Tolstoy and IFS

Jul 18, 2023 | Health Coaching, Internal Family Systems (IFS)


Leo Tolstoy opened his blockbuster novel Anna Karenina with this famous statement: All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. And went from there to show — in gloriously artful detail — how one family’s story could exemplify that observation.  Seems to me there’s resonance there with the Internal Family Systems model for understanding how any life can unfold into its own story.

~How so?

The internal family of Parts of us…when we are in harmony with each other…and there are no dragons to slay in the immediate or imagined vicinity…well we occupy a human nervous system that is well-regulated and calm.  I imagine ANY internal family, ANYWHERE in the world, in ANY culture, will show up in life calm, happy, smiling at the grocery store clerk, stopping to help an old lady cross the street, connected.  Make sense?

~Well yes…

But…the internal family within that has parts who are wounded and unhealed carry burdens of pain hidden away behind a blend of shame, cultural conditioning, religious dogma, resignation, despair, frustrated talent (not an exhaustive list). These are the foundation for the unique and dizzying mashup of emotional, psychological, existential problems that keep therapists in work, and Big Pharma in business.

~…and this is where the ‘unhappy-in-their-own-way comes in’?  What does IFS have to do with it?

If we want to get to harmony in the inner family, we have to address the disharmony.  Each inner family member (part) with pain or complaint or rage or worry or fear must be approached, listened to, respected, and offered what it needs to heal.  Many of our wounded parts are quite young, and stuck in times they were hurt, and not supported to move through the hurt.  They keep waiting for the help they needed then.  The gentle and patient process of offering understanding rapport is particular to each part, and to each part’s place in the inner family.

~So we might extend Tolstoy’s insight to include that each unhappy family has to heal in its own way.