Insights into Psychology

What Is… Internal Family Systems Therapy

head with cogs inside

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is Internal Family Systems therapy.

Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy is a type of psychotherapeutic approach that’s based on the idea that the mind is naturally multiple, and we all have a system of parts. It’s often used for people who’ve experienced trauma, although it’s been used for other conditions as well.

One example I came across in a couple of different sources is that if you’re emotionally conflicted, you might say “part of me wants [x] and part of me wants [y]”, and boom, that’s parts. There’s a difference between speaking figuratively and objective reality, and I think that’s a lousy example, but what can you do.

Self

IFS was developed by family therapist Richard C. Schwartz after he observed that there were consistent patterns in how clients organized their internal parts. He identified a Self, which emerges when relaxed parts spontaneously exhibit confidence, openness, and compassion. He believed that the Self can’t be damaged, and it has the knowledge to heal and integrate the parts to become whole. A key goal in IFS is to help clients access the Self. Mental illness symptoms are expected to start resolving on their own once the Self leading the way.

There are eight C’s of self-energy associated with the Self:

  1. Curiosity
  2. Calm
  3. Clarity
  4. Connectedness
  5. Confidence
  6. Courage
  7. Creativity
  8. Compassion

Parts

In IFS, there are no good or bad parts. Some parts, or subpersonalities, may be wounded, and carry emotions like anger and shame. They have different goals and motivations. Parts may be stuck at different points in time, and some may feel threatened by the Self and act out defensively.

There are three main categories of parts. Exiles carry the most difficult things, like trauma, and may be at a younger age than other parts. Managers serve as protectors and try to keep the system stable. Firefighters are reactive, stepping in to block the Exiles’ pain from being experienced. When the Managers and Firefighters are at odds with each other, the Firefighters’ behaviour can become more extreme and may involve self-harming.

When the client is in Self, the therapist supports them in allowing the parts to unburden themselves. Exiles are offered a do-over, where the Self meets the part’s needs, helping to heal the Exiled parts.

Unblending

An article on PESI, which was written by a psychiatrist, described a process of working through six F’s with clients to unblend their parts:

  • Find where the part is
  • Focus inward on it
  • Flesh it out
  • Feelings – how do you feel towards the part?
  • beFriend the part and get to know it
  • Fear – find out what the part is afraid of

There’s a fancy infographic of the 6 F’s here.

Evidence-based?

One thing I found a bit odd was that on the IFS Institute site, it talks about IFS being an evidence-based practice as determine by the National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices (NREPP) in the US. That sounds great, but the only indicator that it was determined to be effective for was general functioning and well-being, and this was studied (although it’s not entirely clear if it was exclusively) in patients dealing with pain. That seems just a smidge misleading. If they’re seeing clinical results but don’t have the research data to back it up yet, that’s okay, but if they’re using the evidence-based label as a selling feature (as in selling their training to therapists), they should really be saying what it’s evidence-based for.

But there is a fancy diagram that represents the model. All I can find is Google cache of the unburdened internal system image; it’s small, but it’s fancy.

IFS is a very specific way of looking at the inner world. I can see IFS therapy being great if that inner worldview matches up at least somewhat with your own, especially for trauma survivors. My non-traumatized inner world is very different from the IFS world, and I don’t think it’s the type of approach that’s likely to resonate with everyone. And that’s fine, because no form of treatment will work for everyone.

Had you heard of IFS before? And if you’ve worked with a therapist who uses the IFS model, what has that been like?

The video below is Richard Schwartz talking about parts.

Sources

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The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.

26 thoughts on “What Is… Internal Family Systems Therapy”

  1. Fascinating!! I love the concept. So, for example, your confidence or your courage could take a hit if you’ve experienced trauma or abuse? Or your curiosity could go under and you lose interest in things? I think this would have fascinating applications for people who engage in self-harm. Huh. Well, out of the C’s, I think I struggle the most with clarity, but I’m not sure if that’s as a side effect of Prozac or a symptom of my issues, or whatever, but I have to refocus all the time. I could try to do those F things with the clarity.

    I love therapeutic approaches that are creative like this and could have an obvious end goal, because they seem so much more concrete than just, “And how does that make you feel?”

  2. My previous therapist said she used some IFS, but she didn’t make it obvious in the therapy when she was coming from that direction, so it’s interesting to hear more about it. I do often feel in internal conflict, so that may be what encouraged her down that route.

  3. Yes, I’ve actually used this therapy. There is a PDF of his book for free online somewhere. I’ll try to find the link. I worked on this with Mr. Matt.

  4. I have never heard of it, and it seems interesting. I can see how useful it can be in enabling a language to communicate trauma in.

  5. T-1 talked about IFS some—we think mostly as a way to attempt to normalize having me’s. It did not help that we are aware of, though that intention is kind.

    We had read about IFS some and found it interesting, though hard to relate to therapeutically. It sounds so much like DID treatment and supposedly isn’t.

    We don’t have a self that we are aware of. We have the me’s, the us’s. And getting protectors to trust Older, more grounded and resourced me’s, let alone each other, may be a lifelong pursuit for us.

    1. I didn’t go looking for information on what an IFS perspective would be on DID, but IFS parts sound different from DID me’s.

      I remember in Catherine Klatzker’s book You Will Never Be Normal, she wrote that it was while her therapist was doing IFS with her that she first started to realize she had me’s. It was quite clear to her that her me’s weren’t the same thing as the parts her therapist was talking about, but it made it easier when she was eventually ready to share about her me’s.

  6. I’ve not come across IFS being used in the UK at all, now I come to think about it. It makes sense though in a basic way, because there are different parts of who we are and sometimes they can conflict, evolve over time and so on, which is part of what makes us hooman creatures so diverse and interesting. xx

  7. Thank you for this. An education as always. Never heard of IFS. I think I most struggle with Calm. The opposite of my anxiety. So is this theory saying if my sense of Calm is waning or threatened, I can makeup for it or address it through the other C words or F words?

    1. It sounds like the idea is that the Self already has Calm, but different parts can be inadvertently getting in the way of being able to tap into that.

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