Internal Family Systems is the hot new psychotherapy

Thursday, May 23rd, 2024

The Others Within Us by Robert FalconerInternal Family Systems, Scott Alexander explains, is the hot new psychotherapy:

The therapy that’s getting all the buzz, curing all the incurable patients, rocking those first few small studies. The therapy that was invented by a grizzled veteran therapist working with Patients Like You, not the out-of-touch elites behind all the other therapies. The therapy that Really Gets To The Root Of The Problem. There’s always got to be one, and now it’s IFS.


You treat your mind as containing a Self — a sort of perfect angelic intellect without any flaws or mental illnesses — and various Parts — little sub-minds with their own agendas who can sometimes occlude or overwhelm the Self. During therapy, you talk to the Parts, learn their motives, and bargain with them.


The second assumption is that everything inside your mind is part of you, and everything inside your mind is good.


The secret is: no, actually some of these things are literal demons.

At least this is what I take from The Others Within Us, by Robert Falconer, a veteran IFS therapist.


The first N times they ran into this kind of thing, the IFS therapists said that surely this was some good-albeit-traumatized Part of the patient’s unconscious, which had spun a crazy metaphorical story and needed to be bargained with and brought back to the Self. But it kept happening. The demons’ stories were surprisingly consistent. Finally, some of the IFS therapists would tell their therapist friends — look, this sounds crazy, but sometimes it seems like some of our patients have demons.

And the therapist friends would answer: “Oh, you too?”


To hear Falconer tell it, one of psychotherapy’s big crises is that veteran therapists and psychiatrists keep noticing the demons, keep talking about it in their isolated silos, but nobody’s ever blown the lid off the whole thing and made it public.

(And it’s not just therapists. One of my favorite stories in the book was that of Reverend John Nevius, a sober-minded Protestant missionary in late 1800s China. He learned that the Chinese mostly appreciated Christianity for its ability to cast out demons, and that they expected his help with this task. After great reluctance, he agreed, and was surprised to find himself effecting miracle cures and winning converts. “After experiencing casting out demons himself, he sent circular letters to all the other missionaries in China, almost all of whom had similar experiences. Seventy percent of them had come to believe in possession and re-evaluate their faith.”)


He also falls into a trap I would describe as “has never read a pseudoscience book before, doesn’t realize what the red flags for pseudoscience are, and so collects the whole set”. We go from discussion on how the same doctors who laughed at Ignatz Semmelweiss will no doubt laugh at him, to quotes about science progressing funeral by funeral, to that one story about how the Native Americans couldn’t even see Columbus’ ships because they were so far out of their accepted categorization schemes3. These are all prima facie reasonable things to mention if you have a revolutionary theory that you expect the establishment to reject. But it’s analogous to how, if you’ve just been accused of racism, it prima facie seems reasonable to object that you have lots of black friends. Along with prima facie reasonableness, you also benefit from having some familiarity with the discourse and avoiding the exact phrases that will make doubters maximally hostile.


In the “multiple personalities panic” of the 1980s, some psychologists started thinking multiple personality disorder was a big thing and suggesting to all their traumatized borderline female patients that they might have it. Sure enough, lots of these people developed multiple personalities. This didn’t seem fake, just weird. Eventually the American Psychiatric Association sent out a statement saying “STOP DOING THIS”, therapists stopped talking about multiple personalities with their traumatized borderline female patients, and these people mostly stopped getting multiple personality disorder (although the occasional new case crops up here and there).

Now here comes IFS, saying “hey maybe you have multiple Parts in your mind, have you considered looking for them?”


  1. Phileas Frogg says:

    “That thing which has been is that which shall be, and that which is done is that which shall be done, and there is no new thing under the sun.”

    — Ecclesiastes 1:9

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