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  • Writer's pictureSean Cuthbert

Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy and Attachment Theory

Updated: Mar 17, 2023

Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy is an attachment-focused model of therapy where the attachment process can be seen to be taken inside. Just as when children attach outwards to their parents to find a sense of safety, in IFS, parts attach inwards to the Self, finding a safe haven and consequent nervous system regulation. While many attachment-focused therapies tend to focus on the corrective experience that occurs between the therapist and client, in IFS this becomes somewhat secondary to the facilitation of a healing connection between the client’s Self, and their protective and wounded parts that hold the residues of traumatic experiences. The client’s Self provides the corrective experience, and in particular, the relationship between the Self and the vulnerable parts leads to inner, and ultimately, outer transformation.

Outer attachment - or what is commonly just called attachment - is where children attach outwardly to the parents or caregivers, and in the safe connection, the children achieve nervous system co-regulation. From an IFS perspective, the more a child can lean outwards and feel safe with their parents, the more our parts will start to lean into the Self. With this inner attachment, the individual will feel safer as they look out into the world, having more access to what IFS calls “Self-energy”. When one doesn't have outer safety (and therefore inner safety) as a result of traumatic experiences, protective parts will move into extreme roles in one's internal system, and that person will feel less safe or fundamentally unsafe when they look outward.

It follows that how our parents are with us in childhood will be a direct reflection of how we can be with our own parts later on. When we have early experiences of feeling fundamentally unsafe, when we’re not being mirrored appropriately, or seen and validated appropriately for who we are, "trauma" becomes less about the content of “what happened”, but more about not receiving compassionate support, or being met in the aftermath with loving eyes. The case for many survivors of complex trauma is that in a relational trauma between a parent and a child, the parent isn’t able to own their piece or take responsibility for their behaviour (e.g., reactivity, abuse, perpetration) and the child internalises the interaction, assumes responsibility for the parents behaviour or actions, and tries to make sense of it on their own. When this happens a child has to disconnect or exile the parts of themselves that are vulnerable or distressed, because the child assumes that they are “not loved” when they reactive or are a particular way. An example of this is young boys who cry when upset, but then are either told explicitly, or get the implicit message from the adults around them, that “crying is weak”. They then exile what are natural emotional responses to certain situations (e.g., sadness around loss). Then, when one isn't mirrored appropriately and these parts of them become exiled, and they don’t get to know these places inside of them because protective parts are built - in this case, “toughness” when sadness or vulnerability is triggered. In this way when there is an attachment wound or trauma outwards between a child and their parent, a similar wound gets created internally between a part and Self, because a protector goes into an extreme role to hide the wound, which gets exiled or shut off in ourselves.

In this way, almost all therapy can be viewed as attachment therapy, and all trauma is at least in part attachment trauma. When things happen to us later in life, and we have early relational trauma that remains unhealed, we are going to be more dysregulated in response to these later events. Ultimately, the earlier unhealed wounds will surface in response to the new events. For example, if an adult has a car accident which fundamentally shifts their belief about feeling safe in the world, this may activate early attachment trauma which may be linked to feeling unsafe. The earlier events may amplify and have a significant effect on the adult, prolonging their recovery which will be incomplete unless the earlier events are processed, transformed, and integrated.

These parts that develop as part of an ongoing early attachment wounding can be potent and subtly pervasive. These difficulties can dominate a person’s life, particularly when one moves into adulthood and seeks to engage in intimate relationships. As many attachment wounds occur early in ones life and live in implicit memory, which is somatic, non-conscious, and has no time sequence or narrative associated with it, IFS is uniquely positioned to deal with these early attachment wounds as it works with implicit memory that is held in the body that traditional "talk" therapies can't get close to.

Attachment is also so important in IFS Therapy because the therapist creates a container for the client to feel safe enough to be with their own parts, creating internal shifts in the Self-to-part relationship. While people can do some internal connection work on their own, it is often miniscule compared to what happens in IFS sessions where the therapist holds space for the client to be with their parts, slowing down, co-regulating, healing, just by being seen and witnessed through loving eyes. Attachment is relational, both externally and internally, and the regulated nervous system calms in the connection.

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