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Understanding The book "Bad Therapy" by Jeffrey A. Kottler Through the Lens of Internal Family Systems (IFS)

Therapy is intended to be a healing journey, a path to self-discovery and personal growth. However, not all therapy experiences are positive. The book "Bad Therapy" by Jeffrey A. Kottler sheds light on the darker side of therapy, exploring instances where therapeutic interventions have gone wrong. Through the lens of Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy, we can gain unique insights into why these negative experiences occur and how they can be avoided.

What is Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy?

IFS therapy, developed by Dr. Richard Schwartz, is based on the concept that the mind is an internal system of parts, each with its own roles and perspectives. These parts include:

  1. Exiles: Parts that hold pain, trauma, and vulnerability.

  2. Managers: Parts that try to control and protect the individual from the pain of the exiles.

  3. Firefighters: Parts that react when exiles are activated, often engaging in impulsive or extreme behaviors to numb or distract from the pain.

  4. Self: The core of the person, characterized by qualities like compassion, curiosity, calm, and confidence.

IFS aims to foster harmony within this internal system, allowing the Self to lead and heal the wounded parts. For more information, visit the official IFS website.

Key Insights from "Bad Therapy"

"Bad Therapy" provides numerous case studies and personal accounts of therapy gone wrong. These instances can include unethical behavior by therapists, misdiagnoses, harmful interventions, and general incompatibility between therapist and client. Here’s how these can be understood through the IFS framework:

1. Therapist’s Unacknowledged Parts

One of the key issues highlighted in "Bad Therapy" is the therapist’s unaddressed personal issues affecting their practice. Kottler writes, "Therapists are human beings and are thus flawed, often in ways that directly impact their clients" (Kottler, 2003). From an IFS perspective, if a therapist's own parts are not well-managed, these parts can interfere with their ability to provide effective and compassionate care. For example, a therapist with unacknowledged fears or biases may inadvertently project these onto their clients, causing harm.

2. Ignoring the Client’s Internal System

Another issue is when therapists fail to recognize and work with the client's internal system. Traditional therapeutic approaches might pathologize certain behaviors without understanding their protective functions within the client's internal system. In one case, a client describes feeling dismissed by their therapist, who focused solely on symptom reduction without addressing underlying issues. IFS therapy emphasizes understanding the roles of different parts and addressing the root causes of distress, rather than simply treating symptoms.

3. Lack of Compassionate Witnessing

A common theme in "Bad Therapy" is the lack of compassionate witnessing. Clients often feel misunderstood or judged, which can exacerbate their issues. One client recounts, "I felt like my therapist didn’t see me or understand my pain. I was just another case" (Kottler, 2003). IFS therapy stresses the importance of compassionate witnessing, where both therapist and client approach each part with curiosity and empathy. This helps in creating a safe space for healing.

4. Overemphasis on Pathology

"Bad Therapy" often critiques the overemphasis on diagnosing and labeling clients, which can lead to stigmatization and a fixed mindset about one’s issues. IFS, on the other hand, encourages viewing behaviors and emotions as parts of a whole system, each with a purpose and a story. This perspective fosters a more holistic and respectful approach to treatment.

Avoiding "Bad Therapy" with IFS Principles

To avoid the pitfalls highlighted in "Bad Therapy," both therapists and clients can benefit from adopting IFS principles:

  1. Self-Leadership: Therapists should engage in their own IFS work to ensure they can lead their practice from a place of Self, characterized by calmness, clarity, and compassion.

  2. Understanding Parts: Both therapists and clients should strive to understand the various parts within the client’s internal system, recognizing their protective roles and addressing the underlying issues.

  3. Compassionate Witnessing: Emphasize the importance of approaching each part with empathy and curiosity, fostering a safe and non-judgmental therapeutic environment.

  4. Holistic Perspective: Move away from solely pathologizing behaviors and towards understanding the systemic nature of internal conflicts and their roots.


"Bad Therapy" serves as a crucial reminder of the potential pitfalls in the therapeutic journey. By viewing these issues through the lens of Internal Family Systems therapy, we can better understand why therapy sometimes fails and how to create more effective and compassionate therapeutic relationships. IFS offers a framework that emphasizes self-awareness, empathy, and holistic healing, providing valuable insights for both therapists and clients aiming to avoid the negative experiences highlighted in "Bad Therapy."

For further exploration of effective therapy practices and the principles of IFS, consider reading "Internal Family Systems Therapy" by Richard Schwartz or listening to the IFS Talks Podcast, where experts discuss the intricacies and applications of this therapeutic approach.

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