The Interface of the Internal Family System model (IFS) with Dance Movement Therapy (DMT)

A fundamental premise of the IFS model (developed by Dr. Richard Schwartz) is that the human mind contains and is born with an energetic core Self. The entity of the Self exudes the qualities of calm, clarity, open-heartedness, compassion, curiosity, competence, creativity, acceptance, patience and play.

As the Self seeks harmony throughout all stages of life, inevitable unsettling life experiences can negatively impact our mind, feelings, thoughts, sensations and behaviors. As these situations arise a natural coping mechanism intervenes. The mind creates protective parts to manage and carry the burden of the pain. Parts develop thought, feeling and behavior patterns of their own that attempt to extinguish these feelings of great discomfort.

All of these parts are what make up our internal family system. The strategic intent of IFS is that our parts develop a safe nurturing relationship with Self and the system becomes Self-led.

Each part has a separate personality of sensations, movement expressions and different beliefs. Over time, the IFS process model identifies and facilitates each of these parts to become acquainted with the present core Self- energy we are each innately born with.

As each of our protective parts show themselves during focused IFS sessions, the aim is to welcome and support our protective parts as outrageous or confounding they may often be. Our protector personalities may show up as triggered anger, fear, sadness, or addictive habit patterns arising while in interactions with others and/or circumstances in the present moment.

An example is if an adult male finds himself frozen and scared and anxious during a presentation with his boss even though he has a proven track record of high functioning creativity and analytic capability for presenting new ideas for the company he works for.

In this case during an IFS session the 48-year-old man finds that the insecure overly criticized 10 year old boy in him is stuck and still flooding him and that his adult part can’t seem to calm himself down. In this scenario the IFS approach is to help the client find this young boy part. Help him learn to unblend and begin to use Self-energy to welcome the young boy, recognize and care for the frozen scared boy and help the boy inside to heal, feel cared for, not criticized anymore and bring him into the present time of the man’s maturity and experience rather than stuck in an energetic place in his system of 38 years ago.

The initial steps of this process are to help the part/s feeling state to unblend from flooding the internal system. This enhances the possibility of calling upon our Self-energy to begin a safe, comforting internal energy connection with our parts. Once the part begins to take in the caring energy of the Self, the Self can begin to help lead, unburden, heal and re-pattern the burdened parts. This takes time, patience and persistence.

While doing this work new neuronal patterns are being created for more balanced regulated calmed protector parts to heal and/or transform.

With both IFS and DMT the awareness of sensations, movement nuances, and a safe relationship internally with Self and externally with the therapist/guide is a centerpiece for growth.

Dance movement therapists develop expertise in noticing and tracking client’s movement pattern shifts (both subtle and obvious) in gesture, posture, eye contact, facial expressions, etc. As each internal family part arises in a session for a client, the DMT will adjust their movement reciprocity to welcome and acknowledge the part that is projecting itself and is coming forward for attention, care, understanding and potential transformation or releasing.

Parts often need to tell their story from the past which has once again been possibly triggered by everyday events. Conflicts and polarities can arise among our internal family parts as the parts attempt to protect the burdened memory of the wounding experience. These are all potential dances that can be simply expressed with very ‘everyday’ movement even just by using our hands as movement metaphors of the internal feelings and sensations of the wounded part.

To further clarify and demonstrate this movement activity: one hand will be expressing the movement of the wounded part and the other hand expressing/being the qualities of Self-energy. In this dance the client is simply using their hands to animate and practice exchanging the relational energy of the Self towards the wounded part. This movement interaction with imagery between the hands of the client often begins to rehabilitate and transform the internal story of the earlier wounding experience.

The following is an example of the dance of just our hands using expressive movement. The active interchange of one hand being the burdened part and the other hand expressing Self-qualities of calm, competence, compassion is simple and sublime. This energy exchange through movements of the hands with each other activates a relational healing energy exchange of part with Self. The DMT will guide and check in with how the client is experiencing this activity. They will stay curious to witnessing, as well as asking the client of any sensation shifts that may be happening for the part in one hand while interacting with the other hand that is consciously expressing Self energy presence.

This ‘Self dance,’ through the hands of the client while seated, can energetically project a restorative healing story. This new Self to part experience in turn stimulates a neuronal re-patterning of the original wound and of the part that is carrying or protecting this burdened memory.

If you are curious I invite you right now to try on this expressive movement activity with yourself. The key for the potential transformation of working with this movement activity is to consciously open up your heart energy as you do the dance between your hands at the same time.

Begin the hand dance initially with outer focus. Then, when you have become comfortable with the hand dance, go into inner focus and keep the movement of your hands interchanging in and around each other. Move one hand projecting the sensations of the wounded part and the other hand expressing the qualities of compassion, competence, patience and appreciation. Internal meditative focus, emphasizing your felt sense, usually heightens the internal shift. Take your time, remember to breath and allow the dance to slowly unfold organically. Do not push the dance to be what you ‘think’ it should be. This is not healing. However accepting what does occur is healing.

This energy dialogue is from the inside out and the outside in. The internal conversations between Self and part are happening through sensation, felt-sense, visioning and the flow of movement expression. The DMT may use verbal prompts of support and checking in with the client to understand what the wounded part is experiencing and noticing.

Another useful and important dance between client and therapist is the conscious use of the therapist’s movement presence of Self-energy in explicit interaction with the client. The following movement activity is a description of a DMT structure/intervention of the therapist’s conscious use of Self-energy with the client’s parts responding verbally.

If/when frozen coping parts from the past may come forward for the client that can be witnessed by noticing rigid tight posture, held breath, or pressing held hands tightly and possible strained eye focus. In this case the client may desire/need to give voice to a small sequence of a traumatized memory part. As the part is receiving the Self-energy presence of the therapist, the Self-energy of the client may begin to come forward energetically receiving the energy and attunement of the therapist. Dance movement therapists call this interchange kinesthetic empathy.

With the following structure/intervention of simple verbal and non-verbal interaction the client receives experientially an opportunity to ‘work through’ what they were too young to request when the wounded patterns or trauma initially occurred. The dance movement therapist helps the client become Self-led in the movement exchange with the therapist’s Self-energy presence and respectful reciprocity as she listens and adjusts her movement to what the client needs for safety and a sense of safely being connected and cared for.

The following example is a description of how the dance movement therapist’s ‘Self dance’ is a natural extension of the therapist’s energy presence using ‘everyday’ simple movement with the IFS model.

The client may be seated with eyes closed or opened where there is about 3 feet of space around the chair that the client is sitting in. The therapist then very carefully and slowly walks around the chair of the client while generating heart energy into the ‘space between’ client and therapist. The dance movement therapist may ask ‘am I too close or too far away?’ for you to safely experience my care and our connection? There are no right or wrong answers to this question.

In this movement activity the client continues to verbally respond and says exactly what they may be feeling in any given moment. The therapist keeps adjusting their movement to what the client says they feel and need that is experienced balanced and safe for them. If the client is curious to continue experimenting the therapist can try different distances near and far as well as fast and slow, low and high, etc. The client continues to practice being Self-led as she tells the therapist what is safe and balanced for her in each other’s energy presence.

This ongoing dialogue allows the client the experience of being heard, respected, and responded to in movement expression as the therapist shifts their movement to adjust to the client’s needs for attachment and separation.

Many variations can be practiced with this movement activity by the therapist being in front of the client, behind the client, or on the side of the client as she walks around the chair. The client may say ‘I am uncomfortable when you walk behind me’. Or they may say ‘I feel safest when you are on the side of me’, etc. At any point the client can ask to stop the activity and verbally work on a part that may have been triggered during this unembellished movement activity.

Curiosity often begins to develop for the client and thus kinesthetically opening a pathway for re-patterning attachment mismatches or wounding that may have occurred for their infant, toddler, or young child parts’ experiences. Situations such as being possibly neglected or on the other end of the continuum suffocated with attention and expectation can begin to reorganize with practicing new Self-led kinesthetic interchanges with the therapist.

The IFS model is designed around specific concepts and structures that are called upon to facilitate the process of healing wounded parts and developing consciousness of our robust core Self. IFS has it’s own language of descriptions of structures and concepts.

Some of the concepts and language of IFS are: our internal family parts becoming Self-led, unburdening parts, polarization of parts, welcoming all parts for their intention of wanting something positive for the individual, protectors, extreme parts, exiles, manager parts, firefighter parts, direct access, insight, flooding of parts, unblending, retrieval and more.

What is very exciting for me as a dance movement therapist is how expressive movement interventions, on the continuum of stillness, to moving parts of the body, to whole body movement expression so very easily and creatively weaves with supporting and activating both the healing potential of IFS and DMT.

The nature of expressive movement is that body mind and spirit all are happening in synergy of each moment. So from my vantage point IFS therapists already have a natural repertoire of expressive movement in their energy presence. Most therapists intuitively already are in a movement interactive exchange with their clients. Expertise with DMT enhances the nuances and repertoire of movement possibilities to be explored with each individual client with diversity and artfulness and the poetry and flow of using movement as well as music or percussive instruments.

DMT has a lot to offer the IFS therapist. As the IFS therapists’ movement repertoire expands, becomes more comfortable and conscious, often new subtle and potent information verbally and non-verbally can begin to expand while in the IFS practitioner’s presence. Increased use of mindful and expressive body movement with the IFS model adds to the universality of the model through non-verbal avenues and the art and flow of the healing Self.

DMT hones in on the expertise of the art of expressive movement (the ‘Dance of Self’), and designs improvisational movement structures that enhance the repertoire of the therapist and the client and creates a safe arena for exploration, practice and risking new styles of behavior for parts with Self.

Both the modalities of IFS and DMT are on-going practices of Self-growth each for the client and the therapist. These modalities are both multidimensional, paying respect to the body mind and spirit aspects of the transformational process. The use of story, dialogue, metaphor, memory, sensation, felt-sense, images, visualizations, creativity, and movement expression (subtle to obvious) are all tools of communication, energy exchanges, verbal and non-verbal, between client and therapist in both of these modalities.

Interfacing IFS and DMT is a wonderful mix for me as I discover eye-opening synergy weaving interventions of both of these relational models with clients. Both IFS and DMT honors the ‘inside-out’ and the ‘outside-in’ of connectivity with our Self and internal family parts, with our clients, with loved ones, acquaintances and relating to the world environment.