What is Internal Family Systems therapy?

Internal Family Systems (IFS) was developed by Richard C. Schwartz in the 1980s. Schwartz began his career as a systemic family therapist; he developed IFS in response to his clients' descriptions of various 'parts' within themselves. IFS focuses on the relationship between these parts. 

Each of these parts, also referred to as subpersonalities, has its own perspective and qualities, and crucially each part is valued as important and as having positive intent for the core Self, even if it represents something unwanted or challenging. 

In Internal Family Systems, beyond our parts we also have a core Self. In order for the core Self to heal, the various parts need to be acknowledged. There is no need to fight with or try to eliminate a particular subpersonality.


The five assumptions of IFS:

  • The human mind is divided into numerous parts
  • Each person has a Self, and the Self should be the chief agent in coordinating the inner family
  • Parts engaging in non-extreme behaviour are beneficial to the individual. There is no such thing as a bad part. Therapy aims to help parts discover their non-extreme roles.
  • Personal growth and development leads to the development of the internal family. Interactions between parts become more complex, allowing for systems theory to be applied to the internal system. Reorganisation of the internal system may lead to rapid changes in the roles of parts. 
  • Adjustments made to the internal system will result in changes to the external system and vice versa. Therefore, both the internal and external systems need to be adequately assessed.


The three categories of subpersonalities:


Exiles

Exiles are parts that are in pain, shame, fear or trauma, usually from childhood. Other parts try to exile these parts from consciousness, suppress them and prevent them from painfully coming to the surface.


Managers

Managers are protectors. They manage how an individual behaves in the world and with other people. The managers have one main goal, to protect the individual from being hurt and prevent traumatic or painful memories from entering the individual's awareness.


Firefighters

Firefighters emerge when Exiles break out. Firefighters try to distract the individual away from the hurt and pain that the Exile is trying to make the individual aware of. Firefighters usually take the form of impulsive behaviours like drug and alcohol use, overeating, violence, or inappropriate sexual activity. Or they may take the form of intensely focused attention elsewhere, such as towards work, exercise or other hobby. 


The core Self is characterised by the healing properties of curiosity, connectedness, compassion and calmness. Despite our parts, IFS upholds that we all have a core Self, and that this Self knows how to heal. In Internal Family Systems work, the therapist's role is to help the individual untangle and re-organise their parts and access their healing Self. The aim is to help the parts collaborate in harmony, led by the Self. 

In order to create harmony between the parts, IFS focuses on the relationship between each part and whether this relationship is protective, polarised, or in alliance. 

  • Protection is the key concern of Managers and Firefighters – they aim to protect Exiles from further harm and to protect the person from the pain held by the Exiles. 
  • Polarisation occurs when two parts are in battle to determine how the individual feels or behaves. This can create inner conflict, with each part believing that it must act.
  • Alliance is formed between two parts when they are working together to accomplish the same aim.


The IFS method involves first helping the client to access Self. Then the Self gets to know a protector, discovers its positive intent, and develops a trusting relationship with it. With the protector's permission, the client accesses the Exile(s) it is protecting and discovers the childhood incident or relationship that is the source of the burden(s) it is carrying. 

The Exile is retrieved from being stuck in that past situation and helped to release its burdens. Then the protector can also let go of its protective role and assume a healthy one.


Internal Family Systems in action

An extract from The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk:

"The task of the therapist is to help patients separate this confusing blend into separate entities, so that they are able to say: “This part of me is like a little child, and that part of me is more mature but feels like a victim.” They might not like many of these parts, but identifying them makes them less intimidating or overwhelming. The next step is to encourage patients to simply ask each protective part as it emerges to “stand back” temporarily so that we can see what it is protecting. When this is done again and again, the parts begin to unblend from the Self and make space for mindful self-observation. Patients learn to put their fear, rage, or disgust on hold and open up into states of curiosity and self-reflection. From the stable perspective of Self they can begin constructive inner dialogues with their parts.

Patients are asked to identify the part involved in the current problem, like feeling worthless, abandoned, or obsessed with vengeful thoughts. As they ask themselves, “What inside me feels that way?” an image may come to mind. Maybe the depressed part looks like an abandoned child, or an aging man, or an overwhelmed nurse taking care of the wounded; a vengeful part might appear as a combat marine or a member of a street gang.

Next the therapist asks, “How do you feel toward that (sad, vengeful, terrified) part of you?” This sets the stage for mindful self-observation by separating the “you” from the part in question. If the patient has an extreme response like “I hate it,” the therapist knows that there is another protective part blended with Self. He or she might then ask, “See if the part that hates it would step back.” Then the protective part is often thanked for its vigilance and assured that it can return anytime that it is needed. If the protective part is willing, the follow-up question is: “How do you feel toward the (previously rejected) part now?” The patient is likely to say something like “I wonder why it is so (sad, vengeful etc.).” This sets the stage for getting to know the part better—for example, by inquiring how old it is and how it came to feel the way it does.

Once a patient manifests a critical mass of Self, this kind of dialogue begins to take place spontaneously. At this point it’s important for the therapist to step aside and just keep an eye out for other parts that might interfere, or make occasional empathic comments, or ask questions like “What do you say to the part about that?” or “Where do you want to go now?” or “What feels like the right next step?” as well as the ubiquitous Self-detecting question, “How do you feel toward the part now?”"


Who benefits from Internal Family Systems therapy?

Internal Family Systems can be used to support help individuals recover from trauma and abuse, as well as supporting people with anxiety, phobias, alcohol and substance dependency and body image issues. It may also be useful in helping with physical health conditions such as arthritis. 


Relevant associations

IFS Institute


Last updated on 11 March 2020