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Internal Family Systems

Internal Family Systems, or IFS, is a therapeutic model designed by Dr. Richard C. Schwartz in the 1980s. Its premise is that we are not just one mind; we are made up of a collection of parts, or sub-personalities that exist around an internal core Self. Each part functions within our internal ecosystem, disagreeing, managing, and protecting the others around it.

“…the mind is naturally multiple and that is a good thing. Our inner parts contain valuable qualities, and our core Self knows how to heal, allowing us to become integrated and whole. In IFS all parts are welcome.” IFS Institute

Parts are often formed at crucial or traumatic moments in our lives and are based on strong influences and experiences that have shaped us. The purpose of IFS is to understand how those parts are behaving, and how we can create harmony between the parts and the Self to achieve internal peace.

Internal Family Systems Therapy

Internal family systems therapy 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.

The mission of the IFS Institute is to bring more Self leadership to the world. 

The Internal Family Systems Model Outline

(IFS website)

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:

  • Phobias

  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder

  • Trauma

  • Panic

  • Depression

  • Physical health problems

What are the parts of internal family systems?

In practice, an 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.

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