Richard Schwartz developed Internal Family Systems (IFS) as a therapy model forty years ago, and it is a highly effective approach to trauma-informed mental health care that is still evolving and being applied innovatively today. Psychotherapists who work with dreams might notice that dreamwork and IFS have striking similarities; combining these tools can have tremendous potential in their work. Outside of a therapeutic context, there’s also a naturally symbiotic relationship between the two, and bringing dreamwork and IFS together in our personal self-care and spiritual practices can result in life-changing insights and breakthroughs. Although such inner work is important, it doesn’t have to be laborious. Dreamwork and IFS both offer a sense of radical possibility, so using them to explore our psychodynamic ecosystems can feel more like play.
The IFS model draws upon our natural tendency to think of ourselves as complex multifaceted beings, recognizing that some aspects of our psyches are familiar to us while others can surprise or offend us. In IFS these parts* of the psyche are treated as sub-personalities, which might be compared to dream figures, with distinct feelings, behaviors, and motivations. Our parts, even the ones we consider problematic, all have something to contribute to the wholeness of ourselves, so IFS teaches skills and practices for communicating with these parts, to win their trust, address their concerns, and receive their gifts.
Some parts have been forced into extreme roles in response to difficult experiences, usually in childhood. The parts known as exiles are like vulnerable children who have been hurt; because exiles carry so much pain, other parts called protectors try to keep them contained (or exiled). Protectors resemble “parentified children” themselves, and they have taken on the burdens of extreme roles (like perfectionism, being overly critical, people-pleasing, etc.) in a misguided effort to control pain. Such strategies might once have been useful, but have become unsustainable, distorted, or ineffective over time, and often cause further harm. Protectors and exiles interact with one another in ways that can resemble a family in distress.
IFS also affirms that behind the ecology of parts, our original nature, called the Self, has an infinite capacity for qualities like curiosity, calm, clarity, compassion, courage, creativity, confidence and connectedness. If parts are comparable to dream figures, the Self is the deeper wisdom of the dream and the dreamer. The presence and guidance of Self means a happier inner family, providing an experience like waking from a nightmare and recognizing that you are the dreamer of the dream, not its victim. Even the most disturbed and disturbing parts or dream figures have reasons for doing what they are doing. When you, the Self or dreamer, create a trusting relationship with troubled parts or dream figures, you understand and honor what they’ve been trying to accomplish, and help them step out of extreme roles or patterns of suffering that are stuck in the past. Once unburdened, your parts can contribute their unique gifts to your overall well-being, and that of the larger community. This may sound like make believe, but the process feels astonishingly real, and the ensuing transformation can be remarkable.
For a brief example of how dreamwork and IFS might play together, here’s a dream with my commentary:
I’m a patient in the hospital, getting better, but still weak and fragile.
[The dream ego often acts as a protector, so her self-description might indicate the burdensome role she uses to avoid or manage pain. Here, the protector identifies with being “weak and fragile.”]
Another patient, a sick toddler, is crying.
[Exiles typically appear in dreams as children or animals in distress.]
Holly is here visiting me. She comforts the toddler, but I’m not sure we should be taking him out of his crib.
[My partner Holly is sometimes a stand-in for Self in my dreams. I see her as someone who can handle things that I can’t handle. In waking life and in dreams, I often have mixed feelings about this! Protectors are likely to distrust the way that Self relates to exiles, at least at first. ]
The baby is wriggling, so Holly lets him walk around a little. But someone opens the door, and the toddler becomes a cat and scoots out. I’m afraid he will get hurt, or disturb other patients and get us in trouble.
[The transformation and escape suggest that this exile has been spontaneously healed by the loving attention of Self. As a cat, the child no longer needs to be guarded by the protector, but the protector is afraid to let him go.]
I chase and catch the cat, and he nips my hand. I get mad at Holly, telling her that I’m supposed to be the sick one and don’t have the energy to chase cats! Besides, she’s the one who let him out, so she should try catching him. She picks him up, but then it’s me holding him. Maybe I’ve become Holly—I seem strong enough to manage him gently now.
[The protector herself has transformed here. As a weak patient trying to grab the cat, she got bitten, but when she becomes Holly-Self, she is able to handle the cat gently so nobody gets hurt.]
Now, the whole dream changes and I’m no longer trying to return the cat to the hospital room. Instead, I’m getting to know the hospital staff and patients, offering them my support.
[Now Holly is no longer here, so the dream ego has become fully Self, getting acquainted with various other parts in ways that could potentially support them.]
This is an oversimplification of the way IFS might look in dreamwork, but it demonstrates how the dream itself can enact a healing process with an IFS cast of characters. The dream ego (protector) is no longer anxious or weak by the end of the dream; the cat is no longer a sick toddler (exile) confined to a hospital room. The dreamer wakes up feeling that some inner dilemma has been resolved.
In most cases, dream figures don’t fit quite so easily into IFS roles, but the IFS model can still be applied helpfully when dreams and the feelings they evoke might otherwise be baffling or distressing. For example, I dreamed recently that I was behaving like “an absent-minded professor,” and woke feeling upset without knowing why. Recognizing the upset part of me as an exile, I asked her what she needed me to know, and distinctly “heard” her reply that she didn’t trust me to keep her safe. She showed me an image of myself as a small child: my father was “an absent-minded professor,” and although some parts of me found his eccentricities amusing, there was a vulnerable part that felt frightened and hurt when he didn’t behave like an adult I could depend on. The dream pointed out that a protector in me now (represented by the dream ego) acts like my father, deflecting painful emotions by acting confused and disorganized—and this eccentric behavior is threatening for the vulnerable exile, whose upset feelings emerge upon awakening. IFS techniques support my Self-capacity to be responsible and trustworthy, so I can attend to strong feelings (exiles) without being overwhelmed by them, and without resorting to absent-mindedness or other problematic strategies to avoid them. The dream drew my attention to an inner dynamic that I can now address compassionately.
I invite you to explore IFS as you explore your dreams, with curiosity and the other “C” words that distinguish the Self. What happens to our dreamwork when we believe that even troubling dreams are meaningful, and troubled dream figures are potentially helpful? What would happen to our lives if we could trust that we are, at the core, truly able to handle our “cats” (our strong feelings, difficult challenges and disturbing dreams)—with kindness, wisdom, and grace?
*Boldface indicates IFS terminology.
[This article was originally published in in the Winter, 2024 issue of DreamTime Magazine. If you enjoyed it, please consider subscribing to DreamTime by joining the International Association for the Study of Dreams ]