How IFS Helps with Addictions and Compulsions

Torso and legs of teenager running along beach with dogWhy do people develop addictions and compulsions? In general, their psychological purpose is to push out of conscious awareness anything disturbing. The unconscious mind knows how deeply upsetting some body-mind memories might be, as they could trigger anger, panic, grief, guilt, anxiety, shamedepression, or feelings of worthlessness. Thus, it will do anything it can to distract from them.

That may mean engaging in unhelpful or even self-destructive behaviors. After all, addictions and extreme habits, which can form out of obsessive compulsions (OCD), can be very engaging to the body-mind. This deep engagement with something else, anything else, is a wonderful distraction from unpleasant emotions.

Add to your natural propensity for avoiding pain those media messages suggesting various forms of distraction—porn, alcohol, vaping, shopping, extreme sports, etc.—may enhance your life and make you happy, and you have a recipe for a society inundated with addictions and compulsions. (See Anne Wilson Schaef’s book When Society Becomes an Addict for a deeper explanation of this concept.)

For all the talk of its potential pitfalls, obsessive and compulsive thinking has worked for humanity’s benefit for millennia. The person who unrelentingly rubbed two sticks together to create fire, Marie Curie in her lab, and Albert Einstein incessantly mulling over ideas are just some of the countless examples of people becoming consumed with something essential and meaningful.

With any form of compulsive or addictive behavior, the important question is: Is it interfering with any aspect of your life? If it is having a deleterious effect in any area, such as relationships, finances, work, or health, you might want to do something about it.

Fortunately, there are many ways to shift away from unwanted habits. William Glasser, MD, a renowned psychiatrist, wrote a book in 1985 called Positive Addiction. He argued the natural unconscious tendency to avoid psychological pain can be rerouted into positive addictions. In other words, the brain’s proclivity for repetition can be used creatively and productively. Those obsessive, compulsive energies can be channeled into useful and enjoyable distractions such as learning a new language, spending more time with friends and family, reading, exercising, or hobbies.

So is the answer simply reorienting one’s compulsive energies into positive activities? Well, yes and no.

So is the answer simply reorienting one’s compulsive energies into positive activities? Well, yes and no. As a holistic psychotherapist who uses Internal Family Systems (IFS) as one of the arrows in my therapeutic quiver, I would certainly suggest some energy redirection. Ultimately, though, the task is working with the parts of you that valiantly protect your wounded inner child to enable you to unburden some of that pain, as well as coming to appreciate all your other parts (called “protectors” in IFS) that may snort cocaine, drink excessively, gamble, have an eating disorder, or engage in risky sexual behaviors. As counterintuitive as it may seem, all of these things—destructive as they may be—are trying to help you. They will do anything to protect you from being flooded with negative or scary feelings. Anything.

As someone who has been working with people with addictions for over 40 years, I appreciate the way IFS allows a person to gently, yet deeply, explore inner terrain while learning how to compassionately create a new way of relating to all of their parts. Through the IFS process, a person can come to recognize how hard their parts work to give them peace, even if those parts still think the person is a child or teenager. Talking with those parts, getting to know them and their motivations, and developing a new loving relationship with them can be incredibly healing.

Many people with addictions are in 12-step programs, which are wonderful for creating a community of people who share a desire to eclipse the past and evolve. IFS is compatible with those as well.

When you can meet your cravings for temporary oblivion with greater patience and understanding, you may begin to explore your true self. In IFS, that means allowing you to access your inner self-leadership with all its creativity, curiosity, connectedness, confidence, calmness, creativity, clarity, courage, and compassion.


  1. Glasser, W. (1985). Positive Addiction. New York, NY: Harper Perennial.
  2. Schaef, A. W. (1988). When Society Becomes an Addict. New York, NY: HarperOne.

© Copyright 2016 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Nicole Urdang, MS, NCC, DHM, therapist in Buffalo, New York

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