Internal Family Systems Therapy

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.

What to Expect

IFS is talk 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, visualization, 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. For example, an exiled part may be the trauma and anger of earlier abuse, emotions that are suppressed by the manager, while the firefighter may be an alcohol addiction or behavior such as overeating that distracts the client from facing and re-experiencing those uncomfortable emotions. These parts can be healed, transformed, and better managed by the Self by achieving the three goals of IFS:

1) Free the parts from their extreme roles

2) Restore trust in the Self

3) Coordinate and harmonize the Self and the parts, so they can work together as a team with the Self in charge.

What to Look for in an IFS Therapist

Look for a licensed psychotherapist, social worker, counselor or other mental health professional with advanced training in IFS therapy. The Internal Family Systems Center for Self-Leadership conducts training programs. Look for a therapist with IFS training. In addition to licensing and educational credentials, it is important to find a therapist with whom you are comfortable working.

Sources

Shadick NA, Sowell NF, Frits ML, et al. A randomized controlled trial of an internal family systems-based psychotherapeutic intervention on outcomes in rheumatoid arthritis: a proof-of-concept study. Journal of Rheumatology. August 2013.

Foundation for Self Leadership: IFS, an Evidence-Based Practice