Internal Family Systems (IFS)

What is internal family systems therapy?

Internal family systems therapy, also known as 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 externally. The Internal Family Systems Model is distinct from Family Systems Theory. While Family Systems Theory focuses on the way members of a family unit interact, founder and creator of IFS, Dr. Richard C. Schwartz, a family therapist, used this concept to represent the human mind. The client's mind is an internal family, the Self, with different parts playing multiple roles. Dr. Richard C. Schwartz employed the strategies he had learned doing family therapy in his treatment to develop this innovative approach.

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 system of various parts. It is thought that by working with the core self, the damaged parts can be healed and the dynamic within the system is rebalanced for greater well-being.

Treatment with IFS therapy 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 of the individual in therapy to treat trauma and other conditions to develop sustainable self-leadership.

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 therapy is needed 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:

What are the parts of internal family systems?

In practice, your IFS therapist helps you to identify and understand the distinct parts of yourself. The system recognizes 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 the exiles as they can be the hardest to reconcile.
  • 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. Drug use and misusing alcohol might be an example of a firefighter activity.

The goal of IFS therapy 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.

It’s like family therapy for the parts. Clients work with their mental health providers to repair the connections between the managers, firefighters, and exiles to restore the Self as the leader.

Length of internal family systems therapy treatment

IFS therapy 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 chosen professional will work together to decide on the right time to finish therapy.

How it works — 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 needs and the therapists' style, later sessions will likely feel conversational.

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 each part is achieved.

white skinned therapist takes notes across from a dark skinned person on a couch

What happens in a typical internal family systems therapy session

Working in the IFS model, most professionals tend to take a collaborative approach, acting as a guide to help their clients to name and understand which parts are exiles, managers, and firefighters, and reconnect the person with their 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 damaged or protector 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

If you’re ready to start IFS therapy, it’s important to know what to look for in a mental health care provider. Most practitioners hold a minimum of a master's degree with added training in IFS. If you still need more information about IFS and how it works, there are Master Classes with creator Dr. Dick Schwartz and proponent Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk, in addition to many books from New York Times best-selling author, Dr. Lissa Rankin.

  • 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 Zencare listings, 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 mental health professionals 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 introduction or 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 therapy
  • 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.