How Internal Family Systems Work

Internal family systems therapy (IFS) is a highly effective form of therapy developed by Dr. Richard Schwartz. The core principle of IFS is that the mind is made up of multiple different personalities – or families – that take on different roles.

Concepts of Internal Family Systems Therapy

The core concept of IFS is that the internal system is divided into the Self and the Parts. The Self is the essence of each person, an inherently good part that cannot be corrupted. Sometimes, the other parts can obscure the Self and must be differentiated. Accessing the Self is the first step in helping to heal the overall system.

The Parts are the subpersonalities of the person, each of which has its own personalities, thoughts, and feelings. Although these parts can have extreme or polarizing reactions to specific triggers or stimuli, there are no inherently bad parts – they are simply trying to protect the Self.

There are three main categories of Parts:

  • Exiles – Exiles are the parts that carry many negative memories and feelings. They hold feelings of humiliation and shame and may hold experiences of abuse. Exiles sometimes flood the person with memories of extreme pain and trauma.
  • Managers – The role of managers is to keep the overall system stable and keep the Exiles out of the person’s awareness. Managers can be mistaken for the Self in some people, although they can exhibit unhealthy behaviors.
  • Firefighters – Firefighters are reactive parts that step in if an Exile has broken through and is flooding the person with traumatic memories. Firefighters can use unhealthy coping techniques to deal with the pain of the Exile’s memories, including smoking, abusing alcohol and drugs, and engaging in self-harm.

One of the basic assumptions of the IFS therapy model is that changes in the internal system will therefore affect the external system. Therapists should assess both internal and external levels to help balance the system.

Family Systems Therapy

Sometimes, IFS can be mistaken for family systems therapy. The creator of IFS, Dr. Richard Schwartz, trained as a family systems therapist before creating IFS, and family systems influenced the tenets of IFS. Where IFS focuses on the internal system of an individual, family systems therapy examines how an external family system made up of multiple members affects and influences one another.

How Does IFS Therapy Work?

During an internal family systems therapy session, the therapist will guide their client through talking to their parts and reconciling their parts with the Self. IFS therapy aims to understand why the different parts act in specific ways. For example, if a client is struggling with their Firefighter and the coping mechanisms that they choose, the therapist will guide them through talking to their Firefighter and understanding that they react like that to protect the person. 

There is a six-step process that IFS therapists use to help clients to find their parts and work through their issues:

  1. Find – the therapist will help clients find a part to work with, with mindfulness and meditation techniques.
  2. Focus – the client, will focus on one specific part.
  3. Flesh out – the client will learn which emotions are associated with this Part, if it is a different age, and if there are any specific colors associated with it.
  4. Feel – the client will assess exactly how they feel about this part.
  5. Befriend – the client will get to know the part and accept its existence.
  6. Fear – the therapist will help the client identify the fears of that particular part, e.g., the part may be afraid of bad things happening without their presence.

Confronting these parts helps clients heal and confront the parts of themselves that are causing mental distress and negative behaviors. When the Parts are addressed individually, the Self can become an effective leader.

Some people can feel worse when undertaking IFS therapy as they confront their separate parts to face their problems. This is normal and often fades with continuing sessions but can cause significant problems if it does not get better.

Therapists may also use various techniques during sessions to help clients understand their inner world and promote mental clarity. This can include keeping a journal, using diagrams to visually illustrate the relationships between different parts, and using visualization techniques to bring polarized parts together.

What Can IFS Therapy Help With

IFS therapy was created to help those struggling with eating disorders but can help with various mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, and dissociative identity disorder.[1] It is a non-pathologizing form of treatment, does not reduce a client to their diagnosis, and can help with general stressors such as grief, self-esteem, and relationship issues.

IFS therapy has been proven to help treat moderate to severe depression. A 2017 study found that it also helped provide clients with a better understanding of the Self and promoted greater self-compassion.[2]

IFS vs Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most popular forms of psychotherapy worldwide. CBT is a solution-focused form of therapy that teaches people different techniques to address their mental health and focuses on helping clients to interrupt their negative thoughts.

In contrast, IFS does not make any attempt to change how people think. Instead, the purpose of IFS is to help clients understand why their thoughts occur and which part they originate from. In healing these parts, the thoughts and behaviors will automatically change.

Conclusion

Internal family systems therapy is a unique approach to healing the Self and helping with various issues, from mental health conditions to grief and relationship difficulties. As it is a non-pathologizing form of treatment, IFS therapy does not focus primarily on mental health conditions but on the parts that cause extreme emotional reactions.

IFS works by healing each part of the system so that the Self can take control and help in healthy ways. Whether it is an Exile, Manager, or Firefighter, each extreme part tries to protect the person but can do so in unhealthy ways. Therapy puts the Self back in charge and unburdens the different parts from their trauma.

Resources

[1] Pais S. A systemic approach to the treatment of dissociative identity disorder. Journal of Family Psychotherapy. 2009;20(1):72-88. doi:10.1080/08975350802716566

[2] Haddock SA, Weiler LM, Trump LJ, Henry KL. The efficacy of internal family systems therapy in the treatment of depression among female college students: a pilot study. J Marital Fam Ther. 2017;43(1):131-144. doi:10.1111/jmft.12184

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