Internal Family Systems (IFS)

What is internal family systems therapy?

Internal family systems therapy (IFS) is an evidence-based practice of talk therapy based on the assumption that within each of our minds, there are multiple different "sub-personalities" or "parts." The parts are thought to interact with each other internally – just as different people might interact with each other externally. The Internal Family Systems (IFS) Model is distinct from Family Systems Theory. Dr. Richard Schwartz, a family therapist, used this concept to represent the human mind as an internal family and employed the strategies he had learned as a family therapist in his treatments.

According to the internal family systems model, the parts can be damaged by our past experiences. For example, the experience of intense emotions like anger, fear, or shame as a result of a prior event is thought to be carried by one of the parts. The subsequent actions of the damaged part, or interactions between parts, can cause us distress or impact on our behavior in a way that creates unhappiness.

The core self is at the center of the internal family systems model. The concept of the ‘Self’ is the idea that we all have a resourceful, calm, and intact whole within. The Self is thought to be our core being and the leader of the different parts. It is thought that by working with the core self, the damaged parts can be healed and hey dynamic between them rebalanced.

Treatment with IFS is carried out within the framework of this ‘internal system’ composed of sub-personalities interacting with each other, to be led by the Self. There is an element of spiritual healing in IFS therapy — with mental balance, self-compassion, and self-leadership as the overarching goals.

What internal family systems therapy can help with

The IFS model can be applied to the dynamics of couples, family members, and between the sub-personalities in the individual in therapy to treat trauma and other conditions.

There is evidence to suggest that therapy can be helpful in improving functioning and wellbeing. In one study, for example, participation in therapy was associated with a decrease in symptoms of depression in people living with Rheumatoid Arthritis.

Although more research into IFS is required to explore its effectiveness, the National Registry for Evidence-based Programs and Practices (NREPP) listed IFS as a type of therapy that shows promise for the treatment of multiple conditions, including:

How internal family systems therapy works

In practice, your IFS therapist helps you to identify and understand the different parts of yourself. There are three distinct kinds of sub-personalities, or multiple parts, within each person according to the IFS model:

  • Exiled parts: These wounded parts are thought to be the result of past traumatic experiences. We tend to want to avoid exploring these parts.
  • Managers: These parts are thought to try to protect the Self from the exiled parts, and try to maintain control over our internal world, as well as our external environment.
  • Firefighters: As the name suggests, these parts are thought to subdue the exiled parts when they are triggered, helping to keep them concealed from the Self. Abusing a drug like alcohol might be an example of a firefighter activity.

The goal of IFS is to reconnect and work with your Self, the undamaged and resourceful core of your being, to heal the parts of yourself that may be causing pain and reach a state of harmony. The steps taken along the way to achieve this are to:

  • Become aware of the parts. Understand that the intention of a part is to do something positive for you, but that it in doing so, it can unintentionally create unhappiness.
  • Learn how to access and restore trust in the Self.
  • Restore a sense of balance between the parts, and a sense of harmony between them and the Self.
  • Create a dynamic where the Self is the leader of the parts.

Length of internal family systems therapy treatment

Therapy with IFS has no set length; it varies from person to person, depending on what you wish to work on. The IFS treatment approach can be flexible in the frequency of sessions, length of sessions, and overall treatment length. However, IFS tends to be a longer-term type of therapy, lasting months or even years. You and your therapist will work together to decide on the right time to finish therapy.

Structure of internal family systems therapy sessions

As with most types of therapy, the initial IFS sessions involve your therapist asking you questions.

At this moment, your therapist is trying to build a picture of your inner world and distinguish the various parts. There is also a strong focus on developing a trusting working relationship with your therapist.

It’s important that you feel comfortable sharing difficult thoughts, painful emotions, and experiences with your therapist. Additionally, it can take a couple of sessions to understand the IFS integrative model and the kind of terminology used.

Depending on your particular needs and the therapist's style, later sessions are likely to feel conversational.

IFS focuses on developing an awareness of your sub-personalities and diminishing their extreme roles so the parts function together. It’s likely that you will work with the manager parts early on in therapy, addressing any concerns those parts may have about triggering behavior from the firefighter parts. Exiled parts can bring up strong emotions and so are often dealt with in later sessions. By this time, you’ll have a greater understanding of the interaction of the parts, the role of the Self, and skills and strategies to manage emotions.

IFS is not a time-limited therapy and so there is no set end point. This means that it’s important to work with your therapist to decide on the best time to finish therapy. That said, some people continue with IFS for as long as they continue to benefit, or until they establish the Self as the leader of their sub-personalities, and a harmonious balance between them is achieved.

What happens in a typical internal family systems therapy session

Working in the IFS model, therapists tend to take a collaborative approach, acting as a guide to help you to name and understand your damaged parts, and reconnect with your Self. Several techniques and skills may be used in a session, including:

  • Breathing exercises, which can also be used as a way of “tuning in” to or accessing a particular part
  • Relaxation
  • Visualization
  • Journaling and art therapy
  • Mindfulness and guided meditations
  • Using diagrams or ‘mapping’ as visual representations of the relationships between the parts, to aid understanding
  • Asking one part to interact with another part

What to look for in an internal family systems therapist

  • Look for a mental health professional with a current license; this ensures that your therapist has completed the appropriate level of education to practice. When browsing through therapists on Zencare, you can rest assured that all our therapists have already been vetted.
  • You might prefer to look for a therapist who has completed specialized training in the IFS model. The Center for Self Leadership provides training in IFS and a certification program for IFS therapists. Their website is also a valuable resource for finding therapists in your area and learning more about IFS function.
  • When embarking on any type of treatment, it’s important to look for a therapist with whom you feel comfortable working. A strong and trusting relationship between you and your therapist called the “therapeutic alliance” can have a significant impact on the effect of therapy.

The best way to gauge how you feel about your prospective therapist is to ask for a preliminary phone call. Most therapists will be happy to do so. This gives you the opportunity to ask about your therapist’s:

  • IFS training
  • Experience with IFS
  • What therapy with them will be like
  • Their participation in insurance plans
  • Cost of therapy

It’s a good idea to speak to a few different therapists before making your mind up.

New to therapy? Learn about how to find a therapist here.