What is Internal Family Systems therapy?

| Amy Schere, LCSWA

The idea that we all have many parts, or aspects, of ourselves may seem familiar to you. In fact, many of us naturally use the language of parts when we say something like “a part of me wants to…” or “one part of me thinks ____, but another part of me thinks ___.” Internal Family Systems (IFS)  therapy, also known as “parts work,” takes this concept one step further with the central idea that we are all made up of an “inner family” of many different parts. These parts can be conceptualized as different aspects of ourselves, or even different sub-personalities. Our parts can interact with each other like people can, each with their own hopes, fears, and baggage. IFS therapy aims to help each person’s inner system heal by working together more harmoniously. 

IFS was initially created in the 1980s by Richard Schwartz, who was trained as a family therapist. He developed IFS in response to his client’s descriptions of the many parts inside themselves, and in turn noticing the patterns and relationships between these parts. 

Dr. Schwartz noticed that when his clients parts felt safe and relaxed, clients would spontaneously experience a number of positive emotions, such as compassion and curiosity. These qualities came to be known as part of a clients “self”, or a part of their “self-energy,” which can be used to interact with and be healing towards other parts. IFS conceptualizes “self”, or self-energy, as something that everyone has the potential to be in contact with. Ideally, when a person has a lot of self-energy present, they embody qualities that IFS terms the “8 Cs of self”: compassion, curiosity, calm, clarity, connectedness, confidence, courage, and creativity. Through the presence of self-energy with these qualities, parts are able to heal. 

Although everyone has many different parts, IFS groups some parts into two main categories that are usually the target of therapy: “protectors” and “exiles.” Protectors are parts that, as the name suggests, have a major role in protecting other parts. They can fall into the category of “managers,” which are proactive parts that often try to head off issues before they occur, or “firefighters,” that behave more reactively. An example of a “manager” part would be a part that likes to plan ahead and becomes anxious when encountering an unpredictable situation. An example of a “firefighter” would be a part that engages in a behavior like using substances in response to stress. 

IFS therapy can be used for many different types of issues from anxiety and depression to trauma and addiction. It can be the primary form of therapy or can be used in conjunction with others. IFS is an evidence-based form of therapy, with studies that support its use for conditions such as PTSD, depression, and chronic pain. A typical IFS session can look many ways, but usually includes the therapist helping the client focus on one or two particular “target” parts. The therapist helps the client bring self-energy to their target part, or the therapist can bring their own self-energy to that part to help it in its healing process.

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