In my book review of The Others Within Us , I wrote:

[An Internal Family Systems session] isn’t supposed to be just the therapist walking you through guided imagery, or you making up a story you tell yourself. The therapist asks you “Look inside until you find the part that’s sabotaging your relationship”, and you are supposed to discover - not invent, discover - that your unconscious gives it the form of a snake called Sabby. And you are supposed to hear as in a trance - again, not invent - Sabby telling you that she’s been protecting you from heartbreak since your last breakup. When you bargain with Sabby, it’s a two-way negotiation. You learn - not decide - whether or not Sabby agrees to any given bargain. According to Internal Family Systems (which descends from normal family systems, ie family therapy where the whole family is there at once and has to compromise with each other), all this stuff really is in your mind, waiting for an IFS therapist to discover it. When Carl Jung talked about interacting with the archetypes or whatever, he wasn’t being metaphorical. He literally meant “go into a trance that gives you a sort of waking lucid dream where you meet all this internal stuff”.

Some IFS therapists chimed in to say this was wrong. For example, DaystarEld:

Another minor thing worth noting… the article talks a lot about lucid-dream-like-trance-states where people do IFS work and I’m sitting here scratching my head. I don’t do this with my clients ever for IFS work, and I’ve never heard others who do it talk about this as a standard procedure. Maybe we missed the memo on why that’s important or necessary, but for anyone who thinks IFS requires this… it super duper doesn’t, and I think putting clients in a more suggestive state before they talk about their parts unnecessarily adds a lot of woo and potential risk of suggestibility for no good reason. Maybe some people “need” it to be able to talk to their parts, but I’m tempted in those cases to say that they should just use a different modality altogether.

And a therapist on Discord who wants to stay anonymous:

I’d probably call this true but misleading/sensationalised. A lot of the seasoned IFS folks do seem to describe the process as being in a trance, but I also know folks who wouldn’t describe it that way and my own experience with it did not feel particularly trancelike. People also vary a lot in terms of whether their parts communicate in ways that feel viscerally real versus more of a knowing, and also in how permanent they feel their parts are. I know someone who visits each of his ex-exiles each day, as if they’re neighbours, and his good friend has described the process as more like having a giant ball of clay that’s all of him smooshed together and he pinches parts off when he needs to work with them and then rolls them back in afterwards.

The thing of ‘discovering… a snake called Sabby’ and having to engage in good faith negotiation with Sabby rather than deciding what the agreement ought to be also feels quite ~sensationalised. To me, IFS feels like, idk, 80% Focusing and 20% roleplaying. Focusing also involves asking yourself questions about internal things and discovering - not invent, discover - what the answer is, but for feelings and bodily sensations rather than internal parts. It’s normal in the therapy that I go to, which does not involve IFS or Focusing or anything involving altered states of consciousness at all, for my therapist to ask me to check in with myself about what I need right now and sometimes the answer that comes up will not be particularly rational or something I would have wanted to choose if I’d been in control of the process - sometimes it’ll be something like ‘hide in the corner’, which is embarrassing and undignified and yet undeniably at least some of me wants it. So internal spelunking and discovery just isn’t very exotic, in my world, although my experiences of it are less exciting and vivid than they are for some people, and that might be an important distinction when it comes to stuff like demons.

“Lucid-dream-like trance state” was my wording, not Falconer’s, so maybe I’m getting it wrong. Still, here’s a quote directly from the book:

This discussion is also based on the IFS understanding that when we contact our parts, we are entering the same realities that shamans have been visiting for tens of thousands of years. I traced some other expressions of this same reality: the daimonic, the Romantic poets’ primary imagination, and Corbin’s mundus imaginalis. Even though this is a realm exiled from Western discourse, we can find it almost everywhere if we but open our eyes and look. The inner world is vast; it largely determines how we can live our lives, and we continue to ignore it at our peril.

Let’s look at one more non-Western example of the importance of the inner world. Luh Ketut Suryani, a professor of psychiatry in Bali, and Michelle Stephen, an anthroplogist and professor in Australia, have developed a body of work that emphasizes Stephen’s concept of autonomous imagination. Stephen states that autonomous imagination is:

» …a continuous stream of imagery thought taking place in the mind, although mostly outside conscious awareness. At regular intervals, it spontaneously enters consciousness in the form of sleep dreams, and under certain conditions, which like dreams are associated with high cortical arousal combined with low sensory input, it may result in waking visions and other hallucinations. Dreams and hallucinations are usually experienced as taking place independently of a person’s consciuos intention or will. But with special training, it bcomes possible to deliberately access the continuous stream of imaginary thought, bring it into the conscious mind, and even direct its unfolding, as we find occuring in the controlled trances of Shamanism and meditative practices, in Western hypnosis, Jungian active imagination, and many other Western imagery-based psychotherapies.


We started with the simple, and by now I hope unassailable, proposition that increasing our interoception abilities can be beneficial. All the voluminous studies of mindfulness meditations and how healing they are for so many issues should put this basic proposition beyond doubt. As we pursue the exploration of subjectivity, it takes us into odder and odder realms. Jung noticed this, too. In his mapping of the psyche, we usually first meet complexes, which are the equivalent of IFS’ parts. They are from our own personal life history. If we keep going, we start meeting archetypes. These are larger than our own lives. At first they are human in form and image. If we keep exploriong, they become less and less human, more and more otherworldly, god- or demonlike. Where do we choose to stop?

There’s lots of stuff like this, which I interpreted as saying that the IFS work takes place in a trance-like state, but I could be misinterpreting it. I am basically baffled. All of this sounds fascinating, so the first few times I read something like it, decades ago, I tried pretty hard to access this imaginal realm. I never really got anywhere, so I assumed it required the ability to access some special state I’m bad at.

But also, don’t you need something like this to be true to believe (as Falconer does) that these demons are real and important? If you’re just telling your patients “make up a neat metaphor for what’s in your head” and then your patient says “okay, I choose to represent my trauma as a demon”, then it doesn’t make sense to - as Falconer does - start freaking out and saying that demons are real and your patients have encountered them. It doesn’t make sense to start learning exorcism, any more than you would bring a bottle of bug spray to the session if your patient visualized their trauma as a giant cockroach.

The other therapist suggested a partial compromise:

Possibly [a person who finds they can’t do IFS] is either worse at actions like trusting input from outside of active consciousness or much better at observing their thought processes eg. someone could ask both of us about the part that makes us procrastinate and my experience is an image appearing in my head fully formed of an evil imp who casts spells on me and their experience is of a thought stream that goes “hm.. my procrastination is sneaky… what’s a good image for something sneaky and annoying… an imp fits pretty well, let’s go with that” and then the image of the imp appears and so for them, it’s clearly not a cool trancelike experience of an imp part just appearing, it’s them trying to guess the answer and create an image from scratch.

I like this because it’s flattering to me. And it seems to fit my experience - in order to not feel like I’m obviously making it up, I have to lightning-fast grab for the first concept my brain gives me, which is usually either a set of random syllables, whatever I was last thinking about, or a tiger (it’s tigers surprisingly often!) But even if some other people have so little access to their mental processes that complex metaphors burst into their mind fully formed, I don’t know how you go from there to demons.

At this point my working theory is that IFS works in different ways for different people, maybe so subtly that they don’t even notice and they describe it with the same terms. But I’d welcome more input from anyone with experience.