How Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy can help gay men

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How can Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy help gay men?

What if shame, judgment, and self-doubt no longer prevented us from living our lives out and proud? What if the constant chatter in our head wasn’t an obstacle but held essential information for transforming our lives? What if our unwanted behaviors, even those we might regret tomorrow morning, came from a place of good intentions? What if we stopped pathologizing ourselves and discovered there was absolutely nothing wrong with us? In my experience, Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS) has helped my gay male clients accept these truths and dramatically transform their lives.

internal family systems
What if shame, judgment, and self-doubt no longer prevented us from living our lives out and proud?

What is Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy?

Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy is a transformational approach to therapy and understanding who we are. At its core, IFS is “parts work,” recognizing that our personality, beliefs, and values are the sum of many different parts within ourselves.

For clients new to IFS, thinking about our thoughts and behavior as different parts of ourselves can feel strange or sound a bit foreign. However, the idea that we are one unified entity is equally strange when we put our minds to it. A single emotion or thought rarely reflects how we actually feel. For example, John might complain to his partner, “I hate it when you don’t take the garbage out.” A part of John probably is quite angry about the garbage and may feel underappreciated at home. However, a second part of John may remember being shamed as a child for failing to do his chores. This part may feel sympathy towards the partner, and may have prevented the angry part from raising the issue in the first place. A third part of John may be consumed with meeting a deadline at work and frustrated with the garbage discussion, which it sees as a distraction. This part of John may resist spending time reconnecting with his partner and feel compelled to focus on the demands of his job first.

Understanding the differing perspectives and internal conflict within ourselves reveals each situation’s inner nuance and richness. As we gain clarity about the situation, we are able to step back and choose how to proceed with more self-acceptance, wisdom, and a new perspective. Throughout this initial process of learning about our various parts, we discover the truth that all of our parts have good intentions, even the parts that have engaged in unwanted or harmful behavior. Once we discover that all our parts have good intentions, we begin to release shame and self-doubt, increase our self-compassion, and experience a greater sense of harmony and balance. This approach is helpful for many individuals, and in my own work, I’ve experienced how it can be beneficial for my gay male clients.

internal family systems
As the connection and understanding deepen, we can directly heal parts holding pain and trauma and offer them the support they need.

There are three goals in IFS:

  • First, we begin by getting to know our various parts, their concerns, and their motivations for doing what they do. 
  • Second, as the connection and understanding deepen, we can directly heal parts holding pain and trauma and offer them the support they need. 
  • Third, as our parts are healed and become less polarized, we increase the amount of our available self-energy – the qualities within us that include compassion, clarity, confidence, curiosity, connection, and harmony.

How can IFS help gay men?

It’s no secret that from a young age, most boys are socialized to suppress their emotions. In fact, I remember being told as a young child to wash my face every time I cried. The message from adults was that tears were dirty and that sadness was unacceptable. As a result, men often have a hard time understanding and articulating their feelings, depriving them of helpful insight into what matters in their lives and the driving force behind much of their unconscious behavior.

Therefore, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that in a society where men are told that sadness isn’t acceptable, some men fear being flooded or overwhelmed by powerful emotions. In IFS, it’s possible to ask our parts to communicate with us in a way that does not flood us with emotion. Often these parts overwhelm us with emotion because they do not see any other way to get our attention. When these parts no longer feel rejected or suppressed, they will begin to communicate in less overwhelming ways that are more conducive to understanding.

Gay men often have parts of themselves that are polarized. For example, my clients may have a part that:

 

  • Wants to be in a relationship and another part that believes they are unworthy of being loved.
  • No longer desires sex with their partner, and another part that deeply loves their partner and is agonized by their lack of desire.
  • Enjoys and sees benefits in using drugs and alcohol, and another part that feels tremendous shame in using.
  • Enjoys working out and sculpting their body, and another part that is exhausted by the effort to look a certain way.

IFS can help gay men heal trauma and painful emotions

In IFS, you can heal and unburden the parts of yourself that are holding pain and trauma by getting to the root cause of the unwanted behavior. Once we heal your underlying pain and suffering, parts that initially felt compelled to avoid or distract from the pain are free to choose different, more harmonious roles in our lives. For example, you may notice that a part that feels compelled to play the role of people-pleaser may become more at ease and take greater pleasure in your relationships.

Alternatively, some gay men struggle with internalized homophobia and living in a heterosexist culture, and parts of them may be struggling with shame and self-doubt. IFS allows these parts to release negative beliefs or narratives that may have been absorbed within the system. For example, deconstructing stereotypes or messages that gay men are promiscuous, straight relationships are preferable, or femininity is a sign of weakness.

The thing is, parts within us often feel compelled to take on their roles to avoid pain and suffering. Some parts may try to manage your life to avoid triggering the parts that are holding pain. The parts of us that are people-pleasing, work-a-holic, or over-functioning are all trying to help us live a life that avoids triggering the parts of us holding pain. When the pain is triggered, other parts try to distract or comfort us. These parts often use food, sex, drugs, alcohol, or the internet to distract from the pain.

Through therapy, as your parts become less polarized, you experience increased self-compassion, and your relationships may improve. Rather than engaging with a part of our partners from a part of ourselves, we can connect with our own self-energy. In practice, this looks like connecting with loved ones from a place of compassion, curiosity, calm, and confidence. This dramatically increases the likelihood that our partners will respond with their own self-energy and can help us foster a more harmonious relationship.

 

lies in groupthink
When pain is triggered, other parts try to distract or comfort us. These parts often use food, sex, drugs, alcohol, or the internet to distract from the pain.

The bottom line

As you strengthen the connection with your various parts and better understand how to support your parts, you’ll begin to experience greater balance and harmony both within yourself internally and in your life. As funny as it may sound, all of our parts will increasingly defer to us as the natural leader, and we will act from a place of compassion rather than reacting as a result of avoiding pain or discomfort.

Seeking out Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy with a trained therapist can help you heal past wounds while living more confidently and with greater purpose. If this resonates with you and you’d like to explore the benefits of IFS, I encourage you to get in touch for a complimentary consultation with me to learn more.

Your Turn: Are you ready to heal your past wounds? Share what has helped you begin to experience greater balance and harmony both within yourself internally and in your life.

Josh Watson

Josh Watson is a Licensed LGBTQIA+ affirming Psychotherapist at Clarity Therapy. He specializes in helping individuals and couples experiencing relationship and intimacy challenges. Josh draws from Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy, Somatic Therapy, and spiritual approaches to help people realize their fullest potential.

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