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IFS Criticism: Here’s why IFS Therapy doesn’t work like it’s supposed to

Jul 28, 2023 | Myths of IFS Therapy

14 minute read

I hope this blog post helps your healing.

Leave me a comment if you like – I reply in-depth to the first few!

Have you been getting stuck with internal family systems therapy (IFS) … even though you intuitively understand the approach? 

Chances are, you do get it. It’s a simple model.

But, it’s likely you hold some beliefs about IFS that are simply not true. 

Most of us do. These un-truths are so common they’ve reached mythic proportions.

And these misunderstandings create a lot of (valid) criticism of IFS. Because myths twist the approach. They stop IFS from working like it’s supposed to.

Are you a self-healer using parts work? This series is for you. Onwards, to the truth of the matter! 

Key Points:

  • When we misunderstand IFS, we can’t use it effectively
  • Seven particular IFS myths create widespread IFS problems
  • Most people aren’t aware of these myths
  • Nuanced critique of IFS is hard to find on the internet

Plus, you’ll see how my critique of IFS comes from love … and why I won’t stop speaking up even though it makes some people mad!

Myths are the Problem – not IFS!

Like I said above, Internal Family Systems therapy appears simple, but it can be easily misinterpreted. 

When we misunderstand IFS, it becomes less effective and many of us conclude: “IFS therapy doesn’t work.” 

Or: IFS is a disappointment. Just one more failed therapy trend.

If you’re getting close to that pit, it’s time to debunk the most common myths of IFS. Once you’re aligned with the truths, you can see for yourself whether IFS works as it’s supposed to. 

women looking at sky with fin earrings.
We pull out the myths so we can find the truth shining underneath.

To get us to the truth about IFS, I’ve created two videos and this entire series of blog posts uncovering the most common IFS myths one-by-one. (Article links coming as published.)

7 Major Myths of IFS therapy

  1. There are a set number of Parts inside of us
  2. All of our Parts have names
  3. IFS must follow a certain script in order to work
  4. IFS is a complete map of the psyche
  5. You are the director of your own healing
  6. You are Self
  7. You should be in Self all the time

If you want, bookmark this blog post for your future self to easily get clarity whenever doubting IFS – or your own system.

Criticism of IFS myths video series

Myths Part 1: Four simple corrections to make IFS more effective

Click for Video Transcript.

Myths Part 2: Advanced – Who you are and what it has to do with IFS (Part 2)

(Coming soon. You can subscribe to my YouTube channel to get notified.)

Public Critique of IFS

“The truth will set you free” is what they say, right? (I’m Jewish, so it’s giving me a double-take to quote Jesus, but there ya go.)

The truth about IFS will set us all free to heal. But where is that truth?

You can find some IFS therapy criticism on Reddit and sometimes in Facebook groups. Discussions get passionate. Much of the time, those contributions are from those new to IFS – or people who are not therapists. 

I’m (so far) one of the lone voices from within the IFS establishment who’s critiquing common understandings of this therapy. 

There are two main reasons it’s hard to find expert criticism of IFS’s “shortcomings” on the internet.

Reason #1: Most people don’t know enough about IFS to spot inaccuracies

Many people – clients and therapists alike – believe IFS is the cure-all solution for psychological troubles. 

This has led to a lot of wild ideas and myths about IFS swirling around in the world, which get accepted as “fact” by many. 

When it comes to misunderstandings about IFS:

Many seekers aren’t experienced enough to weed out these myths. 

Reason #2: IFS experts aren’t speaking up (yet)

Those of us who are highly trained in IFS either:

  • Aren’t interested in the conceptual. Not everyone is driven to question hypothesize, and that’s okay.
  • Lack the drive or platform to share our ideas. Translating what’s in our heads onto the screen is major work!
  • Dedicate our energy to spreading IFS, not to questioning it. And thank goodness for dedicated clinicians!

Sometimes, we IFS experts don’t speak up because:

We are afraid to stand out and share unorthodox ideas about IFS because we fear being shunned. I know that fear. Hopefully, the more voices that speak up, the more common and accepted it will become to publicly discuss these things.

When IFS disappointed me

My journey from starry-eyed devotee to openly “criticizing” IFS

Why am I stepping forward and publicly voicing problems with popular usage of IFS?

Because I know how damaging these myths are – both from my therapist’s seat, and from the inside as a self-healer.

Once upon a time, I was gung-ho about IFS. 

An IFS session was, after all, the first time I felt my real Self!

I was so enamored that not only did I do IFS therapy as a client, but I got officially trained in it.

In my early 20s, I “invested” my savings in the official IFS training. It was extra expensive because I had to fly across the country six times to attend the trainings. And at that time it was anything but clear that IFS was going to be taken seriously by the mainstream. So calling my spendings an “investment” was a stretch.

Something inside me insisted it was right to do the training in IFS
Something inside me insisted it was right to do the training in IFS

What all this means is I was highly motivated to love IFS up and down and all the way to Happy Town.

I was an effective IFS therapist. My clients’ sessions were amazing. Emotional. Insightful. Deeply meaningful. 

But over the years, for me, IFS had stopped working.

As in: IFS might be great in sessions, but it wasn’t making my regular life better. 

You can hear more about my personal experience in my solo IFS podcast episode. To sum it up: 

  • IFS (how I was using it) was arguably making my life worse. (Constantly wondering if I was in Self, striving to be compassionate, etcetera.) 
  • At the time, I wasn’t grounded enough to criticize the model
  • I could, however, track my inner health. And I concluded IFS just didn’t work for me. 

Instead of critically examining parts work, I threw it out. That was the best I could do at the time. To protect my well-being, I had to stop using IFS for my own healing. 

Many years later, I’m on the other side of healing. (Aka I’m finally where I’d hoped to be psychologically-spiritually.) 

I can re-engage without discarding myself or IFS.

It turns out IFS wasn’t the problem all along. Here’s what I see: 

When we don’t know the truths covered in this series, IFS doesn’t work as it’s supposed to. 

So of course we get confused and frustrated. 

No wonder people get critical of IFS. 

That’s why I created this myths series and do what looks like criticizing internal family systems therapy. Because IFS can help our world heal…

… when it’s understood and used properly. 

Your Criticism if IFS is Welcome Here

Sometimes it feels like everything is publicly held as all-or-nothing nowadays. 

Everything? Oh boy. Here I go, doing the same!

When we tune in to the collective, we sense that pressure to:

  • Stick to a one-dimensional story about IFS
  • Only say the positive

For me, sometimes this pressure is just in my head. Sometimes it’s in my inbox!

If you appreciate venturing beyond black-and-white to examine the gray area of IFS, I’d love you to do something right now to help balance this out.

All you need to involve is your fingertips.

And your unique mind and heart.

Here’s what you can do: engage publicly with this discussion. 

With this blog post, right now. Will you let me know in the comments?: 

Which of these myths are you most curious to uncover and gain awareness of?

If you’re feeling bold, share your criticisms of IFS. (You can even use a pretend name.)

I read and respond in depth to the first several comments. Just type below!

22 Comments
  1. Andrew

    As a naive, grateful believer in IFS, I’m not sure what to think right now.

    After 30 years of drug use, 3 suicide attempts and 11 recent visits to the ER because of overdoses, I went into rehab in December 2022 because others begged me to. I couldn’t care less. While there, I read and appreciated Building a Life Worth Living by Marsha Linehan and then watched some YouTube videos about IFS. I then listened to Greater Than the Sum of Parts by Richard C. Schwartz. Linehan’s book gave me hope. I know my therapist hoped I might be inspired by her turnaround and success (and it did somewhat). IFS, however, rang so true to me. Finally, I had an explanation for a lifetime of telling health professionals, “A part of me this and a part of me that…” and not having much more to say about what I meant.

    Ten months later, I am sober and doing “so well,” according to those around me and even to myself using objective measures alone. I’m not claiming to know enough to teach or even tell others about IFS (although I do with struggling friends sometimes in layperson language), but I do mentally refer to this model to quieten self-destructive and suicidal tendencies when they rear up AND when I lose sight of a better/happier/truer me (self?) accessible to me.

    I was Googling earlier because I was inclined to write about IFS (for a new Substack newsletter I created about my journey in and out of addiction; it’s called Good For Something), and I saw your link. I’ve read most of the above but haven’t watched anything yet, but I will because I want to know more/better/fuller.

    But now, part of me (haha) wants to log off and un-remember that a critique of IFS exists because I fear that might unravel what’s working for me. Part of me knows I am a big boy who understands critique is healthy and that I can take what I want from a different point of view. The scariest part is the part of me that stumbles so easily when it comes to self-doubt, and when I say “stumble,” I mean the slightest reason to have my worst thoughts about my broken self confirmed. My solution is an immediate deep dive into suicidal ideation.

    I have a therapist and an addiction counselor, but not in IFS therapy treatment. I have discussed it with my therapist, and he has been encouraging about anything I do that works for me.

    My question is, how might a person like me who has come across your challenge to what I have been clinging on to do with this now?

    1
    Reply
    • Lucille Aaron-Wayne

      Hi Andrew, thank you for sharing – and for courageously being in recovery. These critiques of IFS are really about common misunderstandings around the model. They’re here for people who are getting stuck with IFS, and that doesn’t sound like you! In other words, there is nothing to fear from the info shared here. I hope this helps!

      Reply
  2. Wendy Howell

    I am in the middle of listening to a podcast about emotional regulation and IFS that says that emotional regulation is (can be?) a way of repressing parts, because parts show up through feelings, and the way to ‘regulate’ is for that part’s story to be told and witnessed. That goes against a boatload of training I’ve had as a therapist. It also doesn’t feel true to what I perceive as my own Self on a lot of levels. I know when self regulation is done properly it helps me tell my story and feel witnessed within myself. It helps me feel into my different parts and have serenity and connectedness. I am just working my way through a 26 hour+ off site training by Dr Frank and guests, so what do I know. I have gone through a few possibilities: 1) I am completely wrong about my own initial starry eyed idealisation of IFS. I’ve idealised other approaches in the past only to find they weren’t the one answer either. My concern here is some of the things I hear therapists say. I get a little concerned it borders on the approaches of the 80s/90s false memories/satanic panic. I don’t want to be wrong the way those therapists were wrong. So I take my concern seriously. 2) I have these doubts that get resolved the way that I was doubtful about evidence based SUD treatment and now I embrace a great deal of it while understanding its nuances and applications/ failures. 3) Its one or more of my parts being critical. Which then becomes some kind of tautology on some level LOL. 4) Its complex. Therapy is complex. We are complex. It just makes my brain hurt. Is that a part? LOL. Thanks for the validation here!!!!!

    1
    Reply
    • Lucille Aaron-Wayne

      Hi Wendy, without being there it sounds like some of the ideas (like about emotional regulation repressing parts) can be mistakenly taken or presented as as a blanket statement. Probably these kinds of observations are sometimes accurate and often not accurate – and depend greatly on the context and particular system in question.
      Either way, I hear you noticing that idea is contrary to what you feel deeply to be true. That’s exactly the turning inwards to our own inner compass that builds our self-trust … and, ultimately, our greatest healing!
      PS – Yes to all the complexity!

      Reply
  3. Mel

    Hi Lucille, a few thoughts arising in response to your recent blog posts and the comments here. When one is new to IFS (as a client), how can we discern what is this inner voice/inner compass from what is a part? would it be possible that a part could be insisting that the therapy is not “working”, and could this get mixed up with there being an issue raised from the inner compass? I suppose by listening it would unfold and become clear in time…?
    I’m also curious when you say that parts work/IFS stopped working for you, are you referring only to solo IFS work or did you find that working with an IFS therapist ceased to work too? I’m very interested in the dynamics between therapist and client, finding the balance between taking responsibility for one’s own healing, and being able to trust that a therapist knows the model well enough (and hasn’t been led down the garden path of these “myths”) to be a trustworthy guide…. how can we know?
    I have to confess that I’m pretty disappointed that the names, maps, “characters” element of parts is possibly a “myth”, as I got pretty excited and very interested in this after reading about it! For example I really enjoyed exploring Michelle Glass’s work. But she is clear about parts not being static, and changing over time, perhaps changing their name or other characteristics as they themselves develop within the system. From what you are saying though, the possibilities seem so infinite that it wouldn’t be helpful to do so much tracking, mapping or journalling? What about “externalisation”, if I’m understanding correctly, where parts are represented by an object or a drawing or something similar?
    Thanks for all you do, and for the opportunity to ask questions/share thoughts.

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    Reply
  4. Kiki

    Hi Lucille,

    Thank you for opening up authentic discussion about IFS and misconceptions/limitations. I arrived here after a 20 year hiatus from IFS. I recently began a Ketamine program which utilizes the IFS model for those interested or already versed in. So I was delighted to discover my guide has done the work with himself and many many others.

    However, we seem to be laser focused on parts work- and after reading your blog and watching your Youtube video, I’m aware of how your identified myths have entered my experience.

    1) We approach the parts as static and discreet entities.
    2) All inner experiences are cataloged in reference to these.
    3) We are approaching it as a one map model.
    3) The self is seen as the goal– Heal these discreet parts through the formal sequence to the point they feel safe and integrate harmoniously so that I live in a place of Self all the time.

    The first few Ketamine / IFS sessions went well, in that I already knew some Exiles (who seem to have the most consistent identities) and a good familiarity with manager clusters and firefighters. However….

    As I don’t dissociate, have visions or “visualize” as many do, my connection with parts is via emotional states and memories. I work with them on a level that doesn’t fit in with the medicine’s stated effect. This led to the question of whether some parts didn’t trust the medicine’s capacity to open me up more. So then we focused on the parts who might be protecting. Then the parts that criticized me for not having the experience as it “should” be. (there’s that “Should”)

    Initially I spent time with a primary exile and immediately accessed the ability to witness, compassionately embrace and love her. She began to leave her dark box and sit outside and play. Another exile part allowed me to return to specific instances of trauma and be with her. Again, I had the ability to soothe, re-parent and actually change the scenario so she was protected by love.

    But… in my last session, I experienced a totality of emotional pain and no part emerged, no self showed up, and I determined I had to let the excruciating process happen. (I could have sat up and walked away but didn’t). This felt like re-traumatization. And the focus on working with parts locked me in conceptually to enduring this.

    Now there’s more questioning concerning what parts were involved with this– when in retrospect and having read your Myths, I think the current approach is actually denying me, and subtly forcing me, to rely on a system which blocks me from responding to my parts needs. ie- that there is only one map and one technique.

    There are exiles from physical trauma as an infant who utterly cannot be alone in the dark suffering. But I soldiered on, rather than getting up, self-soothing, creating co-regulation with another human, somatic practice, or using the many other tools I have for working with trauma.

    This leads to another Myth embedded in IFS I’m considering. That it has to be done in stillness, that being with pain is a good way to proceed if you can get to the parts that may be keeping it in that state. That relating to parts should be while sitting contemplatively and the only acceptable emoting is a good cry.

    This is played out in the ketamine sessions too. I’ve suggested not using eyeshades and sitting up, as is the safe way to proceed and which my exiles need. But noooo, the procedure is to create a state where you can “go in” without distractions.

    That one is supposed to work with anything only in a static, passive physical way– just isn’t how a human lives life, nor should we be put in a container of practice (not just a script) which may not suite the needs of parts.

    I know the Ketamine element is a wild card. I chose it for the neuro-plasticity and its help with depression. Since I’m old school with Schwartz’s initial techniques, our approach seemed fitting but now I’m realizing this approach has the potential to harm me. If I, the living being who has the intuition to give my parts what they need, is limited to only a certain way of practice, Im denied the very thing which heals.

    So a HUGE thanks and I’ll be sending your article to my guide. And yes, I’m going to be taking a different approach!

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    Reply
    • Lucille Aaron-Wayne

      Hi Kiki, I read your comment with baited breath. Thank you for sharing with everyone and breaking down in detail how these myths are showing up. It sounds like this myth-busting comes at a critical moment – kudos to you for being open to it.

      What I really hear is how that inner voice, your inner compass, is functioning properly – and how important it is to you to honor that. You’re not okay with ceding your inner knowing to anything – not even to the model of IFS.

      That’s the greatest self-healing lesson we can learn and live.

      Go Kiki!

      Reply
  5. Constanzia

    I read your Reddit AMA then came here. It helped me with questions I havr about whether it’s safe to do IFS on my own. Cuz I’ve tried it but it got really big like a whole intense thing. I guess I’m not sure I’m doing it the way were supposed to. I appreciate it’s fine to meet different parts and if there are new parts that’s allright. My question for you is what if IFS used to go places but now every time I try it doesn’t feel like it’s going anywhere. Not meeting new parts even?

    Reply
    • Lucille Aaron-Wayne

      Hi Constanzia,

      My question for you is what if IFS used to go places but now every time I try it doesn’t feel like it’s going anywhere.

      Having solo IFS work great then stop working is a common experience – it happened to me years ago, too! Often this indicates that a Part (usually a Manager) has taken over the solo IFS process. When this happens, other Parts become reluctant to participate. Another possibility is that the prior solo sessions felt too intense to the system and a Protector Part wants to make sure you don’t get overwhelmed, so it shuts down the process. Of course, every situation and system is unique and there’s no one solution. Have you checked out my IFS Mastermind? It’s a weekly program in which I guide you directly in the moment through dealing with these kind of issues – to make IFS your healing tool while honoring your system. We kick off a new virtual retreat the first week of September!

      Reply
  6. Heather

    One of the aspects of IFS I have been struggling with is the idea that we are born with all our parts and then they get assigned roles. And then I juxtapose this with the concept that parts can have parts (and sub-parts can have parts too!) Are we born with all of those!? I just don’t have a good concept of where parts actually come from. So I really liked what you said in the video about parts and neural networks–ah parts can be like fleeting thoughts, a network that sparks briefly, or can be like the myelinated highways in our brains that are with us always.

    Reply
    • Lucille Aaron-Wayne

      Heather, fabulous that the neuroscience lens lands with you … neuro-nerds unite! 😄 I love the way you describe some parts as briefly-sparked neural networks and others as myelinated highways. That lands with my personal and clinical experience. Parts of parts, yes – for me when IFS concepts start to feel detached from meaning or usefulness, I remember we can hold IFS as a metaphor. No one knows if IFS is literally true. (aka do we literally have parts inside of us? Or is that a metaphor for something that feels like parts?) Regardless, if we act as if IFS is true, it works – at least for matters close to the model. Here’s a litmus test I pull out with IFS and theoretical matters if overwhelm starts to rise: Is this particular conceptualization useful and practical? Or is it intellectually interesting but taking me away from the actual healing (and sense of meaning)? This is getting afield of what you brought up, however! Re. are we born with all of these parts, have you heard Dick say that we’re born with the seeds for these parts, but they arise/develop as we age? Thanks so much for taking the time to comment!

      Reply
      • Kate

        Hmm.. the neuroscience lense actually makes me feel that parts may appear later. We form neural pathways as we grow, so wouldn’t that mean that parts may come and go (in adolescence with pruning)

        Reply
  7. Martin

    Great initiative Lucille! IFS needs to have genuine discussion and critique around it so that it can evolve and improve if needed.

    I feel that when parts are given too much of an identity, it can become problematic in some ways. For me it can feel like you’re forcing or creating this identity of this part and almost giving it too much power over you. Would be interested to hear your thoughts on the necessity of giving parts such a strong identity. In my experience you can gain their trust as long as you come with Self energy, and they don’t need to be given a whole life and personality of their own. After all, they are a part in your system, a part of you. They don’t necessarily be their whole own person. This seems to be a common thing that people write about on forums, and it feels like something that may be holding a lot of people back.

    Is this the fragmentation that the commenter above wrote about?

    Reply
    • Lucille Aaron-Wayne

      Hi Martin, your voice is so welcome to this convo.

      I feel that when parts are given too much of an identity, it can become problematic in some ways. For me it can feel like you’re forcing or creating this identity of this part and almost giving it too much power over you.

      Right! This can unfold in an IFS session as overly shmoozing with Protector Parts. It’s an art to find the line, but if we spend more time with our Protectors than is necessary (instead of helping the Exiles) we wind up colluding with the system’s natural preference to maintain the status quo.

      After all, they are a part in your system, a part of you. They don’t necessarily be their whole own person.

      Good point. Just as we don’t want to overly emphasize Self (my Myths Part 2 video addresses this), overly emphasizing Parts isn’t balanced either. And if there’s a compulsion to do so, we can check: Is another Part trying to make us do this? Maybe a Good Student or IFS Enthusiast Part, or someone else?
      This does speak to the fragmentation idea. I view IFS as part (no pun intended) of the healing process, and integration as another. The goal is to be able to feel like a coherent person and not have awareness of our parts prevent that.
      Do you want to share an example of what it can look like when there’s an over-emphasis of a part’s life / personality?

      Reply
  8. Gerd Muller

    The use of the word ‘myth’ itself creates greater disagreements. Another word may be more appropriate.
    “Myths are clues to the spiritual potentialities of the human life,” Joseph Campbell
    I see if I can come up with a word which would succinctly identify our tendency of wanting to own the truth versus the false.

    Reply
    • Lucille Aaron-Wayne

      Hi Gerd, welcome 🤗 Disagreement is welcome, too – we often grow the most from conflict! I’m comfortable with the word myth myself. Are any of the ideas in this list of 7 new for you?

      Reply
  9. Wondering about Wisdom

    I appreciate your openness, and your willingness to speak up. For me, as you said “IFS wasn’t the problem all along”. It seems to me that it’s partly people speaking for IFS, giving their interpretation as “the real one”, that can sway others into believing things like “I should be in Self all the time” or things like that. Or it is parts of ourselves that figure- well if Self is good, more self is better. I have some concerned parts that with your “this is the truth” statements about the myths, you might play into that also. But that’s for each of the readers and their inner systems to determine for themselves. How is it affecting us? Like you, we all need to determine what feels healthy or unhealthy to take in as beliefs, and examine them sometimes to see if they still hold. PS- I did like most of what you said in the video about your experiences. Just not the tone of “now here’s the truth”

    Reply
    • Lucille Aaron-Wayne

      Hi Wondering, I appreciate your taking the time to share your thoughts! This kind of critical dialogue is exactly what this comments section is for. Across my work I emphasize people finding their own wisdom and I see your point with the “truth” language. That shows up specifically in my myths series as a counterpart to the word “myth.” Maybe there’s an alternative word – do you have any ideas?

      Reply
    • Heather

      Parts of me had similar thoughts about the “here’s the truth” aspect of countering these myths. I have some parts with names, and at the moment they like their names. So the issue in the myth is not with parts having names, it is with the blanket idea of “all” parts having names. Some do, some don’t.

      Reply
      • Lucille Aaron-Wayne

        Awesome you’re replying to Wondering’s comment, Heather. I love this dialogue.

        So the issue in the myth is not with parts having names, it is with the blanket idea of “all” parts having names. Some do, some don’t.

        Right, exactly! In some cases, honoring a part’s name can be a significant aspect of building a relationship with that part. There’s no one way it plays out with names. That’s kind of what my truths all say, actually! I’m all for moderation and “it depends.”

        Reply
  10. Mark Cowden

    Finally some ifs criticism. It’s hard to take things seriously when people are positive all the time. I saw something about about IFS and fragmentation. Can you talk about that?

    Reply
    • Lucille Aaron-Wayne

      Hi Mark, I hear you – pretty much everything has positives and negatives. Fragmentation is one of my most passionate critiques of IFS and I’ll cover it in a future post. Basically IFS is very good at differentiation (untangling what’s going on inside, done by identifying parts). But if taken too far we can become one-sided with it and start to feel fragmented. That is, we lose a sense of wholeness because we’re constantly identifying parts. Does that help?

      Reply
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