Internal Family Systems

What is Internal Family Systems?

Internal family systems (IFS) is a type of therapy that posits that the mind is made up of multiple parts, and underlying them is a person's core or true Self. The founder of IFS therapy, Dr. Richard Schwartz, thought of the mind as an inner family and began applying techniques to individuals that he usually used with families. Like members of a family, a person's parts can take on extreme roles or subpersonalities. Each part has its own perspective, interests, memories, and viewpoint. IFS believes is that every part has a positive intent, even if its actions are counterproductive or cause problems. There is no need to fight with, coerce, or eliminate parts; the IFS method promotes internal connection and harmony to bring the mind back into balance.

IFS therapy aims to heal wounded parts and restore mental balance. The first step is to access the core Self and then, from there, understand the different parts in order to heal them.

Derek Scott, a well known IFS therapist and instructor, has this to say about IFS:

Much of the history of psychotherapy has focussed on individual "flaws" - with the focus on "what’s wrong with you that needs fixing." IFS starts from the premise that there is nothing wrong with any of us - and that parts of us have taken on the burdensome belief that we are damaged, unworthy and/or unloveable because they have internalised the judgements of a deeply shaming and toxic ideology that permeates all of our institutions - including the family. IFS provides us with an understanding of how these internal dynamics occur, squarely situating the blame for this on the false teachings of a white supremacist culture; as well as an effective methodology (compassion brought to the inner world of the multiple psyche) for clearing the distressing false beliefs and allowing the individual to know and shine in their inherent rightness.

The IFS model has 5 basic assumptions:

In the IFS model, there are generally three types of parts:

These roles of parts are not static and can change with time and work. The goal of IFS is to find your Self and bring all of these parts together.

Techniques of IFS Therapy

An IFS therapist will use a six-step process to help you find these parts and release their burdens.


First, you will be asked to turn your attention inward, possibly by starting with meditation. You will pay attention to the sensations in your body that come up to identify a part to work with.

If you’ve ever had an upset stomach because you were nervous, then you may understand how our mind and body work together on our emotions. 


Next, you will be asked to turn your focus to this part.

Flesh Out

Once you’ve found and focused on a part, it is time to flesh it out—to see what else you can learn about it. What emotions are associated with it? Is it a particular color? Does it represent you at a particular age?

Feel Toward

How do you feel about this part? This will give your therapist an idea of how big or small of a role this part is playing in your life.


This may be one of the hardest steps—getting to know the part and seeing how it takes shape in your life. It involves a degree of acceptance of the part’s existence, but that doesn’t mean it needs to stay there. 


Fear is the last F. In the process of befriending, you will discover what the fears are of that part of you. What are they afraid will happen without their presence in your life?

What to Expect

The initial session of IFS will often cover basic information about the process. You will be asked background questions that will help them better understand what you need help with and what you hope to get out of therapy.

During subsequent sessions, you will work with to identify the parts of the Self and build connections between all of these components. Each session often involves talk therapy and explores the inner parts of an individual. An individual is encouraged to focus on the inner Self, so it is normal sometimes to experience discomfort, fear, shame, or anger.

What IFS Therapy Can Help With

IFS therapy can help with general life stressors like grief, relationship, and career issues, and improve resilience and self-esteem. Though it is non-pathologizing and does not reduce a client to a diagnosis, it may treat several mental health issues and conditions.

Research also suggests that IFS therapy shows promise as a treatment for trauma. A 2021 study found that IFS therapy led to significant decreases in PTSD symptoms in adults who had experienced childhood traumas.

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