Integrating Mindfulness into Therapy

IFS Flower






I’ve talked before about the blessing that Cade and I have received, specifically in the past couple years with moving out to Boston and being in graduate programs. One of these came last year when I was accepted into a grant program at Boston College, which pays me a stipend for my internship and has allowed me to meet some pretty amazing people in the field. Another perk of this program is that each student gets a $1,000 stipend to attend conferences of their choosing. This is amazing, because 1) conferences are often very expensive and 2) I get to choose pretty much whatever I want to attend, which is a huge privilege when it comes to spending someone else’s money. In total, I’ve registered for four separate conferences to reach my $1,000 limit. I’ll likely write about all of them, and here is the first one.

Integrating Internal Family Systems & Mindful Self-Compassion: Discovering the Depth and Breadth of Compassion

So, with that being a mouthful, this was a two day conference that was basically about how to use both Internal Family Systems (IFS) and Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) together in therapy. This conference specifically stuck out to me because I had taken an IFS course in the fall and absolutely loved it. Meditation, which is a component of MSC, has also become a part of my life over the past year or so, as well. The final reason was that during the IFS course I took, I had the idea that you could likely pair mindfulness and IFS work together to make for a pretty strong integrative therapy. Then, lo and behold, a conference covering that exact thought presented itself.

To understand this a bit better, let’s break it down.

Richard Schwartz, the creator of IFS said the following in our pamphlet for the conference about IFS: IFS starts with the assumption that the human personality consists of subpersonalities, called ‘parts,’ that can obscure the innate compassion that exists within us all.

Here is my explanation: IFS is a type of therapy; clinicians can be trained and specialize in it. The theory behind it is broadly that everyone is made up of parts – protectors, which can come out as anger or in certain behaviors; and exiles, which are parts that hold onto the experiences we’ve had through life, as well as beliefs we hold about ourselves and the world. The therapy, then, is designed to bring more integration between the parts, which relieves suffering and heals past wounds. Early on in the course, I thought that it sounded a bit schizoid, or multiple personality-ish, but as I learned more it made more sense. It’s essentially a way of normalizing the sense that we all have multiple things taking place inside us, and these parts can feel conflicting ways and become polarized, which leads to quite a bit of suffering and more negative behaviors that serve to protect us from the suffering.

If all that sounds super confusing and you want to know more, let me know..I’d be happy to explain it further. A great, everyday example is when someone talks about part of them feeling excited and another part feeling scared about the same event. While this isn’t a disordered way of feeling, it highlights the parts inside all of us and how they can feel completely different things.

Next, MSC combines mindfulness and self-compassion together to help us be more mindful of our experiences and show ourselves compassion. It’s pretty much what it sounds like and uses mediation and experiential exercises. Bringing compassion to ourselves sounds pretty easy, but many of us, including myself, actually struggle quite a bit with it. Most of us spend the majority of our time criticising ourselves and very little time recognizing our positive attributes or achievements. When you do some of the exercises, it also taps into some really negative feelings and beliefs about ourselves, which makes the experience even more powerful.

As an example, one of the exercises that we completed at the conference was a meditation where we began with just breathing, then keeping a loved one in our minds and repeating the following:
May you be happy
May you be peaceful
May you be healthy
May you live with ease
After you do this a few times, you then switch to thinking about yourself and repeat the same sequence:
May I be happy
May I be peaceful
May I live with ease


Now that I’ve explained each on a bit, here comes the integration piece. Going through IFS therapy forces one to go far deeper and be more honest with oneself than they likely ever have. This brings up a ton of emotions, many of them extremely hard to deal with. Believe me, as someone who has done a few IFS therapy sessions, this is absolutely the case and it comes quickly. Because this process is so difficult to go through and requires really tuning into yourself on a deep level, mindfulness can really be an aid. Being mindful allows one to really be with oneself and tune it, that’s what it’s all about. This helps the work to be done, then when those really difficult feeling emerge, MSC can come in and allow one to be really compassionate and understand of the experience. When MSC and IFS come together, it’s a really beautiful and life-changing experience.

One of the speakers that we had at the conference had actually gone through both IFS therapy with Richard Schwartz and MSC with Chris Germer (one of the creators of the model) and talked about her experience going through it all. Her analogy of the integration between these two models really spoke to me:
Image a burning home, in it a family with children. You’re a firefighter needing to save the family. IFS provides a guide to see where each member is in the home. It also provides the ladder to get you into the home. Self-compassion provides the fireproof suit to protect you from the fire, as well as the strength to remove each other members from the home.

This is a pretty brief overview, so I hope it makes sense. I know it’s also going to be harder for those who aren’t trained in therapy or mindfulness at all. Feel free to reach out with questions or for a chat about any of this.

Lastly, conferences usually provide a recommended book list, and this one was no different. Here are a few that I would highly recommend, ones that I’ve either read or plan to read.
Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zim
DBT Skills Training Manual by Marsha Linehan
The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk
Internal Family Systems Therapy by Richard Schwartz
Internal Family Systems Therapy: New Dimensions by Martha Sweezy and Ellen Zinskind

For more info, check out the websites for IFS and MSC: