IFS Therapy and ADHD: Why They Go Hand-In-Hand

CBT, DBT, ACT, EMDR- there are so many acronyms neurodiverse clients can choose from. Therapy is a deeply personal process and what works well for one person may not be as effective for someone else. That said, when it comes to feeling more authentic in your daily life and reducing suffering, IFS therapy and ADHD complement each other well.

As a therapist who was diagnosed later in life with ADHD, I understand the unique struggles and executive difficulties associated with neurodivergence. I recognize how ADHD brain can even make the process of settling into therapy difficult. You need to look through different providers, make that phone call or send that initial email, and keep up with your appointment. Before you even start, you might feel overwhelmed with all you need to do!

With that, I also feel passionate about helping other adults with ADHD harness their unique strengths. I love blending IFS therapy and ADHD in my work, and this article will dive into what you can expect in this unique treatment.

What is The Best Therapy for Adult ADHD?

More and more adults are properly getting diagnosed with ADHD. Getting your diagnosis can be a welcome relief, especially if you’ve always sensed something was off or different. But it can also be unnerving. What are you supposed to do with this new information? Are you supposed to change anything? Should you tell others? Subsequently, some people find that coming to terms with their diagnosis coincides with strange feelings of relief, shock, sadness, anger, or even grief.

First, it’s important to note that ADHD treatment is multifaceted and may include some combination of therapy, medication, and other lifestyle changes. Within the confines of therapy, research overwhelmingly supports that a good fit between therapist and client is one of the most consistent predictors of therapeutic success. In other words, how you feel about your therapist may be more important than what you actually do with your therapist.

With that, many clients benefit from experiential therapies, including IFS, somatic practices, EMDR, and attachment-based modalities. These models are non-pathologizing and focus more on inner acceptance and self-awareness rather than simply trying to change thoughts or fix unwanted behaviors. Although ADHD can, at times, be quite frustrating, it’s important to learn how to practice greater acceptance and compassion for yourself. In doing so, you open yourself to more creativity and higher self-esteem.

In addition, there’s a high co-morbidity between neurodivergence and trauma. If you have a history of trauma, it is particularly important to work with a trauma-informed specialist who can contextualize your trauma into treatment. Even if you don’t want to talk about the past, your past does affect how you show up in the world and your relationships. Unpacking trauma can help you recognize certain triggers that may exacerbate your ADHD. This work can be difficult, but it’s also empowering, and the healing can give you a newfound sense of peace and acceptance.

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What Is Internal Family Systems?

Internal family systems (IFS) is a non-pathologizing model that focuses on the distinct parts people carry in everyday life. The work of IFS focuses on identifying these various parts to build a stronger connection to your inner Self.

The overarching premise of IFS is that everyone has a core Self that can be accessed. Being in this state of self-energy often feels like a quiet calmness. There’s steadfast confidence and courage even when life feels challenging. When you’re here, you’re connected to your deepest needs and values.

Unfortunately, most of us aren’t actually living in Self most of the time. it’s easy to feel fragmented or struggle with unwanted mental health symptoms. When that’s the case, it may be because certain parts are taking over. IFS builds insight into the relationships you have with each of these parts.

IFS and ADHD: What’s the Connection?

An IFS therapist will focus on how your unique parts affect how you access your core Self. Rather than shaming your different parts (or behaviors or thoughts), you learn to make space for them. You learn to pay better attention to what those parts need. With time, you can also respond to these needs accordingly, helping you take better care of yourself.

Exiles: Exiles refer to the most wounded and youngest parts. They hold early memories, including preverbal childhood traumas and other hardships. Parts become exiled when other parts deem them as too overwhelming, needy, or unbearable. In IFS, it’s postulated that people take great lengths to avoid their exile parts being activated.

Managers: Manager parts are focused on keeping the entire system running smoothly. They protect the exiles and scan for threats in everyday life. Unfortunately, managers can also be driven by anxiety, which can cause them to become overly critical and even controlling. Healthy managers keep your adult life in check, but burdened managers often feel hypervigilant, nervous, and pessimistic. They’re constantly trying to protect exiled parts from coming out, and sometimes this results in them working in overdrive.

Firefighters: Firefighters parts act protective, and they react to danger accordingly. Unlike managers, they don’t anticipate danger. They react to it once they detect its presence. They can do this in a variety of ways, including lashing out, disordered eating, substance use, self-harm, and otherwise trying to numb difficult emotions.

Is ADHD a ‘Part’ In IFS?

ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder that exists on a wide spectrum. The neurobiological features of hyperactivity, inattentiveness, forgetfulness, or poor concentration are not a part. They are simply the manifestation of ADHD in all its various forms.

That said, ADHD will inform how people embody both their parts and their Self. ADHD can make it easy to feel overwhelmed by certain parts, which can lead to unwanted behaviors or feelings of stuckness. It can also result in low self-esteem, troubled relationships, and other functioning deficits.

Therapy, therefore, focuses on embracing ADHD strengths to access different parts and also learn how to recognize and land into Self. This requires welcoming all parts and embracing a neurodiversity-affirming lens.

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What Can You Expect During an IFS Session For ADHD?

IFS is significantly more experiential than standard talk therapy. Your therapist will work with you to distinguish your parts from your “Self.” Keep in mind most people don’t tend to know the difference! This is why your therapist will sometimes ask to speak directly to your part. They want to hear what your part has to say, feel, or think about a particular situation.

For example, let’s say you have an important work assignment coming up. Part of you is dreading the entire assignment and feels tempted to clean the house and put it off until the last minute. Another part of you feels excited about the challenge and wants to start working on it to avoid stressing about it later.

You may relate to this inner conflict well, as this is a common theme in adult ADHD! In an IFS session, your therapist will help you become deeply curious about each of these parts and the role they play in maintaining your daily life. You’ll sit with your feelings, explore what those parts need, and even note what it feels like to listen or respond to them.

IFS sessions may also include connecting with your body through embodiment practices. We do this by noting how certain parts feel when they get activated. For example, which specific sensations do you notice? How does that part look and feel? This somatic data is important for building awareness- the more you can sense a part, the more familiar it will feel to you.

It’s also important to remember that there are no bad parts! Each part has a protective and adaptive function that’s beautifully intended to secure your survival. You may not like all your ADHD symptoms, but it’s important to practice kindness toward them. We can only really change when we accept who we are.

IFS Therapy and ADHD Support in Seattle, Washington

There’s nothing wrong with ADHD! People with ADHD often have high levels of creativity, empathy for others, and deep self-awareness. At the same time, some ADHD symptoms can be downright exhausting. You may struggle with restlessness, boredom, procrastinating on important tasks, or other themes of self-sabotage.

IFS therapy and ADHD complement each other wonderfully, as this specific type of therapy can help you practice more compassion for all your parts. While you can’t cure ADHD, you can be more mindful of which parts might activate certain symptoms. You can also learn to build a more curious and loving relationship with these parts.

My passion is helping my clients embrace their authentic selves and celebrate their unique differences. You are welcome to come to my practice exactly as you are, and you can learn to appreciate all the aspects of yourself.

In addition to treating ADHD, I also specialize in helping clients navigate significant life transitions, depression, anxiety, and trauma. I am a member of the LGBTQIA2+ community and provide an affirming space for clients seeking therapeutic support.

I offer complimentary consultations to all prospective clients. Contact me today to get started.

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