One of the most common myths of IFS is the idea that if we speak the magic words, healing will commence.
In this third blog post of the IFS Myths Series, we are going to take a careful look at this myth because the truth is more complex than a simple RIGHT or WRONG.
- Precisely worded IFS questions can unlock healing more effectively than winging it
- Using imprecise wording makes IFS less effective
- However, over-centering the IFS script can crowd out Self-energy
- Your healing can flourish without the exact right IFS questions (it just might not be IFS)
- The founder of IFS discovered the “right” questions for Parts intuitively … and you can, too!
IFS is a beautifully dialed in therapy technique, so let’s explore how to use it authentically.
Precision and efficiency are important with IFS
There is a common sentiment that to heal with IFS, you must follow a certain prescribed script. As a longtime IFS therapist, my response is: That’s accurate, but not 100% true. Let me explain.
IFS therapy is unusually dialed in, even more so than other therapies in terms of the sequence of how to do it.
This is by design.
The founder of IFS, Richard Schwartz, worked many, many years to identify the exact wording that reveals why Parts behave the way they do. These questions go in a sequence that, as long as trust continues to be built, lead to the core wounding so that it can be healed. That’s the Exile.
Here’s an example: Imagine you’re talking with a Protector Part that makes you feel irritated when someone says something playful during a serious discussion. Let’s say this Protector has identified its job as protecting your focus.
Consider the difference between asking a Protector Part:
Imprecise Response: “Why do you do this?
Precise IFS Question: “What are you afraid will happen if you don’t do this job?”
Those seven words make a significant difference: What are you afraid will happen if … Why?
Problems with imprecise wording
In response to the imprecise question, the Protector might tell a wandering story that mixes the salient points with lots of other information.
These stories often include:
- Justifications of how much more effective this approach is than other Protectors’ approaches. “If I don’t do this, the People Pleasing Part will take over.”
- Venting about the trigger and past similar situations. “So-and-so isn’t paying attention to what I’m trying to say and he always does that and it’s just like my brother used to do…”
When this happens, we wind up mediating between different Protectors or immersed in a litany of complaints of similar instances from the past. We’re heading away from the thrust of lasting healing. Why? We’re no longer heading towards the original wound (towards the Exile). Towards the deepest why behind that Protector’s job.
In IFS, the exact wording has been developed with a lot of care to unlock what is needed for healing more efficiently and precisely.
What are you afraid will happen if you don’t do this job?
We’ve talked about how imprecise wording can lead to all sorts of answers that meander away from the traditional IFS healing trajectory.
Instead, precise IFS questions (like the one above) help a Protector focus on the feared wounding it’s trying to avoid. Precise questions invite a Protector to reveal the inner vulnerability it’s protecting, aka the Exile.
Inefficient IFS is costly, both financially and emotionally
Let’s talk about what happens when we don’t do IFS efficiently.
Is there value in building trust with Parts through a leisurely, lingering getting-to-know-you experience that doesn’t use any of the precisely worded IFS key questions? Sure. Does that justify not attending to a young, very vulnerable part that is desperate for help?
Well, what do you think?
My answer is a clear no.
Doing IFS inefficiently can undermine the system’s trust in your ability to facilitate powerful healing of the underlying Exile.
Sure, in theory listening to every single thing a Protector wants to share is fine and valuable. Perhaps it even builds trust. You could also argue the opposite, however.
Unburdened Exiles are suffering right now. The sooner we can help them, the better. Precisely worded IFS questions are so valuable because they help us be relieve the Exiles as soon as possible.
Lingering in the Protectors’ comfort zone – where they share about themselves but don’t show you the deepest why – can collude with their aversion to change.
In addition, there’s the issue of resources. Our love for the parts inside of us might be unlimited, but time and finances are not. If you’re doing IFS with a therapist, your sessions have a set duration. (Same thing if you’re following my solo IFS framework. A preset duration is a powerful way to provide containment.) Sessions give us a special opportunity where a heightened level of healing is possible. Outside of sessions, we can be with our parts in any way we want! But is it in the best interest of your system to spend that special session time milling about and schmoozing with Protectors? The answer can differ from person to person or situation to situation. (For example, if you’re working with a new therapist maybe it doesn’t feel right to go to that vulnerable area right away.) But whatever the answer, you can ask yourself the question.
Schmoozing with Protectors
Too often, IFS therapists linger in the getting-to-know-Parts arena. Sadly, many IFS or IFS-informed therapists rarely – if ever – keep the focus on reaching Exiles. Let alone help Exiles unburden! This is typically because the therapists are:
- Uncertain about what to do when they reach the Exiles.
- Unaware of how important it is.
But whatever the reason, overly schmoozing with Protectors keeps the transformative powers of IFS out of reach.
Staying focused even when change is slow
Asking precise, intentionally worded IFS questions doesn’t guarantee we’ll get to an Exile soon, but it does keep our focus pointed in that direction.
As a psychotherapist, I prioritize finding Exiles so that we can help alleviate their suffering. And whether it’s quick or takes a long time, healing Exiles is always the trust and direction of our IFS work.
If we’re using the IFS script, the most common reason for delayed unburdening is that a Protector isn’t ready to let us meet the Exile. We don’t try to trick or push over the Protector, ever. But if we keep our attention on the precise IFS phrasing, we maintain our focus in the Exile’s direction. This means that the subsequent conversations and trust-building we do with the Protector is all in the service of going to the Exile (no matter how long it takes).
Let’s imagine a Protector has said you can’t meet the Exile it’s keeping safe. Consider the difference between asking Protectors these trust-building questions:
Imprecise Question: Ok, what do you want to do instead?
Precise IFS Wording: What are you afraid will happen if you let me connect with the Exile?
- With the Precise Question you can feel the passion for the uncontacted Exile! We’re showing that our inner eye is on that raw vulnerability, and that we’re not abandoning it.
Classic IFS Questions for Parts
So what are some precisely worded IFS questions?
When you encounter a Part, you can ask:
- What does the Part look like?
- What colors or textures or physical sensations come with the Part?
- When you notice a Part, how do you feel towards that Part?
These questions help the Part become more vivid, which helps it un-blend from you. This enables you to connect with the Part.
When you meet a Protector, you can ask:
- What is the Part’s job?
- When did it get this job?
- What is it afraid would happen if it weren’t doing this job?
These questions help us get to understand the Protector’s perspective and – as we’ve talked about! – point us towards the Exile.
Myth: The IFS Script is Enough
Now that we’ve established that exact IFS wording is important, let’s look deeper at the opposite idea: the assumption that if we ask the right questions healing will unfold.
Unfortunately, if we simply try to follow a particular script to the T in our IFS therapy journey we are not guaranteed to heal. Let’s cover the main reasons why.
Sometimes traditional questions don’t apply to your particular part
- Questions about what a Part looks like don’t work for people who can’t see their parts.
- Sometimes a Protector doesn’t can’t tell you when it got its job because it feels it’s always had it, or it simply doesn’t remember.
- There are countless other reasons a specific IFS question might not yield a clear answer.
It’s okay when this happens! We can then bring in our creativity and ask a different question – while still keeping our focus and intent on staying connected to that Part as it points towards the Exile.
Worry & Self-Like Parts
If we are pushing a particular script or find ourselves worrying and thinking things like…
“Oh no! Healing is not going well,” or “This session is off the rails because we’ve stopped following the script,”
… then those are unnecessary worries.
And guess what happens next?
That stress detracts from your IFS therapy session.
Worrying about following the script can create a feedback loop where we get more and more concerned with failing that we get more and more out of Self, the true source of healing.
There’s a bit of a paradox here because following a script can inadvertently get us intellectual or goal-driven instead of being authentic with our Parts. As we learn the precise IFS wording, we might accidentally blend with a Self-Like Part such as an IFS Enthusiast or Good Student – or even the Therapist Self-Like Part. Whenever we’re blended with a Part, it can crowd out Self-energy, which is absolutely critical to healing and even more important than precision of questions.
Fortunately, I have a touchstone that can be an antidote for you …
Intuition created IFS
What The History Of IFS Teaches Us About Scripts
When you are with your parts, you can remember the person who developed IFS, Dick Schwartz. As a pioneer with this approach, Dick was able to help his clients heal without having a script. He had to develop this particular set of questions.
So how did he do it?
He was simply present and really paying attention to his clients.
And that is the baseline. That quality of open attention is the most healing thing you can do.
Dick discovered the “right” questions for Parts intuitively … and you can, too – from a place of authenticity.
Truth: Authenticity Is Key
As mentioned, the most common reason the IFS script isn’t unlocking healing is if we’re asking questions from a Part instead of from Self.
The questions and “script” itself is not what brings healing – it’s the way YOU perceive your parts and interact with them. Precisely worded IFS questions are a useful tool, but the prerequisite is Self-energy. The real place from which we can help Parts heal is an energy of genuine presence and openness.
Authenticity is more important than asking any particular question or following any particular script or sequence.
If you have that authenticity, you are on the right track to healing, even if a particular question doesn’t have an answer or you don’t remember to ask it.
The truth you can replace this false idea with is: Authenticity is the key to healing with IFS.
By digging into this myth and unveiling the truth about following a script for IFS, I hope you can feel the ease and flow that comes with this form of therapy and healing. As with most things in life, it’s a dance between two opposites. We balance between preset wording and in-the-moment presence, between precision and creativity. Where that exact line is for you, you will discover on your own … and it will likely be different each time!
- IFS is meant to be open and authentic, and not feel rigidly scripted.
- The precisely worded IFS questions are an aide to reduce static and free healing to unfold more fluidly.
It is meant to follow your lead and where your Parts are telling you to look and explore so you can seek deep healing.