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Consent in IFS Practice

How I learned about consent

I was 40 years old when I learned about consent.

At the time I was part of a team helping a Christian nonprofit explain the concept of psychological trauma to faith leaders around the world, most of whom had never encountered the idea before. “I’d love it if we could explain trauma the way the tea video explains consent,” the project leader explained. Tea? When I shook my head in confusion, she instantly pulled up this video, and we watched it together on the spot.

“See what I mean?” the leader said afterward. “Now just imagine if you’d never had consent explained to you before. You’d get it now, right?”

“I sure would,” I said, reeling. In fact, that’s exactly what had just happened.

“Consent and Tea,” written in 2015 by Emmeline May and animated by Blue Seat Studios, has become a popular resource of sex education in middle and high schools across the English-speaking world. It’s hardly a perfect account of sexual consent, to be sure. It’s too often the only training students get on the subject — which is troublesome, because the tea-party metaphor obscures the strong influences of power and privilege on sexual consent in the real world. (I’ll return to that subject later.) But for middle-aged me, the video was nothing short of a revelation. 

For me and everybody else, as somatics teacher Staci Haines observes, “the pressures of our conditions do not train us in consent.” Along with the other kids in my American public school in the ’90s, sex-ed classes taught us that boys couldn’t control their perpetual eagerness to subject girls to sex, girls had to resist getting “peer pressured” into it, and girls who failed to stop boys from doing sex to them would destroy their own futures by getting an STD, getting pregnant, or (likely) both. Like many queer people of my generation, I also grew up thinking that gay sex, even between consenting adults, was an unnatural perversion justly punishable by death from AIDS — less a consensual choice to make than a crime to premeditate. Like lots of neurodivergent people, I learned young to want what other people seemed to want, and ignore my own weird preferences. And like at least one person in every ten, I was sexually abused as a little one, which taught me quickly that sex wasn’t something I got to choose. After all that, in just shy of three minutes, the charming stick figures in “Consent and Tea” transformed a lifetime’s understanding of what sexual consent could be. 

Even more importantly, the video made me start wondering about consent beyond sex, in every department of life. If I had spent decades without understanding my own power to consent, had I been violating the consent of other people without knowing it? If everybody has the inalienable right to choose to have sex or not, including me, then where else might I have more freedom than I thought I did? Wrestling with those questions was challenging — so challenging, in fact, that it provoked the kind of existential crisis that leads people to search for a whole new paradigm. For me, that arrived in the form of the Internal Family Systems model — which is, among many other things, a powerful theory of human agency.

IFS as a practice of consent

The deepest insight of Internal Family Systems is that each of us is internally multiple — not in the way a machine is engineered from many gears, but in the way a community is home to many people. “Parts are not metaphors,” as Richard Schwartz and Robert Falconer explain: “instead they are real sub-minds, each with autonomy and with power to influence and sometimes take over the person’s perspective, emotional state, or actions” (my emphasis). If our Parts are autonomous agents, as IFS asks us to believe, then our Parts’ intentions should matter to us — just like the intentions of any person we’d encounter in the world outside us. From the very start, IFS invites us to extend to our Parts the dignity of having preferences that matter. And in IFS practice, we and our clients respect the dignity of our Parts by learning not just to ask for their consent, but also to hear and honor their answers. 

Focusing on consent lets us think about psychological suffering in a powerfully liberating way. In a harmonious internal system, every Part of us is a full member of the community of our Self, whose consent matters. When we’re suffering — feeling anxious, conflicted, shut down, or overwhelmed by strong emotions — it’s likely that at least one Part of us does not consent to the choices we’re making. Healing this sort of suffering, then, is the process by which we come to know all the Parts of our internal community, understand their intentions, honor their preferences, take accountability for past violations of their inherent dignity, and learn how to ask for their consent in the present. When you think about it this way, consent is at the heart of every step in the flow of the IFS model, and unburdening is nothing less than a formal restoration of a Part’s inalienable power of choice. A harmonious and unburdened system, like a true democracy, derives its power and stability from the full consent of all its constituents. 

The limits of consent

In IFS, as in sexuality and everywhere in life, consent is everything — but it’s also not enough to capture the full range and complexity of human agency at any scale. By itself, the idea of consent is a binary yes-or-no decision, which makes it easy for people and Parts to assume that a yes, once granted, can never be revoked. (When I got into uncomfortable, or flat-out scary, sexual situations when I was younger, I remember thinking along these lines: “Well, I got myself into this, so I have to grin and bear it.”) In reality, though, unless we’re signing a contract or making a solemn vow, we all have the absolute right to change our minds. That’s why sex educators increasingly emphasize that consent must be granted explicitly and continuously, so that every party to a sexual interaction gets to opt out at any time, for any reason. In IFS practice, too, it’s important to remind people and Parts that they always get to change their minds, at any time, for any reason. 

Even if we emphasize that consent can always be withdrawn, it’s vital not to assume that consent alone can protect people and Parts from harm. As philosopher Rebecca Kukla cautions, emphasizing consent in sex education can inadvertently position “rape and assault, understood as nonconsensual sexual activity, as the only sexual harm we need to worry about.” Because of how power works in the real world, people frequently consent to being harmed, sexually and otherwise, by people who have power over us. Bosses, teachers, or beloved grown-ups can and often do secure the continuous and explicit sexual consent of employees, students, or children in their care — which makes the harms of such abuses of power all the more traumatizing. Centering consent in IFS practice, in a similar way, can narrow our Parts’ scope of independent action to merely saying “stop,” when in reality all our Parts have the power and the wisdom to make many more choices than that. 

Because of the limits of the concept, consent alone can’t tell us everything we need to know about what human freedom can be. But for many people — particularly those of us who’ve been trained by trauma and oppression to disavow our own power of choice — consent can be a transformative way into the liberating power of the IFS model. 

Consent in the Flow of the IFS Model

“The first principle of recovery,” the great trauma theorist Judith Herman taught, “is the empowerment of the survivor.” Those of us who’ve experienced individual trauma and social oppression frequently have Parts who, in Herman’s words, “can barely imagine themselves in a position of agency or choice.” For Parts like that, a consent-based approach to Internal Family Systems can be a liberating reintroduction to their own power. Here’s one way to understand the flow of the IFS model with consent in mind. 

  1. Finding a Part requires consent up front. Before I interact with any of a client’s Parts at all, I ask their permission to explore their inner world with them, directly and straightforwardly. Would it feel okay to look inward to find out what different Parts of you are there? Many times, particularly if we’re early in our work together, the client’s answer to that question is an emphatic no. An emotion-avoiding firefighter might want to launch into a detailed description of the client’s last week instead; a wary Self-like manager might flatly deny that the client has any “parts” at all. No matter the reason, no matter who objects, in IFS, no means no — and the power to consent implicit in that no alerts us to the presence and dignity of a Part whose intentions matter, and about whom the client and I can be curious. 
  2. Focusing on a Part identifies it as an agent. Without looking, I can feel the difference between my cat and the faux-fur pillow next to her: though they have a similar texture, only one of them feels alive. Focusing on a Part seems to me like a similar kind of embodied discernment. I help my client practice that skill by inviting them to feel around inside themselves for the felt sense of independent personhood. Building that skill takes lots of practice, because many of our Parts protect us by disavowing the autonomy, or even the existence, of themselves or other Parts. Focusing on a Part, considered this way, is a practice of feeling around for the presence of someone inside who has the power to choose. 
  3. Fleshing out a Part secures its autonomy. Once a client has identified a Part, I invite them to experience its autonomous personhood as vividly as they can.  How are you experiencing this Part of you in or around your body? What does it feel like? Can you see this Part of you? How are you related to it in space? Are you looking at it, or seeing from its perspective? The process of “fleshing out” a Part does more than unblend the Self from the Part: it establishes a relationship in which the Part, no less than the Self, has the dignity of independent personal existence. 
  4. Feeling toward one Part requests the consent of all the others. At this point in the flow of the model, I’m checking to make sure that there’s a “critical mass of Self” in the client’s seat of consciousness before we continue to explore the Part they’ve found. But the “feeling toward” question also gives every other Part of the client’s system the opportunity to consent to what’s happening. When other Parts intervene at this point — by changing the subject, insulting the target Part, raising prudent objections, or expressing feelings — they are saying, very clearly, that they do not consent to a continued focus on the target Part. And here again, as always, no means no — and the freedom of choice that powers any Part’s no lets us shift our focus straight to it. 
  5. Befriending a Part takes its intentions seriously. When my client is relating to a Part from Self, they treat it as an independent agent whose history, thoughts, and intentions matter. As I accompany my client in making friends with this Part of themselves, I sometimes think about literary theorist Miguel Tamen’s idea that we befriend something whenever we attribute meaning and intention to it. As my client befriends a new Part of themselves, they learn about how it makes meaning of the world, what it intends to accomplish, and why. 
  6. Exploring a Part’s fears opens space for consent. Most of the Parts we encounter have real and significant concerns about the well-being of my client’s system. I sometimes like to think of a Part’s “fears” as its well-thought-out reasons for withholding its consent to a new and unproven course of action. Firefighters worry, for good reason, that certain thoughts or feelings are simply too intense for the client to handle. Managers, whose heroic efforts keep the client’s daily life in order, are rightly alarmed about any intervention that might destabilize the system. And exiles, at a terrible cost to themselves, valiantly attempt to keep the client’s worst fears of all safely out of consciousness — the job they’ve been doing, all alone and in the dark, for so long, even decades. In exploring a Part’s reasoning with compassion and curiosity — and lots of patience — the client and their Part can eventually find common cause. The questions I help my client ask their Part at this stage — What are you concerned would happen if … ? If we could achieve that goal in another way, would you be willing … ? What’s the outcome you want to avoid the most? — are designed not to persuade, but to open a dialogue that will let the client’s Self and the Part negotiate mutually acceptable choices. And other Parts, just by “overhearing” this respectful negotiation, learn that their consent matters, too. 

As we learn and grow in our understanding of the model, the consent of the client and their Parts, at every moment, is a non-negotiable requirement for healing. Indeed, consent is so fundamental in IFS practice that it’s easy to underestimate its importance. By focusing on consent at every step of the model, as I’ve suggested here, practitioners can help restore clients’ systems, and our own, to the power of choice that is our birthright.

Furthermore, for anyone encountering and developing IFS for themselves, in whatsoever independent way, an awareness of consent in the life of a Part can only but help Parts work thrive.

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