A Look at Internal Family Systems Therapy for Adult Children of Dysfunctional Homes

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In ACA (Adult Children of Alcoholics) and ACDH (Adult Children of Dysfunctional Homes) meetings, we often hear about people doing IFS (Internal Family Systems) therapy. So I decided to do a little research and discovered Souls and Hearts founded by Dr. Peter Malinoski. Souls and Hearts offers a year-long program (with an optional second year) called the Resilient Catholic Community (RCC). I’m currently in my 8th month and it’s been a beautiful healing process that I highly recommend. IFS goes quite well with adult-child recovery because both have a focus on parts.

What Are Parts?

The idea of parts is not new. Saint Paul writes about a conflict within himself, referring to parts that are in conflict with each other: “What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate” (Romans 7:15). And Jesus’ command to love our neighbor as ourselves implies we have at least two parts, one that loves and one that needs love. In ACA and Internal Family Systems or IFS, we assume that we each have many parts. The goal is for our parts to become integrated and work together in a healthy and functional adult way. That’s where recovery and therapy come into play. We get to know the wounded and fragmented parts of ourselves by inviting them to tell their stories and find healing.

After I began recovery with ACA, I wanted to understand the parts referred to in the Big Red Book, which are the Inner Child, Inner Teen, Critical Parent, and Loving Parent. When I joined the Resilient Catholic Community, I learned about even more parts. According to IFS, the more trauma we experienced in childhood the more parts we developed. 

In order to survive and stay safe during our childhood, our parts became fragmented and separated from our true selves to provide whatever role was needed at the time. However, as we experience healing these hidden parts emerge and become integrated. This process of healing involves grieving from and sharing the stories of our traumatic experiences in a loving and open environment.

The first part I encountered in my own internal family system was a very scared, very young part. I remember those first few weeks in ACA vividly. As the ACA “solution” informs us, “feelings and buried memories will return.” For me the feeling was terror! Every morning for weeks I woke up terrified. I didn’t have any memories associated with the feeling but it was obviously one I had stuffed down for a long time. 

As the weeks went by and I continued attending meetings, I became very curious about that scared little girl inside and wanted to get to know her. It was hard developing trust at first, but with time and practice, I was able to incorporate the loving parent voice that ACA encourages us to cultivate. In other words, I began integrating that fragmented part of my childhood, the Inner Child part, in a healthy way with my true self.

Around this time I started to hear about IFS therapy. Anyone who attends ACA meetings regularly will hear people mention IFS. When I first heard about it, I was intrigued when people talked about getting to know many different parts of themselves and I wondered how many more parts I had. Were there more hidden feelings and memories inside me, more parts just waiting to tell their stories like my terrified Inner Child?

After eight months in the Resilient Catholic Community, the answer is a definitive yes. Through IFS, I have begun to connect with many different parts of myself to find greater healing from my past. Ultimately, all of our parts just want to be seen, heard, known, and understood. In the RCC program, we do a daily meditation with our parts to help with this, and we begin with something very similar to what Dr. Greg Battaro calls The Sacramental Pause.

It’s been beautiful to experience healing from IFS with a community of faithful Catholics doing this very same work. Of course, the work is made possible by my daily practice of Step 11,  where I spend time in prayer and bring all of my woundedness to God, continually thanking Him for this healing process.

I’ve included a table below to help illuminate how IFS, ACA, and our Catholic faith are connected.

IFS ACA Catholic Faith
Whole Parts True Self/Healed Inner Child Original Innocence; Created in the image of God.
Wounded Parts Wounded inner child/teenager who took on survival traits but is capable of taking on new healthy roles Aspect of concupiscence or acting from a place of survival without deeper grace-led awareness and reflection 
Critical Part Critical Parent Part that is susceptible to believing lies from Satan about not being a beloved child of God
Self Loving Parent/Higher Power Healed part of self that trusts in God and hears God’s voice within

Since I’m new to all of this and not a trained therapist (simply a person in recovery with a counseling background), please make sure you talk to a therapist or another trained specialist before doing IFS for yourself. With that said, I encourage you to look into it since it has offered much healing in my own faith and recovery journey.

Born and raised Catholic, Chloe is an adult child of alcoholics who recently rediscovered the beauty of 12-step recovery through attending Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACA) and Catholic in Recovery meetings. For many years, Chloe was an Evangelical Christian before the Blessed Mother, the saints, and the witness of a dear friend eventually drew her back to the Catholic faith.