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?
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:
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.
There’s a video on Youtube of Richard Schwartz talking about parts.
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.
One thing I found a bit odd was that the IFS Institute site talks about IFS being an evidence-based practice as determined 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 a 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?
- Anderson, F.G. (n.d.). 6 Step IFS Process to Jumpstart Healing [PESI presentation].
- Haragutchi, H. (2010). Internal Family Systems Therapy: How It Works & What to Expect. Choosing Therapy.
- IFS Institute
The post Psychotherapy Alphabet Soup: CBT, DBT, ACT, and More provides an overview of a variety of different therapeutic approaches.
The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.
Ashley L. Peterson
BScPharm BSN MPN
Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.