IFS DiversityKnowledgePeoplePractice

Looking at Gender and Sexual Diversity with IFS

Read in Italian: Differenze di Genere e Sessualità Viste Attraverso la Lente di IFS

The discussion on diversity is constantly expanding and, therefore, more and more people are starting to explore their own diversities. In this article, I am going to focus on the relatively recent ideas surrounding gender and sexuality, and, above all, how the IFS model seems to be well suited to embrace human diversity.

Let me introduce some terminology here for those who are not familiar with the current words used to address gender and sex.

According to WHO (World Health Organisation), by gender we indicate the “socially constructed” characteristics of women, men, boys, girls, etc. The same gender is, therefore, different from culture to culture. These norms have enormous implications that encompass all aspects of someone’s life and are projected onto a person since (if not before) birth. A “girl”, for example, whilst not expected to wear pink colours, is often gendered by such colours, assumed to like playing with dolls, and is often expected by some to dress, and behave in a certain way, in Western culture.

The ideas of burdens and Parts can help describing the experience of gender. We know that Parts have a “healthy” way of existing in which they carry out their job without being driven by fear. What if we started to see a person, from birth, as composed by a multiplicity of Parts and that, if the external system is supportive enough, all these Parts can feel welcome and grow in beautiful harmony? Parts have their own gender, and it is quite common, within the same system, to find Parts that like to be addressed as a “he” or a “she.” Some Parts do not have a gender at all, or gender is irrelevant to their role in the system. Other times, Parts correct the therapist or the client when they are addressed with the wrong pronoun.

The majority of people identify their gender (which is a socially constructed idea) with the sex of their body (a physical attribute – more on this is later). These people enjoy the privilege of not having to question their gender identity and the name given to them is “cisgender.” In a cisgender system there might well be Parts that identify with a gender that is different to the gender of the person, but I would not expect Parts to have carried on any burden related to gender and, therefore, they might not present themselves during IFS therapy sessions.

Gendered burdens

For those who do not identify as cisgender, it is often necessary to embark on an inner journey to find out and give freedom to their gender identity (i.e., which socially constructed gender idea they resonate with regardless of the physicality of their assigned sex), and their gender expression (how they want to express their gender identity to the world). Some people choose to change the pronouns that they would like to be addressed with, but this is only available in some languages and cultures. For many, though, the pronoun is just a small part of the journey.

In a non-cisgender system, we are very likely to find Parts that are, at least, confused by the fact that society considers, and expects, all people to be cisgender. Gender norms are weaved into every corner of society. Every behaviour, hobby, way of thinking, way of laughing, way of walking, way of styling hair is, somehow, gendered. The system, in order to fit in, carefully exiles all those Parts that represent a too-noticeable deviation from the cisgender expectation. I am talking about all the boys who had to lock, into a remote corner of their psyche, that Part that wanted to play with dolls. I am talking about all the girls who dream of playing football and are, instead, sent to ballet classes.

The mechanism by which, from a tender age, these systems learn to exile Parts that present non-cisgender features is shame. The system internalises social norms from the external system by creating harsh critical Parts with the job of policing the internal system to make sure that non-cisgender Parts are blocked from expression. These exiled Parts, being at the receiving end of constant criticism (first from the external system, and then internalised), carry what I call gendered burdens. These are profound wounds that these little Parts carry, simply because the external system cannot accommodate their difference, at an age when Self is not fully available.

I want to give credit to the IFS community for the creation of training programmes that provide great support and respect for gender and sexual diversity. The simple, yet profound, principle that all Parts are welcome, and no Parts are considered bad (as the latest book by Dick Schwartz points out), when fully embraced, allows Parts that have never dared to make themselves visible, express their uniqueness in terms of gender.

Some of the most tender and healing moments in my healing journey have occurred when I met Parts that identify as a girl. These Parts had been burdened by the fact that sensitivity and kindness are not supposed to be shown by boys. These Parts, when they emerged, were scared of what the therapist might say. It was important, in those moments, to see how my IFS therapist was full of Self energy and my Parts knew they were not going to be judged.

Once these Parts could let go of their gendered burdens, I noticed an increased capacity in myself to hold the Self energy of compassion, which was generally stopped by protectors that did not want my “feminine” traits to be visible.

I have observed in many systems (of any gender) that the qualities of compassion, kindness and gentleness are generally stopped by protectors because they are considered a sign of weakness and vulnerability. It is not a coincidence that, in our patriarchal society, these attributes are often considered more feminine than masculine and, therefore, tend to be exiled.

Paradoxically, cisgender men are the most challenged in embracing these qualities of Self, and, therefore, these gendered burdens do not allow them to step into their Self energy more fully, which translates into less healing potential. Far from being a prerogative of the LGBTQI+ community, gendered burdens apply to almost everybody and can be the reason why IFS therapy might not be progressing if these burdens stop the flow of Self energy.

Homophobic bullying or, more precisely, gender bullying

Many consider gender, sex and sexuality to be one unique block due to the fact that the majority of the population experience them from the perspective of a cisgender heterosexual person. This has, of course, had an influence on the creation of various forms of psychotherapy, mainly theorised by white heterosexual cisgender men.

IFS helps us reset the language we use when exploring the inner world of ourselves or of our clients, friends and loved ones. With humility, and without assuming to know better than the system of the suffering person, the IFS therapist/practitioner endeavours to understand what Parts of a client are burdened.

Often people in the LGBTQI+ have had to endure years of criticism coming from a world that did not like their diversity. From being ignored and marginalised, to being bullied and physically violated, members of the LGBTQI+ community carry the burdens of many years of traumatic interactions. It is important, in order to honour this suffering, that we become conscious of the language we use. We tend to name all those instances of bullying as homophobic bullying, and people often speak of internalised homophobia, but is this correct?

In my experience, as a boy who grew up in southern Italy and who definitely did not represent the stereotype of “southern Italian masculinity,” I remember nasty comments directed at me from the age of 8, about the way I moved my wrists. I would hardly call this homophobia, simply because, at that age, I had no sexual desires at all, nor did my bullies. What was being bullied was my gender expression, which precedes developmentally, and is independent of, sexuality. I was, first and foremost, a victim of gender bullying.

I am sure that the majority of LGBTQI+ people have not been respected at some point because they act and speak in ways that do not align with the gender standards. It is very likely that a gay person, whose gender expression is the same as that of a straight cisgender man, has received hardly any bullying before becoming aware of his sexuality. A typical form of protection, in the gay community, is to develop protective Parts that emulate the behaviours of cisgender heterosexual men, in order to avoid bullying. This has very little to do with their sexual preferences.

It is very likely that, due to cultural tendencies to overlap the concepts of gender and sex, mental health specialists have used the word “homophobic bullying” to indicate bullying that is directed at gender expression as well as at sexual preferences.

I believe it would be extremely beneficial for people using the IFS model to support the exploration of all burdens, both gendered and not, because the unburdening and the integration processes of burdens related to gender has a very different effect on the system than the unburdening of sexual burdens. If we unburden from gendered burdens, the system will be able to find harmony in their expression of themselves while walking, shopping, studying, sleeping and, perhaps, having sex. If we unburden sexual burdens, we can expect the system to have a more satisfactory and fulfilling experience of sex and sexuality.

Self and gender

I am going to conclude this small introduction to the issue of gender by naming the masculine and feminine qualities of Self. Does Self have a gender?

If we look at the 8 C’s, and if we remember that gender is a social construct, we might attempt to classify some of the C’s as more “feminine” (in the sense of being receptive and passive) and some as more “masculine” (being more active and giving).

I would put compassion and calm within the more feminine aspects of Self energy, and courage and confidence in the more masculine side. I struggle, though, to classify connectedness, curiosity, creativity and clarity as more masculine or feminine. The only author who speaks about this is Frank Anderson in “Transcending Trauma”, in which he differentiates between a spiritual Self (that does not have a gender or sexual orientation), and the human Self, who has gender and sexual preferences.

I believe the jury is out there and I invite people to consult their own system if they are interested in exploring this further. IFS has opened up such an exciting doorway into the inner world that we simply don’t know how the majority of people experience their Self in relation to gender and sexuality. What sounds true for my system is to say that my human Self does not have a gender, but some of my Parts have their own gender. My Self is in service of the gender needs of my Parts and is there to support them in fulfilling their roles.

When it comes to sexuality, I also perceive my Self to not be resonant with the concept of sex. There is some resonance with the idea that the sex of my body is male and that I am OK with it, but not much resonance in terms of sexual preferences. Again, I see my Self as being supportive of my sexualised Parts rather than having an active role to play. I believe, after all, that Self is more of a state of consciousness of an energetic and ethereal nature, rather than of a physical kind of being.

In conclusion, I am sure people have their own experiences of Self, gender, and sexuality. I hope this article has stimulated a search for deeper understanding in the realm of sexuality and gender. I have great faith in the IFS model and in its potential to heal people and the world, and I hope that my words can contribute to healing within the LGBTQI+ community.


Alessio Rizzo is a Level 3 certified IFS psychotherapist specialised in gender, sexual and neuro diversity. www.therapywithalessio.com

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1 Comment

  1. I enjoyed reading this, and found it really eye opening. My learning parts thank you. 🙂

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  • Alessio Rizzo

    Alessio is a Level 3 certified IFS psychotherapist specialised in gender, sexual and neuro diversity. www.therapywithalessio.com

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