Internal Family Systems
Internal Family Systems Therapy: How It Works & What to Expect
Published: August 25, 2020 Updated: May 9, 2022
Internal Family Systems is a form of psychotherapy that focuses on a client’s internal “parts” and “Self.” In IFS, the mind is considered to be naturally made up of multiple sub-personalities or families within each individual’s mental system. These sub-personalities take on different roles, such as an inner critic or inner child, and consist of wounded parts and painful feelings like anger and shame.5
What Is Internal Family Systems Therapy?
Internal Family Systems therapy is a non-pathologizing approach to psychotherapy. It emphasizes the natural multiplicity of the mind. The grounding assumption is that there are no bad parts, only parts forced into bad roles. When a client learns how to access Self, they can then heal their wounded parts. This brings the whole system into harmony and allows the person to become more Self-led. The natural side effect of this healing is a reduction in problematic or symptomatic behavior.
Core Concepts of Internal Family Systems Therapy
IFS consists of working with the Self and Parts (Exiles, Managers, and Firefighters).
The first core concept of IFS is the existence of the Self. The Self is the innate presence within each person that is the pure essence of who they are. It is inherently good and whole, and cannot be broken or corrupted. When a person is Self-led, their system is balanced and all parts are acting in harmony with one another. Sometimes the Self and other parts become blended, obscuring the Self. When this happens, the first step is to differentiate the Self from the blended parts.
Being in Self is marked by the 8 C’s of self-energy:5
When a person is in Self, they typically describe feeling one or more of the qualities listed above. In Self, the client can effectively communicate with their parts. Accessing Self is the first step in beginning to heal the system.
The second core concept of IFS is the existence of parts. Sometimes referred to as subpersonalities or families, each part has their own beliefs, thoughts, and feelings. They may be a different age or gender than the client.1 All parts act from a place of positive intention. There are no bad parts, only bad roles.
When a part feels threatened and doesn’t trust the Self, they act out to try to protect the system. Because parts are often stuck in time or polarized with one another, the behaviors they elicit are extreme or out of sync with reality. When parts trust the Self, and feel understood and appreciated, they take on positive roles and the whole system acts in harmony.
There are three broad categories of parts:
Exiles are the parts that carry the most extreme memories and feelings. They are often some of the youngest parts of the system. They hold the experiences of abuse, neglect, humiliation, and shame. A part becomes an exile when the trauma they have endured is so great that other parts effectively lock them away in an effort to protect the system from becoming overwhelmed. It takes an incredible amount of energy to keep exiles out of conscious awareness. Exiled parts may appear as younger versions of the client.
Managers are the proactive protectors of the system. Their goals include keeping the system stable and being prepared. Managers look for ways to control the system so that exiled parts are kept out of awareness. The fear of most managers is that the exiled parts might come to the surface and overwhelm the system with the intensity of the memories and feelings they hold. They often imitate the Self with such effectiveness that they appear to actually be the Self. Managers may take the form of a critical parent or overbearing boss.
Firefighters are the reactive protectors of the system. Firefighters step in when an exiled part has broken through the managers’ defenses. Their goal is to stop the system from feeling the pain that exiles carry. This may initially start with less intense behaviors such as smoking cigarettes, seeking out adrenaline-producing experiences, or overworking. However, firefighters are often polarized with managers who despise the ways firefighters act out. This polarity can cause the tactics firefighters use to escalate to extremes such as binge eating, self-harm or suicide attempts, or drug use.
The Unburdening Process
The process of unburdening is the key to healing exiles and other wounded parts. In Self, the client listens to the exile’s experience until the exile feels understood, accepted, and loved. Then the client offers the exile a do-over. The part tells the Self what it needed at the time, and the client does what the part needed.
When the part is ready, the client’s Self helps the part to unburden- ceremonially releasing the painful memories, feelings, or beliefs using imagery. Then the client invites the part into the present and helps it find a new role. The protector parts are invited to meet the healed part and begin finding new, healthy patterns of interaction.1
What’s the Goal of IFS?
The initial goal of IFS therapy is to help the client access their Self and befriend the managers and firefighters. Then, in Self, the goal is for the client to access exiled parts and heal them through the unburdening process. The ultimate goal of IFS is to increase the client’s access to Self so that they can be more Self-led. This process naturally allows clients to reach other goals they may have such as decreasing anxiety, improving their relationships, or recovering from trauma.
What Can Internal Family Systems Therapy Help With?
Originally, IFS was developed by Richard Schwartz in the 1980s to help people suffering from eating disorders. Since then, the model has been used to treat a wide range of mental health diagnoses as well as non-clinical issues. The disorders that Internal Family Systems can help with range from anxiety to depression to suicidal ideation. IFS is also used for people struggling with issues related to self-esteem, anger, shame, and more.
Internal Family Systems Therapy Examples
The experience of IFS therapy is a very individualized one as no two clients have exactly the same parts. Moreover, each client will experience their parts in their own way. Some clients may experience parts as bodily sensations like tension in the shoulders or a knot in the stomach. Others may experience parts as emotions, like worry or rage, or in visual images in their mind’s eye like a scolding teacher or a terrified child. When the Self communicates with a part, that communication may be experienced as a stream of thoughts or as an internal dialogue.
Regardless of the presenting issue, IFS therapy follows the same general process. It begins with differentiating the Self and getting to know the protector parts. The therapist will begin by asking “What part needs attention today?” The part that comes up, especially early in therapy, is likely to be a protector part. The therapist will ask the client to ask the part questions. They might include “Where is that part in your body? Does it have a name? How does it feel about being in session today? What is its job? What is it afraid will happen if it stops doing its job?”
Getting to know and befriend protector parts can take time. Throughout the process, the therapist will ask the client how they feel towards the part they’re working with. If the client says something that embodies any of the 8 C’s of self-energy, the therapist knows the client is in Self. If their response indicates that they feel angry, scared, disappointed, or any other emotion that doesn’t suggest self-energy, it means another part has come up. The therapist will help the client turn their attention to that part, and begin working with it until it is comfortable stepping back.
Once the client has begun to establish more trusting relationships between their Self and parts, the client can begin asking the protector parts to “step back.” As the parts step back, the client can access exiled parts. When the client meets an exile, the unburdening process can begin. As more and more parts are unburdened, clients experience relief of problematic behaviors and symptoms.
Internal Family Systems Therapy Example: Jane
For example, Jane has been experiencing anxiety every time she has to give a presentation at work. She’s always had some anxiety about presenting but lately it’s gotten worse. It’s beginning to impact her ability to do her job and she’s afraid that she might get fired. She decides to go to therapy to see if she can resolve her anxiety.
An IFS therapist would ask Jane what part needs attention in the moment. Jane shares that she feels nauseous all the time, but particularly on days when she must present. Her nausea has been so bad that she’s missed a handful of days of work in the last month. The therapist would ask Jane to talk to the nauseous part. As the therapist guides Jane through getting to know it, she learns that the nausea is afraid that if Jane presents, something terrible will happen. It’s trying to protect Jane by making her so nauseous that there’s no chance she’ll present.
The therapist continues to guide Jane through talking to the nauseous part. As Jane develops a more trusting relationship with the part, she’s able to ask it to step back and let her meet the exiled part. The therapist guides Jane in meeting and talking to the exile. Jane shares that the part looks like her as an 8 year old. With the therapist asking guiding questions, Jane remembers that when she was 8 she was standing in class doing show and tell with her favorite stuffed animal. Classmates began making fun of her for bringing a stuffed animal and called her names. Jane began to cry and the teacher asked the class to be quiet but didn’t say anything to Jane. She felt humiliated and ashamed.
Jane goes through the unburdening process with the exile and is able to bring it into the present. She introduces the nauseous part to it. It begins to understand that the exile has been healed and it won’t be triggered when Jane presents. The nauseous part no longer has to work so hard to keep Jane from presenting. It knows the system won’t become overwhelmed by the shame and humiliation of the memory from when she was 8. Jane’s nausea is significantly reduced. She continues to work with other parts that are activated by the idea of her giving a presentation. As she befriends and heals them, the anxiety that led her to seek therapy is resolved.
Is Internal Family Systems Therapy Effective?
Internal family systems therapy was designated as an evidence-based treatment in 2015. Although much of the evidence regarding the efficacy of IFS is anecdotal, major research studies are ongoing and will hopefully provide scientific evidence to support what IFS therapists consistently see.
Bessel van der Kolk, a Dutch psychiatrist and one of the leading researchers on trauma, has strongly backed the use of IFS. In his book, The Body Keeps the Score, van der Kolk details his own experience using IFS with clients suffering from traumatic experiences and relationship conflicts.6
Frank Anderson, a psychiatrist and leading mental health professional, has also championed the use of IFS. He is the former chairman/director of the Foundation for Self Leadership, a non-profit working to advance IFS research.
In 2015, the National Registry of Evidence-Based Practices and Programs (NREPP), recognized IFS as an evidence-based psychotherapy model. In their independent, rigorous review NREPP found IFS to be an effective treatment for improving general functioning and well-being in regards to clients with chronic pain. It also found that IFS has promising outcomes for clients experiencing anxiety, depression, issues with self-concept, and physical health conditions.3 While more research is needed, the initial studies suggest that IFS therapy is an effective treatment for a range of mental health conditions and other issues.
The first major study that demonstrated the efficacy of IFS was focused on the use of IFS therapy with patients suffering from rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Published in 2013, it found that individuals suffering from joint pain due to RA experienced a decrease in overall pain and an increase in physical functioning. Those who received IFS therapy also experienced a decrease in self-assessed joint pain, a decrease in depressive symptoms, and an increase in self-compassion. At a one year follow up these results had been maintained.4
In 2017, a study published in the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy demonstrated the effectiveness of IFS therapy in treating depression. The study focused on women in college who had depressive symptoms. It noted that although CBT, interpersonal psychotherapy, and medication are often used to treat this group due to the evidence-based support of these methods, many clients do not improve with these treatment methods. IFS was used as an alternative treatment and was found to help reduce depressive symptoms.2 While promising, additional studies will need to be done.
Risks of IFS
The activation of specific parts in response to trying to access exiled parts may cause an increase in problematic behaviors. It is important to move only as quickly as manager and firefighter parts are comfortable moving.
Other risks of IFS therapy include strong emotional reactions, a worsening of symptoms (usually temporary and common in the beginning of therapy), and lack of progress towards therapeutic goals. These risks are similar to other treatment approaches. Overall, the risks of IFS therapy are not any greater than the risks of other forms of psychotherapy.