Your Comprehensive IFS Guide: What to Expect from Your First IFS Therapy Session

January 12, 2023
meeting your IFS therapist for the first time

In some ways, an IFS session resembles any other therapy hour. But in other ways, parts work feels wildly different. So whether you’re still in the research phase or you’ve made your first appointment, let’s calm those nerves and reveal exactly what you can expect from a session with this “revolutionary” approach.

I wrote this for you if:

  • You’re considering IFS therapy—so you can learn more about the getting-started process and decide if IFS is for you!
  • You’ve made your first appointment—so you can ensure you make the most of your first session…

… you know, that appointment with an IFS therapist that was arguably harder to land than a spaceship on the moon. (Even though I’m on the therapist side, I’ve searched for an IFS therapist to refer people to. It feels like winning the lottery to finally land that spot! I can just imagine your happy dance of: I finally found an IFS therapist near me!)

So now it’s on the calendar, and you start to wonder, “Is there anything I need to know or prepare before I go?” If this first session feels like venturing into unfamiliar territory, that’s because it is new, vulnerable territory. 

But rest assured. In this article, you’ll learn:

  • What kinds of questions your therapist will ask
  • What will be going on under the surface (shh!)
  • The most important thing to pay attention to in your very first IFS session … that no one talks about!

Good news: Let’s Breathe a Sigh of Relief

Embarking on therapy launches you into a courageous quest for those profound benefits of inner clarity, a feeling of peace, and and the joy of truly knowing your Self and understanding your Parts. It’s truly life-changing.

Because people like you and I care so much, the urge to “do therapy right” and be ultra-prepared is common and very normal, but … Do you really need to pack a compass, extra socks, and rations for the hike to your new therapist’s office? Nope. No trail mix required. 

You don’t have to prepare anything.

Not a thing! Isn’t that nice? All you need to bring to your therapist’s office:

  • Yourself
  • An effort to be authentic—both with your new therapist and with yourself. 

The great thing about IFS is that you don’t need to know how it works at all in order to have a fantastic, transformative experience with it. You don’t need to plan or prepare anything specific in order to engage with your session.

Logistic Note

When scheduling your session, you might want to arrange decompression time afterwards. This will encourage your session to sink in while you return to regular life. An hour is usually plenty of transition time. Less is fine too. (Skip down to read more about after your first IFS session. Or keep reading in order!)

A man pauses to reflect in his room before leaving for his first IFS therapy session

Optional: A Moment Inwards Before Beginning

Before you physically step into your first IFS therapy session (or click into your therapist’s online telehealth room), you might like to gift yourself a bit of time to get grounded.

You can think about what you want to accomplish – or even what you’re curious about. Like I said above, you don’t have to prepare an annotated list or a full biography! But if it feels right, you can pause before leaving for your appointment. Or, take a moment in your car after you park, or before you ring the doorbell, or before you click “enter Zoom meeting.” 

Take a moment to take a breath, close your eyes, and go inwards. You can:

  • Check what’s asking for attention. Notice any emotions, thoughts, memories, or even Parts, if you can easily identify them. (It’s okay if you can’t, and it’s okay if you’re not sure what you’re feeling.)
  • Gather your thoughts about why you’ve sought out IFS therapy and what you hope to gain from it.

Why?:

With just this little moment of inward focus, you’ll be better prepared to jump right in. This will deepen your Self-trust and center you as the leader of your inner system. Rather than centering your new therapist – as helpful as they’ll be – as your leader!

Of course, if you are feeling too overwhelmed, disregulated, or just plain don’t want to do this, that’s perfectly alright too! A talented therapist will be able to ground you no matter how you come in.

You can show up feeling exactly as you are, without centering or gathering your thoughts. The beautiful thing about IFS therapy is that it is custom-fit to your needs, and no one else’s. 

So, put the backpack and GPS down, (we already have enough baggage as it is!) and let’s talk about what a first-time IFS session really involves once you enter that door. (At the end of this, we’ll talk about what sessions might look like as you continue your work, too.)

Getting Started: Assessing Your Therapist’s Qualifications

Lucille welcomes in client to first IFS therapy session

After you show up at the office and introduce yourselves, your therapist will likely ask questions to get to know you. 

Just as she gets to know you, you’re also getting to know her. Some questions you can ask your therapist (if you haven’t already) include:

  • Are you officially trained in IFS by the IFS Institute? 
  • How long have you been practicing IFS since being trained? 
  • Do you have any other qualifications? (This is especially important if you’re located in Europe or outside US.)
  • Will we be doing pure IFS each session? 
  • Do you combine IFS with other modalities?

The most important one to ask is this: Are you licensed as a mental health professional? Many people don’t know that anyone can get trained and certified in IFS, not just mental health professionals. Your house-painter can become an IFS practitioner! (I used to paint houses, so I can say that 😉 )

Some people are not upfront about their qualifications or misrepresent them, knowing many seekers of IFS therapy are not savvy enough to ask discerning questions. (For example: I’ve seen misrepresentations like a non-therapist calling themselves “PhD” or “MA” when their graduate degrees are completely unrelated to therapy). Add to this confusion: a Master’s degree in psychotherapy is not the same as being legally licensed or registered as a mental health professional.

Why would you ask how long your therapist has been officially trained in IFS? I observe a significant difference between those recently trained and those with years of experience – as you’d expect! Those of us who’ve been doing IFS for a decade or more hold it differently than those who are newer, and that is reflected in the therapy you’ll receive. No-brainer maybe, but it’s worth noting, because if you have a less-than-wonderful experience with a newer IFS therapist, that doesn’t mean IFS doesn’t work – you might choose to try a more experienced IFS therapist with a more matured IFS approach. 

It’s totally fine to do IFS sessions with someone who’s not a fully qualified therapist, or newly trained in IFS, if you’re making an informed choice. I want you to be equipped to make a choice with your eyes wide open when it comes to the vulnerable territory of your psychic material. 

(Note: on the IFS Institute directory, only qualified mental health professionals get the title “Certified IFS therapist.” All others are called “practitioners.” However, this is not easy to see on the directory and it doesn’t influence what people put on their websites, so it’s wise to check.)

On the Surface: What Your IFS Therapist will Ask You

Let’s start with how IFS looks like any other traditional talk therapy.

psychotherapist takes notes in her therapy clinic office

Questions To Expect In Any First Therapy Session

Mind-blowing, I know: Your therapist will start getting to know you. (Any therapist, not just an IFS one!)

She’ll ask some general questions about your life story, and details like age, family, and profession. You can share a bit of your background and start to feel seen. Standard stuff for a new therapy relationship.

Your therapist will also ask why you’re seeking therapy now, what brought you in their office today, and what you hope to gain from it in the long term. She’ll want to make sure you’re on the same page.

IFS-Specific Questions

All of this getting-to-know-you will be happening on the surface (and we’ll get into the underlying structure later in this article – keep reading!) An IFS therapist is likely to get an overview by asking:

  • Tell me about long-term feelings or behavior patterns that are bothering you. This identifies Parts or clusters of Parts that work together or against each other. (For example: A Part that procrastinates and another Part that berates you for procrastinating. Ahh, the cycle!)
  • How do you feel about this behavior pattern? This identifies how other Parts of you relate to the initial part. (For example: You might feel dismayed when the procrastination cycle begins.)
  • What do you do when this feeling happens? How do you respond? This shows other parts that get active, such as Self-Like Parts (For example: Doom scrolling while the stalemate continues in your head.) It’s also the beginning of making space for Self

Your therapist will likely give you a general overview of the therapy process, and possibly of IFS itself. (If you want more in-depth information about IFS, check out my What is IFS Therapy? blog post.

Your therapist might or might not go into exact definitions or even use IFS terminology. That’s because doing so can get you into analysis mode. It can also make you worry about “doing therapy right.” (Both “analysis mode” and “doing therapy right” stem from Parts, by the way!) 

Of course, you can ask questions about IFS as therapy progresses, but a theoretical understand is not the focus. You can get much of that from books. What’s special about an IFS session is being with your Parts, and that’s much deeper than grasping IFS concepts. 

So, if your therapist isn’t going to give you a seminar in IFS, what will she do?

What’s Happening Under the Surface in an IFS Session

therapist doing IFS parts mapping in lamplight

Parts Mapping

In these early sessions, an IFS therapist will often spend time just getting the lay of the land (your psychic terrain) and meeting Parts. This will give her a sense of how your unique psyche is structured, point towards the deep woundings and opportunities for healing (aka Exiles). 

This bird’s eye assessment is called Parts Mapping. It’s the process of identifying Parts and sketching out how those different Parts are connected—what relationship they have to each other. There will likely be thought and feeling patterns you recognize—and some you didn’t even realize were going on (but now make so much sense).

metaphor for seeing under the surface of therapy with the roots of trees

What Parts Work is Happening Under the Surface?

As you have more IFS therapy sessions, the Parts Mapping is likely to take up less and less of the sessions. Actually connecting and working with the parts is likely to fill more. Within the first 15 minutes of a session, your therapist will probably help you decide which Part to work with first. 

As your therapist observes and interacts with you, she’ll probably start referring to those feelings or thought patterns as a ‘part’. 

Wait a minute,” you might say. “But I am myself, right? If I’m not myself already, then are you saying I’m someone else?”

Well, the IFS model says our inner world is made up of Parts and Self. Self is the most authentic version of us, the version that should be in control, but frequently… isn’t. Instead, it’s often our Parts that are in control—our fretful, organized, judgemental Managers, or our quick-thinking but short-sighted Firefighters, perhaps. 

Even in that very first session,you’ll likely experience those Parts in a new way—simply by recognizing they are parts of you (and not the whole you). That’s a big deal! We call it “Unblending.” In fact, you might become consciously acquainted with a Part for the very first time! 

Oh, is this me or a Part speaking? Well, then, who is this? What does this Part have to say? I’m so curious…

Your therapist will likely encourage you to tune into whatever strong feelings you’re having and notice if it creates any physical sensations in your body or brings up images or memories. This is called Flushing Out the Part

Then, you can begin to listen to that Part’s point of view, and you’ll notice how you feel towards the Part. If you’re feeling open and interested, your therapist will support you in getting to know the initial part even better. (That’s because feeling open and interested often means you’re in Self – see below to learn more.) You can find out what role this Part plays in your own Internal Family System. For example: Why is this part so passionate about this work it does inside you?

Our parts are really entire personalities in themselves. They have their own life stories, histories, and memories. They also have their own relationships between and among each other. (Did you realize there was so much going on inside of you all the time?) 

illustration of internal family systems concept of Self as parent

Will I Get to Experience Self in my IFS Session? 

If our inner world is made up of Parts and Self, then at your first session, you might encounter Self. “How will I know if I’m in Self? What if I don’t, does that mean I don’t have Self?” you might be thinking. 

I hear you. (And I’ve been there with those exact worries, too!) Let’s do a brief review. The IFS model defines capital-S Self as our immutable, indestructible core. Self is the You that’s really, truly, deeply YOU. It’s you at your most confident, compassionate, present, and calm. Sounds pretty amazing? It is. In fact, your Self is all those things! 

However, Parts have to be willing to make space for Self, and it can take time for them to become aware that Self exists at all, let alone trust Self enough to give it space to lead. In other words, a lot of conditions need to be right in order to fill with Self-energy.

Does this sound like a lot for a first session? That’s okay. You might encounter Self even at your first session, but you might not. Either way, that’s okay, because the therapist can be there to hold and call in Self energy to the space. If you do, this usually happens when both you and your therapist are in Self-energy—when both of you feel loving and open and present, and especially when you feel loving and open towards your Parts. Or, you might be in Self and not even realize it. You don’t need to be conscious of it—in fact, it can be more powerful if you’re not. But not to worry, your therapist is tracking.

When Self arises, you may only glimpse it for a moment, or see a hint or promise of it – like the fleeting movement of a small animal on the trail ahead, which starts to flutter anticipation and curiosity in your heart. No matter how much Self you get in this first session, I promise: You do have Self. And you’ll get closer and closer to Self through more IFS therapy sessions.

To review, let’s be super clear: It’s not a failure if you don’t experience Self in your first IFS session. What we do want – what we do expect – is for you to feel the beginnings or acceptance, love and safety working with your therapist. And, by the way, that acceptance, love, and safety is connected to Self!

example of exile part in IFS as lonely boy in forest

Exiles, where are you? 

Speaking of Parts, there’s one Part we haven’t met yet — in this article, at least. You may meet this Part in your first IFS therapy session. Sometimes, your system may be really ready to meet an Exile, and sometimes, an Exile is in so much pain that they’re desperate to be seen and acknowledged. Either way, meeting an Exile is meeting one of the youngest, most vulnerable Parts, and it can be very intense and even frightening for some of your other Parts. (Get an overview of Exiles here.)

Even if you (read: Parts) feel overwhelmed, though, your IFS therapist will know how to deal help. We have tools to increase your felt safety, such as: 

  • Therapist sharing their Self-energy: That sense of safety, curiosity, and compassion, so it can awaken in your or at least be felt by your scared parts.
  • Encouraging any scared parts to rest somewhere safe, and letting the real you (in Self) be with the Exile 
  • Asking the Exile to lower the intensity so you can be with it (and not be drowned out by its intense emotions)

Making it safe for Exiles to step out from the shadows is a key part of the IFS therapy process. Your therapist will ensure that, as you encounter an Exile —whether on your first session, or your twentieth—you are surrounded by Self energy. Instead of being (unintentionally) held hostage by your Exile and all of the complex, hidden feelings they hold and experience, your therapist will help you connect and bear witness to it.

And when this happens? 

You’ll feel fundamentally different – healed – deep inside!

After your first IFS Session

What’s it going to be like right after that session? And how about in your future IFS sessions? Let’s take a look so you know what to expect.

How to Return to your Everyday Life After Your Therapy Session

blue door in Tsfat Israel like a passageway between dimensions of therapy and regular life

As your first session winds down, your therapist will help you let your Parts know that the session is coming to a close. You’ll be coming back, but now it’s time to go about your day. 

Depending on what you have going on next, you and your therapist might make a plan for which parts to invite back. For example, if you have to return to work, you might call in a Protector part—on purpose—to help you manage. (Yet another example of how our Parts provide such valuable service—they’re always at the ready!) In fact, consciously inviting in Protectors to do their jobs builds trust in your system because it shows how much you appreciate their work. And that lays the foundation for an inner well-being that will grow and grow with IFS.

The IFS therapist might or might not suggest consciously working with the Parts between sessions. It really depends on you, and what’s right for your own journey. Working with Parts between sessions could be helpful, as it keeps you conscious of Parts, which makes it easier to unblend. It also can build trust in the system. 

However, if you have very active Firefighters, or Exiles that often take over your system (and blend with you) it can be wise to save that for sessions and allow your Managers and/or the greater wisdom of the sum of your parts help you simply get through the week. Another reason the therapist might not want you to work with Parts between sessions is if you have Parts that impersonate Self. These Self-Like Parts can hijack the IFS process for their own purposes, which would make your system less trusting of IFS, and that would have to be undone in the next IFS session. 

(There’s so much to say about Self-Like Parts! More than could fit in this post… in the future, I’ll explore them further in their own article.)

So much to think about! Your therapist will guide you and help set a context for after the session, so that your work together is productive, and your time apart is best suited to your specific IFS journey. You can read more about doing IFS between sessions in this article.

Future IFS Sessions

In future sessions, this process will unfold and you’ll go through different clusters of Parts (Parts that are bonded together via shared tactics, or via disagreeing with each other) and through different layers. Over time, trust will build between your Protectors and you, and there will be space for Self energy more often. You’ll get into the Eiles more, and you may experience Unburdening. Unburdening deserves its own blog post (stay tuned for that in the future!) but the short definition of Unburdening is taking the time to specifically identify the emotion connected to a Part in order to release it.

What’s Special About IFS Therapy vs. Traditional Therapy

holding different spheres of therapy like IFS

In IFS, the heart of the work is doing healing rather than simply talking about it or trying to intellectually understand the wounds. (And I want to emphasize, those do have their place in therapy too! They’re just different from IFS.) IFS is more interested in engaging with the parts than in talking about them. That said, it can take a little time to get there. 

The first IFS session might not go as deep as later ones because a responsible therapist will want to establish trust before opening up deep vulnerabilities. (And for your system to start trusting them, it takes real time); and because it’s important to know if you’ll be continuing with this therapist before going deep, and both you and the therapist will likely need to meet and ensure it’s a good fit before committing to continuing long-term.

My Top Tip: This is the single most important expectation for your first IFS therapy session

man checks inwards and journals to build self-trust in therapy

I want to make sure that we address the most important aspect of this whole process: Your trust in yourself, and your comfort with this therapist. IFS has, at its heart, the goal of building trust within our own inner system.

So it’s vital to have a trustworthy therapist to hold that trust-nurturing space around you as while you explore these intense feelings. 

I’d like to encourage you to help yourself: Check in with yourself and notice how you feel—both in the first instant you meet this new therapist, and as the session unfolds.

I talk about your inner compass a lot. It’s like the voice inside of you which knows when something is (or isn’t) right for you. You can check in with that inner compass throughout your session and afterwards to see if you’re getting any messages about the fit with this particular therapist

And don’t worry if it’s not clear yet. Our psyches often need more information before they can reach a conclusion. But whatever happens, I want to offer you a promise that you’ll check in with yourself. 

Building a responsible, trusting relationship with yourself is the most important ingredient for therapy—and the heart of successful IFS. 

In-person or on-screen, your IFS therapist should make you feel safe. 

Lucille, why can’t you show us a sample IFS session?

You know, I truly wish I could, and of course, I can’t disclose anything that’s shared between me and a client. Even though I’ve had non-clients who have been willing to do a sample session for exactly this purpose, it just hasn’t felt right to share it. I have so much respect for this process, and that the information is so sacred, I don’t believe I can. However, if you want more of a live taste of IFS, why not find out what your own Parts feel like? If you are curious about doing an IFS session yourself, click here to download my free audio guide and workbook, which shares a step-by-step guide for soul seekers who want to learn solo IFS . 

Also, if you’re raring to start YOUR first IFS session, book a consult with me!

I’ve discounted this initial consultation because it’s a first session – and I strongly believe that you have the right to be informed before significantly committing emotionally or financially to this work.

I’d love to hear from you. Do you have questions about your first IFS session? Share with me in the comments.

Resources:
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