Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy

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What Is Internal Family Systems Therapy?

Internal family systems (IFS) therapy is a therapeutic technique that uses family systems theory internally to investigate the “family” of subpersonalities within an individual’s sense of self.

Family Systems Theory vs. the IFS Model

Family systems theory suggests that human behavior can only be fully understood within the context of the social system of the family. This means that who you are is tied to your family unit—your parents, siblings, maybe even grandparents, or other caregivers or guardians.

IFS takes the idea behind family systems theory and applies it internally to your sense of self. It states that we all have various “parts” or subpersonalities within ourselves, and these parts work together at the direction of the Self. Each subpersonality has a positive role to play and has good intentions, though parts can get in conflict with one another if not integrated into the system as a whole.

The idea that we all have various parts isn’t as radical as it may sound upon first hearing about IFS. Think of the times in which you’ve tried to start a new habit—for example, a New Year’s resolution to run every morning. When your alarm goes off at six a.m., you’ll certainly feel two “parts” at war within you: one that wants to stay in bed, and one that wants to keep your resolution.

How Does the IFS Model Work?

The IFS model recognizes different facets of your personality and how they interact with each other as a system. There are two main divisions: the parts, which have different roles to play, and the Self, which interacts with and leads the various parts.

The Self

Everyone has a Self. The Self is the part of you that observes, leads, and reflects. It can make strategic choices instead of simply reacting to perceived threats.

A person with a healthy, functioning internal family system has a Self leading the rest of their parts. Having the Self in charge makes a person feel more centered and self-assured.

Unbalanced internal family systems make it difficult for people to identify the Self amidst the other parts. They may find that the Self has been taken over by a part that has become extreme and overstepped the bounds of its role.

8 C’s of Self-Leadership

How do you find the Self among various other roles and subpersonalities? Dr. Richard Schwartz, founder of the IFS framework, identifies the eight C’s of Self-leadership:

    • Confidence
    • Calmness
    • Creativity
    • Clarity
    • Curiosity
    • Courage
    • Compassion
    • Connectedness

These are the traits of a healthy Self that is leading the internal family system. Asking whether these traits motivate your actions can help you determine if your Self is truly in charge or if another part has overstepped its role.

IFS Parts

In IFS, parts are the subpersonalities that exist within our internal system. Everyone has parts. However, how the parts express themselves and interact with the Self depends on each individual.

It’s important to note that your subpersonalities want positive outcomes for you as an individual. No part is inherently bad or dangerous. They simply want to influence the family system to generate their desired outcomes. It’s when parts become extreme that the system becomes unbalanced and the Self may be overtaken by a part that’s being overly protective or reactive.

3 Roles for IFS Parts

Parts can be divided into three different roles:

  1. Exiles: Exiled parts are vulnerable and often reflect our younger, more innocent selves. If a person experiences trauma, especially at a young age, their 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 exiles back into the system.
  2. Managers: Managers are protective parts that exercise a person’s sense of agency and control. They manage the day-to-day functions of a person’s life. Because they prioritize control, they have little tolerance for feelings that threaten it, such as fear, sadness, pain, or rejection. Managers often manifest themselves through behaviors such as perfectionism, planning, criticism, analyzing, and overworking. When managers feel validated for their role, they can handle what is within their control and release what is not.
  3. Firefighters: Firefighters act like managers in that they also attempt to exercise control to prevent unwanted thoughts or feelings. It’s for this reason that they are also considered protective parts. However, their strategies are more extreme and reactive. In a crisis, firefighters will resort to egregious, even harmful, coping mechanisms, such as substance use, gambling, promiscuity, or overeating. Although these behaviors are destructive, their underlying motivation 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. They also know how to differentiate between a real crisis and a perceived threat.

Exiles, managers, and firefighters exist in all internal family systems, but they can become stuck when they carry “burdens,” which are 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 return to their natural, more balanced state.

Relationships Between IFS Parts

Another complicating factor in IFS is how your parts interact with one another, as these inner relationships affect the health of the overall system. For example, two parts can form an alliance to work to secure the same outcome, as is the case with managers and firefighters, who both attempt to keep emotional pain at bay.

However, parts can also become polarized when they are working in opposing manners. For example, a firefighter may want to distract a person from pain through excessive alcohol use, whereas a manager may shame the person for this very behavior.

How to Use IFS

IFS Part Mapping

The first part of any IFS therapy treatment will be to uncover a person’s parts: how they’re behaving, what they want, and who’s in charge. This is known as IFS part mapping, and it follows these six steps:

  1. Find the part: To identify a target part, you first need to find it. Listen to your body. Figure out who needs your attention.
  2. Focus on the part: Turn all of your energy and attention toward the target part.
  3. Describe the part: How do you experience this part of yourself? What does it look like? Does it feel close to you, or does it feel far away? When it speaks, what or whom does it sound like?
  4. Evaluate your feelings: Balanced parts of yourself should elicit feelings in line with the eight C’s of Self-leadership. If your feelings are out of sync with those eight traits (fear instead of curiosity, shame instead of compassion, etc.), then it’s likely that a secondary part is stepping in to try to protect you from that target part. You may need to get to know these more reactive parts first before you’re able to access the target part.
  5. Befriend the part: Your internal family system is in balance when there is harmony between your parts and your Self. That means that, in some way, these various parts need to be friends. Your therapist can help you get to know your parts and build relationships between your parts and your Self.
  6. Question the part’s fears: The way your target part is behaving may be in response to a perceived threat. Often, determining a part’s fear can reveal a polarized relationship between parts—that is, the belief that if a part stops functioning the way it is, another part will act in a way that is extreme or dangerous.

What Can IFS Therapy Treat?

The IFS model is an effective therapeutic approach for a variety of mental health disorders, including:

Find IFS Therapy Near You

IFS can be used in individual therapy, couples therapy, and family therapy. Click here to find certified IFS therapists near you.