What is Internal Family Systems Therapy?
Internal Family Systems (IFS) is a type of therapy that helps people understand the different parts of themselves
Often used to overcome deep-rooted unhelpful self-beliefs or trauma, IFS therapist Keith Ewing explains more below
You can find an internal family systems therapist on welldoing.org – start your search here
At the heart of Internal Family Systems is the idea that we all have a core Self that embodies our essence and all of our finest qualities – like compassion, creativity, calmness, courage and wisdom.
We are born with these qualities – this Self – and as we begin dealing with and relating to the world as we grow up (especially in our families of origin), we develop inner protectors – parts of us that want to keep the whole of us safe from the harm or pain that inevitably comes our way.
For example, John might have a vulnerable exiled part of himself, developed in childhood, that felt ‘not good enough’ and feared failure (perhaps due to parental expectation). A perfectionist protector part may have therefore developed to help John to become a hard worker, always striving, always pushing forwards. However, the extreme nature of this protector part may have caused him to become a workaholic in adulthood – leaving John unable to relax and enjoy his achievements.
Different parts protect us in different ways. For example, a part might learn to use excessive amounts of alcohol or other substances/activities to keep us from feeling fear or pain. These parts have found effective tools to manage our inner hurt despite the damage they might cause to relationships and health. Using internal family systems therapy, we help vulnerable parts to heal and protector parts to be less extreme, not by pushing them away, but by getting to know them better and understanding their underlying stories, motivations, vulnerabilities and hurts. When we heal the burdens and wounds carried by the vulnerable parts, the protector parts – which we also have been getting to know – no longer need to be so extreme. They begin to trust that we are now safe.
Where does internal family systems therapy come from?
Internal family systems therapy came into being in the 1980s. Family therapist Richard Schwartz identified three types of ‘parts’ in addition to the core Self.
- wounded and suppressed parts which he called exiles
- protective parts called managers, that keep the exiled parts suppressed
- other protective parts called firefighters, who distract the Self from the pain of exiled parts.
For example, an exiled part may carry the trauma of early abuse. Emotions are suppressed by the managers, while the firefighters may manifest in a behaviour such as overeating which distracts the person from facing and re-experiencing the painful emotions of exiles. These exiled parts can be healed and transformed by the Self through:
- Freeing parts from their extreme roles
- Restoring trust in the Self
- Bringing together the Self and the parts, so they can work together as a team with the Self leading a now more-harmonious ‘system’ of many parts.