Internal Family Systems (IFS) uses Family Systems theory—the idea that individuals cannot be fully understood in isolation from the family unit—to develop techniques and strategies to effectively address issues within a person’s internal community or family. This evidence-based approach assumes each individual possesses a variety of sub-personalities, or “parts,” and attempts to get to know each of these parts better to achieve healing.
By learning how different parts function as a system and how the overall system reacts to other systems and other people, people in therapy can often, with the help of a trained mental health professional, become better able to identify the roots of conflict, manage any complications arising, and achieve greater well-being.
This type of therapy was developed in the early 1990s by Richard Schwartz, who developed the approach after listening to people in therapy speak about inner parts within themselves. As a young family therapist, Schwartz had received training in systems thinking and family therapy theory, and he believed he was truly able to listen to the individuals in his care once he set aside his preconceived ideas of therapy and the human mind.
While the concept of multiple intrapsychic entities was not new (Sigmund Freud posited the existence of the id, ego, and superego), Schwartz’s training in systems thinking prompted him to seriously consider the interactions and relationships between these internal entities. He found internal parts to play common but dynamic roles: the relationships between parts could be changed if an individual intervened carefully and respectfully. Schwartz began to visualize the human mind as an internal family and began to apply in treatment the techniques he had learned as a family therapist.
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IFS is based on an integrative model. The approach combines established elements from different schools of psychology, such as the multiplicity of the mind and systems thinking, and posits that each sub-personality or part possesses its own characteristics and perceptions. IFS also brings together various strategies from the Bowenian therapy base as well as techniques from more traditional narrative and structural modalities. The different elements are united through the goal of understanding and effectively addressing the different parts of the mind.
Though this therapy technique sees each level of consciousness as having different sub-personalities, each sub-personality has its own likes, dislikes, burdens, and history, and each sub-personality is thought to play a distinct role in achieving self-preservation for the person in therapy. Every part within a person is responsible for warding off behaviors, actions, or reactions that could result in dysfunction or disharmony within the individual. Thus, each part is validated and recognized as important due to its primary function. Parts may be identified as having either healthy and productive roles or extreme roles. Those parts with roles considered extreme may benefit from therapeutic work. The IFS model emphasizes the network of relationships between parts as parts may not be able to experience change in isolation.
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.
There are three distinct types of parts in the IFS model:
- Managers are responsible for maintaining a functioning level of consciousness in daily life by warding off any unwanted or counterproductive interactions, emotions, or experiences resulting from external stimuli.
- Exiles are most often in a state of pain or trauma, which may result from childhood experiences. Managers and firefighters exile these parts and prevent them from reaching the conscious level so that proper functioning and preservation are maintained.
- Firefighters serve as a distraction to the mind when exiles break free from suppression. In order to protect the consciousness from feeling the pain of the exiles, firefighters prompt a person to act on impulse and engage in behaviors that are indulgent, addictive, and often times abusive. Firefighters may redirect attention to other areas such as sex, work, food, alcohol, or drugs.
Managers and firefighters play the role of Protectors, while exiles are parts that are protected.
In IFS therapy, the Self represents the seat of consciousness and what each person is at the core. The Self demonstrates many positive qualities such as acceptance, confidence, calmness, wisdom, compassion, connectedness, leadership and perspective. Unlike visible parts, the Self is never seen. It is the witnessing “I” in the inner world—this aspect of an individual does the observing.
The IFS model aims to differentiate the Self from the other parts (managers, firefighters, and exiles) making up a person’s inner world. The ultimate goal of IFS is to unburden or restore extreme and wounded parts and establish a trusted, healthy, harmonious internal system that is coordinated by the Self.
Once in a state of Self, people in treatment will know what to say to each part in order to promote internal system harmony. IFS therapists therefore try to help people achieve and maintain a state of Self so they can become counselors to own internal families. This increased internal harmony often results in positive thoughts and behaviors in the external life of the individual.
IFS is used to treat a wide variety of mental health conditions and psychological wounds. It may be applied in family, couple, and individual situations. As of November 2015, this type of therapy is listed in the National Registry for Evidence-based Programs and Practices (NREPP) as an evidence-based practice. It has been shown to be effective for the improvement of general emotional and mental well-being and has been rated as promising to improve symptoms of phobia, panic, generalized anxiety, depression, and certain physical ailments.
Issues treated with IFS therapy include:
- Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
- Compulsive behaviors
- Body image issues
- Substance dependency
A session of IFS therapy may take the form of traditional talk therapy, but a therapist may also choose to focus on an affected individual’s internal environment and help the individual connect different parts to Self. For example, a person who is experiencing alcohol addiction may be asked to relax, take a few deep breaths, and try to feel the part inside that wants to keep drinking. That part may be identified via a body sensation, a visual image, or an inner awareness of the part’s existence.
With the person in treatment now focusing on the internal environment, the therapist may ask how the person feels about that part. The individual may report feelings of shame, disgust, anger, or even fear. The therapist will typically then explain the need to find out the reason behind the part’s actions, often gently encouraging the person in therapy to “turn down the volume” of any fear, hatred, disgust, or shame felt toward the part, in order for the part to communicate clearly.
The part may explain it acts in the way it does to help the individual deal with difficult problems being experienced. At this point, the therapist may instruct the individual in treatment to ask the part if it would be willing to stop its actions if other effective coping mechanisms were used instead. The part may strongly doubt any other methods will be able help the individual to cope, yet still be willing to try these methods as there is nothing to lose. With permission granted, the therapist will often then help the individual to deal with issues in healthy and constructive ways.
In IFS, people work to understand the inner self through the use of simple yet efficient exercises and techniques. Many exercises are linked to effective breathing control, which promotes relaxation and mental clarity.
Common techniques and exercises in IFS include:
- Keeping a journal
- Using diagrams to illustrate relationships between parts
- The room technique. In this exercise one part watches as the Self interacts with another part (with which the observing part is polarized). This technique is used to bring polarized parts together.
- Mountain or path exercise. In a safe setting, people in therapy visualize themselves walking along an inviting path. If one can see oneself in the image, the therapist will encourage the person to move into the body and view the scenery from within, asking the individual to pay careful attention to the thoughts, feelings, and sensations that arise. This exercise is believed to help a person in therapy explore and better understand the inner world.
- Getting to know whoever’s there. An individual is encouraged to breathe, relax, focus on the inner world, and get to know the present parts even better.
- Feeling one’s heart. An individual is encouraged to breathe, relax, and feel the heart. Does it feel emotionally open, or is it encrusted and closed? The individual may ask the protectors to step back for a while so the exiles may be better understood.
Progressive training and certification in IFS is provided by The Center for Self Leadership, the world’s leading IFS institute, which was founded in 2000 by Richard Schwartz.
The organization offers three levels of training:
- Level 1: Participants learn the fundamental concepts of IFS and how to apply basic techniques and strategies to clinical populations. They are also encouraged to examine their own inner world. Training sessions may include group discussions, lectures, video presentations, experiential exercises, and supervised practice sessions.
- Level 2: Participants who graduate from Level 1 are given the opportunity to engage in multi-topic and intensive level training. Multi-topic training covers content from four key modules: Strengthening Skills and Advanced Techniques, Working with Trauma, Working with Multiple Systems, and The Therapeutic Relationship and Spiritual Aspects of IFS. Intensive level training helps participants to deepen their IFS work and develop their expertise.
- Level 3: Participants who graduate from Level 2 and wish to uncover personal triggers and blind spots, clarify their life path, and explore their spirituality may take advantage of a specialized retreat with Richard Schwartz. The programs covered will help qualified participants to grow in knowledge and sharpen their skills in IFS. Training sessions may include group discussions, group exercises, extended mediation, demonstrations, and intensive personal work.
Therapists and practitioners who wish to become IFS-certified are required to fulfill the certification application prerequisites. These may include at least a Master’s degree in a Human services field and licensing/certification for clinical practice. They must also fulfill the general eligibility criteria. This includes the successful completion of IFS Level 1 training, a minimum of 200 hours of post-training clinical practice, 30 hours of IFS Continuing Education and IFS Clinical Consultation, and a demonstration of competency via a DVD session review or a live session review. Applicants are also required to pay any necessary fees for certification.
Though IFS has recently been posted on NREPP as an evidence-based practice, it may still benefit from further testing to expand information on its efficacy.
Several issues are thought to potentially limit the effectiveness of this type of therapy. Common constraints include interference from the therapist’s parts, the protective parts of the person in treatment, and protective parts of other family members. Abuse or a lack of support from the external system may also hinder the benefits of IFS. Those experiencing serious mental concerns such as schizophrenia or dementia may experience less success with this form of treatment.
As with all other therapeutic modalities, mistakes made by the therapist can have a negative effect on recovery. Common mistakes in IFS therapy include working extensively with an exile before the internal system is able to handle such work, assuming one is talking to the affected person’s Self when one is actually speaking with a part, and assuming the Self is executing a particular task when in fact a part is performing the task.
- Dick, C., Yalom, V. & Schwartz, R. (2009). Instructors’ manual for internal family systems therapy. Retrieved from http://www.psychotherapy.net/data/uploads/5113ce91c0a4d.pdf
IFS, an Evidence-Based Practice. (2015, November 23). Retrieved from http://foundationifs.org/news-articles/79-ifs-an-evidence-based-practice
- Lavergne, M. (2004). Art therapy and internal family systems therapy: An integrative model to treat trauma among adjudicated teenage girls. The Canadian Art Therapy Association Journal, 17(1), 17-36. Retrieved from http://www.majielavergne.com/downloads/MajieJournal.pdf
- Murphy, B. (2009). About internal family systems therapy. Retrieved from http://www.selfledsolutions.com/resources/aboutifs.html
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- Schwartz, R. (1987). Our multiple selves: Applying systems thinking to the inner family. Retrieved from http://www.hakomiinstitute.com/Forum/Issue10/OurMultipleSelves.pdf
- The Center for Self Leadership. (n.d.). The internal family systems model outline. Retrieved from http://www.selfleadership.org/outline-of-the-Internal-family-systems-model.html
- The Center for Self Leadership. (n.d.). Training in the internal family system therapy model. Retrieved from http://www.selfleadership.org/ifs-therapy-training.html