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Does Internal Family Systems Therapy Implant the Belief of Demons and Entities into Clients?

IFS is a popular therapeutic approach among underground psychedelic guides, but do these practitioners lead people into believing in malevolent entities?

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Robert Falconer is refreshingly honest. 

He’s a leading figure in Internal Family Systems (IFS), which is the second-most-popular therapeutic modality among underground psychedelic guides (according to a forthcoming survey by the University of Michigan — the most popular modality is Somatic Therapy). Falconer says that, for many years, it has been an open secret within IFS culture that sometimes — and perhaps particularly on psychedelics — you encounter Unattached Burdens (UBs), which is IFS terminology for malevolent entities or demons

“Dick Schwartz [founder of IFS] started calling them ‘critters’ a long time ago,” Falconer tells me. “They had a staff meeting at one point, and changed the name to Unattached Burdens, because it makes it sound a little more academically acceptable. This idea is like the third rail, and Dick’s terrified it’s going to destroy the reputation of IFS. But I thought it was so important that I wouldn’t shut up about it. It led to me being exiled from the IFS community for a while. Finally [Schwartz] came around and wrote the foreword to my book, and now they’re talking about it in Level 1 training.”

Falconer recently published The Others Within Us with a foreword by Dick Schwartz. It brings this taboo topic of malevolent entities into the light, and shares Falconer’s and other IFS therapists’ work involving “unburdening” clients of UBs. He works actively with underground guides in psychedelic culture and thinks psychedelics open us up to non-human entities, both good and bad (most psychedelic guides agree with him, according to a survey I did which I’ll share later in the piece). 

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The centrality of this idea in IFS — and the popularity of IFS in psychedelic work — raises three questions:

First, what’s the evidence for whether this IFS “unburdening” (which, more or less, is another word for “exorcism”) is helpful or harmful to people? 

Second, is there a risk of psychedelic guides (IFS or otherwise) suggesting or implanting the belief of UBs and demons into their clients? (Spoiler: I think there is, and I have found multiple examples of IFS clients who are led to believe they have a UB within them by IFS therapists or coaches).

Third, if Falconer and underground guides are right, and psychedelics do open us up to entities (both angelic and demonic), how do you inform the public of that risk and protect them against it? At least, Falconer has kickstarted an honest conversation on this topic.

A Very Brief Introduction to Internal Family Systems

Maybe this is the first time you’ve heard of Internal Family Systems. If so, here’s a brief rundown. It was developed by Richard ‘Dick’ Schwartz 40 years ago, growing out of his work in Family Systems Therapy. The central idea is simple: The self is multiple and is made up of different parts. IFS has developed its own terminology for different types of parts. There are “managers,” who try to keep control of the psyche; “firefighters,” who manage ego-defense; and “exiles,” who are dissociated, the wounded parts of us. 

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These parts aren’t metaphors, according to Schwartz. They are fully developed autonomous beings. At the heart of all these parts is the Self.

“Self is who the person really is,” Falconer writes. “It’s always the witness…this Self is who you really are, and it is undamaged and undirtied.

The game (or process) of IFS is to identify your inner parts, give them names, make friends with them, and welcome them into your Self-energy, so they can all relax and feel safe. There are No Bad Parts, as Schwartz titled his book. People practice IFS on themselves or by seeing an IFS coach or therapist, who works with the parts via hypnotherapy or guided meditation.

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IFS has become incredibly popular in the last few years — there are 10,000 people on the waiting list for level 1 training from the IFS Institute. The list is so long that they do a lottery to make spaces available. You can see why it became increasingly popular during the pandemic — what a fun activity to work with your internal parts, as if they’re your own collection of inner Pokemon, during quarantine. 

Therapeutically, one can see the value in having compassion for the wounded parts of you. I also think it may be popular because it’s quite basic and easy to understand — at times, No Bad Parts reads more like New Age inspirational literature than a work of scientific evidence-based therapy. The idea at its heart — the concept of the true, luminous Self — owes more to Hindu philosophy than Western psychology. IFS founder Dick Schwartz also says you can contact “guides” — as in, spiritual entities which offer you advice — through IFS, and says he has encountered them on ketamine.

Some psychologists have criticized IFS for its lack of data (despite its motto “follow the data”). It’s existed for 40 years, and in all that time, there’s only been one small-scale pilot study to see if it actually works for PTSD (in which 92 percent apparently recovered from PTSD).

I haven’t tried IFS myself — I have several friends in the therapy world who say they love it — but the main risk I see is that it could make people more self-absorbed, inward-looking, and fragmented. Who has time for actual friends when you have a menagerie of unruly internal parts to manage within you? And these parts are not metaphors, according to Schwartz. They are actual autonomous beings with fully-fledged personalities and their own “sacred essence.” It gets even more complicated — sometimes parts have their own parts! And those parts have fully-fledged parts and so on. “It’s parts all the way down,” Schwartz says.

IFS Demonology 

A core IFS dogma is “there are no bad parts.” But it turns out this is not entirely true. There are some parts that are not part of your Self. On the positive side, there are the “guides,” or angelic beings. And there are Unattached Burdens, UBs, or what are traditionally known as “djinns” or “demons.”

As Falconer said, UBs have been a bit of an IFS secret, only taught in Level 3 training until recently. But a year ago, he published his book about UBs, with a foreword by Dick Schwartz and praise from other leading IFS therapists. This book has been pretty influential in IFS, underground psychedelic culture (where Falconer is active), and the wider New Age / spiritual culture. (He was interviewed on the Emerge podcast and the Stoa has launched a talk series dedicated to the topic.) Demonic entities are having a moment. 

How can we identify UBs? In Catholic teaching, the classical signs of demonic possession are “paranormal knowledge, fluency in unfamiliar languages, violent reaction to holy objects, levitation, supernatural strength, and the production of substances and smells beyond what you could possibly expect from a human.”  UBs are a little less obvious in IFS. But Falconer identifies some common characteristics. 

Most obviously, he says, UBs wish the host ill, expressing unremitting malice. Falconer says they can also be “contemptuous and sneering and say things like, “I’ll never go — you can’t make me.” If you ask them if they’re a part of a person, they will admit they’re not, which is very honest of them. 

They can often appear demonic — one UB that Falconer encountered appeared to the client as a “a blood-shot eyeball on goat legs,” another presented itself as a “sexy goat head.” Other times they can appear like deep sea creatures. Reportedly, they often have red eyes (see the Reddit comments below). Sometimes they have names. Sometimes people have multiple UBs within them “organized into local hierarchies with bosses and underlings. For a UB to see you standing up to a boss makes all the difference in the world.” Yes, not only do you have malevolent entities within you, they might be unionized.

How do they enter us? Falconer says the psyche is porous, so it can happen any time, but particularly during out-of-body experiences, such as trauma, rape, child surgery, and “black magic.” A UB could enter an ancestor and then get passed on (Falconer mentions one case where an uncle practiced black magic and somehow passed the UB on to their nephew). 

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Falconer also says psychedelics open us up to UBs.

“We’re more vulnerable and open to spiritual influence of any kind, good and bad [while on psychedelics]. Before speaking to you I did a very dramatic session with a young woman. She went to an ayahuasca ceremony which was very poorly organised, and group medicine is more prone to have these things get into people. She got something in her and knew something was wrong. She left the place and had an acute psychotic episode and was hospitalized against her will. Her parents came to take her back from California to the Midwest. They had to have her hospitalized again because she tried to jump out of the car on the freeway. “

What do you do if you get a UB inside you? Traditional exorcism would involve aggressive confrontation between a priest and the spirit — you know, “the power of Christ compels you!” kind of thing. Quite often in traditional cultures, people have been murdered because others think they have a demon within them. This still happens a lot (just Google ‘exorcism murder’), and when murders have occured in psychedelic culture, it’s often because an individual or group decide the victim is a demon or demonically-possessed.

Falconer thinks this is unnecessarily aggressive. He says “UBs love a fight, they thrive on it.” Instead, he tells the UB to go into the light and coaxes the client to ask the UB to leave. He says that as long as no part of the person is afraid or attached to the UB, it has no choice but to leave. This, by the way, is what the woman in the ayahuasca ceremony did — she repeated the mantra, “I have nothing for you but love,” and the Thing allegedly left her. 

So, what happens in an IFS exorcism? It is essentially a conversation between the IFS therapist or coach, the client, the client’s parts, and the UB, through a sort of hypnotic induction. There are several examples in Falconer’s book — you can also watch an IFS exorcism in this video.

Spirits and Demons in Other Therapies

Malevolent entity exorcisms are quite far out for mainstream therapy. But, as Falconer points out, most cultures in history have believed in spirit possession. Amazon shamanism is based on the idea of spirits and spirit possession — spirits cause illnesses and spirits cure illnesses, and shamans are the ones who can work with spirits, bringing in the helpful ones and protecting against the unhelpful ones. 

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Even in Western psychotherapy (which emerged, after all, from occultism), demons have sometimes poked their head into the treatment room, and a few fringe therapies have made exorcism the center of their practice. One example is Spirit Releasement Therapy, which was practiced by pastor and therapist Willliam J. Baldwin, Dr. Edith Fiore, and others in the ’90s and Noughties. I don’t know what happened to Baldwin, but Dr. Edith Fiore lost her license and took to writing books about past lives, UFO abductions, and the pharaohs of ancient Egypt. 

Then there was the Dissociative Identity Disorder and Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD) fad of the 1980s and ’90s. MPD was a very rare diagnosis before the 1980s, but it suddenly became a lot more common. Cases appeared of people with 10, 20, and even 100 ‘alter’ identities, which would be uncovered and worked with through hypnotic suggestion, much like IFS. The MPD hypnotherapy movement suggested that some of these alter identities were actually demons who had entered the client through Satanic ritual abuse. 

A key book in this movement was Mind in Many Pieces by psychotherapists Ralph B. Allison and Ted Schwartz (no relation to Dick). Allison speaks of identifying and removing demonic entities in his clients, who had often got in there through black magic or Satanic ritual abuse. They could be removed with the assistance of clients’ magical “Inner Helper.” MPD hypnotherapy led to something of a “Satanic panic” in the ’80s and ’90s, as countless clients uncovered memories of Satanic cult abuse through hypnosis.

Falconer is aware of this fringe history of “exorcist therapy” and writes appreciatively of Spirit Releasement Therapy and the MPD hypnotherapy movement.

Three Questions for IFS and Psychedelic Culture

I have two questions for IFS and a third one for psychedelic culture as a whole.

First, what’s the evidence that IFS exorcism is helpful or harmful to clients? Second, is there a risk of suggesting or implanting belief in demons into IFS clients? And third, if Falconer is right and psychedelics do open us up to entities (angelic and demonic), how do you inform clients of that risk and protect them against it?

To answer the first question, Falconer gives us some case studies — all of which are positive and successful. He writes: “While I don’t have statistical analysis, I can have a very firm sense of when we treat it this way, it’s very, very likely to relieve [clients’] suffering.”

In other words, we don’t know if IFS exorcism is helpful or harmful because IFS hasn’t done any trials on it. Mitch Earleywine, a professor at the University of Albany, wrote an article criticizing IFS for its lack of evidence, arguing that measuring outcomes through clinical trials is essential and ethical, otherwise there is a serious risk of unintentionally harming clients.

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But, Mitch hadn’t heard of IFS’s concept of UBs when he wrote that article. I told him about them, and he expressed concern about how clients are being influenced. “I have serious apprehensions regarding the expectations such metaphors set, as they could influence the psychedelic experience and potentially reinforce unhelpful beliefs. Given documented concerns about how psychedelics can increase psychiatric symptoms and distress, I would not be comfortable using or recommending the approach. Those who still chose to do so might be inadvertently encouraging distress and dependence. At the very least, they should emphasize the metaphorical nature of this approach repeatedly, and regularly assess iatrogenic effects with formal measures of distress or psychiatric symptoms.”

It’s not a metaphor, Mitch! 

Second question. Is there a risk of therapists and psychedelic guides suggesting and implanting the idea of a UB to someone? IFS therapists have insisted to me that this would be “bad IFS” as the therapist should never lead the client. However, I’ve come across eight examples, from personal contact with clients and from the IFS Reddit page, where therapists appear to have suggested to clients they have UBs or demons within them, often directing them to Falconer’s work.

Here’s one example from Reddit:

“I’ve been doing IFS with a very seasoned IFS practitioner for two years. I’ve been stagnant and feeling deeply depressed recently – despite no obvious cause. I’ve sensed for a while a part inside me that isn’t my own. My therapist recommended I read the Robert Falconer book others have mentioned. Last week we uncovered an Unattached Burden which is deeply enmeshed in my system.”

Here’s four others, some found it helpful, some didn’t, but in all cases the suggestion came from an IFS therapist or literature. The first three seem to have found it helpful:

This person did not find it helpful and was “freaked out”:

In all these examples, the suggestion of the UB came from the IFS therapist or IFS literature, not from the clients themselves.

Two therapists emailed me with instances where either a client or they themselves were told by another IFS therapist they had a UB inside them — both of them disagreed, and ended the therapy. Here’s one who agreed to me sharing their comment:

“I follow your blog and wanted to get in touch regarding IFS. I recently ended therapy with an IFS practitioner because of a sudden introduction to Falconer’s ideas into our work and subtle suggestion of ritual abuse. I was shocked and saddened after years of working with this therapist and named it. We tried to work through it but I ended therapy because it felt that trust had been broken. I really appreciated your post because it echos exactly my experience and I worry for clients who are less able to state when a boundary is transgressed.”

Here’s another client who emailed me:

“I’ve been seeing my psychologist who specializes in trauma therapy for about 10 months now. I made it clear that I was not interested in anything spiritual because I had a lot of that pressed on me, and I wanted to set my boundaries…After our meeting on Tuesday, when I discussed a very frightening embodiment of what I would call the abyss, or death, which I felt had its sights set on me….she told me she thought I had an unattached burden. At first, I was interested, thinking it was some kind of trauma thing, and then my heart sank. And then I got really pissed off. I have suffered from delusions in the past, she knows that. I have experienced psychosis in the past. I have been expressing very suicidal thoughts, and I’m in one of the most vulnerable times of my life, certainly of my adult life. I feel disrespected, but more than anything, I feel, honestly, it’s kind of disgusted with the fact that she could say something so irresponsible to somebody in my situation.”

IFS therapists can dismiss all these examples as “bad IFS,” but it seems there is clearly a risk of IFS therapists and coaches suggesting or imposing the idea of a UB, and clients finding it harmful — even more so if they’re working with clients taking psychedelics, which amplify suggestibility.

In his book, one observer even tells Falconer it looks like he’s making hypnotic suggestions:

“Participant 1: [Falconer], it seems like you implanted a lot of little suggestions, almost like a hypnotist.

Falconer: Well, there is a general principle here. These things are often full of pride, and you can use their pride to manipulate them. “

In other words, Falconer thinks he is hypnotically manipulating the UB rather than the client…

I emailed the IFS Institute to ask if they wanted to comment on these issues, but didn’t hear back.

Not Another Satanic Panic

We have been here before. In the 1980s and 1990s, thousands of hypnotherapy clients came to believe they were the victims of Satanic ritual abuse and had demons within them. The MPD movement fed into a Satanic panic in the ’80s and ’90s, as American families became convinced there was industrial-scale Satanic cult abuse involving the murder of hundreds of thousands of children. This panic turned out to have been implanted by the MPD hypnotherapists, some of whom got sued by their clients and families.

That was one of the major fuck-ups of psychotherapy in the last 50 years, in my opinion, yet Falconer mentions the movement approvingly in his book, without any mention of how it implanted false beliefs and spread Satanic panic. 

This should be a serious concern for IFS because there have already been similar lawsuits against IFS-trained therapists. In the Noughties, Dick Schwartz trained the staff from an eating disorder clinic in St. Louis called Castlewood. He ran IFS training programs with the directors of the clinic — Marc Schwartz and Lori Galperin — and was listed on the Castlewood website.

Over the last decade or so, clients at Castlewood have brought multiple lawsuits against Marc Schwartz and Lori Galperin for implanting false memories of Satanic cultic abuse in them — including the belief they had taken part in murder and cannibalism and that they were infested with “dark energy.” Clients at previous treatment centers run by the pair in Kansas City and New Orleans brought similar accusations against them of implanting beliefs in Satanic ritual abuse. The lawsuits were settled out of court, and Schwartz and Galperin left Castlewood and set up a new treatment center in California, where Dick Schwartz taught in 2019 (despite presumably knowing about all the law cases at Castlewood some years earlier).

What Does Falconer Think of Implanting Beliefs in Demons?

Now I can imagine Falconer’s work might really help people who already believe they are demonically possessed and are desperate for help. But what about people who don’t think they have a demon within them but could adopt that idea from IFS therapy? Is there not a risk of IFS therapists and coaches implanting the idea through hypnosis or psychedelic sessions?

Falconer says: “The big danger is mistaking a part for a UB and trying to amputate it. That causes a great deal of damage. I assume it’s a part over and over again until it’s proven that it’s not…You asked if there is a danger of people finding these everywhere, lots of false positives. Yes, this is real, and there are many, many more false negatives because we have been led to believe that this cannot happen, and people who think it does are crazy. Our culture is SO blind.”

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Finally, the third question I have is: What if Falconer’s right? What if we do live in a cosmos brimming with angelic and demonic entities, and psychedelics open us up to their influence?

I surveyed 122 people who work in psychedelics — mainly guides, therapists, and coaches. I asked them about their belief in entities. 71 percent said they believed in them, 52 percent said they believed in malevolent entities. I also asked what modality respondents most identified with and then could see which modalities mapped with belief in demons. Shamanic guides believed most in demons (68 percent) followed by Grofian, IFS, and Somatic guides (61 percent). 70 percent of all respondents agreed that “psychedelics open us up to the spirit world, in good ways and bad.” 60 percent agreed that “people working with psychedelics should be trained in how to engage with the spirit world,” but only 38 percent said they felt adequately trained to engage with the spirit world.

This is a conversation the psychedelic and medical communities need to have. Do clients need to be informed of the spiritual risks of psychedelics? Do guides and therapists need to be trained in spirit protection? Will mainstreaming psychedelics increase the incidence of demonic possession? Or is there a chance that psychedelic guides — who largely believe in good and bad entities — are going to implant these beliefs in a big chunk of the population?

Falconer is not too concerned. He is a fan of MAPS’s effort to get FDA approval for psychedelic therapy (MAPS’s lead therapist, Michael Mithoefer, is IFS-trained). He says it’s quite easy to protect against UB and demonic possession in psychedelic ceremonies and also to “unburden” clients if they do happen to get invaded by a UB. Plus, he says that nine out of 10 entities encountered on psychedelics are benevolent. So that’s pretty good odds.

This story originally appeared in the Ecstatic Integration newsletter written by Jules Evans.

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