Over the last year or so I’ve been working on an approach to financial wellness called IFS Informed Financial Therapy.
For most of us, the path to financial wellbeing doesn’t lie in knowing more about how money works: information about mutual funds, investments, estate planning, or what have you. It lies more in understanding the trauma that underlies the problematic financial behaviors. The tool of IFS Informed Financial Therapy can help people access the hidden beliefs, emotions, and stories that drive these seemingly illogical financial behaviors.
Some 40 years ago, a family therapist named Richard Schwartz developed what he calls Internal Family Systems (IFS) theory. This is a therapeutic approach stemming from on his observation that people have internal systems made of various parts that interact much like individuals interact in a family system. It is based on what seems to be a natural human tendency to think and talk in terms of having various inner parts. Just think of all the times you have said something like, “Part of me wants/thinks this, and another part of me wants/thinks that.” “Part of me wants to spend, part of me wants to save.” “Part of me wants to take a risk, part of me is afraid.”
Schwartz determined that these parts are like little inner personalities. In a sense, everyone has multiple personalities. Because each person’s internal parts interact much like individuals interact in a family or a business organization, IFS therapists work with clients’ parts in much the same way that a family therapist might work with the members of a family.
In IFS theory, all parts are welcome and valuable. All parts have good intentions. And at the core of each person is the undamaged, essential Self who is not a separate part but is the leader of the internal system. An IFS therapist helps the client access this Self and facilitates conversations between the Self and different parts.
All these parts are with us throughout our lives. Some are active; some are dormant, just waiting to be activated or triggered. They help us survive and thrive by taking on various roles. Some parts are exiled, essentially hidden away while other parts guard and protect them. All the roles are attempts to keep the system safe. When parts are traumatized, they’re forced out of their natural states and take on extreme roles, much the way a child in a dysfunctional family may take on a parenting or peacekeeping role. The good intentions may be protective at the time of the trauma, but may become problematic in the future.
For example, a part may take on an extreme belief that IFS calls a “burden.” “I need to hide my money and keep it safe or someone will take away from me.” This may protect a child whose piggy bank is routinely raided by parents or siblings. As an adult, however, the person may go to extremes like hoarding, keeping money secrets, or excessive frugality as a result of this belief. The part’s good intention is still there, but the circumstances have changed.
My first exposure to IFS therapy was five years ago, in a workshop with Dr. Schwartz, and I found it a profound experience. It helped me access some issues I had never gotten to in some 25 years of experiential and group therapy. After several years of doing my own work with an IFS therapist, I began training. I am now a Certified IFS Practitioner, and I have begun using the IFS approach in working with financial therapy clients.
One of the valuable aspects of IFS therapy and IFS Informed financial therapy is the way this approach understands that the key to changing problematic financial behaviors is not to scold, manipulate, or shame person’s financial beliefs or actions.
When someone suffers a trauma, one consequence often is a part being forced to take on an extreme belief or burden that drives behavior that is meant to be protective but that often becomes problematic instead. Shaming or confronting that part does not succeed in changing the behavior, but only increases the part’s well-intentioned need to protect. Change comes by helping the part feel safe enough to jettison the extreme belief.
The therapist’s role is to help the client build what is called a Self to part relationship with these wounded parts. The approach uses curiosity and compassion to help the parts to feel safe, respectfully asking their permission to intervene. The second step is helping those parts begin to tell their stories, the experiences behind their burdens. This process acknowledges that every part, even one that appears to be the problem, really has our best interests at heart. It builds trust between the part and the Self that eventually allows a part to release its burden.
This is, of course, only a tiny glimpse of the process of IFS informed financial therapy. But I have seen people make faster progress with this approach than I have with other types of financial therapy. It offers exciting possibilities for the future of financial wellbeing.
Check out The Financial Therapy Podcast by Rick Kahler