Internal Family Systems

The Internal Family Systems Model (IFS) is an integrative approach to individual psychotherapy developed by Richard C. Schwartz PhD. It combines systems thinking with the view that mind is made up of relatively discrete sub-personalities each with its own viewpoint and qualities. IFS uses family systems theory to understand how these collections of sub-personalities are organized.

The IFS Model views a person as containing an ecology of relatively discrete minds, each of which has valuable qualities and each of which is designed to – and wants to – play a valuable role within. These parts are forced out of their valuable roles by life experiences that can re-organize the system in unhealthy ways.

IFS is a model of psychotherapy offering a non-pathologizing, and empowering method of understanding human problems.

What Is Internal Family Systems Therapy?

Internal Family Systems (IFS) is an approach to psychotherapy that identifies and addresses multiple sub-personalities or families within each person’s mental system. These sub-personalities consist of wounded parts and painful emotions such as anger and shame, and parts that try to control and protect the person from the pain of the wounded parts. The sub-personalities are often in conflict with each other and with one’s core Self, a concept that describes the confident, compassionate, whole person that is at the core of every individual. IFS focuses on healing the wounded parts and restoring mental balance and harmony by changing the dynamics that create discord among the sub-personalities and the Self.

When It’s Used

IFS therapy is used to treat individuals, couples, and families. It is an evidence-based approach that has been shown to be effective for treating a variety of conditions and their symptoms, such as depression, anxiety, phobias, panic, and physical health conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, as well as improving general functioning and well-being.

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What to Expect

IFS is experiential therapy in which you work with a therapist to identify and understand the specific sub-personalities or families that make up your internal mental system. Once you identify these parts, the therapist will help you acknowledge your feelings about these suppressed emotions, learn how to release these feelings so you are freer to address the actual problem, and ultimately find more positive ways to manage conflicts on your own. The therapist may suggest certain tools to help you do this, such as relaxation exercises, imagination, keeping a journal, and creating a chart that illustrates the relationship between Self and the different parts of you.

How It Works

IFS was developed in the 1990s by family therapist Richard Schwartz, Ph.D., who developed the concept of an undamaged core Self that is the essence of who you are, and identified three different types of sub-personalities or families that reside within each person, in addition to the Self. These include wounded and suppressed parts called exiles, protective parts called managers, that keep the exiled parts suppressed, and other protective parts called firefighters, that distract the Self from the pain of exiled parts when they are released.

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What is IFS used to treat?

Internal Family Systems (IFS) is an evidence-based therapeutic modality that has been used for individuals, couples and families for a variety of conditions including phobias, panic, anxiety, depression and physical health conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis.

IFS therapy can help with general life stressors like grief, relationship, and career issues, and improve resilience and self-esteem. It is non-pathologising, meaning it does not reduce a client to their diagnosis), and it is very effective at treating mental health issues and conditions.

What theory is internal family systems?

Internal Family Systems (IFS) are based on the theory that the mind is made up of multiple parts, and underlying them is a person’s core or true Self. Like members of a family, a person’s inner parts can take on extreme roles or subpersonalities. Each part has its own perspective, interests, memories, and viewpoint. 

The underlying concept of this theory is that our parts live within us and can fulfil both healthy and unhealthy roles. Life events or trauma, however, can force our parts out of those healthy roles into extreme roles.

The good news is that these internal roles are not static and can change with time and therapy. The goal of IFS therapy is to find yourself and bring all of your parts together in healthy roles.

What are the steps of IFS therapy?

This process begins with steps referred to as the 6 F’s. They provide a road map for dealing with protector parts in a compassionate and curious way. There are 6 F’s, Find, Focus, Flesh Out, Feel Towards, Befriend, and Fear. In essence, these steps are about helping the Self and these parts to reconnect and empowering the person’s Self to help his or her own parts. These steps are used both by therapists to support their clients and people working with themselves to develop more compassion and empowerment to support themselves and their own parts.

What is internal family systems therapy?

Internal Family Systems (IFS) is a non-pathologising, powerfully transformative, evidence-based model of psychotherapy which has taken the therapy world by storm in the past decade. 

Everyone has a Self, and the Self can and should lead the individual’s internal system.

The non-extreme intention of each part is something positive for the individual. There are no “bad” parts, and the goal of therapy is not to eliminate parts but instead to help them find their non-extreme roles.

As we develop, our parts develop and form a complex system of interactions among themselves; therefore, systems theory can be applied to the internal system. When the system is reorganized, parts can change rapidly.