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:
The human mind is subdivided into an unknown number of parts.
Each person has a Self, and the Self should be the chief agent in coordinating the inner family.
Parts engaging in non-extreme behavior 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. Reorganization 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.
In the IFS model, there are generally three types of parts:
Exiles represent psychological trauma, often from childhood, and they carry the pain and fear. Exiles may become isolated from the other parts and polarize the system. Managers and Firefighters try to protect a person's consciousness by preventing the Exiles' pain from coming to awareness.
Managers take on a preemptive, protective role. They influence the way a person interacts with the external world, protecting the person from harm and preventing painful or traumatic experiences from flooding the person's conscious awareness.
Firefighters emerge when Exiles break out and demand attention. They work to divert attention away from the Exile's hurt and shame, which leads to impulsive and/or inappropriate behaviors like overeating, drug use or violence. They can also distract a person from pain by excessively focusing attention on more subtle activities such as overworking or overmedicating.
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
What to Expect
What IFS Therapy Can Help With
Articles and Resources
Internal Family Systems Model Outline from the IFS Institute.
Introduction to Internal Family Systems by Richard C. Schwartz
No Bad Parts: Healing Trauma and Restoring Wholeness with the Internal Family Systems Model by Richard C. Schwartz
Internal Family Systems Therapy by Richard C. Schwartz, Martha Sweezy
Transcending Trauma: Healing Complex PTSD with Internal Family Systems by Frank G. Anderson