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How does IFS create transformational change through memory reconsolidation?

Have you ever wondered how transformation actually happens in therapy? I’ve become quite fascinated with that topic, given that sometimes clients experience rapid change, and other times they seem so stuck. And the same thing has occurred in my own therapy and recovery from addiction and complex trauma. I’ve enjoyed quite a bit of transformational change in my personal therapy since I discovered IFS a few years ago. My discovery of IFS went hand in hand with my discovery of Ecker et al.’s work on memory reconsolidation (see Ecker, Ticic, & Hulley, 2012, Unlocking the emotional brain: Eliminating symptoms at their roots using memory reconsolidation).

The concept of memory reconsolidation in my view is a salient one to explain how IFS leads to transformational changes like the ones I have experienced. Just to illustrate, one example of transformational change through IFS therapy is that I used to have people-pleasing Parts that used to be terribly scared of saying no and speaking up. These Parts have considerably relaxed now, and I’m quite assertive and good with setting boundaries. It’s a miracle! Those Parts feel safer because the younger exiles they were protecting by doing people-pleasing have been unburdened and healed.

So, what is memory reconsolidation, how does it lead to permanent change, and why is IFS suited to memory reconsolidation occurring?

In a nutshell, memory reconsolidation is the brain’s method for fully revising previously learned information encoded in long-term memory, leading to a permanent change in a person’s subjective experience. Memory in this context is understood not simply as the remembering of facts and events. It’s more a kind of schematic knowledge that formed implicitly and nonverbally based on emotionally significant life experiences. In other words, memory is a learned construct based on how a person has made sense of and feels about an experience. It is this type of “knowing” gained in the past which drives behaviors, thoughts and emotions that generate a wide range of symptoms in the present, and which we bring to therapy.

Memory reconsolidation happens when three conditions are fulfilled. The first condition is the reactivation of the specific memory. Second, that memory must be disconfirmed by inducing a concurrent juxtaposition, or mismatch, experience, which leads to its destabilisation. Third, repetitions of the juxtaposition of these two experiences are required to prompt the full unlearning and re-writing of the destabilised memory. When memory reconsolidation occurs, memories of facts or events remain unaffected, but the associated emotional charge and meaning are transformed. These three conditions must be met within a five-hour window while the learning is destabilised. Ecker et al (2012) argue that memory reconsolidation is the chief process in which transformational change happens in psychotherapy. They argue that, as long as memory reconsolidation can be induced, psychotherapy will be effective, no matter the modality. IFS is an excellent modality to bring about this memory reconsolidation.

Based on systems theory, IFS holds that the mind in its natural and healthy state is a multiple entity composed of many Parts, or subpersonalities, that operate as an inner family system. Broadly speaking, IFS posits that we have protective Parts and vulnerable Parts. Sometimes our protective Parts take on extreme and defensive roles to prevent the pain and hurt carried by our more vulnerable Parts to derail our system, and to protect those vulnerable Parts of us. The extreme and protective behaviours our protective Parts have us do or the big feelings our vulnerable Parts carry that overwhelm us are often symptoms we bring to therapy. The goal of IFS therapy is to heal and integrate our protective and exiled Parts to enable Self-leadership of the internal system. Rather than eliminating Parts, IFS seeks to relieve them of their extreme roles so that their original talents and strengths can unfold in the system, which is steered by our innate and wise Self.

So, why is IFS so great for memory reconsolidation leading to transformational change? Because the IFS process helps for the three conditions that need to be present for memory reconsolidation to occur. First, IFS therapy begins with eliciting the client’s symptoms and learning about the Parts involved. Using the 6Fs, the therapist invites the client to find and focus on a target Part and flesh out more details. Befriending occurs through compassionate dialogue with Parts. Asking the client how they feel toward Parts helps the client to unblend, or differentiate, from their Parts and gain a compassionate stance, or Self-energy, while learning about their fears about letting go of protective strategies. In this process of the client’s Self and the therapist’s Self getting to know the Parts, the client’s Parts begin to experience that they are met with compassion and curiosity. This brings about the old experience of being scared, and not being understood, heard, seen and valued, while also experiencing the trust, compassion and curiosity of the therapist and client’s Self. So we have two contrasting experiences at once, a juxtaposition.

Once a client’s protector Part feels understood and trusts the client’s Self, the therapist seeks permission to work with the exile, or the core wound that gave rise to the protector’s strategy. Gradually, the client’s Self builds a connection with the exile, and engages in witnessing the past burdening experiences. Again, the therapist and client are engaged in at once remembering what it was like for the exile, the young Part of the client, while also bringing a lot of compassion, openness and understanding, allowing the exile to be held safely, which allows the juxtaposition of the old and the new. Then, the therapist guides the process of the do-over, where the Self of the client offers the exile a corrective experience. This enables the exile to re-direct the old memory or scene and get whatever it didn’t get back then. The Self of the client gives the exile anything it wanted and needed. Anything is allowed! It’s an internal rewriting of the script. This is again an experience of the old and challenging past simultaneous with having a new nurturing and healing experience.

Next, the therapist guides the retrieval of the exile to the present, where the exile gets to choose a safe place in the present to be with the client’s Self and leave the past. This is followed by an invitation to release its burdens and replace them with desired qualities. The final protector check-in explores if protectors are ready to pivot their roles.

It’s amazing what I have experienced in this process. My Self has accompanied my exiles on countless journeys to witnessing scenes in the past where my exile was critisised, ignored, and not protected from harm. And we’ve totally changed that around. Upon the request of my little ones in different scenes, my Self has provided magic wands, my Self has shouted at mean grown-ups and put them straight, we have shot people with a purple water pistol, torn down entire houses, and even accompanied my granddad who needed help when he was a prisoner of war during World War II. I have many memories from when I was an infant of being terrified and alone, seeking attention and getting none. It has since been confirmed that I had a medical trauma at 10 months old and was isolated in hospital for 2 weeks without any parental contact. That was the policy of hospitals back then! Many things have happened in my internal world, and as a result, when I remember events from the past, I still remember them as they were, but I feel light and mature about them because I have been there with my little ones, we have changed the scenes, and now we remember the new endings that we’ve co-created and the new qualities that we’ve taken after releasing those old burdens. That is how IFS heals!

If you’d like to read a detailed case study on how IFS leads to memory reconsolidation, you can find it in an article I recently published in 2023: How does Internal Family Systems therapy lead to transformational change through memory reconsolidation? in Counselling Australia, 24(2) (26-36).

Unfortunately that article is not open access, so please send me an email message if needful and I’ll share with you the case study.

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1 Comment

  1. Thanks for sharing these ideas about memory reconsolidation. This feels like such an important piece of the puzzle. I was looking for something on the physiological level that would explain why IFS works.

    Is it common to have multiple unburdening sessions with the same exile or protector and for the same burden? I’m just starting with IFS parts work on my own (I’m not a medical professional, just a general public member). There are so many parts desperately crying for attention and finally getting it. It feels cruel to let parts wait in a long queue until I can unburden each. So, I’m putting out fires as they come up in the first phase by validating parts and doing some of the unburdening steps.
    But thinking about memory reconsolidation, it seems to suggest that it really makes more sense to do the whole process of an unburdening in one go, move in really deep, as Dick defines it and as memory reconsolidation basically dictates.

    And thanks so much for sharing the article, I have just requested it.
    All the best for your work,
    Katja K.

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Author´s Bio

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  • Vanessa Kredler

    Vanessa is a Sydney-based counsellor and psychotherapist registered with the Australian Counselling Association. She is focused on addiction, complex trauma and the intergenerational nature of trauma. www.vanessakredler.com

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