When I started full-time private practice a decade ago in Townsville, North Queensland, my first objective was to ensure I had enough work coming in through the door to replace the perfectly reliable government job with Queensland Health from which I had resigned. I had spent nine years working with adolescent offenders which was a meaningful and highly satisfying role, but it was time to branch out. The most pertinent question on my lips was “will I have enough work coming in?” Little did I know that only a few years into private practice I would be inundated with work and looking for ways to manage the tsunami of referrals.

I am privileged to work alongside my wife, Kate Dempsey, who is an accredited psychosexual therapist and IFS certified therapist and an approved clinical consultant. Like many clinicians in Australia, and indeed internationally, we had reached capacity and were unable to take on new clients. Consequently, we were forced to think outside the box. As part of my role with OUTLOOK, the former iteration of PARTS & SELF, I interviewed up to half a dozen therapists in the USA about the group therapy programs they were running. The therapists spoken to included Chris Burris, Hagit Zeev, and Hanna Soumerai from the Cambridge Health Alliance. Toward the end of this process, the proverbial penny dropped! “We need this in Australia” I said to Kate, and we set about creating and recruiting for our newly minted program.

The inaugural IFS group therapy program began in Australia in January 2022 and has been run twice a year since then. The ten-week program focuses on intense group formation and bonding in the early sessions and then employs a mix of psycho-education and short sessions with each client throughout the remaining weeks, to demonstrate the model to the clients and provide the opportunity for them to get to know their protective system more intimately. Feedback has been overwhelmingly positive and one of the groups has even gone on to request a further ten-week course to deepen the work and their relationships with some of the more vulnerable Parts of their system.

There have been many learnings for Kate and I in this new venture, but one of the main ones has been just how important it appears to have been for clients to witness our interactions as a married couple simultaneously working together as a pair of therapists. So many of the exiled and vulnerable Parts of clients that present in therapy are related to attachment wounds – attachment with parents in the early years of life, and then subsequent attachment wounds from relationships. It has been an unexpected and highly significant finding of our work together that clients will scrutinise the macro and micro interactions between Kate and I as we run the group. When they have found (as they invariably did) that the interactions were kind, consistent, and respectful, this allowed their protective systems to relax and step back. If there ever were points of tension in the work between Kate and I, this simply provided an opportunity for us to speak for our Parts – a fabulous demonstration of the IFS model in action. We did not predict or foresee the importance of this dynamic at all and it has been a wonderful learning experience.

One of the other learnings from running our IFS groups has been noticing the dynamics between the individual work in which the client has been engaged and their group work with us. Over fifty percent of our participants are concurrently engaged in individual work with their therapist and come to group (usually after having been referred by their therapist) looking for an injection of Self energy, a community of like-minded people, or a short circuit to rigid protectors who have been reluctant to step back. It has transpired that being in a group, witnessing others engage in the work, and having the opportunity for relationships to deepen with time, has allowed many protective Parts to relax and soften, thus opening up opportunities which were previously unavailable. The way we have summarised this finding has been as follows:

While there are certainly things that can happen in individual therapy that can’t happen in group therapy, there are also things that can happen in group therapy that just can’t happen in individual therapy.

In a similar vein, we have also learnt about the importance of professional relationships between ourselves and the referring clinicians. The therapists from whom we receive referrals place an enormous amount of trust in our program and our capacity to hold and contain their clients – some of whom they have been working with for a significant period of time. Feedback on this front has been outstanding, with reports of breakthroughs, deeper work, and more frequent unburdenings in individual sessions during and after the participant has been involved in group work. We hold the relationships with our colleagues who refer to us in the highest esteem and work hard to make sure we are adding to their work, rather than getting in the way.

Face to face retreats are planned for next year, which will allow those who have taken the initial ten week program to meet members of their cohort again or meet new IFS friends from other cohorts and deepen the work.

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  • Shaun Dempsey

    Shaun Dempsey, PhD, is Deputy Editor of PARTS & SELF, a Level 3 Certified IFS therapist and Clinical Psychologist in Australia.

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