Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy
Reviewed by therapist.com team
Written bytherapist.com team
Last updated: 10/19/2023
What is Internal Family Systems therapy?
Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy is a therapeutic technique that addresses a “family” of subpersonalities within you.
Family systems theory
IFS incorporates ideas from family systems theory. In family systems theory, who you are is tied to your family unit—parents, siblings, and other caregivers or guardians—and your behavior can only be fully understood in the context of your family’s social system.
IFS takes this idea and applies it internally to your sense of self. In this framework, various subpersonalities (or “parts”) within you work together at your “self’s” direction. Each part has a positive role to play and has good intentions, though your parts can conflict with each other if they aren’t integrated into the system as a whole.
The idea that we all have various parts directed by a self isn’t as radical as it may sound at first. Think of times when you’ve tried to create a habit—for example, a New Year’s resolution to run every morning. When your alarm goes off at 6 a.m., you’re likely to feel two “parts” of yourself in conflict: one that wants to stay in bed, and one that wants to keep your resolution.
How does IFS work?
IFS focuses on how different facets of your personality interact as a system. Your internal system has two main divisions: the parts, which have various roles to play, and the self, which interacts with and leads the parts.
Everyone has a self. It’s the part of you that observes, leads, and reflects. It can make strategic choices instead of just reacting to perceived threats.
In IFS, having a healthy, functioning internal family system means a self is leading the rest of your parts. Having the self in charge makes you feel more centered and self-assured.
An unbalanced internal family system makes it difficult for you to identify your self among your other parts. You may find it’s been overtaken by a part that’s become extreme and overstepped the bounds of its role.
The IFS framework identifies eight traits of a healthy self (known as “the eight C’s of self-leadership”):
Asking whether these traits motivate your actions can help you figure out if your self is truly in charge or if another part has taken over.
Everyone has parts, but how your parts express themselves and interact with your self is unique to you. No part is inherently bad or dangerous: Each one wants to influence the family system to reach a desired outcome. When parts become overly protective or reactive, though, your system can become unbalanced.
Roles of parts
IFS practitioners divide parts into three different roles:
- Exiles: Exiled parts are vulnerable, often reflecting our younger, more innocent selves. If you experience trauma, especially at a young age, your internal system may isolate (or “exile”) the part that was hurt in an attempt to avoid feelings of pain, fear, guilt, or shame. Healthy systems find a way to integrate those parts back into the mix.
- Managers: Managers are protective parts that handle day-to-day functions of your life. They prioritize control and don’t allow feelings that threaten it, such as fear, sadness, pain, or rejection. Managers often show themselves in behaviors like perfectionism, planning, criticism, analyzing, and overworking. When managers feel validated in their role, they can handle what’s in their control and release what isn’t.
- Firefighters: Like managers, firefighters attempt to exercise control and prevent unwanted thoughts or feelings. For this reason, they’re considered protective. However, their strategies are also more extreme and reactive. In a crisis, firefighters will resort to extreme or harmful coping mechanisms like substance use, gambling, or overeating. While these behaviors are destructive, their underlying intent is to protect someone from emotional pain. When firefighters feel appreciated for their positive intentions, they can respond in times of crisis but resist destructive forms of self-protection.
Exiles, managers, and firefighters exist in all internal family systems, but they can become stuck when they carry “burdens” (harmful or painful beliefs learned from past negative experiences). The goal of IFS therapy is not to get rid of extreme parts, but instead to unburden them so they can live together in a more balanced way.
Relationships between parts
Relationships between your parts affect the health of your overall system. Two parts can form an alliance to work toward the same outcome: For instance, managers and firefighters might both try to keep emotional pain at bay. Parts can also become polarized when they’re working against one another: A firefighter may want to distract you from pain by drinking too much alcohol, whereas a manager may shame you for that behavior.
Mapping parts in IFS therapy
In first part of IFS therapy treatment, the goal is to assess your parts: how they’re behaving, what they want, and who’s in charge. This is called “parts mapping,” and it follows six steps:
- Find the part. To identify a “target” part, you first need to find it by listening to your body and figuring out who needs your attention.
- Focus on the part. Turn all your energy and attention toward the target part.
- Describe the part. How do you experience this part of yourself? What does it look like? Does it feel close or far away? When it speaks, what or who does it sound like?
- Evaluate your feelings. Balanced parts should inspire feelings in line with the eight C’s of self-leadership. If your feelings are out of sync with those traits (fear instead of curiosity, shame instead of compassion, etc.), a secondary part may be trying to protect you from your target part. You may need to get to know these more reactive parts first before you’re able to access the target part.
- Befriend the part. Your internal family system is in balance when your parts and your self are in harmony. Your therapist can help you get to know your parts and build relationships between your parts and your self.
- Question the part’s fears. The way your target part is behaving may be in response to a perceived threat. Figuring out a part’s fear can often reveal a polarized relationship between parts—that is, the belief that if one part stops functioning as it is, another part will act in a way that’s extreme or dangerous.
What can IFS therapy treat?
The IFS model is used for a variety of mental health disorders, including:
- Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
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