To say that IFS is trauma-informed could be considered an understatement. The beauty of IFS is that it’s fundamentally interwoven with every aspect of trauma: how trauma impacts us so dramatically, why our Parts adapt to traumatic events in the ways that they do, and how they can be healed. In this article I’ll provide an overview of what trauma is from my perspective, and how IFS is purpose-built to address it.
The word trauma comes from the Greek word for wound. As author and speaker Gabor Maté points out, the two words are perfectly analogous in a number of ways. Wounds create a sensitive area that is painful to the touch; trauma makes us sensitive to emotional triggers. Wounds are covered with scar tissue that is inflexible, numb, and doesn’t grow; trauma’s impacts on a person can be described with precisely the same words. Trauma, therefore, can perhaps best be understood as a psychological wound.
With trauma, however, we have the opportunity to actively heal rather than passively wait for scar tissue to form. This is where IFS comes in. But first, a deeper look at trauma and its impacts.
Cause & Effect
It’s important to differentiate between trauma and traumatic event; the latter being the cause of the former. We often think of trauma as being what happened, but it’s actually the internal consequences of what happened – how the traumatic event impacts us today, and what we make it mean about ourselves. As author and healer Thomas Hübl points out: “Many people think that trauma is the terrible event that happened to us. But trauma is the response that happens within the body’s nervous system.”
Overt vs. Covert
Traumatic events are often divided into two categories. The first of these is the more obvious one: Specific, overt events such as physical/sexual abuse, or a car accident. Such events can inflict an immediate trauma on an individual, which if not addressed will manifest in various ways for the rest of their lives.
The second type of traumatic event is more subtle (covert), and is often called developmental trauma. Here, the traumatic “event” is a prolonged misattunement between a child and his/her parents, resulting in pain for the child. When the fundamental developmental needs of children aren’t met – as is quite often the case in modern societies – trauma results. Developmental trauma, therefore, is most often what didn’t happen rather than what did happen.
The resultant traumas from these two types of events are often distinguished as Big-T and Little-T trauma. While I understand the intent behind this language, it’s not phrasing that I use. There is nothing “little” about Little-T trauma. Not only is developmental trauma more common, but its insidious nature make its impacts on a person’s life harder to recognize. Many pathological behaviors, thought patterns, and tendencies – both at the individual and societal levels – are the result of pervasive developmental trauma, and are so common today that they’re considered normal. Recognition is an important first step.
Note that this is by no means an intent to minimize overt trauma. The point is simply that both types of trauma, in my view, warrant equal attention.
The Effects of Trauma
Whether overt or developmental, trauma is a spectrum – and we’re all on it somewhere. The extent to which it affects us in our day-to-day lives is often shocking to discover, but the key to keep in mind is that all of these impacts are coping strategies which, when they originally formed, were very intelligent responses to the environment. These adaptations came along to protect us, typically as a result of trauma during childhood, and at first were quite effective at doing so. Over time, however, they become maladaptive.
Below is a summary of some ways in which trauma adaptations impact us:
Disconnection from the Self
Trauma disconnects us from who we are, in the sense that coping strategies and adaptations aren’t fundamentally the real “us.” We tend to identify with these behaviors, not realizing that our real selves are hidden underneath. Someone may say, for example, “I’m a very anxious person.” But their true self isn’t anxious – the anxiety is a trauma response.
Disconnection from the Present Moment
Trauma disconnects us from the present moment in a number of ways. In day-to-day life we tend to think that we’re reacting to the present, but often we’re reacting to the past. When someone triggers us, we can be sure that what is being triggered is a past trauma. But even more subtly, the adaptations and coping strategies that we use are all based on the past – so we’re essentially living in the past whenever we employ them.
Turning against the Self
Just as we can identify with trauma adaptations such that they seem like they are truly “us,” so too can we turn against them and make them the enemy. This can take shape in the form of resisting emotions/behaviors that we consider bad, criticizing ourselves, or blaming ourselves for our past (or its resultant coping mechanisms). This creates what might be considered a psychological autoimmune condition. In medicine, the term autoimmune condition refers to the immune system attacking the body’s own tissues. Over time, this causes immense damage and can lead to death. The mind’s version of this is no less severe: negative self-talk is a chronic condition for many of us, despite how “normal” it may seem.
The word heal evolved from an Old English word that meant to make whole. While today we typically think of healing as curing or eliminating what ails us, its older definition was broader in scope, and recognized that humans strive for wholeness. While the specific meaning of wholeness could be debated, what’s clear is that trauma takes us away from it. Trauma disconnects us from ourselves by splitting off, shutting down, and hyper-activating various parts of our minds (and bodies). The healing journey is therefore one of returning to wholeness by reconnecting with our Selves.
Treating Trauma with IFS
IFS is perfectly-suited to work with traumatic adaptations for a number of reasons.
IFS, first and foremost, recognizes that it is our Parts (rather than our true Selves) which are hurt by trauma. Trauma causes our Parts to get stuck in the past, effectively becoming inner children. Some of our Parts get directly hurt by trauma, at which point other Parts take on roles – often extreme ones – to protect and/or lock away the hurt Parts. These are our exiles and protectors, respectively. The Self, meanwhile, gets relegated to the background as protector Parts take over the day-to-day operation of the system.
IFS aims to heal our Parts from the traumas they have sustained, restoring harmony to the inner system. When a protector behaves in a maladaptive way (e.g. an incessant inner critic), this is the result of trauma – the Part’s behavior is a coping strategy intended to protect the system against further trauma. Contrary to the majority of psychotherapy approaches, working with this Part as its own entity tends to be much more effective than simply treating it as an undesirable behavior to be eliminated.
The recognition that the mind consists of Parts, and that their undesirable behavioral patterns are due to trauma, results in a much less pathologizing perspective on dysfunctional thoughts and behaviors. A Parts-aware perspective allows us to separate from the thoughts, behaviors, and reactivity of our Parts – providing a pathway to understanding and self-compassion rather than blame and shame. Self-compassion is a critical component of true healing. As the spiritual teacher A.H. Almaas says, “It is only when compassion is present that people allow themselves to see the truth.” Healing requires seeing the truth about ourselves, and seeing the truth requires self-compassion. Without a Parts-aware mindset, however, we essentially have no choice but to identify with our behaviors (“I have an anger issue“) and blame ourselves (“I should be ashamed of myself“).
IFS is a bottom-up approach in that it largely works with the subconscious to effect change. This is in contrast to common approaches such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which focus on changing behaviors. Such approaches are top-down in that they work with conscious processes to attempt to change the system. As Dick Schwartz often notes, CBT and the like are often based on a principle of addition: adding new insights and skills on top of maladaptive thoughts/behaviors that are already in place, and trying to get the new to “push out” the old.
The aim of IFS, on the other hand, is to release constraints which hamper the inner system, at which point more adaptive behaviors and relational skills come along as a natural outcome. When it comes to trauma and our Parts, there’s every reason to believe that the subconscious is usually in the driver’s seat; hence, a bottom-up approach to therapy tends to be more conducive to healing.
IFS is a wonderful modality for trauma healing because it focuses on root causes rather than simply attempting to address symptoms. The IFS position that trauma symptoms are actually the coping strategies of Parts – along with its in-depth understanding of why Parts behave in the ways that they do, and how to heal them – truly sets IFS apart as a therapeutic approach to work with trauma.