Nicholas Brüss — Internal Family Systems (IFS) and Psychedelic Therapy

Internal Family Systems Therapy synergizes with psychedelics. Nicholas Brüss explains IFS techniques and their mental health impact.
Internal Family Systems. This is a photograph of Nicholas Bruss with the background removed. Wavy blue lines surround this photo, with a gradient blue triangle behind it in the bottom right corners. Overlapped by this is a black-and-white photograph of a family sitting on the floor in a play area.
Author: Katharine Chan, MSc, BSc, PMP
By Katharine Chan, MSc, BSc, PMP
June 28, 2024(Updated: July 3, 2024)

Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS) is a non-pathological, psychotherapeutic model that is distinctly synergistic with psychedelic medicines. We spoke with Nicholas Brüss about IFS theory and techniques and how it can empower our understanding of human life.

“IFS is a notably compassionate model in that anything that arises can be turned to and met.”

— Nicholas Brüss, EdD, LMFT

Nicholas Brüss, EdD, LMFT, is an integrative psychotherapist who specializes in helping people with psychedelics-assisted therapies. He was a therapist and clinical supervisor on the historic MAPS-sponsored FDA Phase III clinical trial of MDMA-assisted therapy for PTSD and a Zendo Harm Reduction volunteer.

Nicholas has been a certified IFS therapist since 2013. He is an IFS Institute-approved consultant, has presented at the annual conference, assisted a level one training, and supervises clinicians in the IFS model. Nicholas is a ketamine-assisted psychotherapy (KAP) provider and trainer and has been providing ketamine-assisted IFS therapy since 2017.

Nicholas is the Co-founder and Lead Trainer of the Psychedelic Coalition for Health. It’s an organization providing training in psychedelic-assisted therapy and integration for clinicians and public education programs advocating for psychedelic medicine health and happiness. He is on the Training Committee for the non-profit Therapsil, which is dedicated to making psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy available to those suffering from end-of-life distress.

Nicholas is also a certified Mindfulness Facilitator through UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. With the Center for Compassion, Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) at Stanford University School of Medicine, he’s a certified teacher of Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT) and also a Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) teacher.

Take Dr. Brüss’s course Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy: An Introduction to a Leading Psychedelic-Assisted Psychotherapy Modality.

Journey Into Psychedelics and IFS

Nicholas was born and raised in the Midwest. As he grew up, his beliefs around psychedelics were associated with the “Just say no” to drugs messaging. He shared that his initial sense of psychedelics was that they were these scary things that people did and went crazy.

Then, when Nicholas moved to Southern California around 20 years ago, his views changed drastically. He began exploring these plant medicines himself. Nicholas was a psychotherapist passionate about the work, trained and certified in IFS. He had studied several different models previously and found IFS to be an incredible therapeutic model.

Meeting Richard C. Schwartz, Ph.D. — The Founder of Internal Family Systems

There were only one or two other IFS therapists in Southern California at the time. So, in 2015, Nicholas invited IFS’s Founder, Richard C. Schwartz, PhD, to Los Angeles to give a talk about IFS to help promote it.

During Dr. Schwartz’s presentation, he showed a video of early MDMA for assisted psychotherapy for PTSD. Nicholas talked about how this video opened his views about psychedelics. Nicholas shared:

“I saw this young veteran be able to connect with some traumatic material inside of him in a way that I knew was hard-earned in regular therapy. And here this young man was opening and relating to aspects of himself that he had locked up inside…the healing was just unfolding in an expedited way. And so I got really turned on to the therapeutic value of working with these medicines.”

Nicholas’ Introduction to Clinical Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy

Nicholas connected with the MAPS team that was forming in Los Angeles. He shared he had the good fortune to be a clinician in the phase three study. Then, he went on to be a supervisor for the MDMA for PTSD study. That was his introduction to clinical psychedelic-assisted therapy.

From there, he went on to work with ketamine in private practice. He now works as a clinical trainer with Therapsil in Canada, advancing therapeutic psilocybin. Now, Nicholas is working on the COMPASS study, which looks at psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression. He also trains and supervises other therapists.

What is Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS)?

Nicholas explained that IFS is a potent, evidence-based, non-pathologizing form of psychotherapy model. IFS encourages and supports people to be leaders in their lives instead of being led by the parts of themselves that are still defending against trauma or limited beliefs.

IFS is a notably compassionate model in that anything that arises can be turned to and met. Nicholas references the philosophy of stoicism with the phrase “the obstacle is the way.” With IFS, it is similar in the sense that the “obstacles” are symptoms such as anxiety, depression, or a harsh inner critic. We use these to become the path forward toward healing. He explained:

“In IFS, we are not trying to get rid of anything. We’re trying to learn about the direct experience and relate to it in a way that’s very liberating and puts the person’s true self or core self in the captain’s chair.”

“Though this relating, burdens are released and inner harmony, healing ensues.”

Nicholas shared that IFS is also rather intuitive—he sees it as a training method. He would work with someone for weeks or months. What they come away with is not only healing from the time they were together. They also gained a way of orienting to challenges that arise for the rest of their lives.

The Origin Of ‘Family’ In Internal Family Systems

Nicholas explained that Dr. Richard C. Schwartz developed Internal Family Systems almost 40 years ago. He was an academic and clinician in the Midwest who was studying family systems. This model of therapy was new at the time. It’s where you would bring the whole family and treat the system (the family) together.

The basis for the model is that you can’t just pluck a teenager from their family and “fix” them. Instead, you need to look at the system that they were a part of. What was found was healing could unfold through understanding the dynamics and relationships in that family.

Dr. Schwartz was teaching and writing textbooks about family systems. Through a courageous learning process, he recorded what he knew about the models he had learned.

He learned this model from speaking with his clients. They started telling him about these different parts and how they were related. So he came up with the name IFS by taking family systems and getting internally in an individual while holding systems thinking.

How IFS Is Different Than Other Psychotherapeutic Models

We asked Nicholas to explain how IFS is distinct from other psychotherapeutic models.

IFS Views The Psyche As Parts And The Self

IFS takes a unique approach in which it views the psyche as being made up of a multiplicity of minds. The distinguishing feature of IFS compared to other models is that our natural state of mind is made up of various parts and the Self. These parts are sub-personalities. Some of these parts carry burdens, past traumas, or limited ways of being in a relationship. Nicholas explained:

“So behind these parts, there is a core. It’s you at the core. It’s your essence. It’s your true self. And the model is set to where we access that Self, and then create deep relationships with different parts of ourselves towards healing, harmonizing the system, so that the Self can lead versus parts.”

IFS Is Non-Pathologizing

Nicholas explained that IFS is also different from other models in that it’s very non-pathologizing. IFS views that each part of our mind has a positive intention, even if labeled with clinical terms such as depression or anxiety.

He talked about how IFS encourages you to get to know these parts and understand what job they’re doing and how long they’ve been doing it. It’s getting underneath those parts and understanding what it is that they want for you. We find that that is always a positive intention, although because it’s from a limited perspective/worldview, it comes out in a challenging, painful, or counterproductive way.

Nicholas gave an example of an inner critic. An inner critical part might be really harsh. With the IFS model, we explore that part and interview it. We’ll come to learn that it has desires for the person, such as wanting them to be safe, loved, or to stay in connection. It comes out in harsh criticisms, but a positive shift happens when we see, hear, and understand that critical part.

IFS Is Not Just A Cognitive Exercise

Nicholas explained that IFS isn’t just a cognitive exercise. It’s very helpful to have a cohesive narrative of one’s childhood. With IFS work, there is a different order of healing or relating when we guide people to drop in and hear from their younger parts directly. It’s distinctly different than what we necessarily remember. He further explained:

“The focus [of IFS] is on healing these internal relationships, and the overall goal is to be self-led, as opposed to being led or having to adapt to these parts with their limited view of the world.”

Why The IFS Model is Suitable for Psychedelic Therapy

We asked Nicholas to share why is the IFS model more suitable for psychedelic therapy specifically.

Enhances The Connection With Our True Self

Nicholas explained how certain traditions and others have referred to the Self as a kind of Buddha-nature or one’s true self. Knowing that that’s there to connect with makes it synergistic with psychedelic therapy because it enhances the connection with this inner knowing.

For instance, it was written in the MDMA for PTSD research protocol to aim to access or trust the inner healing intelligence of the participant. It’s not a therapist trying to figure somebody out, giving the correct interpretation, or telling them how to heal.

Similar to psychedelic therapy, the IFS model invites people to get to know their own inner healing intelligence. Psychedelics often provide a reference point or a peak experience where we can see and feel the Self as different than our parts.

Structured To Honor Inner Healing Intelligence

Nicholas explained that another way IFS is suitable for psychedelic therapy is the way it integrates traumatic experiences. During a psychedelic session, anything can arise, such as a traumatic memory or an intense emotional experience.

IFS is structured to interact with these types of experiences in a way that honors our inner healing intelligence. Additionally, it honors our capacity to know, discover, relate to, understand, and let go of the burdens that these charged parts carry.

Moves Towards Charged Parts Instead of Pushing Them Away

Nicholas explained that if panic or overwhelm arises in other modalities, a common practice is to ground or move away from these parts of ourselves. These parts include thoughts, feelings, sensations, and beliefs.

However, in an IFS model, we turn right towards it. We get to know it. We might ask for a little bit of space, but we don’t push it away. That space allows us to get to know it and be in a relationship with it. He gave an example of getting to know the shirt we have on. If we wanted to get to know it more, it would be helpful to take it off and look at it from a bit of distance.

Nicholas explained that using an IFS model creates more safety and containment, not only for a regular psychotherapy space but also for the psychedelic space.

All Parts Are Welcome

Nicholas explained that in a psychedelic experience, if something arises that is outside the ordinary state or something that we’re not used to, we can turn toward it. We accept whatever is coming, whether in thought form, movement sensation, or around the body.

The IFS model is consistent in the same way. It points to one of its central tenets: all parts are welcome.

IFS Processes and Techniques In Psychedelic Therapy

We asked Nicholas for some IFS processes and techniques that therapists and healers can implement while providing psychedelic therapy.

Mapping The System

Nicholas shared that in the preparation sessions, healers can help map out a client’s system, where they can learn about the range of different parts. He referred to his friend’s saying, “Who’s who in your zoo?” This is also where we start to learn about the dynamics within one’s system. There are two types of parts: Protectors and Exiles.

There are regulatory parts that want to protect other parts. The IFS model shows that we don’t want to go around those protector parts. It’s important to get to know them and honor them so that we understand why they’re doing what they’re doing and for how long. Maybe we learn how old these parts think the person is.

Understanding Types Of Parts: Protectors

Managers and firefighters are two types of Protectors that try to keep the exiles out of conscious awareness.

Managers are the parts that manage the day-to-day operations of a person’s internal system. Their primary goal is to maintain control over the person’s environment and internal state to prevent pain or trauma from surfacing.

Managers try to keep the person functioning and safe by adhering to rules, planning, organizing, judging, and generally maintaining order. They are proactive and work to minimize or avoid emotional hurt before it happens. Common managerial behaviors include perfectionism, people-pleasing, or obsessive thinking.

Firefighters serve to extinguish emotional pain when it becomes too intense or when exiled parts become activated. Unlike Managers, who are proactive, Firefighters are reactive and engage in more extreme or impulsive behaviors designed to distract from or numb emotional pain quickly.

These reactions might manifest as binge eating, substance abuse, aggression, or other risky activities. Their actions aim to put out the “fire” of emotional overwhelm or distress without concern for the long-term consequences of their methods.

Understanding Types Of Parts: Exiles

Exiles are parts that are often carrying emotional pain and trauma from past experiences. We call them “Exiles” because other parts (Managers and Firefighters) typically try to keep them out of conscious awareness to protect the individual from re-experiencing pain.

Exiles often hold feelings of hurt, fear, shame, or loneliness and can be younger parts frozen in traumatic or distressing childhood events. These parts are usually the focus of healing in IFS as they carry burdens that need to be released or transformed for true healing to occur.

Psychedelics As Non-Specific Amplifiers

Nicholas explained that it’s helpful to get to know a person’s system and its parts, which is what IFS aims to achieve. This is especially beneficial when we add the non-specific amplifier of psychedelics to the space. It’s crucial to know that parts are subpersonalities that tend to have their own worldviews.

For instance, we might experience anger. We give Anger that name in order to get to address it. However, we’ll find that anger has a whole range of other feelings we can get to know. Specifically, it has fears. This insight is a really useful piece for psychedelic therapists to explore the fears and concerns of these other parts.

Unblending Tool

Nicholas shared that the biggest tool that IFS can offer is unblending. So we know that there’s a Self inside and inner healing intelligence that we can access and get to know parts. Unblending means creating space and differentiating between the Self and one’s part. We do that by literally noticing and asking a part to give us a little bit of space.

Six F’s

Nicholas shared that there’s an IFS technique called the six Fs, in which we essentially bind a target part in and around our body.

  • Find: Identify a part. Begin by focusing on a target part (typically a protector) that is active or presenting itself. This process involves identifying the emotions, thoughts, or behaviors associated with this part.
  • Focus: Once they identify a part, the therapist and client concentrate their attention on understanding and interacting with it. This process involves asking the client to notice where they feel the part in their body and what emotions or physical sensations are associated with it.
  • Flesh Out: Develop an understanding of the part’s role, fears, and motivations. This step is crucial for building empathy towards the part, recognizing its positive intent, and understanding its relationship within the internal system.
  • Feel Toward: Encourage the client to establish a relationship with the part by fostering feelings of curiosity, compassion, or other connective emotions. This step is designed to change the relationship between the client’s Self (the core, compassionate, and leader-like essence of a person) and the part, making it more harmonious and understanding.
  • (Be)Friend: This involves the client’s Self getting to know the part better, asking questions about its fears and beliefs, and thanking it for its efforts and role in the client’s life. This process helps to build trust and cooperation from the part.
  • Fear: Address the fears of the part. In this stage, the therapist and client work to understand and alleviate the part’s fears, which often involves uncovering the part’s history and protective function. This understanding can lead to the part relaxing its protective roles, allowing access to more vulnerable, exiled parts it has been protecting

Take this Introductory Course on Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy, a Leading Psychedelic-Assisted Psychotherapy Modality.

Rage As An Example

Nicholas explained:

“Finding out how the person is feeling toward a part tends to be a litmus test to see how much they’re in Self versus blended with a part. So, parts are parts. They’re a part of us, but they’re not all of us. When we’re unconscious of them, we are identified as a part.”

In the example of anger, the expression of blind rage can be true in that somebody may not know or distinguish between themself and their rage. They’re just the rage that is coming through.

However, with unblending, they get to know that part of themselves. They can recognize that a part of them is feeling rage at the moment. That keeps them in the driver’s seat and relating to these other parts. From there, it’s about dialoguing with different parts.

Identifying The Self In IFS

Nicholas shared that one way to tell if we’re in Self versus identified as a part is to understand the qualities that emerge. Dr. Schwartz created a list of eight C’s that are markers of when we are in Self:

  • Curiosity
  • Compassion
  • Calm
  • Clarity
  • Creativity
  • Confidence
  • Courage
  • Connectedness

When we’re in Self, we’re able to relate, get to know and understand these other parts, and ultimately, toward unloading the burdens they’re carrying.

Speaking From A Part Versus For A Part

Nicholas added that a last easy takeaway from IFS is to understand the difference between speaking from a part versus for a part. We need to unblend from the part to speak for it rather than from it.

For instance, a client may have a genuine critical part come up and is active in them. They are unaware of it and have blended with it. The things they might say would be very critical because they’re speaking from that part. If they are in an argument with someone, they may say, “You’re an awful person.”

However, when they notice that critical part and get a little bit of space, they can speak for it as if it were standing next to them. So, in that argument, they may say, “Part of me feels uncomfortable and wants to call you names,” or “Part of me wants to disconnect from you.” This approach allows them to speak from the Self rather than from a part.

Nicholas’ Views On the Current Mental Health Landscape

There has been a resurgence of interest and passion for the use of psychedelic medicine. Nicholas shared his view on how this new movement will impact the current mental health landscape:

“I’m so excited and heartened by the healing that’s coming from the paradigm shift in mental health. The landscape will be kind of like before and after the Internet. There’s going to be before and after psychedelic medicines safely and ethically more integrated into our mental health systems. It’s very unfortunate that these medicines were locked up in 1970 because there are decades…a generation’s worth of healing that didn’t happen because these medicines were not available. I’m so glad it’s shifting, and I’m proud to be a part of it.”

The content provided is for educational and informational purposes only and should be a substitute for medical or other professional advice. Articles are based on personal opinions, research, and experiences of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Psychedelic Support.

Published by:
Author: Katharine Chan, MSc, BSc, PMP
Katharine Chan, MSc, BSc, PMP
Katharine has over 15 years of experience working in British Columbia's healthcare system, leading patient safety incident investigations, quality and systems improvement projects, and change management initiatives within mental health, emergency health services, and women's health. She has published in scientific journals and co-authored health research books. Her bylines include Verywell Mind, CBC Parents, Family Education, Mamamia Australia, HuffPost Canada, and CafeMom. Check out her books at Sum (心,♡) on Sleeve.

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