganized. Typically, once one of these inner exiles reveals itself to the client, their Self automatically knows how to relate to that part in such a way that it’ll begin to trust the Self. These inner children respond to the love they sense from the Self in the same way that abandoned or abused children do as they sense the safety and caring of an attuned caretaker. As parts become securely attached to Self, they let go of their terror, pain, or feelings of worthlessness and become transformed—a healing process that opens up access to a bounty of resources that had been locked away.

The Therapist’s Role

With all this talk of self-healing, I don’t want to downplay the importance of the client’s relationship with the therapist. What does shift is the focus on the therapist from being the primary attachment figure to serving as an accepting container of awareness who opens space for the client’s own Self to emerge. To do this, therapists must embody their own fullest Self, acting as a tuning fork to awaken the client’s Self to its own resonance. To achieve this kind of embodiment, therapists must learn to be mindful of their own parts as they work with clients, recognizing that transference and countertransference are, at some level, a continuing behind-the-scenes dance as therapists and clients inevitably trigger each other. Fortunately, as you become increasingly familiar with the physical experience of embodying this mindful Self, you’ll be better able to notice the shift in your body when a troubled part hijacks you.

Working in this way can be an intense and challenging task, which regularly requires me to step out of my emotional comfort zone and experience “parts” in myself and my clients that I might otherwise wish to avoid. At the same time, on my best days, I feel blessed to be able to accompany clients on inner journeys into both the terror and wonder of what it means to be fully human. At those moments, I can’t imagine a more mindful way to practice the therapist’s craft.

New Master Class:
Internal Family Systems Step by Step

 Limited Registration…


Dr. Richard Schwartz developed Internal Family Systems in response to clients’ descriptions of experiencing various parts – many extreme – within themselves. He noticed that when these parts felt safe and had their concerns addressed, they were less disruptive and would accede to the wise leadership of what Dr. Schwartz came to call the “Self.” In developing IFS, he recognized that, as in systemic family theory, parts take on characteristic roles that help define the inner world of the clients. The coordinating Self, which embodies qualities of confidence, openness, and compassion, acts as a center around which the various parts constellate. Because IFS locates the source of healing within the client, the therapist is freed to focus on guiding the client’s access to his or her true Self and supporting the client in harnessing its wisdom. This approach makes IFS a non-pathologizing, hopeful framework within which to practice psychotherapy. It provides an alternative understanding of psychic functioning and healing that allows for innovative techniques in relieving clients symptoms and suffering.

This blog is excerpted from “When Meditation Isn’t Enough” by Richard Schwartz and was originally posted at Psychotherapy NetworkerThe full version is available in the September/October 2011 issue, The Mindfulness Movement: Do We Even Need Psychotherapy Anymore?

Internal Family Systems: No part left behind

Developed by Dick Schwartz in the 80’s, IFS started as a grassroots therapy model and is quickly becoming a sought after treatment. We sat down with Frank Guastella Anderson, M.D., and director of the Center for Self Leadership, to get the scoop on what makes this emerging therapy the hot new kid on the block.

There’s a good chance that by now you’ve seen, or at least heard, about Pixar’s movie Inside Out. The popular children’s film is set inside the mind of Riley Andersen, a young girl struggling to adjust to life after her family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco. Within Riley’s mind are five distinct emotions tasked with helping Riley navigate life. They include joy, sadness, fear, disgust and anger.

We can all relate to Riley’s conflicted emotions about moving to a new city. How often have you said “A part of me wants to… and then there’s a part of me that doesn’t…” as we grapple with our internal self, desires, and behaviors.

Developed by Dick Schwartz in the 80’s, IFS started as a grassroots therapy model and is quickly becoming a sought after treatment. We sat down with Frank Guastella Anderson, M.D., and director of the Foundation for Self Leadership, to get the scoop on what makes this emerging therapy the hot new kid on the block.

PESI: Now that folks have seen Inside Out and we can’t spoil anything, what’s your favorite part of the movie?

Anderson: We go through life assuming that happiness is the goal feeling: it’s what we should strive to be feeling 100% of the time. Inside Out shows us that other feelings, even those that make us uncomfortable, have a really important role in our lives. In Inside Out, Sadness isn’t just a character, she’s the hero! The film provides a great way to start normalizing the idea that our parts, even those that are uncomfortable to feel, are all equally important at protecting our core self.

PESI: What’s unique about IFS?

Anderson: IFS is an emotional, body- based therapy that focuses on a person’s internal resources to heal. The thing that really sets IFS apart from other treatment models is that it is non-pathologizing and fosters permanent healing by getting to the root cause of wounds. Other therapies, like sensorimotor psychotherapy, AEDP, and EMDR, have similar elements, but in my experience IFS is the most complete model in the experiential realm.

In IFS, we believe that all parts of the mind have good intentions (even suicidal parts for example), they are either trying to protect us or they hold emotional wounds. We work compassionately with those protective parts to gain access to and ultimately heal the wounded parts.  IFS also believes that all individuals inherently have the capacity to heal (called Self energy) and that it does not need to be cultivated or resourced, we are born with it. It’s a model that challenges some of the common assumptions made in the mental health field that are more pathology based.

PESI: Last time we talked, you told us that the Foundation for Self Leadership was focused on bringing evidence-based validity to the IFS model. Has this happened?

Anderson: We are pleased to say that IFS is now on the National Registry for Evidence-based Programs and Practices. Interventions listed in the NREPP have been subject to independent, rigorous scrutiny and are deemed to show significant impact on individual outcomes relating to mental health.

The NREPP has deemed IFS effective for improving general functioning and well-being. In addition, it has also been rated promising for each of: improving phobia, panic, and generalized anxiety disorders and symptoms; physical health conditions and symptoms; personal resilience and self-concept; and depression and depressive symptoms.

Such outcomes deepen our resolve to catalyze additional research studies, both in clinical settings and in applications beyond psychotherapy.

PESI: OK, let’s get real… this “parts” talk is a little confusing. How can we get a better feel for IFS?

Anderson: The best way to understand IFS is to experience it. When I teach clinicians about IFS, I do a number of guided meditations with everyone in the room. You can do this from home by watching the video below. In this meditation, we go inside our mind with an agenda of working with someone in our life that is triggering and activating some of our parts. Give it a try!

Frank Guastella Anderson, MD, completed his residency and was a clinical instructor in Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. He is an executive director of the Foundation for Self Leadership and has served on the research advisory committee and the speakers bureau for the Center for Self Leadership.

He has lectured extensively on IFS, the Neurobiology of PTSD and Dissociation, and wrote the chapter “Who’s Taking What” Connecting Neuroscience, Psychopharmacology and Internal Family Systems for Trauma in Internal Family Systems Therapy-New Dimensions. He has maintained a long affiliation with Bessel van der Kolk’s Trauma Center at Justice Resource Center in Boston and maintains a private practice in Concord, MA.

Inside Out: Family-Friendly Film, or Psychotherapy for the Masses?

A major emotion picture is set to be released on Friday, June 19. You think it’s a family-friendly film… but is it?

A major emotion picture is set to be released on Friday, June 19. Thousands of families will be heading to the theater for what they think is an entertaining, family-friendly film.

…They’re right. It IS an entertaining, family-friendly film. But to the mental health world, it’s a great example of a relatively new model of psychotherapy. Do you recognize it?

If you’ve been living under a rock (we won’t judge you, it sounds divinely peaceful) and haven’t caught the preview, take a moment to check it out. Just make sure to catch up with us below.

If you identified the therapy model demonstrated in Inside Out as Internal Family Systems (IFS), points to you!

Scratching your head and wondering what IFS is? We chatted with Frank Anderson, M.D., psychotherapist and board chair of the IFS Center for Self Leadership, to get the low down on this revolutionary therapy.

PESI: How was IFS developed?
Anderson: Dick Schwartz developed IFS 30 years ago to help clients with eating disorders. Schwartz realized that clients were describing experiences with various parts, many extreme, within themselves. When these parts felt safe and had their concerns addressed, they were less disruptive. In developing IFS, he recognized that, as in systemic family theory, parts take on characteristic roles that help define the inner world of the client. Today, IFS has established a legacy of effectiveness in treating many mental health issues, and has been applied to a myriad of professional and lay public endeavors.

PESI: What makes IFS unique compared to other treatment models?
Anderson: Most modes of psychotherapy believe that if you have parts it’s pathological. Not in IFS. In IFS the idea of multiplicity of the mind is normalized. Every part has a good intention, and every part has value. We strongly believe that all clients possess “Self Energy” and have the ability to heal themselves if they listen to their parts.

PESI: The amount of practitioners being trained in IFS has grown significantly in the last few years. Why do you think that is?
Anderson: I believe the meditation craze has help people realize that going inside and exploring the self is healing, and we do use meditation in IFS therapy. When people start going inside and listening to the different voices in their head, they start feeling better instantly. As more therapist begin using this treatment model, they are seeing its ability to permanently heal wounds and make a huge impact for their clients.

PESI: What would you tell a therapist who is thinking about exploring IFS training?
Anderson: IFS is a very powerful tool. Once you experience it and see it in action you will be hooked.

PESI: What do you think of Pixar’s film, Inside Out?
Anderson: The IFS community is really excited about this film. When it comes to teaching our children about emotional intelligence we are failing. Most of what are children are experiencing in schools is cognitively based and behaviorally orientated. Bringing meditation into classrooms is a step in the right direction. However, we need to bring more emotional awareness to our children and destigmatize the idea of mental illness so we can promote maintaining mental health.

I hope that this film helps parents realize that parts are normal, and there is a way to work with them and acknowledge individual feelings without shaming someone.

It’s OK to have feelings, and to have a lot of them.

PESI: What’s next for the Center for Self Leadership?
Anderson: The Center for Self Leadership is focused on bringing evidence-based validity to the IFS model. We are working to do research and prove the efficacy of this treatment model. Recently, the results of a randomized controlled study published in the Journal of Rheumatology showed that an IFS-based intervention had positive effects on patients with Rheumatoid Arthritis. (Lean more about the study here!)

We are also actively training new therapists and bringing IFS beyond the psychotherapy world as advocates of the need for emotional intelligence and understanding.

Want to learn more about the Foundation for Self Leadership? Check out FoundationIFS.org.

Have you explored the Internal Family Systems model? 
Let us know what you think in the comments below!