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The 6-step IFS process to jumpstart healing

Written by Frank G. Anderson, MD

A mind concept featuring gears where the brain is.

You’ve likely heard your clients explain conflicting emotions as they grapple with their internal self, desires, and behaviors. They may say things like “A part of me wants to…and then there’s a part of me that doesn’t.” In Internal Family Systems (IFS), this idea of multiplicity of the mind is normal. Every part has a good intention, and every part has value—even for trauma survivors.

In the treatment of trauma, IFS is different from traditional phase-oriented treatments. Instead of starting by building resources in clients before processing traumatic memories, it welcomes extreme symptoms from the onset, learns about their positive protective intentions, and gets their permission to access the traumatic wounds.

But before we can begin the work of healing trauma with IFS, we have to unblend our client’s various parts. We do this by walking our clients through the 6 F’s : Find, Focus, Flesh it out, Feel, beFriend, and Fear.

The process is simple, and you can use the following steps as a guide to help you unblend parts with your clients.

The 6 F’s

Notice that the first three steps (find, focus, flesh out) involve helping parts to unblend.

  1. Find the part in, on, or around the body.
    • Who needs your attention right now?
    • Where do you notice it?
  2. Focus on it.
    • Turn your attention inside.
  3. Flesh it out.
    • Can you see it? If so, how does it look?
    • If not, how do you experience it? What is that like?
    • How close are you to it?
  4. How do you feel toward the part?
    • This question is our Geiger counter for self-energy. Any answer that is not in the ballpark of the eight C’s (the qualities of self-energy: curiosity, calm, clarity, connectedness, confidence, courage, creativity, and compassion) means that a second part is influencing our thoughts.
    • We ask this second part if it is willing to relax so we can talk to the target part. If it is not willing to relax, we ask it what it needs us to know. This process may lead us to a second (or third, fourth…) target part.
    • Reactive parts often need to feel heard and validated. We stay with them until they are willing to let us get to know the target part.
    • Once they agree, we ask the client, “How do you feel toward the target part now?”
  5. BeFriend the part by finding out more about it.
    • The fifth step involves learning about the target part and developing a friendly relationship. This builds relationships internally (self to part) and externally (part to therapist). “How did it get this job?” “How effective is the job?” “If it didn’t have to do this job, what would it rather do?” “How old is it?” “How old does it think you are?” “What else does it want you to know?”
  6. What does this part fear?
    • What does it want for you?
    • What would happen if it stopped doing this job?

The last question is key in revealing any lurking polarization. You may think, “If I stop feeling anxious, I’m afraid the suicidal part will take over”—or it will reveal the exile it protects. What if part of you is saying, “If I stop feeling anxious, I’m afraid Jane will feel alone and worthless”?

Using this simple exercise helps your clients understand and work with their internal parts to begin the deep healing process that trauma requires.

Dig deeper with a free IFS worksheet

Clients with complex trauma often develop extreme protective responses in an attempt to keep the emotional pain away. When encountering these extreme reactions, it’s common to feel frustrated, overwhelmed, bored, and at times reactive. As a result, therapy can get stuck and clients can begin to feel unsafe and re-experience the helplessness they felt in their original trauma.

Use this worksheet to help you identify the roots of your client’s extreme response and determine which neuroscience-informed interventions are best for helping your clients get beyond their extreme trauma reactions.

More resources for working with complex trauma

Hailed by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, the world’s leading expert in trauma, as the “treatment method all clinicians should know,” the powerful IFS approach can accelerate the healing of complex trauma and providing lasting relief for your clients sooner. In the new online certificate course, “Treating Complex Trauma with Internal Family Systems,” Dr. Frank Anderson will guide you step by step through the revolutionary and transformative IFS model using both real-life, in-session videos and in-depth experiential training sessions.

Frank Anderson, MD, completed his residency and was a clinical instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Both a psychiatrist and psychotherapist, he specializes in the treatment of trauma and dissociation and is passionate about teaching brain-based psychotherapy and integrating current neuroscience knowledge with the IFS model of therapy. Dr. Anderson maintains a private practice in Concord, Massachusetts, and serves as an advisor to the International Association of Trauma Professionals (IATP).

Learn more about Frank Anderson’s educational products, including upcoming live seminars.



About the publisher

For more than 40 years, nonprofit organization PESI, Inc., has provided cutting-edge continuing education to professionals across the nation. Working alongside the world’s leading experts, PESI educates and instructs the general public, public organizations, private industry, students, and professionals in acquiring, developing, and enhancing their knowledge and skills.

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